Art as a Mirror: Enlightening evening at the Lightbox

When I was teaching ESL here in Toronto, one of my colleagues asked our group of staff to share with each other a novel that had changed their life. To our surprise, one of the teachers dismissed the activity saying, “How can a novel change your life; it is just a story”. Sometimes in spiritual groups I also hear people suggest that reading or watching fiction is a waste of time, or is somehow almost immoral. To me this demonstrates a continuing misunderstanding and diminishing of the role of art and literature in our lives. Does this have something to do with the idea that the stories are untrue? In my view, stories are almost always a vehicle for messages about the mysteries and predicaments of life. Rather than using a discursive, direct approach to sharing, the ‘fiction’ writer knowingly or unknowingly embeds these messages through themes, symbols and the experiences of the characters. Reading, hearing or watching stories unfold gives us the opportunity to explore aspects of ourselves and of life that we may otherwise have glossed over. Art, stories, films, like nature, can be as transformational as the experiencer is willing to allow them to be. Some act like sledgehammers, radically shifting our understanding; some are subtle and penetrating.

Sunday night I went to the Lightbox, a film complex created for the Toronto Film Festival which is now showing their top 100 films. My aunt, uncle and I chose to see a film of the French nouvelle vague by Agnes Varda called Cleo de 5 a 7. The film started straight away from a black screen, and ended directly to black, really adding to the feeling of the film as a piece of art rather than a commodity. The film, in black and white, starts out up close and personal in a very tight shot of the cards being turned over in a tarot reading. Rather than typical narrative, the film proceeds as snapshots of Cleo’s life as it is lived, down to the few minutes at a time. She relates her tarot reading to her assistant in a cafe; buys a hat and arranges to have it delivered; goes home and changes clothes to recline for a few minutes with a water bottle, before going out again to wander the streets of Paris. As she considers her mortality, she happens past a few disturbing street performances; the faces she sees in the crowd are mostly elderly, and we have the impression they have weathered the challenges of the war etc. After connecting with a friend between engagements, she is guided to go to a park where she meets a young soldier about to return to Algeria. His remarks about the rhythms of the park’s visitors, the astrological season, and the flowering Polownia trees shift our perspective from the fragmented, seemingly meaningless barrage of sensations in an urban life to a savouring of the moment as it is. As the soldier is about to ship off to an uncertain fate, and Cleo receives the news from her doctor that she is in for 2 months of radiation, the whirlwind of her day settles. She expresses the feeling that they in fact have a lot of time to share, and that she has the impression of being suddenly happy in the moment.

Of course the final quarter of the film reminded me of yoga and the process of coming back to the moment through nature, through authentic connection and the utter dropping of pretense, in this case facilitated by an anonymous party’s expression of compassion and listening. But the style of the film, the experiential nature of its telling through accompanying Cleo on her day’s journey, alerted me to my addiction to narrative, to the cohesive story as a medium for meaning. Like ritual, the bald witnessing evoked by the form of the film was powerful and transmitted a very simple but salient message as if it were gleaned through lived experience. This experience confirmed for me yet again that writing, reading, making and participating in art can be a form of spiritual practice.

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Sadhana as Service

Recently I posted a comment on Toronto Body Mind to participate in the growing dialogue among Toronto yoga teachers. I’m very interested in the idea of sadhana (whatever our practice is) as a kind of service by emanation, as well as small acts of kindness as service as opposed to more ‘grandiose’ forms of overt service. So, I wrote as follows – a few thoughts.


Yes, very interesting – yoga is about vidya – seeing things as they really are. To do this usually we need to both challenge outmoded habits and nurture emotional wellness. Service begins at home. So to serve others, we often need to begin by learning how to best serve out bodies and minds (though asana, pranayama, mantra, meditation and diet perhaps). As clarity comes, we radiate that change and emit a positive rather than a destructive charge, we seek to help others to alleviate their own suffering etc. Rarely is the search for self actualization actually solely selfish. As you say, we are interconnected and interdependent. If we are feeling unwell emotionally, or we are suffering, that affects others around us. Service also does not go only in one direction. Because we are practicing yoga and mindfulness does not mean we are the helpers and others are the recipients of our service. In my experience as we take on different roles and challenges in life we are both the offerer and the recipient of community support. Having children for example, aging, becoming disabled. Yoga and that clear seeing support us in all situations, but we often also need to share in the support of the communities in our lives, as we may seek to support others when we are able. To all those single, able bodies yogis out there – yes, serve others, but with the knowledge that you may also be in a position to require service of others at some point in your life – let service not be ego driven. Also, may we serve those amongst us who may not seem in need, simply by loving those around us who may be in silent suffering of the feeling of isolation. A kind word at a satsang gathering, a welcoming gesture to all!! Let’s truly be a yoga community and nurture and care for each other. This will create more strength and vision to help out in the wider community.

Hari Om!

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I spend a lot of time thinking about and participating in various communities. Every once in a while I feel a big push to re-evaluate how I help cultivate a sense of community.

