I – You

October 25, 2011 § 3 Comments

I’ll never forget an interview I heard with Leonard Cohen on the CBC quite a few years ago, where he said that we should never throw anyone away.  This is not a perfect world, he said, and if we look at our life through the lens of Biblical history, we can put ourselves in the context of the story of Genesis, and how Adam and Eve first fell from Grace.  We are no longer in Paradise, and life is simply not designed to be flawless.  We are living in an imperfect world.

My struggle is with how to acknowledge the moral and ethical differences I have with people while holding a love for them in my heart at the same time.  My struggle is this: How do I not throw anyone away?

Within most of my relationships, I’ve at one point or another made discoveries that have shocked me. I’ve found out that the person who I thought was standing in front of me had secrets he or she wasn’t telling me, or opinions I didn’t know about.  These discoveries sometimes felt like ripples of trauma moving through my body and mind, as I had so badly needed to see these people as flawless, kind, ethical and honest (conforming to my definitions of these attributes, of course) .

One scenario that stands out for me happened while I was working as a journalist in Morocco in 2004.  I had been hired as a managing editor in order to launch Morocco’s first English online new source. I was intricately involved in assigning articles, covering stories and editing the final texts for publication.  After working there for many weeks, our team — a group of about 6 young Moroccan men and women and myself– had some disagreements about how to write about the death of Yassar Arafat, the Palestinian leader who had died the day before.  In the context of a news article, my colleague wanted to write his name as The Hero Yassar Arafat, the fact that he was a hero was an unshakable truth for my Moroccan friend.  Being educated in a Western Jounalism school, my bias in a news article was towards objectivity in our communication, and so I requested that we not refer to him directly as a hero in the text, since this was subjective and therefore open to individual opinion. It was of course a heated and controversial conversation. I truly didn’t want to make any claim as to weather or not Arafat was  a hero and had little invested in it either way. With my Western journalist’s cap on, my mind had been thoroughly trained in objectivity and fairness and this was my main professional goal.  I was deeply committed to these principles, and this is where the conflict with my colleague and I began.

What happened next surprised me and shook me to the core.

In the midst of an increasingly heated debate, my co-worker launched into a discussion about the Holocaust.  He told me that it had never happened, and that it was simply a conspiracy designed to gain Western power over the Middle East. He had all the literature to prove it.  My other colleagues chimed in, some from their desks accross the room, while others gathered around to contribute to the argument. What unfolded was the realisation that everyone I had been working with for many weeks did not believe that the Holocaust had ever happened.  These people were my friends and colleagues and confidants, and I had no idea what I should do with this new found knowledge. I ran out of the office sobbing, and went to phone my boyfriend.

My boyfriend at the time was Jewish and the grandson of Germans who had fled the camps on the last boat to leave London for Sao Paulo, Brazil. His life had been deeply affected by Nazi history, and, I believe, as for most Jewish people with this past, the impact of the Holocaust continued to affect him on a soul level.  Only months before, we had travelled to Berlin together and had visited the Holocaust Memorial site in the centre of downtown Berlin, as well as the Jewish Museum; we had even visited churches  where Jews had been rounded up and held before being sent to the camps, and historical synagogues that were now, in the absence of a thriving Jewish community, simply museum pieces, albeit heavily guarded 24 hours a day.

In previous years I had studied Chomsky, who wrote a sentence that haunted me throughout this time: “To deny the Holocaust is to deny your own humanity.”   I’d studied documentary film at McGill and in one of our classes watched archival footage of the ditches where the bodies of thousands of people were thrown in the days leading up to the Hitler’s defeat in 1945.  These images had made me so nauseated, I had to run to the bathroom and throw up.  Nearly a decade later, still very much identified with the Jewish story, I’d undertaken a Jewish conversion program.

So there I was alone, in the centre of Casablanca, on a pay phone, crying to my boyfriend in Montreal.  I wanted it to be a perfect world.  I wanted to share the same values as my colleagues.  I needed compassion for a history that I knew was true.  I needed to know that my boyfriend and best friend (also Jewish) would always be safe.  I needed to know that morality would always prevail and that eventually there could be peace in our world and protection for all people.

