Category Archives: Strategies

Mystic at the Movies #2: Everything Everywhere All at Once- The Journey of Integration

(Though this is a follow up to the first episode of Mystic at the Movies, I think it’ll be pretty easy to keep up with even if you didn’t read that. On the other hand, if you haven’t seen the film, not only is this unlikely to be very interesting, it’ll also hand over pretty major spoilers for what might be the best movie ever.)

Last time, Mystic at the Movies took began it’s exploration of the brilliant Everything, Everywhere All At once.  In that post, we looked at some ways that the film’s transcendence of boundaries was a handy lens for exploring the mystic’s journey.  We  took a beginning peek  at the concept of identity.   Today, we’ll dive a little deeper into this delicious topic, laying the groundwork for future installments of Mystic at the Movies, which will explore ideas like God, Good and Evil, and more.

Part of the brilliance at work in this film  is the manner in which it just gives a little twist to what could otherwise have been dry, academic discourses.  The film gives us a vocabulary, almost a symbolic system.  It might appear that we’re discussing some rather minute aspects of the film’s mythos, but in fact what is also happening is a profound discussion on the nature of reality. More specifically: it might feel abstract, stuffy, and irrelevant for us to discuss the nature of identity in the abstract.  Some people might be scared off of such a topic, fearing that they lack the proper background and training to “do” philosophy.  Others might think such a thing unworthy of their time, assuming it will never actually change anything about the day-to-day experience of living their lives.

EEAAO sidesteps this philoso-phobio  by hiding a heady topic in plain sight.  The main use of alternate versions of main characters in the film is really an opportunity to look at the competing aspects of our own self.  Alternative dimensions, in the movie, are ultimately short hand ways to explore the concept of identity.  

It’s worth noting at this point that  though it’s true that alternate universes have become quite a popular trope in recent pop culture, it has rarely been leveraged in just the manner it’s being used in the film.  More obvious and common symbology for alternate universes is to explore roads not  travelled.  Philip K Dick was interested in this question on a historical kind of level with his Man in the High Castle.  The central question at work here is “What if Hitler won World War I?.”  Other times, contemporary uses of alternate universes explore the personal aspects of what might have happened if things had ended differently.  In the Multiverse of Madness Dr. Strange meets and hears about versions of himself who made different choices at key moments.  Numerous versions of a popular Flash story explore the question of what would have happened if the titular character’s mother hadn’t died.  The recent animated Marvel series (which is in fact an homage to a comic series of the same name) went so far as to be clear about this common usage.  The title of both series, of course, was ‘What If?

The thing that is worth noticing is that the various versions of Doctor Strange are completely independent of each other.  In some way, they are mutually exclusive.  One Doctor Strange comes about from a certain set of circumstances.  An alternative Doctor Strange results from other circumstnaces.  This is a stark contrast to the experiences of Evelyn in EEAAO.  While she does explore the world where she made a different choice, somehow, she is able to access the memories and the abilities of that other Evelyn.  

In summary, the use of the multiverse in EEAAO is fundamentally different than how this conceit is normally handled.  While these other stories are explorations of what might have been, EEAAO is about the ways our different identities integrate themselves.  If traditional multiverse narratives center the question “What if I had done something different?” our film centers itself on the question “Who am I really?”

“Who am I?” is a question that has some importance in the history of mysticism.  It was famously asked all night by a tormented St. Francis.  As the story goes, he spent the whole night in a  monastery asking “Who am I, God?  And who are you?”

Meanwhile, across the world, the question formed the very basis of a Self-inquiry: a Vendantic practice which invites the contemplative to consider the likely “locations” of our trueest self.

This practice puts words and gives a level of specificity to how to go about the process.  Self inquiry brings a journey to a high degree of focus.  But it taps into something quite universal, and rather central to a mystic’s journey in general.

The journey of the mystic is an inward one.  And it is profoundly a journey of integration.  The question for a mystic becomes one of proper relations.  How are these tiny portions of me meant to connect.  It is a recreation of the macrocosm at a microcosmic level.  

Even as a mystic contemplates the possibility of an interpersonal union, as he longs, hopes, and believes that all the people, all the matter, all the energy, all the actualities and potential, as he considers that all these seemingly independent entities that began as larger than himself melding, melting, becoming one…

Just as that is going on there is a similar longing happening within.  There were these dis-integrated, independently functioning, sometimes competing pyschodynamics.  We speak of mind and soul and ask which is supreme.  We categorize id, ego, and super ego and consider which is best.  We contrast body and spirit…  A mystic heals these divides by rejecting these dualities.  

As above, so below.  

EEAAO portrays this selfsame journey inward, this path of descent and integration.  And in the film, we see it in the same external and internal venues.   Just as the mystic has a longing for external union, where all the things larger than the self become one, we see numerous examples of people wanting an external union in the film.  The Bagel with Everything is the most conspicuous example of something which threatens to make everything one.  

