Sweetness

October 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

“A single atom of the sweetness of wisdom in a person’s heart is better
than a thousand pavilions in Paradise.”

-al-Bistami, Abu Yazid

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Soon You Will Return

October 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

“I have cut you from a garden I tend and set you in a vase for the world to see.

Soon you will return, for your glorious presence I miss.

My hands need to touch you again,
my divine senses and eyes require your soul’s beauty near.

Forgive me, my love, for the suffering our separation brought!

If I said I am in debt to you,
could you understand?

-Thomas Aquinas

In My Soul

October 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

In

my soul

there is a temple, a shrine, a mosque, a church

where I kneel.

Prayer should bring us to an altar where no walls or names exist.

-Rabia of Basra, Female Islamic Saint.

Miracles

September 12, 2011 § 1 Comment

“‘Miracles occur naturally as expressions of love.’ This isn’t theory; it’s an unalterable fact, a law of the universe. So don’t worry if you can’t see the result of your forgiveness just yet; know that any mental breakthrough from fear to love generates a cosmic engine of miraculous breakthrough as sure as the sun’s rising or setting. That faith on your part — your knowledge of spiritual law — will be a force magnifier that brings the miracle into manifestation more powerfully & quickly.

– Marianne Williamson

The Cat Came Back

September 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

Kitty is home. The cat came back.  From the icy montreal alleyways in winter, to the hot and stifling summer streets, to a paradise Island in fall, via cars, planes, ferries, and the love of countless strangers, over 12 months, across 3000 miles.   What a perfect reminder that Life moves in miraculous ways; sometimes it can do for us what we could never do for ourselves.

Thanks little cabin

March 13, 2011 § 2 Comments

I lay in the darkness listening to rain, thinking about a big wave that’s said to be travelling all the way from Japan to the shores around here.  Suddenly, Japan doesn’t seem so far away, no longer just a point of reference on a map, but something alive and real across the ocean, something essential, like a heartbeat.

It’s my last week here in this little cabin. I lay in the darkness, a half-moon is covered by an overcast night sky, but a few minutes after I turn off the lights, lying in the total blackness, a glow illuminates the windows and skylight.

I am not alone.  I know, for example, that in this moment, right now, there is a little brown bunny who lives under the cabin. I saw her yesterday, soft and swift, darting through the woodpile and into the darkness of the crawlspace.  There’s a family of sparrows huddled into the rafters above my bed, I hear them coming home to nest at dusk, then, many hours later, I hear their ruffling feathers at dawn, taking flight into the light of the morning.  A spider spins her winter web in a cozy corner of the cedar siding.  I hear a heron who lives on this beach call out in the darkness, in the middle of the night, loud and prehistoric, from wherever she is nesting.

We’re in the darkness. We’re listening to the waves.  And tonight, I take none of it for granted.  Somehow, by some miracle beyond our understanding, we share this life.

We share this lifetime.

Each with our own knowledge and habits and preferences, we share this little cabin.  We listen, in the darkness to these waves, and by an almost imperceptible glow of a hiding half-moon, we listen to the rain.

Suddenly, I feel as close to the bunny snuggled under the cabin as I’ve felt to anything.  We share this sweet and gentle darkness, each with our own concerns.  Each alone, but in the strangest way, together.  We share a solitude without loneliness.  We’ve acknowledged each other before on the driveway.  Like indifferent acquaintances brushing shoulders in the grocery store isles, we’ve barely said hello.  But tonight, for some reason, we’re very close. I think about her innocent desire just to survive and be happy here, to find some warmth and shelter, under this cabin.  Her simple and noble wishes to stay safe and clean and to be organised, to find food that tastes good and water that is cold and fresh.  Little bunny, we not only share a cabin and a lifetime, we share these common impulses.

It seems that every year for the past two years, around this time in March, I’m sent some kind of miraculous gift. Last year, I found a goddess statue buried in the mud at the beach.   This year, I saw a perfect rainbow stretched right across the bay.  We’ve called this Rainbow beach for years, and now I know why. Perhaps a sign the hardest months of winter are over.  Perhaps a simple reminder that life is precious.