A deeper dilemma was how to now relate to my job. Should I stay and work it out?  Should I discuss this difference of opinion? Is it wrong to talk about whether or not the Holocaust existed? Would I then, in the process of opening up this question, lose my own humanity?  I knew in my heart that any dialogue at all would give credit to an opposing position, and this felt intolerable to me.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to spend much time thinking about what to do next, because I was dismissed a few days later. I don’t think that my dismissal was  directly related to this event or to our differing opinions; my boss told me there simply was not enough “team magic” to warrant me continuing.  That was an understatement (getting paid for my two months of work would prove a challenge as well, but that is a story to be told another time).

So here I am today, faced with dilemmas that are not the same, but are dilemmas nevertheless.  How do I maintain a friendship with someone who I have witnessed abuse an animal? How do I hold love in my heart for someone who has hit a woman?     Do I maintain a relationship with an ex-boyfriend who lied to me?  Can I have a relationship with that fun new friend who is homophobic?  Do I sacrifice my own boundaries and moral convictions by opening up my heart or my life to people whose ideas confront my very sense of self, my moral identity?

When I address these questions with an authentic heart, in the context of my spiritual life, I have to recognize that I love these people, and there is nothing I can do about that.  I can try to push the love away, but in a life of inquiry based on spiritual goals, love continually comes back to haunt us, even when we don’t want to admit to it.   How can I love someone who has done something so terrible?  Does compassion for a perpetrator condone his actions?

I know at a gut level that closing my heart to anyone simply means a world in which more hearts are closed.

I know that even when I have opinions that are so drastically different from other people, we both, at our core, share the same humanity, and the same desires for safety, connection, flourishing and self-realization.   These thoughts bring me to a place of grief, grief for the times when my own heart has closed, grief for all the suffering that has ever happened in the wake of a closed and hardened heart.  Grief for the realization that every time I have hurt someone, I have carried the burden of those actions inside of myself and felt the hurt too — that whatever I do to you, I do to me.  Grief because this is a far-from-perfect world. Inside my grief, my heart expands into an aching acceptance, a surrender to the complex and messy living moment.

My personal goal is for what Martin Buber called the I-Thou (or I-You) relationship, which means simply that we stand before people with a presence that is not muddled by fear or judgement.  We hold a space for the entirety of another human being, for his or her suffering, confusion, pain and strivings, and we hold this space for ourselves also.  We become witnesses rather than arbitrators.  Our relationships then become whole and they become sacred.

The question then moves from one of whether or not I can tolerate another person’s opinions, and what I should do about them, to this:  Do I have the capacity to love?  Can I find a path to love in an imperfect world?

Today, years after that warm afternoon in an office in Casablanca, I am still struggling to find this path.

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Nostalgia

July 13, 2011 § Leave a comment


What

Is the 

Root of all these 

Words? 

One thing: love.

But a love so deep and sweet

It needed to express itself 

With scents, sounds, colours

That never before

Existed. 

-Hafiz

I have been cursed, or perhaps blessed, with nostalgia for many years. I don’t understand where it comes from or why it arrives.  It is a longing for another time and distant place, for a concept, for a moment, or an idea, and even when I seem close to accessing a replica of this past, nostalgia remains present, there is always something out of reach. I sometimes feel nostalgic if only for a future I once deeply imagined, that is no longer possible.  These days I feel nostalgic for warm summer nights and dips in the lake, for the dark silhouettes of my friends paddling under the moon and silently dipping their heads beneath the still waters, turning over onto their backs to look at the the stars, and the tiny minnow who jump into the dusky sky. I feel nostalgia for a sky that was once silent, for that time, not long ago, before planes cut through the night, before they landed in the harbour, I feel nostalgic for before the before.  I feel nostalgic for a fire slowly burning to smoking embers, when the night is long and nearing its end; or for the way the sun rises over a beach when we have stayed awake all night, watching the black blue sky turning slowly to pink, and for how life awakens all around us.  My heart breaks for the love of an island.  An Island who is my friend and my history and my ancestry; an island who is my memory and my dream and my healing — candle-lit and gentle, an old torn couch pushed against the wall where teenagers sip on bottles of beer together until dawn, where there are spiders in the corner, and the silent and fresh star-filled night just one step out the door. 