And just as the mystic is on an internal journey to bring together all of her internal experiences, thoughts, etc, in the film  we are confronted with at least two pictures of such internal  integration.  One is Jobu Topeki.  In a sense, Jobu’s journey is complete.  She is presented as someone who knows all the versions of herself.  (And strangely, she is the incarnation of evil.   Whether or not Jobu’s journey really  was complete, and why she is something of an antagonist are topics due a full assessment.  For now, we leave those questions aside though, in favor of sticking with the topic at hand: identity.)

Evelyn, meanwhile, represents the very beginning stages of this journey of integration.  There’s a sense in which this is quite literally woven into the plot.  Evelyn gains the strength of the alternate versions of herself when she comes to accept them.This concept is also thematic.  Evelyn– the main one–  grows by integration in other ways.

She comes to accept Joy’s bisexuality. She learns to come to grips with  her father’s lack  of affection; she ends up embracing her similarities with her daughter, and ultimately is willing to accept the inevitably of hurt in her relationship with Joy.  On her path to the climax of the movie, Evelyn must integrate the kung-fu prowess of an alternate version of herself with the gentleness of her husband as she declares that she will fight like him and suddenly, even as she does Kung-Fu, she is adjusting one person’s neck, slamming together  a pair destined for love, feeding the desires for kink of yet another person.  

There is, of course, a connection between this dynamic and some of the considerations we consider in the initial installment of Mystic at the Movies.  Recall that last time we explored the artificial binaries that EEAAO transcends.  That was a necessary first step, but in many ways, simply naming the existence of binaries falls short of the act of integrating these extremes.   The difference is around the important distinction between naming that such-and-such a thing is a reality and proclaiming that both are worthy and good.

This is no easy task.  It is not easy to look at all the parts of ourselves and declare them all worthy.  It is not easy to consider all the things which have happened to us and claim them as our own.  It can be even more difficult to integrate within ourselves the feelings, attitudes, and thoughts that we grow so accustomed to deflecting, projecting, and other-ing; this is shadow work, and involves embracing the part of ourselves that had once been denied.

For a mystic, this eventually leads to reconsidering the very nature of Good and Evil; it is an act of reclaiming the actions we had once ascribed to God or God’s nemesis, whatever our tradition names it.  This is the territory of Rumi, when he invited us to meet him in a field beyond good and evil.  This is the territory of carefully excavating the creation myth, where the root of the fall of humankind lies in our unfortunate decision to eat from a tree said to bestow the knowledge of good and evil.  

For the film that is our primary concern here, this bring us to consider Jobu Topeki and her mother Evelyn.  It brings us face-to-face with the whiplash changes the film has for who counts as the protagonist and who counts as the antagonist.  That topic is at least as big it sounds, and is deserving of a much deeper assessment than we have here.  I hope you’ll join us next time, as we begin to assess these important topics.  

Advertisement

Mystic at the Movies: Everything Everywhere All At Once: Part I: identity

Mystic at the Movies is my every-now-and-again deep dive into nondualism, contemplation, mysticism, and second-half-of-life spirituality as they appear in some of my favorite films.  

One of the movies that helped inspire me to begin writing Mystic at the Movies was the amazing, transcendent, profane, surprising, absurd, heart-breaking and hilarious Everything Everywhere All at Once.  EEAAO (as it will be called for the rest of this piece of writing) is the story of a family of Chinese Immigrants attempting to do the hard soul work of being the best people they can be.  It is also a multiversal martial arts epic.  And an existentialist comedy that is very, very nsfw.  The rest of this piece will contain numerous spoilers.  And to be honest, probably won’t be that interesting if you haven’t actually seen the film.  The movie is available at the normal venues for paid rent/sale (Amazon, You Tube, et. al.)  It is also streaming on showtime’s service.  (Hot tip: there’s not that many interesting offerings in Showtime other than EEAAO but they seem to be offering your first month for free.)

One of the first questions for me about EEAAO is just where the writers were coming from, spiritually and philosophically.  Interviews with the Writers-Directors who go by the name ‘Daniels’ are not hard to find.  They have appeared on numerous podcasts, print interviews, etc.  They even published a coffee table book available through their production company’s website with a variety of supplementary information.  

The weird thing is that though spirituality seems to be a HUGE subtext of the movie, it doesn’t seem like they are very interested in talking about that.  The book, podcasts, and interviews have tackled many interesting topics, but it doesn’t seem that the spiritual side of it all is high on their list of priorities to discuss.  I’m not sure if this lack of discussion implies a disinterest on the part of the interviewers, a reluctance to “go there” on the part of The Daniels, or something else entirely.  Regardless of the cause, we will have to approach this subject without much explicit commentary from the creators themselves.

There are many themes that are worth investigating here and I look forward to exploring questions around topics like the nature of God, good, and evil in future installments of Mystic at the Movies.  An issue foundational to all of these are the questions of identity and boundaries.    

It shouldn’t be terribly surprising that these concerns are fundamental to mysticism.  A reasonable definition of mysticism would want to center itself on questions of identity.  For me, the best way of defining  mysticism is as a fundamental skepticism that things are as independent, separate, and isolated from each other as they appear to be.  In other words, the boundaries between us are slippery resulting in a universe where we are fundamentally one.    

