t f l s

Explorations in (Alt)Divinity

Finding the Courage to Reconnect the Broken and Missing Pieces

“Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.” – Albert Einstein
“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” – words used by Lilla Watson, Aboriginal elder, activist and educator from Queensland, Australia.


What are the pieces? They are:

  • My relationship with myself, my sacred body, and my inner teacher;
  • My relationship with others, and especially with those pushed to the margins of my culture for thousands of years;
  • My relationship with the natural world, of which I am a living part.

This year, being part of the inaugural Alt*Div group, I am beginning a journey of remembering, rediscovering, and reconnecting these.

I would like to dedicate this particular journey to a dream, that one day my people will have regain a culture we still remember in our bones that intuitively respects nature as our sacred Mother Earth and our bodies; that remembers and honors this through ritual, stories, songs, the ways we teach our children, and even laws; and that knows and acts according to the Golden Rule, as translated by Charles Eisenstein:

“As I do unto others, I also do unto myself.”
I’d like to come to know these words to be true, not just intellectually, but to actually feel them to be true in how I move through the world, in how I interact with others, in what decisions I make, and in how I think.
As I do until this tree, I do unto myself;
As happens to an unarmed Black Teenager, happens to me;
As happens to my Transgender friend, happens to me;
As I do (or don’t do) to this stranger in pain, I also do to myself;
As I help clean this polluted body of water, I also heal my own body;
As I speak up for others who are silenced, I speak up for the silenced parts of myself.
two-streamsIn making this dedication, I realize that I am not just doing work for me, but also for my culture: for my ancestors, whose pain and shame resulting from these separations has never fully been healed, or even grieved; for Mother Earth, whose riches have been exploited and wasted beyond any conscionable defense; and for my children and grandchildren.

I may never fully retrain my mind from a dualistic way of thinking, and a way of thinking that can justify destruction of the planet for greed or power. But, perhaps, if I start this journey now, I may be like an extra rock on the surface of moon, slowing helping bring this tide of culture in just a little bit higher over the next few generations.

Another way I have been saying this lately is that my Alt*Div is about exploring the intersections of the streams of Social Justice and Spiritual Ecology, and letting the captains of my little boat be voices from the margins and my own inner teacher, and making enough spacious time in my life for this river to take me wherever it may!

My Intentions

Even while I do not fully know what it will take to do this, the intentions that will guide my journey are to:

  1. Reclaim a sacred relationship with my body. Learn to see it not as a vehicle for my brain, but as me. Treat it as sacred. Give it good food, work, sleep, sensual experience, and medicine in its many forms. Develop mindfulness practices to see and connect to the many parts of myself and to my deeper inner knowing and respect for myself.
  2. Reclaim a sacred relationship with the natural world and the universe, of which I am part. Put on keener eyes for seeing nature on an intuitive level. Develop lifelong practices for remembering and celebrating my connection to everything. My goal is less to understand than to simply be in communion, and to be regularly bowled over in awe, with the mystery, beauty and power of the world we are part of more often and more deeply.
  3. Relearn the stories of nature mystics, women, people of color, and indigenous people buried in my cultural roots.
  4. Learn the stories of Judeo-Christian activists, prophets, and mystics who resisted the mindless exploitation of nature, of other people, and of the expansion of empire in their times to learn what I can from them and draw strength.
  5. Unlearn dualistic thinking, language, and ways of seeing the world. Notice the subtle words, patterns, assumptions in how I think and speak. Notice how dualism shows up in the design of the world and systems around me. Pay closer attention to teachers of non-dualism.
  6. Reclaim a relationship with music as an ecstatic experience. Relearn to improvise on the piano, with my voice, and with my trumpet that challenges and expands on my western musical training.
  7. Incorporate the wisdom from these deeper wells into the voice of my inner teacher, in how I make decisions, daily, which projects I take on, and how I choose to live. Develop practices for living by these deeper fidelities and sources of guidance.

Perhaps these intentions are about seeking or cultivating something new, or perhaps they are about affirming and committing myself more deeply than ever before to parts of myself that have always been there, my buried, wounded,  but still alive indigenous soul.

This year may be one big ritual or rite of passage I am creating to help me name something that is already part of me, but that I haven’t always had the courage or confidence or community to hold myself accountable to, as core values and intuitions that I let guide my actions, that I let guide my focus and attention and projects.

Where Will It Lead Me?