“What is an island, a point of land surrounded by water, or a man or woman surrounded by their world?” asks Brian Brett

“When I think of home and islands I can’t get out of my head the fabled story of the old fisherman from the Aran Islands who one day was waylaid by a toursit. After some conversation the tourist asked.  ‘And you sir, do you travel much?’ The old Islander thought about this for a moment and then said: ‘No, I never had to. I was born here.’

That’s the way the heart must feel, through deaths and oceans, and births like difficult journeys, through the long voyages to the Orient, or walks down the street, the sureness of coming home, wherever you were born.”

It’s a nostalgia that aches, a nostalgia that repairs.

Safran

June 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

We reveal so much about our unconscious inner lives, and the destinies we will write, through the stories that we tell.

Humor piece re-write By Mary Fowles For Joel Yanofsky March 26, 2003.

Safran

When I broke up with my boyfriend last September I wasn’t expecting to fall in love again so quickly, especially not with a neurotic coral-beaked Agapornis Personata. I’m firmly convinced it wasn’t coincidence that the single and searching Lovebird I affectionately named Safran came into my life. It was just weeks after my boyfriend told me that “opening up the relationship” could be good for us. I didn’t agree. As it turns out, in Safran I may have found the most monogamous male on the planet. Like any great romance, our love blossomed in the wake of tragedy.

At the Lovebird warehouse where he entered this world, my sensitive bird did not fare well. Crammed into a tight rectangular box bared with impenetrable aluminium and at least ten other common foul, Safran, with his sensitive and complex soul was driven mad. Longing for the world of his ancestors, the roofless sky that marked a life of freedom, Safran slipped into the darkest of depressions at the young age of six months. Knowing that attacking the boundaries of his prison would only lead to a headache and a flaked beak, Safran turned upon his own foot in a bout of irreconcilable self-loathing. It began with a mere nail-biting problem. He would sit on the plastic perch beneath the hum of the florescent lights of the warehouse and chew until each little black claw was taken off. And then he started on the tiny toes. Toes that in nature would have been used to grip the bows of willow trees and pounce on worms, in captivity were useless. Three out of four were taken off within months. Over night the burgundy scab would heal over the stump, only to be re-opened again in the morning when Safran focused on his day’s work. In such a state, Safran was more likely to die from blood loss than be purchased by a bird-lover.

His capitalist breeders plotted an imminent execution. It was at this point that my neighbour, a kind soul who worked at the warehouse brought Safran to me. “He’ll bond with you,” she said, “loving pets can nurture the most tortured of hearts.”

Lovebirds are one of the few species that mate for life, raise children together and love one another until death. But if they cannot find another bird in their vicinity, they will bond with humans, or so the story goes. Safran and I met was I was 25.

“Love birds live to be 35 years old, that means he will be with you until 60,” my neighbor told me, as consolation that in Safran I would find a faithful life partner.

It wasn’t long before I realized that Safran was more likely to bond with the tip of my nose than with my person. In bird world, I’ve come to understand, anything my size that moves or makes a noise is The Enemy. His small form and, dare I say, tiny brain makes it impossible to fathom me in entirety. In truth, I don’t really exist to Safran. He relates to me in parts. For example, I can tell by the way he looks sideways at my hand when I change his water bowl that he considers The Hand to be a threat to his existence. My mouth, on the contrary is an interesting object from which strange noises emanate to interrupt his pruning. I am a threatening fingertip he hides from; I am a few strands of hair he nibbles at sometimes. That is all.

For months after Safran arrived we had a routine. At night before bed when the lights were dim I’d lean into his cage where he hid beneath the soft paper towel. “I love you, Safran,” I’d say. Then he’d shimmy sideways across the bottom of his cage to hiss at me violently, bearing the razor sharp edges of his beak and thick pink tongue. In the mornings I’d put my finger into the cage to offer him a pomegranate seed- a tropical fruit of his native Tanzania. He’d then bite me sharply, drawing blood.

As Safran grew strong and healthy, he stopped gnawing on his foot. I left the door of his cage open and encouraged him to take what limited freedom he could, considering the circumstances. It was a revelatory experience to watch the day he used his beak to climb out of his cage and then perch on the top. I know he understood a world that for once was not latticed with the bars of incarceration. And since that time he has learned to fly around our bedroom with inspired liberty. Perching on the geraniums and hibiscus at the window, he stares into the open sky often and engages in intelligent conversation with the swallows and robins. At night I’d often dream he had curled up on my neck sleeping peacefully, the soft black plumage on the top of his head lightly resting on my cheek. Or I’d dream that wing-to-wing we were flying together over rainforest and sea, stopping sometimes for a sip of fresh morning dew that had formed on a strand of grass.