There are so many examples of confused, overlapping, and nontraditional boundaries in EEAAO  that it can be difficult to know where to begin.  We might start at the very widest level possible and observe that on the level of plot and theme, this film is a dizzying hodgepodge of genre, tropes, and mood.  Wikapedia seems to agree.  The  article discussing EEAAO describes it as “absurdist science fiction comedy drama.”  It’s hard to imagine many genre that this movie couldn’t be filed under.

We could continue in this vein and note that even the title promises us something with a universal, boundary-crossing significance.  We might make the more nuanced observation that the film can’t even completely stay within the boundaries of being a fictional story and in a few strange and powerful ways, it transcends the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction.

The most obvious examples of the fiction/non-fiction boundary crossing comes in the form of the universe where Evelyn is a movie star.  Some of the footage shown of the character’s famous existence is actually repurposed footage from the life of the actress playing Evelyn.   The nonfiction aspect of the movie is further toyed with in not one but two separate scenes which remind us that everything that we are watching is a film.  Not only do we find ourselves sitting with the famous Evelyn in a theatre, where the cinematography is arranged to give the illusion that we are in the same theatre with her, we also get a scene, right after intense action, where we find that this was nothing more than an action scene; suddenly we see the cameras and crew.  These scenes have a strange effect on the viewer.  There comes a sense of “we were in the made-up world of fiction, but now, the narrative has come to exist in our real world.”

(It is not insignificant to note that EEAAO was originally written for Jackie Chan to be the protagonist.  When Michelle Yeoh was cast, the protagonist’s name was initially also Michelle.  Thus, from the very beginning, a link between the character and the actress existed firmly in the writers’ minds.)

As we consider the plot, we can find dozens of further examples of boundary crossings.  Within the first few scenes of the film, we find that the Wangs struggles include: navigating the boundaries between personal time and business needs; navigating the boundaries of respecting elder generations and honoring the lived reality of younger generations, navigating the boundary between friends and family, navigating the line between being healthy assertive with a spouse with out over doing it.  Even one aspects of the Wang’s tax problem seems to be related to failing to navigate the boundaries between profession and hobbies.

It might be convincingly argued that transgression of boundaries on it’s own is not sufficient to demonstrate a thing has mystical roots.  Transgression of boundaries is also, for example, considered to be a component of both post modernity and queerness.  While I suspect fruitful explorations of both these elements within EEAAO might be conducted, there are several aspects of the film that mark the boundary crossings as uniquely mystical.

There are important distinctions between how mysticism, queerness, and post modernity view the crossing of boundaries.  This seems like a topic an entire book might explore.  But for our purposes here, let’s begin with the fact that queerness tends to view distinctions like male and female as social constructs that a person should feel free to ignore.  Post modernity is more descriptive than prescriptive, observing that a sign of the age we find ourselves in is that the traditional distinctions between things is breaking down.  Mysticism is unique among these three ways of being.  It is more radical, generally, than the other two.  Mysticism won’t be satisfied until everything is one.   Like queerness, the boundary-transcendence is prescriptive.  Unlike queerness, the boundary-transcendence goes beyond humanity.

Jobu Tupeki’s “bagel with everything.”  is of course, a pun.  A person could go to a deli and order such a thing, and they would expect that there are many different flavors and seasonings to it.  The “everything” in Jobu’s bagel is much more inclusive.   It is a mystic’s “everything.”

Moreover, when Evelyn finally comes to an understanding of the way the universe is, she takes one of Waymond’s googly eyes and places it on her forehead.  This motion is equal parts profoundity and silliness.  The profundity arises from the fact that a third eye, imagined to be right where Evelyn placed the decoration, is a common mystical symbol of awakening.  The silliness of the situation, arises, of course, from the fact that it’s a cheap bauble, a craft supply.  

To reiterate: this is a clear example of the boundary transgressions that are explicitly mystical.  But it runs deeper than the mere presence of a third eye.  It seems that the sorts of things Evelyn seems to suddenly awaken to is that all the aspects of her various selves, scattered across the universe, can reside within her. 

This is, of course, familiar mystical territory.

Sometimes the language is prescribed by the spiritual tradition.  But some of these traditions’ terms and phrases have migrated into the broader vocabulary of mysticism as a whole.  So we hear that the concern is between self and Self; or “I” and “Thou” or “small self” and “Large self” or “true self” and “false self.”

Looking at these various designations, we find ourselves in a space that is rather appropriate for a consideration on mysticism.  Because we began with a rather distinct and specific idea.  We considered the question of identity.  But now, we find ourselves in some intersection with so many other topics, themes, and ideas.  Rather appropriately, the individual differences have faded back and we find ourselves facing collapsing boundaries.

For example, especially as potrayed in the film, a single “person” who has managed to embrace all of their various identities has suddenly become something more like God than a human.  Rather fittingly, we began with a journey inward and find ourselves staring right at God.  Meister Eckhart would be pleased, I think to imagine this– that even as we stare at God, we find ourselves, being God, staring at us.  