I know that there are moments when you question who you are and that doubts seem overwhelming until you wish upon a star. You’ve forgotten why you’ve come, that there was an ancient call. You’ve covered up the memories that you’re here to nurture all. So I’m here as a reminder to help light the way, to reignite the truth within and this is what I say: You’re a lady, you’re a princess, you’re a goddess, you’re a queen, you’re the feminine expression of that which can’t be seen. You’re the answer to the question, How must love be revealed? You’re the vision of a world that is begging to be healed. You’re the beauty you’re the grace, you’re the lover, you’re the light. You’re the form of wholeness manifest revealing day and night. You’re the answer to the question: How must love be revealed? You’re the vision of a world that is begging to be healed. And I know that there are times when you want to lead the way, to peace in your surroundings otherwise you cannot stay. You’re remembering there’s a promise to make a difference in this life. The inner you is screaming it is time to release strife. So I’m here as a reminder to help light the way, to reignite the truth within and this is what I say: You’re a mother, you’re a daughter, you’re a wife, you’re a team, you’re the feminine expression of that which can’t be seen. You’re the answer to the question, How must love be revealed? You’re the vision of a world that is begging to be healed. You’re the leader, you’re the guide, you’re the healer, you’re the way, you’re the form of wholeness manifest, turning night into day. You’re the answer to the question How must love be revealed? You’re the vision of a world that is begging to be healed. So take the time to listen to the spirit that you are and open to the vision that you are a shining star. You must remember why you’ve come. Awaken that ancient call, open to the memory that you’re here to nurture all. Open to the memory that you’re here to nurture all. Remember who you are. Remember who you are”

-Cynthia James

“I always thought it would happen to you.”

March 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

I was pumping gas at the co-op a couple days ago when an old friend named Steve drove up beside me in his big rusty black truck.  Steve’s had dreads for as long as I can remember and lives on a dreamy old white fishing boat in the Burgoyne harbour with his dog.  He, like everyone these days, asked me what I’m up to.   I fumbled for an explanation as I often do: “I’ve got cheap rent, I’m developing new projects…”  

Steve took this as exciting news.  “You a starving artist now or something?” he asked. 

“You know, I never thought this would happen to me, and then it did.” 

“I always thought it would happen to you.” 

“Thanks. I guess I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“You should.”

The truth is that I grew up with artists, and I’ve been surrounded by them, admired them, felt intimidated by them, mystified by, and attracted to them my whole life.  More importantly, perhaps, is that I’ve recently taken a hard look at the amount of support and encouragement I’ve poured towards others and their crafts, making money for some (who gladly took what they could get), while sharing my ideas, time, and dedicated support to others I’ve admired over the years.  I never really thought of myself as “one of them” however. 

So perhaps this was one of the reasons why when “it happened to me”, by virtue of an unexpectedly successful documentary film project, it was so difficult.  I didn’t know how to handle it, present it, or allow it. 

I love the scene in The Kings Speech when  King George VI breaks down.  He’s a stutterer and can’t get his words out, can’t command his country: “I’m not a king, I’m not a king,” he cries.  All the fear and shame he carries with him into his new role, one he is absolutely capable of, is the real tragedy of the story, not the fact that he stammers.  

What does it mean, when “it happens” to you?  It means that at a certain point in every artists’ life there is a decision to be made, and that is the decision to put your creativity at the forefront of your days, because other options no longer feel possible.  

I’ve had more than one ex-boyfriend look me squarely in the eyes and tell me with a admission that can only lead to disappointment: “I’m an artist.”   What a heavy statement of fact, delivered like a cancer diagnosis.  It’s never really good news to hear that from someone you love or depend on, is it.   Truthfully, it’s never really good news to hear it from yourself either. But what is beautiful about this bitter-sweet revelation is the act of getting in alignment with what is real, to stop pretending, to get really honest and close with what is happening, with what appears to be your nature and your experience of life.  

The thing I love about true artists is the authenticity with which they live, and the seriously amazing courage it takes, and the beauty that can be created from fearless focus and honesty.   True authentic creation is the soul of the world and probably the closest expression of who we really are. 

