Sacred Space Interview: Meditating on the Great Universe

After a long hiatus, I’m excited to rekindle my Sacred Space series with the thoughtful words of my friend and literary colleague, Sohrab Homi Fracis. Sohrab is a fiction writer currently living in Jacksonville, FL. He is the author of Ticket to Minto: Stories of India and America and the timely new novel Go Home. He has visited my classes several times to read for my students and lead fantastic discussions on the power of culture and literature. In this interview, he discusses his inherited faith and his current spiritual beliefs.

Do you believe in a God, gods, or other spiritual forces? If so, what name(s) does your spiritual force have? Where does the name come from?

I was born into a Zoroastrian family in India and taught prayers in the ancient-Persian language Avestan to Ahura Mazda, the spirit of light / creator / God. But as an adult, while I respect my ancestry, I’m not religious, in a traditional sense. I don’t practice “blind faith.” I can only “believe in” what is established fact. In the words of the narrator of my story “All right, now, Cupid,” forthcoming in an anthology from Burrow Press: “I’m agnostic myself, happy to believe in the incredible yet credible universe.” That requires no “faith”: the universe (from the Latin universus: combined into one, whole) that spawned all of life quite evidently exists, in all its vast magnificence. There is much we factually know about it and much we don’t, with the former slowly but steadily making gains on the latter. Why invent something beyond that?

Sum up your faith in three words. Why did you choose these words?

The Zoroastrian prayers in Avestan do a good job of this: “Manashni, Gavashni, Kunashni.” That means “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds.” That pretty much covers it, right? It’s also pretty much impossible to pull off all the time. Other than that, I’m good with it, pun intended.

My three words, on the other hand, would be “Nobody really knows.” And the more people who realize and/or acknowledge this around the world, instead of insisting on their particular religion’s fiction (I’m a fiction writer, so I recognize it when I see it), the less divided and more peaceful that world will be.

How do you practice your faith? What kinds of prayer, texts, service, or other rituals do you use?

Well, once I came to the somewhat obvious conclusion that there was no traditional God, I stopped praying for many years. And they were tough years in which I felt the absence all the more, because prayer and faith can be a comfort, of course. But I saw it as false comfort, and didn’t want that. So I toughed it out. When I finally realized that the entirely credible universe was “God” enough for me, I felt I could reconnect with it, in a sense pray to it again. This was my logic in a literary-studies manuscript called The Game Against Death that I’ve worked on, off and on, over the years: “One does not need blind faith to believe in the great universe—no wonder more and more people invoke it directly in their prayers. It is an evident, verifiable, omnipresent, magnificent, awe-inspiring ‘God,’ a constant and powerful presence in and influence on all our lives. It is even, in at least one sense (and possibly also at its primal core), conscious: its living creatures, to which it gave birth, are a conscious part of it. One should not instead insist on a hypothetical consciously creative and interventionist being to blindly believe in.” And/or pray to, I might add.

Describe a moment when you felt that your god was real, that your faith was making a difference in your life.

Once I began to feel reconnected with the universe at large, there was a huge feeling of relief that came with that, and a lasting one of being more at peace with life/existence.

Have you had any spiritual mentors or teachers? If so, describe their role in your life. How did they help you find your faith?

I found cumulative epiphanies over the years, often when reading insightful books such as The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins, and Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse. And those epiphanies consolidated themselves in my mind during more years spent reading and researching for The Game Against Death.

Where and when do you feel most in tune with your faith or spirituality?

Probably when finding some slight success meditating, which is when I can get beyond/behind my chattering mind and separated-out human consciousness/persona to catch serene glimmers of reassimilation into the larger universe.

What is one misconception that others have expressed about your faith? How would you correct it?

Well, if we’re talking about Zoroastrianism, then it’s the Western world’s label of it being a “dualistic” faith instead of (along with Judaism) one of the earliest monotheistic faiths in history, introducing to civilization the concepts of a supreme creator/God (Ahura Mazda, the spirit of light) who prevails over an evil antagonist/devil (Ahriman, the spirit of darkness), of a judgment day, and of Paradise, thus strongly influencing other monotheistic faiths and scriptures that came later, including Christianity.