Weirdly interrelated to the question of individual identity and attaining Godhood is the question of Good and Evil.  Doctrinal religion frequently offers up a clear and dualistic list of what is right and what is wrong.   Intertwined with this is a view of the world in terms of us vs them.  Finally, an individual who inhabits such a world finds himself having to choose between and among identities.  Within a Christian environment, for example, a person endorses the picture of themselves as chaste or temperate.  They focus and own and select the aspects of themselves which reinforce this picture.  

EEAAO flexes it’s mystic muscles by proclaiming the adoption of all the versions of ourselves.  Contemporary mystic Richard Rohr has made famous the phrase “everything belongs.”  This is a representation of a fundamental belief of mystics stretching all the way back.  When Joy and Evelyn are willing to take all the pieces of themselves in, they embody this principle.

There are so very many rich questions worth exploring here.  I hope you will share some of your thoughts here, and I will plan to come back and share some more of mine.  This is fitting, too, though; mystics do love their questions, their journeys and their processes.  Let’s continue on that journey together.

Installment #2 of Mystic at the Movies goes deeper into the nature of Identity in EEAAO; we explore the journey of integration. Click here to read it.

Exercise 68: Sati/ Mindfulness meditation

Background:  This spiritual practice will introduce a few different approaches to staying present.  The overaching idea with mindfulness is to meditate by locating ourself in the present. One of the way that this is done is through recognizing when we are having having intrusive thoughts or sensations by simply and gently witnessing these: watching them come and go.  I find this powerful because identifying their coming and leaving is a way to remind myself that I am not the same as these thoughts, and as I do this I am shown that this is what the mind does– it thinks and feels things.

A second major feature of this practice is to locate the self with the physical sensations we are noticing now.  Most often these are the sensations of breath.

There are some related spiritual practices listed at this website.  I am sharing this practice to introduce a handful of new possibilities.  A few different possibilities are featured in each of the practices below.  I suggest trying each of them and then picking and choosing your favorite aspects of each of the practices below.

 

Practice 68A

  1.  Sit up in a way that is straight and comfortable.  See yourself as sitting on a seat between heaven and Earth.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Find your breath.  Pay attention to the abdomen: feel it pushing out with the inhales, and moving in, toward the spine, with the exhales.  
  4. Listen for a noise in your environment, when it comes up, notice how you can’t control it’s coming or coming.
  5. Return to your abdominal breathing.
  6. As thoughts or perceptions arise, gently notice these.  Observe how they are like the noises: they come and go.
  7. Return to noticing how the breath feels in your body.  
  8. Continue this process for the time you had alotted.

 

Practice 68B

  1.  Sit up in a way that is straight and comfortable.  
  2. Close your eyes.  Be aware that even with your eyes closed, you can still observe differences in the visual field.  Your eyes work even with the lids down.  Center yourself in this present moment by seeing what you see with the eyes closed.
  3. Find your breath.  
  4. As thoughts or perceptions arise, gently notice these.  
  5. Return to noticing how the breath feels in your body, or to that darkened visual field.
  6. Continue this process.

 

Practice 68C

  1.  Sit up in a way that is straight and comfortable.  See yourself as sitting on a seat between heaven and Earth.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Find your breath.  Pay attention to the place where the air comes in and out of the nostrils.  Feel the change in temperature and pressure as it comes in and out.
  4. How long can you be fully present, with no wandering of mind: the length of an inhale?  The length of the whole breath?
  5. As thoughts or perceptions arise, gently notice these.  Then return to being aware of the breath in the nostril.
  6. When the time you had set aside for this practice is complete, know that you can retun to this state, even for just a minute or two, through out the day.

Practice 68D

  1.  Sit up in a way that is straight and comfortable.  
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Find your breath.  Pay attention to the subtle movement in the middle/side of the very lowest ribs.  Feel their slow movement as the lungs fill and empty.
  4. Listen for a noise in your environment, when it comes up, notice how you can’t control it’s coming or coming.
  5. With your next inhale, simply think ‘in.’  If you wish, in your mind’s gentle voice, you can hear this sound for the full length of the inhale: ‘iiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnn’
  6. With your next exhale, simply think ‘out.’  If you wish, in your mind’s gentle voice you can hear this for the full length of the exhale: ‘oooouuuuutttttt.’
  7. As distractions arise– and they will– notice the distraction as it comes and goes, and then return to the naming of the inhales and the exhales.  
  8. Continue this process for the length of time you had decided on today.
  9.   When stressful and difficult moments through out your day arrive, return to being fully present for the breath.

 

 

A sample from “What I learned In My Cell: Taking a Contemplative Stance in a Time of Pandemic.”

Introduction

It is April 10, 2020 as I write these words.  And these last long weeks have—in some ways—been the strangest days I have ever lived through.

A virus they call COVID-19 has made its way across the globe.  People—especially the vulnerable—are dying.  We are isolating, together.  Nearly everyone in the entire world.

Isolating together.  It’s kind-of funny.  We are alone, together.  We have cut ourselves off from contact with the world outside of ourselves.  And we have done it in the name of cooperative living.  The people who are ignoring the instructions not to gather are the least cooperative and collective of us.