In the morning I’d awaken. “Good morning my sweetheart,” I’d say. “Squawk” he’d bark back at me with those characteristically beady, vacant, ebony stares. It became more and more apparent to me that my love for Safran was unrequited. I began to wonder if my ex-boyfriend didn’t have a point about the possibilities of an open relationship. Indeed, I myself began to long for one.

It was around this time that Safran picked up one of his least appealing habits- what I’ve come to term the Chinese Torture Chirp. Around 6:45 on most mornings of the week would then awaken to a piercingly shrill wail, not unlike a dog whistle with a particularly disturbing rhythm. During that time I would often rise up from my sleep to the sound of my own voice screaming “Shut up you worthless beast.” Staring past foggy sleep-filled eyes I’d confront my Safran clinging to the edge of his cage with a terrifyingly defiant stare.

I decided at this point resolutely that if I were to open up the relationship on my end, it wasn’t fair that Safran suffer in solitude. “We all deserve to know the love of a kindred spirit,” I affirmed.  And so Peachy entered our lives. She looked lovely in the pet store the day I brought her home: long black lashes, a dainty rosy beak and perfectly quaffed feathers of turquoise and a hint of golden blush. “A sexy little thing,” I thought, “just what my Safran deserves.” I didn’t know at the time that Peachy, a pretty and healthy bird, had the attitude of a pit bull. The domineering-verging-on-psychotic beast crushed poor Safran’s machismo, what little of it he had. When I placed her gently into Safran’s cage expecting a love-at-first sight affair, she charged head on to peck his delicate scalp like a slice of stale bread. Her chirp was a terrifying refrain that made me question the existence of God. I had to separate them or watch Safran die a slow and painful death. For the next three days he cowered nauseated beneath the paper towel in the corner of his cage. When I lifted it up to check on him, he would hiss at me like a cornered cat and then vomit violently. Today all that is left of Peachy is an $80 credit I incurred at the local pet store when I returned her.

Safran and I have grown to co-exist. I maintain a deep love for him, but am less attached to his loving me in return. He maintains an irrational fear of me, but trusts I will not invade his boundaries. Often to describe our union I invoke the romantic song writer Leonard Cohen, “Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free.” Safran the bird; I the drunk.

Who you really are

April 11, 2011 § 1 Comment

It was around this time last year that a strange thing happened to me.  I had been reeling from some coinciding heavy losses in my life: the end of a major relationship, the completion of a pivotal film production that had brought with it some overwhelming disappointments alongside its successes.

All of these bitter life circumstances brought with them some major blows to my self-confidence, as disappointments often do.  I was so wrapped up in my financial and emotional survival that I didn’t have the time or ability to get perspective on everything that had happened to me. I started to feel very bad about myself and my choices, and unable to trust my judgements, feelings, and experiences.   Had I brought these circumstances into my life somehow?  If I had only been better, stronger, more capable would these things have happened?

Fortunately, my inner spiritual life and faith did not falter in the face of these disappointments, but actually strengthened.  I began reading voraciously and discovered the teachings of Eckhart Tolle, Byron Katie, David Richo, Gary Zukav, among numerous others.  It was through these teachings that I was able to fall back on a thin thread of a belief that my life held some kind of destiny I was only on the verge of discovering; that these unfortunate circumstances were only one part of a whole long journey and that they did not define me.

And so it happened that one sunny late afternoon, after spending a languid and bliss-filled day outdoors in the thick, humid, Montreal heat, I arrived home to my apartment.  I had been practicing stillness and cultivating presence in my life for many months already through journaling and meditation. One of the exercises that both Katie and Tolle teach is the practice of looking at the world  without labels.  The idea is to just perceive and observe your environment without the mental chatter that forms meaning and judgement.  Suddenly, when I stepped into my livingroom that day, I got a glipse of my apartment with fresh eyes, as though I had stepped in the door for the very first time and knew nothing about the person who lived there.   This is fabulous exercise and one I believe everyone should do often!