If, however, we’re talking about my personal agnostic philosophy, it’s sometimes misconstrued to mean that I believe in at least the possibility of the traditional religious God. But, as you can see from my earlier answers, I have no belief in such a figure other than as an invention of humans. By “agnostic” I only mean that, as I said earlier, nobody fully knows what forces or powers or phenomena underlie/underpin our known universe. I certainly trust science more than I do religion, but even the best of science crosses over from verified fact to theoretical conjecture at some point along both the macro and micro scales of existence.

Assign some “spiritual homework” for our readers. What is one practice, prayer, or lesson you’d like to share?

Extended mass meditations conducted by the Transcendental Meditation folk in troubled areas have resulted in lowered violence/crime rates recorded officially over the period. That supports their belief that the more people there are around the world who practice meditation the more in tune and at peace the global population will be. So my assignment is twofold. Find 10-20 minutes a day, for a start, to seat yourself comfortably, close your eyes, still your mind to whatever extent you can, and find some inner quiet. Enjoy the release from stress and the peaceful feeling. Secondly, encourage others to try it for themselves.

Poet’s Mind

If you want to understand what it is to be a poet, spend time with people who consider themselves unpoetic—people who feel defeated or confused by poetry. You will keep bumping up against that thing that separates you. It feels like a low cement wall.

The essential separation borders a world where every question has one answer, where every effect has one cause. And that’s decidedly different from the world you believe in, the world you want to live in, the world you know is true. In the poet’s world, everything has multiple answers— not because everything is relative, but because discovery and learning help you see what you thought you understood in a novel light. A new way. You understand that the truth you took for granted is now being filtered differently. It is still true, but it is more true. It is true in a way that envelops more of your experience.

You write because you want to dwell in possibilities, to step over a threshold of autobiography and facts and into a place of identity and soul-making. A place where souls can touch other souls outside of time. A place where an epiphany from 200 or 2000 years ago may still have something to teach you. A place where “right” is not the same as “finite.”

You realize that as a poet working and writing in the world, you have the chance to be extended, lifted up and out, expanded. You realize that when you step into that bigger “I”—not your “I” that agonizes over what to wear to work or whether to stop for coffee—when you take the hand of the big “I,” give your talents over to it, you’re taking the hand of your God. That your work might speak to thousands beyond yourself, that it might reach farther than your physical hands could actually reach. And what other name could there be for such expansion than the name of God? Of a force that brings meaning to a mass of atoms and stardust?

So you wonder how others can be closed off to this feeling, this invitation to an expansive self, this response to an initial Creator and creative spark. You ask, did I invite God or did God invite me? You wonder whether, in a search for the finite rightness of things, others are shutting out the sacred.

Because the sacred is unruly. It’s not facts and lists and statistics. It’s a network of finely spun vitality, and once you accept it, you’re in. You’re there. You can’t abandon the sacred. Recognizing the sacred invites you to reconsider all life. You accept the sacred, you accept responsibility.

A poet accepts responsibility.

Sacred Space Interview: Live By Doing

Welcome to the first of my Sacred Space Interviews! Today, I’m honored to present my conversation with Elaine.

Elaine, age 65, is a retired teacher living in Jacksonville, FL. She describes herself as a lifelong learner with a passion for meditation and travel. She speaks in today’s interview about the beliefs and practices of her Jewish faith.

Do you believe in a spiritual force or forces? If so, what name(s) does your spiritual force have? Where does the name come from?

I believe in one G-d as my spiritual force.  G-d’s name should never be used in vein so one speaks of G-d with words such as:  Adonai (“My Lords”),  HaShem, and many other words. Adon (singular) is found in the Tanakh, which has the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets and the Writings.

Sum up your faith in three words. Why did you choose these words?

“Live by doing.” Judaism focuses on one’s actions, one’s belief in following G-d’s laws in their daily life.

How do you practice your faith? What kinds of prayer, texts, service, or other rituals do you use?


Judaism is deeply grounded by rituals and religious observances. These traditions found in Judaism are intertwined in the framework of the commandments as well as the rabbinical laws and traditions. The Jewish religion recognizes significant occasions in a person’s life.  Specific rituals use specific prayers and traditions to recognize these occasions such as birth, bar/bat mitzvah, marriage, death.