So, one of the thoughts I’ve had recently is that art is a holy communion with life that ultimately gives back to the world.   And, surprisingly, I’ve noticed that even my accountant is one of the most dedicated artists I know, because his authenticity is just so obvious, and it’s just so clear that he is living in alignment with something purposeful and honest and incredibly creative and kind.  I adore his creative mind and how he gives to the world. 

Another thing I’ve noticed along the way: Art, by its nature is non-exploitative, something that moves through you, inspired by life, but never, ever, stolen from it.  

I’m dumbfounded that all it took for me to be seen as the person I’ve striven to prove myself to be all these years, was just to arrive frustrated and lost on a remote island, shack up in a chilly cabin, and be spotted pumping gas on a dreary afternoon.  That was so easy!

Now I am off to write an Arts Council Grant. 

Sufi Stories

February 7, 2011 § Leave a comment


“Like two lovers who have become lost in a winter blizzard, and find a cozy, empty hut, in the forest, I now huddle everywhere with a Friend.  God and I have built an immense fire Together.  We keep each other happy and warm,”  wrote the elegant Persian poet Hafiz, translated in The Subject Tonight is Love

***

In September 2010 I travelled with my friends Husayn and Elizabeth and their new-born baby, the adorable cherubic Daoud from Montreal to Fenton Michigan for one of the holiest nights of the Islamic calendar, the last evening of Ramadan.   

After two days of driving, we arrived at a picturesque farm tucked away in an unlikely suburban Middle-America neighbourhood.  Unlikely, that is, for the kind of ecstatic mystical Sufi devotion that was about to unfold.  I spent a week with the Sufi community, eating and praying and living alongside the devotees who had pilgrimed from across the continent.  Over the course of that week I got to witness an Islamic spiritual community that holds itself to the highest levels of compassion, inclusion, humility, and an earnest striving for truth and knowledge of the divine. The community seemed to me a modern-day embodiment of a spiritual yearning for what Ibn ‘Arabi called the Taste of God or dhawq.  

As fate would have it, one of the holiest days of the Islamic lunar cycle arrived on Sept. 11th, the 9th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Centre.    The group seemed to me to use this opportunity to deepen their compassion in the world, to close an ever-more-polarizing situation in which Islam and “the West” are pitted against one another. 

The sermons given by the group’s Sheikh encouraged humility, kindness, and a life devoted to spiritual truth and awakening. 

Below is an article I wrote for the online prublication qantara.de which has yet to come into print.  I hope you enjoy it. 

***


Todd Friedmannn, 35, is barreling down the highway on a 1000-km drive from Montreal, Canada, to Michigan, USA, where he will join his spiritual community for one of the holiest days of the year.

It’s the day before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, but Friedmann, who was born and raised Jewish, is driving the long distance for Eid ul-Fitr, the last night of Ramadan. He became a Sufi Muslim over ten years ago and on the 12-hour car ride the depth of his devotion is palpable. 

He now goes by the name Husayn and is dressed in loose cotton clothing which emulates the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammed, but his long ruddy beard and appearance also give him the look of an Orthodox rabbi.

When asked about the perplexing mosaic of his religious heritage, Friedmann quickly cites the Islamic mystic and philosopher Ibn ‘Arabi who famously wrote “I follow the religion of love.”

“I was brought up with the stories of the prophets of Israel: Moses, Noah, Solomon, and David. We studied the Torah,” says Friedmann, who was educated in a private Hebrew school.  “But I didn’t have to leave the stories of the prophets behind when I became a Muslim. The Prophet Muhammed came for all people, for all nations, for all times. 

Friedmann’s journey began as it did for most Western converts to Sufi Islam: in an earnest search for spiritual fulfillment and meaning in what they see as an increasingly materialistic and empty Western culture.

“As I got older I started to notice something very wrong was happening on the earth.  My grandfather lived through the Holocaust and told me about it.  I needed to know: What is this life about? When I discovered the Montreal Naqshbandi Sufi Centre, there was a certainty that was stamped on my heart.  Now there is nothing that can take that away.”