I looked around my living room and wondered what I could discover about the girl who lived there. I looked at her photographs on the walls, the black and white framed picture of her deceased paternal grandmother, who she’d always wished she’d met, the photos of her living family, framed and hung delicately in little collages.  I saw a collection of miniature animal figurines, small metal toy birds, ceramic seals, little dogs displayed on the wainscotting.  I saw plants hanging, home-made curtains sewed by her mother, a collection of little shells and beach glass on the windowsill.  And suddenly it all seemed so ridiculous that I began to laugh.   This is who I am, I thought.  This is who I am. I am not my thoughts, my fears, this resentment, and confusion that I feel.  I am the girl who hangs family photos, collects weird little animal figurines and keeps her plants healthy   I found this sight a hilarious relief.  What I saw was a glimpse of some kind of innocence – my simple desire to love and be loved – that I had somehow missed about myself through all that stress of the daily grind.   Most of our day is taken up with just this kind of simplicity and innocence: driving to the store, a smile we give to a stranger on the sidewalk, straightening a photo that is crooked, washing a favorite shirt, buying a bus pass.

Since that unexpected insight, I have practised looking at other people’s homes in the same way, and I am often overcome with a new and sweet perception of a person that moves me deeply.    I have been bouncing around so much this last year, and I’ve been lucky enough to have seen and lived in many different homes, so I’ve had a lot of practice with my new-found hobby.   Some of these houses have been spartan; others messy; some lonely – they seem to be waiting for something or someone; some are abundant with a deep and complex creativity that has at times inspired and stunned me.   Our houses often reveal the workings of our inner lives.   At a friend’s house the other night, I noticed the make-shift way he’d rigged a lamp over the pool table, extending the wire across kitchen ceiling to the other side of the room.  I noticed a collection of bones and antlers on a dusty shelf in the corner, and a crooked piano against the bohemian wall.  I could spend many days in that house absorbing the mysterious layers of a person I barely know.  What we have in our homes says everything about what we value and who we are; so often what we can discover when we see ourselves with fresh eyes is just so profoundly beautiful and sweet.  Some people see value in the simple things of nature, they see pieces of art and creative possibility in their natural environments.  Our homes are nothing but a relationship with the world.

My grandmother has a bouquet of eagle feathers on her dresser, feathers she has been collecting for years and years on our beach.  In her house, I see an elegance that comes from a long life, and a relationship with with the world that is moralistic and refined.  My breath is taken away constantly by the twists and turns of her personality. There is so much purity that emerges from someone in the twilight of her life who has nothing left to lose.  She is preoccupied with simple things, like what kinds of birds have come to feed at her windowsill — blue jays are not allowed, but quail are always a delightful surprise.  She wants to know if  I will get her her four packages of jello on Wednesday or on Thursday.  She eyes up her loaf of cinnamon bread for its freshness like she is devising a great decree.  I love her so much I can’t believe it.  I know that every day is an opportunity for me to say hello and good-bye at the same time.   Every day we meet one another for the first time, and everyday we say goodbye.

I look around my grandmother’s house for clues about who she is, and through her, I sometimes wonder if I might get glimpses of who I am also.   I know I will never totally comprehend her.   Human beings are universes; often we are unconscious even to our own depths, capabilities,and  complexity.  I notice that at her vulnerable age, 94, my grandmother is very much concerned with kindness towards animals.  She offers to them the same kind of empathy she perhaps wishes for herself and her family.  She exists in the same kind of fragility as the deer who come to visit her at the window, and the seagull who stops by for food.

  Yesterday I saw her walking by the dining room towards her bedroom in the evening sunset light.   The way the light cast through the room and onto her pale skin it was as if I were watching an angel move through the house, so silent and sweet, so innocent.  She looked at me as if to say “My love, this is who we are.”

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.


 

Chronicles from an Island: Part III

January 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

 “We are so many selves. It’s not just the long-ago child within us who needs tenderness and inclusion, but the person we were last year, wanted to be yesterday, tried to become in one job or in one winter, in one love affair or in one house where even now, we can close our eyes and smell the rooms.” -Gloria Steinem

Being back on the Island and seeing old friends is helping me remember years gone by.

I have been thinking a little about the circumstances of my move to Montreal, way back in August 2000.

After living in Victoria for a few years a good friend of mine Katrina and I decided to make the big move east together.  We had a huge garage sale in Victoria and sold most of our belongings before saying goodbye to boyfriends, roommates, and our families, and boarding an Air Canada flight on a one-way ticket.