Many of us are not working.  And the endless days bleed into endless nights.  Many of us who are working are working twice as hard as we ever did.  The hospitals are overwhelmed.  The stories are running out of the things our lives depend on.

It is so scary to go out into the world.  It is so scary not to go out into the world.

It is April 10, 2020 as I write these words.  And these last long weeks have been — in some ways—just the same as all the days I have ever lived through.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  There are willfully ignorant people who say that this is all nothing.  I am not saying that.  This virus will change us as individuals and as societies.  It is a big deal.

It is an Armageddon.  But I don’t mean what people often mean, when they say Armageddon.   I am not imagining fireballs and laser beams, destruction on a huge scale.  Originally, the word ‘Armageddon’ meant “uncovering.”   That’s what this is: an uncovering.  The dynamics that have always been at work among us are suddenly revealed for what they are.  I am thinking about how you can manipulate the light and darkness, and shape your hands just so, and it creates a shadow play, an illusion cast on a screen.  Up until this time, we have all been watching the screen.

Now, we have an opportunity.   Somebody just turned the lights on.   We will see the hand that has shaped itself in just the right way to resemble a duck flying, or a soldier marching, or whatever it was.  We will all gasp, “ah.” As we come to understand the things that have always been going on.

It first came into my head that writing this book would maybe be a thing worth doing a few days back.  I was sitting at home, and I had just dropped some THC under my tongue, and the mourning came on me so deeply.  It was so sudden, so intense and unexpected that all I could do was moan.

Mom died about five years ago.   And if you had asked me five months ago… five weeks ago…. Five days ago, I would have told you that I was in a place that I had released my anguish about this event.  And yet as I sat there, in the pandemic, here it was, so fresh, so vital, so acute.

And it was lovely in a way I can’t describe.  I was and am thankful for this opportunity to mourn for mom again.  There was this stuff in me that I would have told you I put away.  But I hadn’t put it away.  I had just covered it up.  Then this Armageddon came, and it uncovered it.

It uncovered so much.

This virus has uncovered more than I will be able to explain.  I am writing from the very middle of this thing.  Later, I will probably have some other things to say.  Distance will give me a certain perspective.  And that perspective will have a value of sorts.  But here in the middle of it?  That closeness is valuable, too.

I am an introspective person with a love of writing and a set of spiritual practices that allows me to see things in a way that I think is helpful for people.  I have a sense that the most helpful my insights will ever be is now, while we are still in the middle of this crisis.  I have some experience writing, publishing, and selling books on spiritual practices, so I have a little background in how to do this efficiently and quickly.   Before I say more about this thing that I am trying to do, I want to be clear about the things I do not want to do here.

I do not want to say this is worth it.  It’s not.  People are suffering and dying.  It is the height of insensitivity and callousness to say that it will end up being a good thing.  If this whole affair was some sort of transaction, the price we must pay is not worth the item we are purchasing.

I do not want to be opportunistic, and benefit from this thing that is happening.  All I can say really, about this later point is that today is Friday.  That mourning came at me on Tuesday.  The idea of writing these words occurred to me then.  I have spent these last several days carrying this concern, weighing my thoughts, weighing my heart, wrestling with this possibility.

Can I be honest with you?  I am only pretty sure that this is the right thing to do.  It is only most of me that has motivations that are pure enough for me to be proud of them.  There is a time I would have expected myself to be positive.  There is a time I would have told you that I searched my heart and it was 100% in the right place.

I wouldn’t have known I was lying at that time.  I would have believed the words I was saying to you.  But that would not have made them true.  The time that mom died was this time of transformation for me.  Even if mom hadn’t been dying, I would have been leaving the evangelical church I had been part of for the prior decade.  The fact of her cancer and the feelings I had about it, they brought a certain urgency to that transition.  My journey out of the black-and-white moralistic Evangelical church has been one into an airy, Christ-centered mysticism.  My experience meditating every day is probably the biggest single action I have taken to help position me to understand this great uncovering.

 

It’s funny how I have this sense that I am getting ahead of myself when I keep getting sucked into wanting to tell you about the things that are in my past.  I guess that is part of the point.  This Armageddon is a Great Uncovering that is giving me a glimpse beneath the surface of things in more than just the present.  It has uncovered some of my past.  It has uncovered some of my future.  I am writing this because I think we ought to be sharing and talking about these uncoverings.  I don’t think these will fully redeem this suffering.  But if we get a little something out of this time, then at least it won’t all be for nothing.

Let me tell you about day-to-day life.  A few weeks ago, I was a Special Education Teacher.  I have taught at my place of work for over a decade now.  I have picked up a few extra gigs along the way, like mentoring the new teachers and coordinating the school’s technology.  Most of the time, I love my job.

I am asthmatic.  I average about one hospital stay a year, whenever the Spring rains bring more mold than my hyper-allergic system can handle.  I was worried, therefore, when the earliest reports made it clear that people like me with respitory vulnerability were at risk.  The school at which I teach is residential. Most of the kids don’t just spend the 8 hours of the school day together.  They spend their nights their too.  And the students I teach aren’t kids who are always receptive to being taught to practice good hygiene.  There was a lot of stuff working against them.