Friedmann is driving to the headquarters of the Naqshbandi-Haqqani Sufi Order of America where over the next week dozens of devout Sufis, about 30% of whom are Western converts to Islam, from a myriad of ethnic and religious backgrounds will converge from all over North America.

Devotees have come seeking spiritual renewal, transcendence from the trappings of the ego, and to bask in the spiritual presence of Shaykh Hisham Kabbani. Kabbani is a globally revered Sufi teacher and official deputy of Shaykh Nazim Al-Haqqani, the leader of the Order who is widely regarded as a saint and said to trace his lineage back to the 13th century mystic and poet Jalaluddin Rumi.

Naqshabandi is one of the major spiritual Orders of Sufi Islam in the world today and “it’s the most popular Sufi tradition in Indonesia, the Subcontinent, Africa and the Middle East,” says Lisa Alexandrin, a professor of Islamic studies in the department of religion at the University of Manitoba. 

“The Naqshbandi teachings emphasize the importance of the relationship between master and disciple: Sufi shaykh and student,” adds Alexandrin, echoing the appeal to many Western Sufi practitioners who say through their encounters with Shaykh Nazim and Shaykh Hisham they saw living examples of the teachings of the Prophet.  Devotees see Islam as a religion of love, peace, tolerance, humility and respect, and strive to attain these ideals through the guidance and teachings of their Shykhs. There is also an emphasis on “universal spirituality”, inclusive of different faith traditions.

“The goal of spirituality is not to have labels,” says Friedman.  “It’s to go back to divine presence.”

In 1991 Kabbani was appointed by Nazim to establish a presence in North America and since then 23 Centres have opened across the region.   

The Michigan Centre is a modest farm tucked off a suburban country lane.  One cannot imagine a less likely landscape for the kind of ecstatic and colourful Sufi worship that unfolds here, including chanting, prayers, meditation, and trance-like devotional whirling.



 “It always amazes me how doctrines and devotional practices established by a set of Sufi masters in the 14-15th Centuries can continue to maintain such a powerful presence in the contemporary world,” says Alexandrin.  The Naqshbandi Order dates back nearly 1500 years and traces its spiritual lineage to the Prophet Muhammad through Abu Bakr, the first Caliph and one of the Prophet’s closest companions.  

“We are not a da`wah [conversion] machine or missionaries,” says Kabbani,  who is also an author, renowned scholar of Islamic history and a spiritual teacher to an estimated 2 million Muslims across the globe.

 “We believe everyone has a certain time that comes in their life when God’s manifestation on their heart becomes strong and they will listen to that message and yearn to understand it. Then they begin to give more and more attention to their spiritual needs.  Therefore, we don’t say “converting” or “reverting,” we say when the call [to spirituality] comes, they will pick up the phone.”

Despite the order’s emphasis on inner spirituality, this Sufi community maintains traditional Islamic values grounded in Sharia law: Men and women are segregated for prayer and most women chose to wear headscarves.

***

Friedmann stops for a cappuccino at a chain café in Fenton surrounded by American “big box” stores like Walmart and Target. He is a colourful anomaly in the mainstream landscape of the American Mid-West. 

At the counter he is approached by a man wearing a Harley Davidson T-Shirt, who asks him sarcastically if he is a part of the local “renaissance parade”, before muttering angrily “American’s should dress like Americans.”

“We’re taking [criticism] from all sides,” says Elizabeth Bootman, Friedman’s wife, who embraced Islam when she was just out of high school.   She was educated at the University of Berkley and grew up in the famously liberal Bay Area of San Francisco as a secular American. She now veils her hair and wears modest clothing. But walking the spiritual path as an American Muslim convert is not an easy road: 

Fundamentalist Muslim groups have criticized the Sufi community, seeing it as  divergent from traditional Islam, an accusation Sufi Muslims adamantly refute; and they are often confronted with the anti-Muslim sentiments of the post 9-11 world.