I’m really resisting the urge to make my Alt*Div “applied.” I have so many projects, ideas, and things I want to do, that I can’t resist already trying to make these into projects with clear products or outcomes. But I no longer trust myself to be a tool for making change in the world, without first rebuilding this foundation.

This is in part because I am coming to see that I don’t really trust any spiritual tradition, institution, economic theory, political body, etc. that doesn’t have this kind of deep connection and knowing at its core. So, trust myself to be part of creating “a new economy” or a social enterprise or advocating for new policy until I have dedicated myself more deeply to building this foundation.

Said another way, I have come to feel that white men, myself included, have had gotten to try our fair share of Big Ideas. However well-intended these might have been, many of these have done more harm than good, and I am increasingly feeling that this is true because those ideas, and the people creating them, were not first grounded in a foundation of fundamental connection to our human selves, to each other, and to nature.

So, my goal is not so much to accomplish or do something in particular, but to dedicate time in my life this year to living these intentions, and to start to see them direct my actions in ways I can’t even imagine before I begin.

This might sound like getting into the slow lane and taking it easy–focusing on the “soft stuff’ instead of the “hard stuff.” that couldn’t be more the opposite of the truth for me.

The truth is that this journey feels like an ongoing exercise in brave curiosity; learning to see clearly again, even when it is painful to see; learning to remember what was swept aside; and, finally, learning again to act and speak from this place, even when it is difficult or uncomfortable.

cu·ri·os·i·ty: 1. Carefulness, the application of care of attention […] 5. Desire to know or learn.

How: Time, Patience, and Practice

There are seven pillars of practice that I will focus on in the year ahead:

1. Practices for Reconnecting to Self, the Natural World, and the Cosmos

I want to spend more time in communion with nature, with no other purpose than to appreciate and be in awe of our universe and planet’s incredible beauty, mystery, and complexity. This feels like a really critical part of rewiring my brain to understand that I am not separate from nature, but am part of it. Some ideas I have:

  • Take the Zen of Seeing into nature with me for slow walks, sketching and appreciating what I see along the way, creating surprising art, or cleaning up trash as I go.
  • Relearning and celebrating rituals and celebrations of moon cycles, seasonal cycles… with Ashleigh, with Urban Adamah, etc.
  • Wednesday night Dharma Talks with Ashleigh.
  • Going to Planetariums, watching movies about space, deep ocean, the lives of bees, and other mind-blowing things that blow my mind.
  • Investigate:
    • Shinto & Zen nature practices
    • Spiritual Ecology (see reading list below)
    • Organizations doing Bay Area water or forest restoration projects (and get involved)
  • Reach out to my Facebook community for ideas
  • Sunday = Day of Nature Play! (Surfing, Sailing, Hiking…)

I am interested in investigating more embodied and engaged forms of buddhism this year, as well, and may choose a retreat to attend in this vein if one feels right, such as Dharma Ocean, or a meditation retreat at Spirit Rock.

2. Rediscovering the Improvisational and Ecstatic Parts of Me through Music

Related to that, one specific practice I want to cultivate this year is an improvisational relationship with music, which is both a meditation and a practice of connecting deeply with my more intuitive, more ecstatic self, just like dance is to the whirling dervishes.

This feels like an area of learning and unlearning that is very specifically a response or counter-balance to my very Western-oriented (mathematical, precision-oriented, sheet-music based) music education growing up. I am very grateful for that education, but I feel like there is somewhere much deeper I can go with my relationship to making music, and that doing this will be good for my soul.

This will include:

  • Practicing my trumpet 3-5 days a week (at least do warm-ups and scales) and start improvising along with music in my headphones.
  • Sharing recordings with Adam Horowitz and other friends, and start working up new tunes together.
  • Reach Goal: maybe finally finding a funk band, balkan brass band, second line band, protest band, or something similar to jam with in the Bay. (Have any suggestions??)

3. Voices of Nature Mystics, Women, People of Color & Indigenous Cultures

I want to wash myself over and over again this year in many different perspectives on spirituality and social justice from the margins of my cultural tradition and others by reading, listening to recordings (e.g. sermons, spoken word slams, etc.), and watching films from or about:

4. Study of Judeo-Christian History Liberation & Resistance

Related to the above, I want to specifically relearn the history of the radicals and prophets that made up the history of my own religion and culture of origin, and study the ways they worked to bring justice and love to the world. This includes, mainly:

  • A lot of time spent with a really big and amazing reading list! (see below)
  • Starting or being part of an Alt*Div reading group on this topic (maybe something as simple as emailing each other book reflections) to help share what I and others are learning.
  • Connect with Underground Seminary to learn about their curriculum

5. Tools, Practices, and Circles of Support for Living My Values in Practice

How do I actually put what I’m learning into practice?