It is a testament to my wonderful place of work that they were willing to validate my concerns.  I had been flirting with a variety of administrative tasks.  We worked out a few preliminary projects for me to do at home.  When the public schools began closing, my assignment began to shift.   The fifty kids who were bused into my school from the homes where they lived with their families were going to need to be educated remotely.  I became the lead on that.  Many of my healthier colleagues continue to show up to their teaching jobs every day.  Our school is one of the few that is not closed.

Dear God, I miss my classroom.  It’s only been three weeks.  How could it only have been three weeks?

            What’s next

This book will be structured into chapters.  Each chapter will be made up of an introduction, a series of reflections, and a gathering of spiritual practices that relate to the topic of the chapter.  The introduction will, of course, explain the importance of the theme of the chapter.  Each of the meditations will conclude with a few questions to encourage exploration of those ideas in the reader’s own life.  If the spiritual practices were practiced daily, I believe firmly that you will benefit greatly from this investment.

The first chapter will focus on the power of the lament.  It will recognize the meaning and depth of our suffering at this time.  In a way, that chapter will be focused on the things I am learning about this pandemic by using my contemplative practice as a lens to understand the world around me.  The second chapter will turn the lens around.  This chapter will explore the things I am learning about my contemplative practice by the things that are going on with this pandemic.  The third chapter will be a deeper dive into the nature of isolation itself.  The fourth and final chapter will try to sketch out some of what these meditations and this time in history means, for myself as an individual and for contemplative practice as a whole.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1: Laments

One of the almost-forgotten gifts of many of the world’s great religions is the lament.  Laments, of course, are deep sorrows.  Sometimes, they can almost seem like too much.  Perhaps you are a kinder person than me.  But if I am going to be honest, here, I would confess something:

There is a part of me that can watch a person lament and doubt the whole thing.  Is it so bad, whatever it is you are bemoaning?  I can usually put this skepticism away very quickly.  But it is there, nonetheless.

As a look at the idea of lamenting through the lens of this pandemic, as I recall that this a Great Uncovering, there are a few things that I notice.  The first is that the answer might be “no.”  It might be that whatever the actual thing is that a person is mourning, maybe it isn’t as bad as all that.  Maybe it’s not worth the wailing and the tears on its own.   But this is not a reason to invalidate the sufferings someone is expressing.  On the contrary, it is a reason to recognize what a powerful force lamenting is.  It can be a kind-of spring cleaning.

There was a family member I hated going to see movies with when I was a child.  She would cry in the movies.  Not little tears, either.  She would engage in this shoulder-hitching, gasping-for-breath sobbing.  At the time I felt it was embarrassing.  She once said that she liked going out to movies and doing this.  She said she got to cry about the movie, but she was also letting herself cry about all the other stuff in life that is worth crying about.  At the time, I felt that was all weird.

Now, I see a deep wisdom in it.  This is what I am trying to say about laments.  Perhaps they are only about the thing being mourned on the surface.  Perhaps the lament is an opportunity to mourn for all the other things we haven’t properly mourned.

Perhaps that cynical voice within me only appears to be about the other person.  Perhaps when I wonder if some of this isn’t just for show, I am really trying to deny my own mourning and loss.  And maybe, I am also trying to distance and separate myself from the person, too.  I am trying to other them.

When I watch a person physically suffer, I want to alleviate their suffering.  But also, I want to make sure I can’t and won’t suffer in that manner, too.  Next chapter we will explore this topic of contagion.  For now, let’s just say that if I can distance myself from a person who is hurt, I can feel safe and comfortable, holding onto the delusion that I won’t ever be in their position of deep lament.

This chapter will explore the losses we are mourning.  Sometimes we will be missing the things that we are losing now.  Other times it will really be about some wound that runs older and deeper.   One of the reasons that this pandemic is so difficult is that it manifests itself in so many different, sometimes even diametrically opposed ways.  Let’s begin with noticing that.

 

 

 

Reflection 1-1: The Many Different Manifestations

It is difficult to imagine a catastrophe which would hit us more universally.

Every corner of the globe is in some stage of preparation and action.  Every person we know is having their lives shaped by this thing.

At the same time, while it is certainly impacting each one of us, it is hitting us all so very differently.  It is hard to imagine a thing which could have produced a wider variety of impacts.  At the very most general level is the question of how endangered we are.  Those of us with homes, health, responsive and respectful workplaces, effective governments, and robust social networks are hit by this in a certain way.  People without these resources are hit quite differently.

For some of this is largely preventative and theoretical.  Others of us are literally fighting for our lives.  Some of us find that we are laid off with too much time on our hands.  Others are now asked to work twice as hard for twice as long.  Some of us have a low desire for social contact and find this isolation partially invigorating.  Others of us long for connection and find ourselves so very lonely.

The thing is, we mostly chose the lives we had before.  But the circumstances we are in now?  It is all quite random.  It is quite likely that there are at least some elements of where we are that someone else would like a whole lot more than we do.

How do you do with people grieving and mourning?  What do you wish people would do for you when you are lamenting?  What are the things you are missing and mourning right now?  To what extent are your feelings about what is actually going on now, and to what extent are they about things that are from your past?