We arrived mid august and started our hunt for an apartment, wandering all over the Plateau in the heavy and humid late-summer heat.  We finally settled on a cheap ($625/month) three-bedroom top-floor walk-up way out in the east end of Sherbrooke Street, a run-down mostly francophone area on the very far outskirts of the Plateau Montreal.  Our apartment was bohemian and romantic. It had an antique claw-foot tub, high ceilings, french doors, stained glass windows and skylights in most of the rooms, one directly over the bath. Though it was very run down, it was slathered in thick shiny white paint which gave a fresh and beautiful glow to the spacious rooms –perfect for aspiring artists.  We felt like we had won the lottery when we stepped inside, and handed our new Hungarian landlord the first month’s rent in cash. My dad co-signed the lease for us that day. And our new home was born.

The first night we spent there in our empty Montreal five-and-a-half, we barely slept a wink because of the jarring noises of the traffic barrelling down the busy 4-lane Sherbrooke Street, the trucks might as well have been driving right through our living room.   The heat was like nothing I had ever felt growing up in the breezy sea air of Canada’s west coast.  Sweat dripped from our foreheads and stuck to our backs while the trucks and busses rattled the walls and our dusty turn-of-the-century window panes.  The apartment was stark and empty, save a few bags full of clothes, photos and belongings we’d taken on the plane with us.

The next day, Katrina and I spotted some abandoned mattresses in the back alley behind our apartment (Yes!) and excitedly claimed them as our beds, hauling them up to the third floor, around the narrow bends of the dark stairwell — didn’t have to sleep on the floors anymore after that.  Our bohemian, warm, Montreal, summer life evolved.  School began, and then the weather turned to fall. It was a time of incredible growth, busyness and change, and an overwhelming sense of possibility.

***

About three weeks after school started, I got a phone message from a casual friend I knew who lived in Victoria.  I knew right away there had been some kind of emergency.

The news I got that day was that my good friend’s seven-year-old son had died suddenly in Victoria the day before.  This little boy had been a part of my extended family since his birth.   The news completely devastated me, as it did everyone who knew this boy and his family- very dear friends of mine.

I remember waking up early in the morning, crawling into the antique clawfoot bath, looking out the skylight window at the sky and clouds and crying in disbelief.

It’s one thing to leave a place you love, with the idea of returning one day to a world that is unchanged; it’s another thing to realise that you will never see again someone who you love very deeply.  The excitement and joy of setting up shop in Montreal co-existed with this parallel sense of tragedy and confusion.  Sometimes we have to hold it all together by holding an almost scared space inside for both aspects of our circumstances, the losses and the possibilities.

***

This last year, I have decided to travel by train rather than fly, back and forth between the two ends of the country. I have been flying around for years, a practice that I find, for some reason, really emphasizes the distance and disparate nature of living outstretched across a huge country.    I love to just sit on the train looking out the window at the countryside as it passes by. I love knowing that these two places that I have always seen as disjunctive have an actual continuity, that they are linked by a real, living landscape.  This is integration: Joining two worlds into one whole life, where memories, not just landscapes, have a continuity and an integration also.

As one friend of mine who just stopped by the library today while I was writing this told me, “It’s very difficult to have two lovers.  I’ve done it before and my life was a mess!”

What he meant was that when we live between two places, we might as well be juggling two lovers.  In some senses, the lack of commitment makes things safer and easier. It’s so easy just to hover on the surface with the knowledge that when the going gets tough there is always somewhere else to go.  And what happens if we just stay?

What if we didn’t only celebrate eating locally, but living and loving locally also?  One thing I know for sure is that this is a beautiful place to eat, live and love, at least that’s what these Swans swimming in the Fulford Harbour told me earlier this week: 

I have been reading the amazing writings of Buddhist Psychotherapist David Richo, who has some great insights on grief work and integration.  I love this quote: “In this moment of serene compassion, I lay to rest any complaint, blame or regret. I say yes unconditionally to all the conditions under which I live. I appreciate them as providing just the lessons I need to learn. I feel affection for myself and for all those who walked the path with me. I allow myself to go on as of now, without fear or clinging to the past or to any of its seductions or distractions. I line up all that has happened and simply say ‘Oh, that happened. Now what?’  […]  May I and all those I have known become enlightened because of all that we went through together.”

