Spiritual Tourism: A Confession

by Yahia Lababidi

The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less…
—Annie Dillard

Despite being raised a cultural Muslim and only recently, in the last five years or so, finding myself deeply drawn to its mystical branch, Sufism, I also frequent churches with my dear wife, a practicing Catholic, from time to time. In fact, I frequently refer to a line from a homily I heard while visiting a church in Buenos Aires, and seek to apply it whenever I am stuck (in either life or literature):

El misterio necesita silencio y contemplación.
The Mystery requires silence and contemplation.

Yet, on account of a quirk in my temperament that I only partially understand, I am not a practicing anything (other than artist). I realize that Paths are also relationships and, to be meaningful, they require fidelity. I also know that it’s all very well being a spiritual tourist, keeping in mind that one cannot truly know a place until you live there. To put it slightly differently, the Sufis say that a person who tries to find water by digging a little here and there will die of thirst. Whereas the one who digs deeply in one spot will find water to drink and share with others.

Thus, I’ve come to regard unfortunate spiritual tourists or erratic diggers, such as myself, as being the playboys of religion, perpetually thirsty—with a glut of choices, overfed, yet undernourished. What I’m describing, of course, is not unique; it’s almost a modern predicament. So, despite finding great beauty, meaning and solace in different religious expression and traditions, to my regret, I find that I’m unable to fully commit to any one (and, in turn, reap the benefits of a sustaining discipline). Instead, I continue to pore over the lives of saints and mystics for guidance—Daoist, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Muslim—longing for transformation as I continue to fashion my queer artist’s metaphysics.

Is there “resolution” in matters of the Spirit? All we can do is to share what we have. What I have, at this stage, is a profound and abiding appreciation of mystical literature as soul-transforming, and a calling. In turn, I attempt through my writing (poetry, aphorisms, even meditative prose pieces) to take readers There. Despite the personal impasse I find myself at, I’ve come to an understanding of my vocation. With humility and wonder, I view the artist as a kind of mystic, and art a form of prayer.

There is a quotation I find myself returning to, regularly, to better explain my literary-spiritual predicament:

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
―Frederick Buechner

Which is to say, not only are callings mysteries to the bewildered persons being summoned, but it’s also marvelous how our inner longings correspond with outer needs.

I would never have imagined, for example, as a reactionary Existentialist (in my teens and twenties) who turned my back on my culture’s oppressive religiosity—by throwing the luminous baby out with the sordid bath water—that I would one day find myself drawn to mysticism, specifically Sufism, or called to serve as a type of apologist for the  vilified faith of my Home: Islam.

Yet, such is where my deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger met. Strange to say but, recently, I’ve come to think of myself as something of an ex-writer, no longer enamored by art for art’s sake, or purely literary concerns. Instead, what I try to do, lately, as an immigrant and poet living in the divided states of America and our wounded world, is to share the beauty I find in Sufism in hopes this might bring about some peace and healing— encouraging readers to question received wisdom, move past the false idols of popular culture, and begin the difficult work of heart purification.

Much of my new book of 800 original aphorisms, Where Epics Fail, is composed under the influence of Sufi literature, which I increasingly turn to for sustenance and inspiration. Aphorisms are connected to a Sufi-informed world view in the sense that Rumi meant when he stated in his discourses, Fihi Ma Fihi (It Is What It Is): the best words are those that are few and to the point. So, aphorisms are connected to wisdom literature, in general and, Sufism in particular. Ibn Ata Illah, for examples, is an important Sufi saint and sage of 13th century Egypt who bequeathed us his treasured Kitab al Hikam (Book of Wisdom) composed of aphoristic writing.

I define aphorisms as “what is worth quoting from the soul’s dialogue with itself.” Which is to say that, out of the ongoing conversation I have with myself, occasionally I’ll overhear a line that I think is good enough to stand alone and represent the subject I’ve been musing on. My hope is that my spiritual aphorisms, found in my latest work, might serve as a form of peace offering and balm in these troubled times. Below, is a mixed bouquet from Where Epics Fail: Meditations to Live By:

The contemplative life is not a passive one.

Our most profound prayers hardly reach our lipsthey are made with our entire being.

The divided self is spiritually immature. Divine union begins with self unity.

Wings are, always, on loan.

Think of existence as a great love story: every shy creature or timid truth wants to be courted; every secret wants to be toldcultivate the art of listening.

AGNI Monkey

Portrait of the author by Sarah F. Russell
portrait by Sarah F. Russell

Yahia Lababidi is an Egyptian-American thinker, poet, and author of seven books, the latest of which, Where Epics Fail: Meditations to Live By is now available here. See what he’s published in AGNI here.