Today the kids and I stopped in a coffee shop on the way home from their music classes. We always feel a little more buoyant after singing together with the other toddlers and preschoolers. Mark plays his guitar, and the kids sway to the music; mostly actually it is the parents and caregivers who sing. My response to it reminds me of the research into oxytocin and its role in group bonding. Apparently singing in groups causes a release of oxytocin and therefore often causes us to feel bonded and connected with the rest of the group, like when newborn babies and mothers bond after birth. Perhaps this explains the appeal of group singing, and other cooperative musical activities throughout the ages, and now: everything from choir groups and glee clubs to kiirtan groups. In the back of my mind instead of my mantra I’m hearing:

“The grand old duke of York, he had 10,000 men…”.

Two ladies who were sitting near us stand up to go and I catch the phrase, “There’s not as much of a sense of community here.”  Soon a Turkish ESL student who is doing some homework stands up and comes to ask me how to spell ‘aloud’; then ‘mention’; then several other words including ‘depression’ and ‘embarrassed’.

“He marched them up to the top of the hill and marched them down again…”

I feel an organic sense of community here; that I exist amongst others. That we are going about our day flung together for a few moments. When I am present to them, these moments are pregnant with meaning. They give meaning and texture to the now.

“And when they were up, they were up…”

We live in a dynamic city with incredible infrastructure for community – there are community centres, libraries, museums, YMCAs, mom’s groups, public schools. In some societies there are no such elaborate infrastructures to foster community, especially for mothers at home. Here in Toronto we are not living on a farm in midwinter, a long way off from the next neighbour. And yet, often there is the complaint, or sensation that we lack community. I have heard it, and felt it.

“And when they were down, they were down…”

I belong to a mom’s group that is discussion-based, and lecturers come in to facilitate each week – members of the community. We use a church parlour, and there is very cheap baby-sitting in the gym and room next door. We have also play groups and book clubs and socials that are organized through the group. There are charity drives, helping hands for new mothers. It is organized all very organically through a board. Very effective and supportive for women and families, and yet the work that goes into such grassroots organizations is under-recognized and under-valued by the wider society.

It strikes me that motherhood has created in me a more organic relationship to my local community. Whenever I walk down the street, I bump into moms, dads and caregivers I know from various activities or schools. I exist within the community moment-to-moment, person-to-person as a mom, as a neighbour, as a community centre participant. I do not do anything to be accepted within this local community. My presence here automatically makes me a member. I do not do anything to be accepted within the mom’s group – I show up and take my place as one of the mothers.

Ironically this is something other organizations or intentional groups strive greatly to try to achieve! This bonding through situational reality reminds me of experiences I have had in the expat community as an ESL teacher, or foreign student. I was thrown into a micro-community with other short-term foreign residents, and quite often made fast friends with a very diverse group of people.

In other settings, I’ve heard and felt the complaint that communities only work if we ‘gel’, if we have something in common, or if we feeeeeel connected to the other members – if there is some kind of mutual spark. Certainly we have all experienced this kind of magic. A friendship that just appears in our lives full blown, and lasts effortlessly (or seemingly so). But, what would happen if we were trapped in a mine with 12 others for 3 months? What would happen if we lived in a very small town, or were thrown together with an unlikely group of expats? As I have experienced, we would begin to relate to each other as human beings. We would find the human connections. A la Breakfast Club, we would begin to share intimacies, and long lasting bonds would likely develop through shared experience.

“And when their were only half way up, they were neither up nor down!”.

In yoga we speak about oneness, and about contentment that is beyond happiness or sadness, craving or aversion. We speak about being in the moment as it is. And we also speak about dharma – life’s purpose. I wonder often about my purpose and my presence within the various communities I am a part of or have spear-headed. I have seen kiirtan groups come and go; I have strived to create long lasting, authentic relationships with groups of yogis. I have witnessed the efforts of others to bring people together in some sort of yoga initiative. So much striving, and yet, we are often quite naturally a part of communities that we neglect or disregard the importance of.

Sometimes it arises that people are looking for a charismatic leader to bring them together, like a guru. There is no doubt that a guru can crystalize the efforts of a community for a while, and create an incredible synergy. But it takes often only the passing of this person to dissolve such communities.

I read an article about authentic leadership in one of the last issues of Ascent Magazine, and in it one of the writers reflected on the idea that if the Buddha were to come again, he would come as a community. As we go through the growing pains of transitioning between spiritual communities crystalized by one magnanimous leader, to collectives or equalateral, participatory groups, it seems to me that we need to value the organic nature of communities; that their intensity and focus comes and goes with time and situation of the members (somewhat like the mom’s group), and that they are constantly evolving and changing. Here too, we cannot grab on and expect changeless stability.

I would like to put it out there that perhaps the onus is on us to be mindful of the micro-commuities we are a part of every day, and the intentional communities we would like to be more richly and authentically engaged in. The mindful presence, the appreciation of each community interaction, the savouring of organic communities that support us in the different stages of our lives – are these the keys to greater satisfaction and a greater sense of community?

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