To order this as a paperback, click here.

To order as a kindle/ e-book click here.

If you are not in a position to afford a book but feel that this could be helpful for you, please fill out the contact form above.  I would be happy to email you a pdf of the complete book with no questions asked or no strings attached.

Strategy #5: More on the Breath

There is lots to be said about the two most obvious parts of the breath: The inhale, and the exhale.

The first is an act of bringing something that is outside of us, inside of us.  It is like eating, being nurtured, or educated.  In each case, the alchemy is one pointing toward the self: it begins beyond our boundaries, and it ends inside of our boundaries.

The second is an act of sending ourselves out in to the world.  It is like using our knowledge to make a meal or teach a lesson, tending to the wounds of someone, or expressing our love in words.  Here, the alchemy is a transformation of energy that begins as something unfelt and untouchable by the world, and yet we manage to make it an experience to those within the world.

This is why it can feel like such a transformation to change from an inhale to an exhale as we think or say words.  The inhale is an act of bringing this truth in to my inner world.  Saying a part of a breath-prayer with the inhale is an act of changing myself.  The exhale is an act of sending the truth out into the world.  Maybe sending the thought out there changes the world.  At the bare minimum, exhaling with a statement is a sort-of promise to follow these words I am sending out with actions.

There is actually more than just the inhale and the exhale, when we want there to be.  We have the ability to pause,  to hold the breath for a moment.

You won’t be the first person to ever tell me I am overthinking things, but I believe this to be true:

There is a strange sort of subtle fear involved with holding the breath.  Our bodies, of course, need a constant source of oxygen.  Our cells cry out when we cut off our supply to them, even if it is only for a moment.

I think this is why considering a thought or phrase while holding the breath feels so intense.  It is a bit like turning a spotlight on, or cueing up soundtrack music to intensify the feelings.  There is this background sense of ‘Alert!  The body is not getting its oxygen.’

Holding the breath, for even a moment, is a bit like a fast in microcosm.  It is a way to temporarily assert that we are bigger than our physical nature.  Paradoxically, both a fast and a holding of breath must come to an end if we are to live.  In a different way, therefore, each of these reinforces the idea that we are not bigger than our physical nature: Holding the tension between these two ideas…  Owning the idea that we both are and are not bigger than our physical nature?  This is a nondualistic reality that contemplative activities alone can usher us into.

 

Big Picture Consideration: the Apophatic & the Cataphatic

A somewhat trite folk song and an amazing section of the bible say it well:

There is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.

Maybe this points to a really important distinction, one that sometimes feels as though it were a hidden, a thing that modern Christianity sometimes seems to want to treat like a dirty little secret.

On the one hand are the things we can speak of.  This side of the spectrum is characterized by understanding and light.  It is built on the assumption that the world is knowable.  It is associated with happiness and explanations.  This has been called the Cataphatic.

On the other hand, there is the truth that words only get us so far.  This side of the specrum is characterized by the not-knowing and darkness.  It is built on the understanding that there are some (many?) things that we can not comprehend.  It is associated with a lack of joy and a reluctance to explain.  This has been called the Apophatic.

To whatever extent these things are true about reality in general, they are doubly true about The Ground of All Being/God/Spirit/ Jesus/Truth/Allah….

The Cataphatic is easier for most people today.  I don’t know if it is a sign of modernity.  Or the evangelical church.  Or one of the inheritances of the age of “Enlightenment.”  Or simple and universal human nature…  Probably a bit of each.

Much of what we do in modern faith context is built around words (sermons, singing words, small group discussions) and happiness (upbeat melodies to worship music, cherry picking the happy parts of psalms)   There are lots of powerful spiritual exercises to explore this side of the spectrum.  But it seems to me they are a little less necessary than apophatic spiritual exercises.

Because we don’t spend much time in the apophatic.   We don’t have too many options open to us.  We have lost the art of lamenting.  We are so tempted to view agnosticism as a sign of weakness and ambiguity as a sign of the weak.  I think these are all the signs of a mature spirituality.  Perhaps we could enter into them earlier if we had more avenues for it.

Or maybe not.  Maybe it requires some life experience, some humiliation, some dying in order to be able to recognize that this all can not be out prayed, out sang, and out worshipped.

Regardless, this is where it is.  Give a try to an apophatic meditation today.

 

Strategy #4- Touch

There are several traditions which use some sort of tactile stimulation to help practioners be in the moment.  Most notably, Buddhists have their prayer beads, and Catholics have their rosaries.  As simple as these are, we can get some of the benefits of them with nothing more than hands.

There is research verifying the idea that tracking our progress by touching our thumbs to each of our finger tips is beneficial.  For example, we might start with the left hand.  The first time we complete a breath prayer, touch left thumb to left pointer finger.  With the second completion, touch left thumb to middle finger.  Then touch left thumb to ring finger, and then, with the fourth completion of the breath prayer, touch the thumb to the pinky.  We can then, obviously, switch over to the right hand.