Describe a moment when you knew that this faith was right for you.

I was brought up in a Jewish home and knew no other faith.  When experiencing all the traditional rituals throughout my life, attending services in a Conservative Synagogue and attending Religious School, it became my way of life.

Describe a moment when you felt that G-d was real, that your faith was making a difference in your life.

 
I feel comfort knowing that when I am in a difficult situation or in a good place, I am able to believe G-d is always with me.

Have you had any spiritual mentors or teachers? If so, describe their role in your life. How did they help you find your faith?

 
The Rabbis from my many congregations that I have been affiliated with have been my spiritual teachers.  I enjoy learning each of their philosophies and their beliefs on Judaism. My Judaism is deep rooted, but I do believe I can expand my knowledge of the faith.

Where and when do you feel most in tune with your faith or spirituality?

 

At home, in synagogue, around my family celebrating Jewish rituals and traditions

What is one misconception that others have expressed about your faith?  How would you correct it?

Many people do not understand why the Jewish people do not believe in Jesus.  One needs to explain that we do believe Jesus was the son of G-d but believe G-d is our spiritual force.

Assign some “spiritual homework” for our readers.

Reflect upon who you are, who you could be and who you should be. How are you living up to the image of who you could be by your actions.

What is one practice, prayer, or lesson you’d like to share?

Think about your family, work, love life, social life, community, spiritual and religious life and make a list of the ways you are blessed.

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I am still seeking participants for this series. If you would like to discuss your spiritual practice, please contact me here.

Announcing Sacred Space, a new interview series at On the Blink!

I’m delighted to announce the launch of a new series of interviews here at On the Blink. The series is called Sacred Space, and it will feature short interviews with people about their spirituality.

I was inspired to create this series for several reasons, but I can trace bright lines of inspiration to two figures in particular: the former Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and the Jewish-Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein.

In his On Being interview with Krista Tippett, Rabbi Sacks emphasized the need to honor difference across religious practices. Rather than insisting that everyone conform to our beliefs, Sacks suggested that we take the time to learn the beliefs, songs, and stories of other religions—even if we don’t choose to adopt them. He suggested that our God lives in these differences, in the rare and surprising moments of connection we establish through empathy and trust. So this series will strive to bring such differente voices forward.

Sylvia Boorstein’s wisdom also came through her On Being interview. Dr. Boorstein says that developing a spiritual practice doesn’t require time apart from our daily lives: “Spirituality doesn’t look like sitting down and meditating. Spirituality looks like folding the towels in a sweet way and talking kindly to the people in the family even though you’ve had a long day.” She emphasizes the need for a spirituality that is expressed through everything else in our lives, that hums along beside us in all we do.

My Sacred Space interviews will attempt to honor difference and bring spiritual practice to the center of conversation. Faith and spirituality are not all we will talk about on this blog, but they are moving toward the center—as all important commitments in our lives must.

If you would like to share the stories of your faith and spirituality with me, just send me a message through the contact form below. I am excited to begin this series with all of you!

“Singing Over the Bones”: The Miracle of Art and Intention

If a friendship starts with a conversation about books, the two friends are hardly surprised when literature itself becomes a third, equal presence in the relationship. This is how things began for Katie and me. Katie became my first “college friend” when an orientation team leader asked her to look after me. Both Katie and I considered this an awkward arrangement; I felt like her baggage, and Katie felt like my babysitter. Without openly acknowledging the awkwardness, I took her elbow, and we tried to make small talk. In minutes, the all-important question arose: Do you like to read?

I cannot now recall which of us asked this question, but it sparked an enthusiastic discussion. After only a few sentences, we were excitedly trading literary recommendations, kindled by the realization of our mutual love of Jane Austen. Over the next seven years of our friendship, we’ve since encouraged each other to read hundreds of texts—from classical Chinese philosophy to modern poetry. We’ve reveled in wide-ranging discoveries—the letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, the poetry of Seamus Heaney, the folktales of medieval Iceland, and the latest books that blend neuroscience and the philosophies of yoga. When Katie gives me a book, I know it will challenge my mind and speak to my soul.