Writing and the Tibetan Book of the Dead

by Ann Tashi Slater

I think a lot about death and faith and the creative process. This started some years back when I began writing a novel related to the Tibetan Buddhist belief in bardos, between-states when everyday life is suspended. Or maybe it started long before: on a winter day in 1912, my Tibetan great-grandfather was coming down to India from Tibet by pony. He and some of his party were buried in an avalanche. My great-grandfather thrust his arm up through the snow and waved his prayer beads, calling to his beloved Guru Rinpoche: “Save me, Guru Rinpoche, save me!” The men aboveground saw him and he was saved.

Guru Rinpoche, the eighth-century Indian saint who brought Buddhism to Tibet, is believed to have concealed his teachings under rocks and in lakes, in trees and the sky and the mindstream, to be revealed to future generations when most needed. The Bardo Thodol, or Tibetan Book of the Dead, is one of these teachings; when someone dies, monks sit next to the body and read from the text, exhorting the deceased to acknowledge reality but not give up as she journeys through the terrifying after-death bardo, wondering what will happen. Intended as much for the living as the dead, the Book of the Dead encourages all of us to persevere, whether in the after-death bardo or one of the difficult bardos experienced in life, like accident or illness.

In 2010 I lay in a hospital near death, an experience I write about in “Traveling in Bardo” (AGNI 86). I remembered the story of how my great-grandfather survived in the snow, and this helped me to accept what was happening yet not despair. The Book of the Dead was discovered centuries after being buried in Tibet; in a similar way, I felt, my great-grandfather’s lesson about faith came to me from where it had remained hidden in our family’s mindstream.

The Book of the Dead says that in bardo, we encounter blood-drinking, flame-spouting wrathful deities as big as the sky. Holding human corpses and brandishing axes, they shriek and howl. We’re told not to abandon hope: the deities are only emanations from our subconscious. W.Y. Evans-Wentz, editor of the first English translation of the Bardo Thodol (1927), called the deities “airy nothings woven into dreams”; the moment we recognize their true nature, they dissolve. Thus, we are the creators of our experience in bardo. As the Buddha said, “All experience is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind.”

Writing is a kind of bardo because ordinary life recedes as we create a universe on the page. The fears and doubts that can derail us while writing are like the wrathful deities. The uncertainty about where our hours at the desk will lead; whether, or how, a poem or an essay or a book will be realized. Recognizing that our worries are only our own “thought-forms,” as the Book of the Dead says, we have the chance to break free of them and engage fully with our creative work. In the bardo of writing, we make our experience.

AGNI Monkey

Ann Tashi Slater--AGNI blogAnn Tashi Slater’s work has been published by The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Tin House, and Granta en español. Her writing appears in Women in Clothes (Penguin) and American Dragons (HarperCollins), and her translation of fiction by Reinaldo Arenas was published in Old Rosa (Grove). Current projects include a bardo-related novel based on her Tibetan family history, a memoir about a pilgrimage to her ancestral homeland, and multimedia events at NYC’s Rubin Museum, including an October 2018 talk about her AGNI essay, “Traveling in Bardo,” and Tibetan wisdom in everyday life. A longtime resident of Tokyo, she teaches at a Japanese university. See what she’s published in AGNI here.

The Gospel of Grief & Grace & Gratitude

by Melanie Rae Thon

Love is life ~ All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love ~ Everything is, everything exists, only because I love ~
~ Leo Tolstoy

Writing, like prayer, must be a daily practice. For almost thirty years I’ve kept what I once called a “Book of Wonders” and now, in my age of awe, refer to as “The Gospel of Grief & Grace & Gratitude.” I have no rules or purpose: my apocryphal gospel includes songs of loons and visions of owls, flowering saguaros, hungry grizzlies—the last words of my father’s last days—my sister Wendy playing Beethoven on our grandmother’s piano. A hurricane splits trees, opening a smell deep and dense as the earth’s consciousness cracked open. My brother kneels to wash and bandage the open sores on my father’s feet. At twilight, soft copper light holds my sister Laurie as if it has chosen her above all others. Yes, we are safe now. A grasshopper leaps in the lake, and my mother calls me down to the dock to save him.

New words and phrases—poiesis, indolent infection, fastidious microbe—bring bemusement and revelation: words themselves amplify what I am able to perceive in the world. Photographs illuminate the gospel; lines of half-remembered poetry enter: the tulips are too excitable. It is spring here, not winter; still, I am nobody. I have never been so pure. I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love for me. Long ago Sylvia Plath’s lines pierced me with intimate despair: in my age of gratitude & grace, tulips blaze gold and orange, immaculate white, deepest violet: there is no happiness like mine: two rogue red tulips bloom at the edge of the creek: they enclose and unclose me, open my most secret self, petal by petal. . . . Even now, opened by love, I know if it be their wish to close me, i and my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly, as when the heart of these flowers imagines the snow carefully everywhere descending.