Despite the challenges, Bootman’s faith doesn’t waver:

 “If you’re wondering why on earth a Western person from a liberal country would decide to become Muslim you have to understand the history and wisdom of what Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, brought to earth and how powerful, liberal and emancipating that message was.

 “So many people are interested in spirituality in the West, especially the side of it that is contemplative and introspective and peaceful.  This is what we were looking for when we came to this Order and this is what we have found.


 

May I Join You?

October 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

There has only ever been one question.  This is what I learned on the Santa Monica pier last week.  I hadn’t eaten in two days and decided not to speak except one sentence:”May I join you?”  This was a wonderful experiment with what might happen, or with who I would be in relation to others, without language.

It started off a little awkwardly.  “My I join you? I asked a thin grand-motherly woman watching an 80-year-old  carousel of galloping horses spin circles around mirrors and light.

She said yes and slid over to make a little space for me on her green bench.   “Are you watching your son or daughter?” she asked.  Couldn’t answer. Just looked into her eyes and smiled.  And she left after a few minutes.

I walked back out onto the pier.  A handsome dread-locked musician was playing Bach on his violin wearing a tattered red sweatshirt.  I stood in front of him and listened to the music with my eyes closed.  I didn’t ask out loud “May I join you?”  And by standing there, listening to the music,  I realized the question had already been answered.  It occurred to me the  music was asking of me the same: May I join you?

I noticed he was African American and that concepts of black and white had blurred away with our exchange.  Musician. Audience.  Violinist. Dancer. May I join you?

I felt the winds off the shores of Venice Beach pass over my face and arms, run through my hair. May I join you?  they asked.

And then a painful thought hits me. The hardest part for me in asking this question is the belief that at some point one of us will leave. I’m not sure I every want to leave, or that I can. But is there ever really any leaving anyway?  I wondered.

My feet carry me farther down the pier, past kiosks housing vendors whose eyes are filled with light.  May I join you with what I am selling? they asked. May I join you with my currency? I asked.  I remembered I didn’t have a penny on me, and yet noticed the question wasn’t going away.

I am journeying closer to the end of the wide wooden planked pier. May I join you pier? May I join you ocean? As I step farther and farther out beyond the shore, I am held by the pier, I am joined to both.

There is a musician playing Johnny Cash on his guitar at the end of the pier and I know all the songs. May I join you musician? May I join you Cash? May I join you ocean? Wind? Air? Song? History? Daylight?

I know the lyrics to the songs.

Off the end of the pier Mexican fishermen troll for Makerell.  A fisherman’s cell phone rings, he places it to his ear. Another pulls a cigarette out of his pocket.  A small Makerell is hiested out of the black water and writhes fiercely on the cold wet wood.

Suddenly, gently, everything is one and there is no longer any separation at all. Tears come.  I see that I have always been the asker and I have always been the asked, and that  nothing else has ever been true for anybody or anything.

Seagulls hover immovable in the wind, wings outstretched wide directly above me, then flap and fly into the sky, their home.  They swoop and play in troops of three, coming together then parting.  A heavy pelican cuts through the sky like a jetliner.  He greets the seagulls and they fly together, diving in and out of gusts of wind. The wind moves through my hair. I sit down on a wooden bench. I am crying. I listen to the music. I know the lyrics.

May I join you? I ask. May I join you? I am asked.

Revolution from Within – Part II

June 20, 2010 § 1 Comment

It’s my birthday, and the Revolution from Within is still on my mind!

A few months ago, some pretty heavy life circumstances pushed me towards my own “revolution from within” of sorts.  One morning while writing on Salt Spring Island, I had a very clear thought:  “What if I were always and already loved by something much larger than the circumstances of my day-to-day life? ”  Hmmm… Could this be possible?  The feeling in my body told me there was some truth to this thought, which seemed to “visit” me from out of the ether. Wasn’t I only supposed be loved on the basis of accomplishments and achievements in the world (and therefore risked losing love if my activities were to ever stop), on the basis of my beauty (and therefore not loved if my beauty were to not measure up, or disappear with age).  Wasn’t I to be loved because of my “niceness” (and therefore risked losing love if my niceness were to ever turn to anger or disappointment)?