Chronicles from an Island – Part 1

January 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

 


“It’s not over until love happens.”  Byron Katie.

The kindling needs to be chopped, the fire needs to be stoked.  There’s no electric heat in here, and there’s a constant need to tend the fire, this little cabin’s only source of warmth.

There is something about the presence of a wood-burning stove to put the rest of life on hold.

These days I struggle with thoughts about justice, about how whatever was done wrong must be made right. I struggle with how to make my amends where they are due, with how to move with an open heart when before it was closed, with how to repair a heart that has been broken, and with how to open it when it remains as stuck as an oyster shell in the sand.  I move towards forgiveness in this New Year, full of promise.  I have  the sense of a humanity moving towards a higher consciousness, and I see the proof all around me.

It’s easy (and often logical) to put the blame of our struggles on the shoulders of someone from our past.  We want people to be accountable to us, we want our credit where it is due, we long to be affirmed through the actions of others that we matter.  Some people wait their whole lives for restitution.  Some people carve out a moment of every day imagining what their lives could have been had so-and-so never wronged them, never ignored their pain, never lied, never…

I say (if only a reminder to myself), in this incredible year, in this incredible life, we give up the need that people of our past understand, apologize, make it up to us, make it right, or give back what feels to be rightfully ours.  It is, of course, always important to ask.  Sometimes it comes through; at other times we can assume, most likely, it will never happen.  What if we saw these people, not as wrong-doers, but as forces of nature, like a strong wind (or hurricane, depending on your circumstances), a flood, a bold of lightning, or a dog that bites?  Some people are our very own natural disasters!  (Lucky us!) Sometimes, let’s admit, we are that earthquake that others fear.  Can you be a tidal pool when  you are a tsunami?   No one can.

Maybe these “forces of nature” are only messengers, asking us to become more accountable to ourselves, to love and respect ourselves more, and most of all, to know ourselves more deeply.  Ancient Greek philosophers equated the very definition of loving someone with knowing someone.  Knowledge and love were inseparable. Perhaps unconditional love and self knowledge are equally interdependent.

What compelled us to share that bottle of wine with a thunder storm?  Are you still getting drunk with a hurricane?  Forgiveness can only happen when our boundaries have been securely restored.  Forgiveness happens from a place of safety and distance and repair.  The next time you see those clouds on the horizon, don’t invite them in for tea.  Forgive the storm when you’re no longer in it, don’t stand in the rain getting pummelled.

What if we stopped waiting for other people to make us whole?  I say, in this year 2011, we shift the locus of power from the outside back inside, back into our own hearts.  From this place we can open to a friendly universe and a natural justice that holds us beyond that which we can ever calculate.   We open up to an abundance that is our birthright: What we are made for; what we are made of.

The tide rises and falls each day and there is nothing we can do about it.  The weather moves from rain to snow to sun, and it’s all for us, we are a part of it, we are included.  We’re on the guest list forever.  Can you feel this moment?  It’s the only restitution there ever is. The support of your back on the chair, your feet on the wood floor.  It’s the generosity of a gentle, giving world that never gives up on us.  How could we (and by we I mean I :))  have ever seen it otherwise?  Are you humbled by the realisation of how much you are loved, in every second of every day, by the knowing that it has always been this way and always will be, and there is nothing –just like the tide- that you can ever do about it.

I return to my cabin from a few days in the city.  Everything is exactly as I’ve left it, waiting for it knows-not-what – humble presence, simple and kind.  My belongings — tea cups, pillows, tables, couches and bedding — like the sun and the moon and the sea are so unshakably loyal, faithful and trustworthy.  They waited as the fire burned to embers and then ashes; waited as the heat slowly moved out through the cracks in the doors and windows, out through the un-insulated pan abode walls.  They stuck around when freezing winds chilled the cabin completely.  In their absence of judgement, they didn’t care or even notice. They are here until they’re not, and there’s nothing I can do about it.   It’s only when I step through the door, and into this frosty cedar-smelling little house that my things seem to know they have a purpose beyond their inherent stillness and humility.  They were waiting for me to come home — home to love.