My friend Angie Thurston recently reminded me that values become actions in the form decisions. So, as I go through the year, I will be actively exploring and noticing how everything I am learning above gets applied through my actions and decisions, big and small. I will be doing this by:

  • Practicing a daily meditation that Angie and her mom have co-created for connecting with your inner teacher, and reflecting on that process with her as we go.
  • Trying out the daily Jesuit practice known as “The Examen” for reflecting on the day.
  • Asking for more accountability to deeper spiritual values in my work with folks like: Casper, Lennon, Adam, Sarah, Ryan, etc.
  • A little bit of a left-field idea… but I want to check out some of the Talmud, Zohar, or Mussar study groups in the Bay Area to learn more about the Jewish history of wrestling with these same questions.

Going one step further, I have already been taught in a powerful way by the Alt*Div experience so far that,even when we know what the right thing to do, we don’t always know how to do it in the heat of the moment.

So, finally, one of my biggest goals for the year is to find and attend a really great Theater of the Oppressed training and start actively practicing for the tough situations where I am not sure how or whether to use my voice, such as: to know when and how to speak up when a friend is misgendered by someone else; or to know when and how to speak up when someone is being sexually harassed in a subtle-but-still-inappropriate way; etc.

6. Expanding My Circle of Learning (Mentors and Buddies)

This Fall, I’m focusing on connecting more with a few folks that I think of either learning buddies or potential mentors, and I think that some of them might become more regular relationships for the year with some themes we would like to explore more deeply together.

In particular I’m interested in connecting more with:

  • Karla Moskowitz — a lifelong committed grassroots educator with a sense of integrity in her work whose example I could only hope to live up to… I have been very grateful to be connected with her because of Open Master’s.
  • Cecile Andrews — who first introduced me to the Swedish Study Circle model, when I was just becoming a grassroots educator, and who lives in Berkeley! I want to reconnect with her this year.

A few more ideas that are more of a reach into the dark include trying to connect with:

  • The mentor of my new friend Raj Jayadev (I don’t know his name), who lives in Berkeley and studied with Paolo Freire.
  • (Offered) A “spiritual director” through Casper & Angie. I still don’t know exactly what this means, but it is often part of a formal divinity school education.
  • (Idea) A local Jewish mentor who can introduce me to more Hebrew prayers and Jewish holidays, rituals, and prayers for connecting to the cycles of nature.
  • (Idea) An Ohlone elder in the Bay (if appropriate) to understand more the sacred significance of the land I’m now living in.

One crazy reach goal is that I hope to connect with Daniel Quinn, to try to understand what research and experiences led him to the philosophy behind Ishmael, which has completely shaped the journey I am on now in many ways.

This may be my goal for my Alt*Div guest interview this year, if I can make it happen! Know him by any chance, or know someone who might know him?

7. Spiritual Study

Fridays and Shabbats this whole year will be intentionally kept spacious this year. I am hoping this leads to more reading than an average year has been up to now. My laundry-list to dive into includes, but surely will not be limited to:

Some old favorites I may return to include:

I am sure my list will grow as the year goes on.

I plan to browse and sip from many of these all at once as I go through the Fall. As part of Alt*Div, I will also choose one to focus more deeply on by the end of the Fall as a principal sacred text for the year, meaning that I will spend a lot more time cultivating a slow and more in-depth relationship with it. Right now, I am thinking about either the I Ching or The Tibetan Book of Living & Dying. I have also considered focusing on a deeper reading of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s spiritual philosophy that drove his activism, by reading and listening to all of his sermons and speeches.

The Who

Some of My Inspirations

Dr. William J. Barber, II  

Left to Right: Rev. De. Samuel Dewitt Proctor, Dr. William J. Barber, IIKrista TippettRev. Erik Martínez Resly, David SuzukiParker Palmer, Sister Simone Campbell, Rev. Erik Martínez Resly, Mona Haydar.

Some of My Learning Buddies, Mentors, and Wider Circle:

Brittany Koteles Cropped  

Left to right: Ashleigh Shepherd, Marien Baerveldt, Adam Horowitz, Brittany Koteles, David BronsteinAngie Thurston, Casper ter Kuile

… and, of course, the entire, amazing Alt*Div Community!

Welcome Call Faces of our Community

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