The gospel feeds my life as a writer, teacher, sister, friend, daughter—as a customer at the grocery store, a stunned patient walking the corridors of a hospital—I am all; I am nothing—just one more transient being trying to understand infinities of sorrow, learning to surrender, hoping to find peace in this unbidden surge of co-passion with the afflicted everywhere. We are vast and devastated by and by. A PICC line from arm to heart opens me petal by petal, cell by cell to the broken world. I know it is a mistake to call the light tender, but not wrong now to feel its indiscriminate love touching my mouth, the bones of my ears, my heart, my fingers.

In my age of grief, I am unknowing everything.

One brutal Boston winter, I filled the pages with blizzards and birds, a sculpture of starved horses, my frigid attic room, a hundred homeless children. They entered my dreams, cold hands on bare skin, and I tried to tell their stories. I needed to imagine how they survived on the street while I struggled to stay warm in my apartment. Pigeons flapped at my tiny window. The snow melted and froze, and another storm roared in from the Atlantic.

The Kingdom is here, on Earth, waiting for us to step into it. Ansel Adams says: I believe in beauty—I believe in stones and water and air and soil—people and their future and their fate. If we believe in these things, then the love and contemplation required to evoke them for our readers becomes sacred. Art is an Affirmation of Life—not only our separate lives, but our lives within the endless body of all living things, our lives as they are connected to stones and clouds and wolves and spiders.

Write every day for the rest of your lives! Fill your pages with fiddlers swaying in the wind and white roses waving. Don’t forget the lizard with its crooked tail or the cactus wren nesting in your mother’s teapot. Eat poetry! Let Ink run from the corners of your mouth! Lift lines you love, photographs you’ve taken. Make a cento, an erasure, a collage. Draw what you’ve seen or not seen whether or not you think you are good at it.

Intoxicated joy teaches us to pay attention. All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.

I see an ant carrying a dead moth, and another one lifting the bleached leg of a crawdad. What is my strength compared with yours? I see a whole tribe of ants, each one holding a single pink petal. They move in a meandering line across the sidewalk. Some carry their blossoms straight above their heads, floral crowns of rose and purple. The petals are five times the size of the ants and seem to float around them. That’s what I notice first, floating petals—and then, those astonishing beings beneath them! I follow the ants down a slope to discover they are covering their little hill with torn flowers. I don’t know why—do the petals keep the anthill moist and cool, safe from the blazing sun of Arizona—are the ants drunk with sweet scent—enchanted by the silky texture?

Years later, a vision comes to me at the edge of sleep, an utter profusion of flowers—bed, floor, walls, ceiling—each petal glowing as if lit from inside, so luminous they cannot hold their shapes: they dissolve into particles of light until they are only fiery sparks surrounded by vast darkness.

Then bliss comes, and sleep takes me.

I realize I have had my own vision of Rabbi Luria’s description of the beginning of the universe: these sparks of holy light are hidden in everything and everyone, everywhere in our shattered world. It is our blessing and our joy to recognize and restore them.

Notes :

Taking many liberties in phrasing, ellipses, and punctuation, I have lifted and transformed lines from Sylvia Plath’s “Tulips” (the tulips are too excitable . . . ); Mark Strand’s “Eating Poetry”; (there is no happiness . . . Eat poetry . . . Let ink run . . . ); “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond” (they enclose and unclose . . . if it be their wish . . . i and my life . . . ) by e.e. cummings; and Michael Martone’s “4 Fe + 302 —› 2 Fe203” (we are vast and devastated . . . ). Paul Maclean’s words (All there is to thinking . . . ) are quoted by his brother Norman Maclean in A River Runs through It.

In The Anthropology of Turquoise, Ellen Meloy keeps what she calls a “Gospel of Wrath,” which has led me and my students to contemplate titles for our own apocryphal gospels.

AGNI Monkey

Melanie Rae by Andi editedMelanie Rae Thon’s most recent books are Silence & Song, The 7th Man, and The Good Samaritan Speaks. As a teacher and writer, she is devoted to the celebration of diversity from a multitude of human and nonhuman perspectives, shattering traditional limits of narrative consciousness as she interrogates the repercussions of exile, slavery, habitat loss, genocide, and extirpation in the context of mystery and miracle, the infinite wonder of cosmic abundance. Originally from Montana, Melanie now lives in Salt Lake City, where she teaches in the Creative Writing and Environmental Humanities programs at the University of Utah. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.