For my most recent birthday, she presented me with a copy of Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s 1975 work, Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. It’s a thick volume – over 500 pages – that offers anthropological, psychological, and spiritual commentary on the female psyche and the power of storytelling. In its first pages, Estés introduces the story of La Loba, the Wolf Woman, a mysterious crone who wanders the world and collects the bones of dead creatures, especially wolves. When she has assembled an entire skeleton, La Loba begins to “sing over the bones,” and her singing transforms the skeleton into a living creature. With each line of melody, the Wolf Woman imbues the dead bones with life, adding blood, muscles, skin, and fur, until the creature begins to breathe and move. With purposeful singing, La Loba can resurrect any creature from this throwaway material “in danger of being lost to the world” – its bones (23).

It is the connection between singing, life, and intention that draws me to read on. After presenting the story of La Loba, Estés insists that we must all look for our own “bones,” the integral structures of our spirituality, the framework of our souls. She writes, “[The story] promises that, if we will sing the song, we can call up the psychic remains of the wild soul and sing her into a vital shape again” (24). For Estés, and for those who respect the story of La Loba, our life’s work is to uncover and nurture our deepest selves. We must find the bones and sing over them, crooning them to life.

I find this tribal story compelling because it reiterates, or perhaps predates, what I have learned through my experiences: singing changes the world of the singer. The cultures who believe in some version of La Loba are not the only ones to acknowledge the power of singing. Throughout my Catholic upbringing, the adults around me encouraged my love for singing, citing the mantra, “Singing is praying twice.” Whenever I performed sacred music – or choral music in general – my experiences confirmed the truth of this adage. I felt, as I have said in previous blogs, incredibly connected with my fellow singers and with the divine.

I remember when I first heard someone talk about the connection between art and life in specific terms. My tenth grade world history teacher showed slides of tribal artifacts from Africa and said, “These people didn’t believe in ‘life for art.’ They believed in ‘art for life.’” She meant that every tool for daily living, every piece of practical houseware, was covered with art: vivid colors, carvings, runes. The members of this tribe used art to infuse everyday life with meaning and beauty. No article went without embellishment.

Believing in “art for life” gives each person infinite possibilities for enriching their everyday experiences. In his Letters to a Young Poet, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke conveys his enthusiasm for this ideal; he argues that if you can’t find artistic inspiration, you’re not looking hard enough. Rilke teaches that the real artist can draw inspiration from the most ordinary experiences. The dedicated artist uses art to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary in the service of life—to make our existence more sincere, more real. To help us understand the unbearable and celebrate the miraculous.

But art is not always a miracle cure. In her exploration of animal and human emotions, behavioral analyst Patricia McDonald relates a story about Ella Fitzgerald, in which Ella’s singing brought to life some unexpected emotions. Apparently, after spending a year singing the lyric, “I’m so tired,” Ella began to experience chronic fatigue, but she didn’t unearth the connection between lyric and feeling until she discussed the situation with her doctor. Her repeated lyrics became a kind of incantation—though I’m sure her physician didn’t use that word—telling her how to live.

Lyrics contain a transformative power. Often at the end of rehearsal, my chorus members heed the call to “Circle up!” We join hands, making a human chain, and sing one of our many Sweet Adeline classics. To prepare for international competition in Hawaii, we currently favor “Aloha ‘Oe,” a beautiful Hawaiian parting song. But when I hear about Ella’s “I’m so tired,” I can’t help but think of one of our other favorites, “Harmonize the World.”

The skeptic in me wants to interrogate this song: Does it really work? Can lyrics really harmonize the world? But I silence the skeptic by remembering my bones. Singing is praying twice, and words have power. Then I feel that I am really doing something by singing over the bones of harmony, calling up from the dust of old chords a vision of a peaceful, civil world—a world of constant, contagious music.

Each time I prepare to sing, I ask myself a series of questions. What will I make with my music? What bones have I collected? What will I sing to life? I marvel at the miracles wrought by art and intention—the incredible changes in mood and circumstance that singing can achieve. I find power not only in the words I sing but also in the action of singing, in the sensation of being surrounded by kindred spirits, in the sheer, primal resonance of many voices making harmony. Even the mechanisms of singing are miraculous for me. I am delighted and absorbed in this spiritual task of finding my bones and my voice—of experiencing what I can build with my voice and my beliefs.