I had come to these questions and ideas on my own, the result of a natural thought process emerging from the pain I had been going through during that time.  The fear of being unloved, the fear of being a failure in life, seemed to shake the core of these ideas, causing me to push through ingrained ideas I had been living with my entire life.

But I wasn’t the only one who had gone through this kind of questioning.  In fact, Gloria Steinem would put words to my feelings in a book I happened to find for a dollar while shopping in a thrift store in Vancouver with my friend Carolyn. It was called Revolution from Within.

Gloria Steinem, who has been spearheading ideas in American feminism for decades, has touched on a topic that has extreme relevance to the feminist journey today.  But a revolution from within can happen to anyone, man or woman.  Being a woman, I’m especially interested in looking at the power of this shift in a woman’s story; I believe this to be the last phase – the pinnacle – of the feminist journey.  The revolution from within is also a spiritual concept described in all the major faith traditions.  Could the essence of feminism indeed also be a vehicle to the divine?

The revolution from within is the shift towards wholeness, when a woman’s self-worth is no longer dependent on external conditions – beauty, family, husband, youth, wealth etc. –  but is felt as an inner truth, a connection to something larger than herself, which is at the same time her true self.    When the revolution from within happens, a new kind of freedom is experienced, an awakening occurs, and a woman moves towards wholeness, empowerment and expansion in her life.

These are my words, but the personal account of Gloria Steinem is similar: “I had been raised to assume all power was outside myself […] I was valuing just about everybody more than I valued myself.”  She describes a revolution from within as a “feeling of ‘clicking in’ when that self is recognized, valued, discovered, esteemed — as if we literally plug into an inner energy that is ours alone, yet connects us to everything else.

“Hierarches try to convince us that all power and well-being come from the outside, that our self-esteem depends on obedience and measuring up to their requirements, but it’s interesting that even the most totalitarian cultures have never been able to convince everyone. There have always been rebels and visionaries who persisted in believing that each person has a centre of power and wisdom within, whether it’s called the soul or the authentic self, Atman or the spirit. We don’t reinvent the wheel, just rediscover it.” 

Around the time that I experienced the first inklings of thoughts about the revolution from within, I found this goddess statue half buried in the muddy sand at a beach near to where I grew up.

In the background of this photo is my grandmother’s house, tucked into the forest.   Finding this precious gift was both mystical and strange, both beautiful and even a little awe-inspiring.

Feminism has been an interest of mine since I became a woman.  My interest in women’s stories  stretch back through the generations of women in my family history whose life experiences I have inherited.  I have at once felt a great debt of gratitute to the women whose sacrifices and struggles paved the way for my own freedoms, my right to independence, my right to an education, my right to full participation in my society. I have also felt grief for the women in my family, throughout history, and living today in countries around the globe, whose circumstances have not allowed them to expand in life the way I have.  I have many times also had an inconsolable feeling that something is perhaps still missing on this feminist path; that maybe we women have not recieved all that we were promised through having accomplished the feat of living in full equality with men. I have wondered if the end result of the feminist struggle was not the realisation of full equality with men, per se, but the full realisation of our true selves.  If we have at times felt a great anger towards men, it has only been insofar as men have at times stood in the way of the realisation of our full potential. To be honest on this path, we have to admit that we have stood in our own way perhaps just as many times.

As I turn 32, I take stock of the fact that I can never fully live up to the expectations of women of our time.   The circumstances of my generation of women have allowed for me new freedoms that have at times made me dizzy with the sheer plethora of decsicions that have thrown themselves before me.

A quote I came across by the theologian Paul Tillich last winter sums up for me the revolution from within:

“We cannot compel anyone to accept [herself]. But sometimes it happens that we recieve the power to say “yes”to ourselves, that peace enters into us and makes us whole, that self-hate and self-contempt disappear and that our true self is reunited with itself. Then we can say that Grace has come upon us.”

My birthday wish is that we all have the courage to say “Yes” to ourselves, in the most beautiful and true of ways, and of course, that all beings be happy and free.

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