It’s such a little thing.  But I notice a difference.  I suppose it is partially the sensory stimulation making the thoughts more meaningful.  I think it also prevents my mind from wandering and helps to track progress through the spiritual exercise.

Why don’t you give it a try today?

 

Big Picture Consideration #5

I have spent some time wrestling with how best to share the stuff I am writing about today.

In true contemplative fashion, I am doing my best to hold two equally important (and in some ways contradictory) realities.

The first reality is that The Faith-ing Project is a labor of love for me.  I am passionate about sharing these practices with anybody and everybody, regardless of their ability to financially support this endeavor.

The second reality is that there are a handful of direct expenses involved with this.  They include the expenses of keeping this website ad-free and able to host things like audio files.  I also have a hope of upgrading some of the equipment being used here.  And the time I am investing is no small thing.  It would be nice to be free of the temptation of taking up a side hustle or second job.  Having to do that would not be good for the development of materials here.

Since The Faith-ing Project began, I have utilized Patreon to give people an opportunity to make a small monthly contribution.  In exchange for $3.00 a month, patrons receive access to a growing library of audio files which present the spiritual exercises.

If you would rather make a 1-time contribution through paypal, I can be reached at otherjeffcampbell7@gmail.com

If you are in a position to support this important work with a small monthly gift or a 1-time payment, I am deeply thankful to you.  If The Faith-ing Project’s resources and email campaigns have been helpful to you, or if you share my conviction that these practices are desperately needed by the world, this financial assistance is one way to express your solidarity with me.

If you are not equipped financially to support what we are doing at this time, I would not want you to hold on to any kind of guilt about this.  I (generally) believe in the power of prayer and would ask for your prayers regardless of your financial situation.  Offering feedback and concrete suggestions on what you see here is another way to support this project.  (I feel particularly out of my element in the visual and technological side of all this)

Regardless of whether you can support The Faith-ing Project in any specific way, I am thankful for your presence here and wish you peace on the journey.

You can help in turning The Faith-ing Project into a fully functioning community.  You can do this in several ways:

  • Share your thoughts, feelings, and criticism below in the comments.
  • email otherjeffcampbell7@gmail.com to share something directly with the Project’s Director, to join our next email campaign, or to ask to be placed on the mailing list.
  • Access exclusive content and help The Faithing Project continue to deliver this conetent to a world in need: become a Patron.
  • follow @faithingproject on twitter.

 

Big Picture Consideration #5: Inclusion, not Appropriation

A phrase that has landed on lots of our radars over the past couple years is “Cultural Appropriation.”

My understanding of why this is a bad thing is evolving.  It took me a while to see how it is a problem at all.  As time has gone by, I still need somebody to go slow and help me with some of the details.

The problem of cultural appropriation plays out in a few specific ways for me here, at the Faith-ing Project.  The most obvious one is my use of practices from traditions that I do not consider my own.  It is inevitable that I am going to oversimplify, misrepresent, and gloss over important aspects of all the practices that I present here, especially the ones that don’t come from the tradition I identify as my own.

I have considered whether I should be sharing them at all.  After lengthy consideration, I have decided that it is worth it, despite the risk.  There are a few reasons for deciding I should include Buddhist, Jewish, and (soon) Islamic practices here.

#1) Part of the mystic’s journey is to recognize the thing that all the major world religion’s have in common.  This is not saying they are all identical, or that they all take us to the same “place.”  But it is important to recognize their commonality.  And for me, that begins with the spiritual practices.

#2) My hope is that your time here is the launch pad for your spiritual practice, not the end-game for it.  As you dive deeper into a practice or belief system, I am hopeful that any errors you picked up here will get corrected.

#3) The real power of the internet is the possibility for interactions.  I truly, deeply, and sincerely hope that if I have misrepresented something that you will help me out.   There is a fine line here, of course.  There are certain things which are simple disagreements and can’t be authoritatively decided in this lifetime.  I don’t mind you sharing these sorts of things if you would like.  But what I am more passionate about is the places where I am demonstrably, objectively wrong about what a certain group practices or believes.    Please hear this invitation: if I got something wrong, please feel free to use the comment section of the posts, the contact button up top, or to email me at otherjeffcampbell7@gmail.com

 

Big Picture Consideration #4: Beyond Words

One of the most important people in my life regularly undergoes a procedure that has the unfortunate side effect of really messing up certain parts of her brain chemistry.    One of the main areas impacted is the language part of the brain.

For a good week or two, she is very limited both in understanding and speaking.  Loving and supporting her has been a learning experience for me.  (To be clear: I have the easy part of the deal.)

I am a very word-oriented person.  It is one of my main ways of relating and of spending time with someone.  Recently, I was thinking about this learning process.  And realizing it mirrors the changes in my relationship with God.

A bunch of years ago, my main connection with God was through talking.  And sometimes listening.  So many of my practices now wordless.  I have developed this whole new list of ways to spend time with God.  It’s not different than the re-learning I have had to do with this special person: finding new ways to be together.

One of the best things I am learning is that words only get us so far.  In some ways, the spiritual activities were a little more chosen.  But the reality is that the new things I am learning to do, those not reliant on words, are some of my favorite things to do.