* I want to thank and acknowledge Yaakov Rosenthal for the inspiration for many of the ideas in this post.  http://www.yaakovrosenthal.com/

Friendship

December 12, 2010 § Leave a comment

“A person cannot approach the divine by reaching beyond the human. To become human, is what this individual person, has been created for.”

-Martin Buber

There is a small gathering around my living room table.  Friends have come to celebrate and say good-bye for the winter.  I am struck by the depth of these friendships.  Our lives -every single one of our lives-  are built upon these kinds of bonds.  I wonder what my life would have looked like without them.  What kind of aloneness did they lift from my shoulders all these years?   When I think about it, I am filled with gratitude.  We don’t have to look very far to find true love.  This is what love looks like: it isn’t exotic or strange or out of reach.  It is something very close.  It is found in the people we love just because they exist; the people we cherish and accept and forgive and support over and over again.  That kind of love can only arrive through some kind of grace; we can’t control it or search it out.  It arrives, and one day we notice ten or thirty years have passed, and love is still there.  We notice there is nothing that person can say or do to make love disappear.  It is always and already present.  Love had arrived long before we ever became conscious of its meaning or impact on our lives.

The Van

November 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

It’s 6:15pm on a cold dreary and dark West-coast evening. I’m sitting at the Pacific Rails train depot in Vancouver waiting to board the train that will carry me across the country over the next four days.

My mom just dropped me off in her new white Westfalia camper van.  The day after she got it, I asked her if she’d like to take it for a drive down through the Fulford valley in the South end of our Island to the picturesque Fulford harbour.  I made a thermos of hot black tea with milk and off we went.

Forty-five minutes later we were pulling up to the sea-side road that hugs the shoreline. There were two young men fishing for salmon in the still harbour waters.  BC salmon have come back to spawn in droves this year. There are more salmon in the waters than recorded since the turn of the 20th century.  From where we were parked, we watched the small ferry, the Skeena Queen, rounding it’s peaceful way through the bay to dock on the other side of the harbour.    Sometimes, though not on this particular afternoon, a family of white majestic swans come to feed in the blue harbour.

We opened wide the camper van doors, swivelled around the front seat and set up a little table.  We watched the two fishermen  in the water, wading in deep, casting their lines methodically then pulling them back.  Thick salmon threw themselves into the air every once in a while, creating sharp ripples in the tide.

Sitting in the van like that the world outside became a stage.

Suddenly, a heavy salmon snagged one of the lines.  One of the young fishermen tugged hard on the line with a wide smile.  Slowly, he reeled the fish towards the shore.  The fish was thrashing in the water, and it seemed to take forever to bring her to shore.  “He’s playing him,” my mom said, watching the fisherman pulling on the line, gently reeling her forward.  “It’s kind of sad, isn’t it.”  I noticed a painful thought cut through the beauty: “How cruel this peaceful salmon trying to spawn in the nearby stream, so close to her goal, now has to be ripped out of the water by a hook in the mouth. What a drag.” I felt my heart sink a little, but tried to talk  myself out of it.  “Don’t be ridiculous,” I told myself.  “He’ll have a fresh salmon on the barbecue this evening!”  I thought back to some of the fun times I had spent fishing for trout with my cousins at Blackburn lake and snagging cod in the Cranberry Inlet when we were kids.

The fisherman brought the salmon to shore. My mom and I clapped and hollered from inside the van.  It was a sight to be seen, the way he lifted the twisting slippery fish out of the water, held it in childlike amazement in the air for us to admire.  His fishing partner took a photo and there was laughter all around.

And then, a few moments later, something unexpected happened.  The fisherman quietly waded back into the bay with the big fish in his arms.  He held the still salmon just under the surface of the water.  “He’s putting her back?” I asked my mom.   The fish  floated to the top of the water and I was sure she had died. But then, after a few seconds, she began to sway her tail back and forth.  Then she kicked fiercely, and off she went, into the deep, back towards the stream.

Today, driving into Vancouver with mom, sitting in the passenger seat of her shiny new van, I kept the memory of what we had watched from the same seats the day before.   Because we were still in the van, our perfect afternoon, the beautiful harbour and the fisherman’s unexpected mercy, felt closer to me than the big-city lights and traffic we were now driving through on this rainy day.   And I suddenly realised that travelling in a van is kind of like being in the world, but not of the world.   Kind of like a spiritual goal in action.

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.

Where Am I?

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