Transcending downward with a magical owl

Last week, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, I watched adult human beings become transported by art, ceremony, and magic.

At times we are all weighed down by the world at large and the world in us. Debt, an unhappy marriage, climate change, problems with children, the challenge to democracy, a bad situation at work, a scary medical diagnosis—we sorrow and worry and wish things for relief.

We think, If only this one thing were different, my whole life would be different and I would be able, finally, to live as I was meant to. Even if circumstances can’t be different, we’d at least like to be different ourselves: to take more risks, pursue our visions, be less afraid of the judgments of others. We long, in other words, to transcend.

When we think of “transcending,” we usually think of being lifted to some higher realm: coming closer to God or attaining enlightenment. But in my new book, Fierce Consciousness, I show that a more accessible way of shift our state of mind is to “transcend downward”. In other words, to lose ourselves and temporarily rise above our woes by letting the beauty of the everyday world seduce us.

Sometimes the beauty that grabs us comes from nature. Sometimes it’s in the action of another person. And sometimes it’s in a combination of art, people, and ceremony.

I’ve been attending the Parliament of the World’s Religions since 2009 when it convened in Melbourne, Australia. For several days, panels, lectures, workshops, worship services, films, and ceremonies bring together people of diverse faiths and spiritual practices to try to resolve some of the world’s most grievous problems.

This year, one program I really wanted to attend was Matthew Fox’s Cosmic Mass. On his website this pioneering theologian, author, activist, and spiritual DJ describes the Cosmic Mass as an event that “replaces pews with a dance floor and replaces reading with taking in the spirit while dancing.”

The event took place in a large room of Chicago’s immense convention center. First Fox asked us to honor people around us with a word of greeting. We next took a moment to consider what it is we consider sacred. Fox then asked us to get down on what he called “all sevens” (feet, knees, arms, and forehead) and express our grief with a single tone. We were to listen to our own tone first and then begin to hear and respond to the sounds of others. Sobs, moans, and wails erupted instantly. Grieving isn’t hard, it turns out, when you’re immersed in it with five hundred others. Gradually, miraculously, the sounds of sorrow began to soften, open, lighten. We moved from loneliness to togetherness.

Then it was time for a few of us (a last-minute shift and pure luck got me involved) to take up the beautiful animal puppets that Minnesota artist Mary Plaster had made. Transparent, with tiny white lights illuminating the insides of their bodies, the puppets included a bear, a fish, a deer, and a fox, each one suspended on a pole. I was handed the owl, which was attached to its pole by a springy cord that made the bird bounce up and down.

We puppet carriers circled the large central altar as Fox and his co-facilitators, an indigenous woman, a Black woman, a Latino man, and a male rabbi, offered communion. Then the music began and we were invited to dance for life. Several of us puppet bearers now began circling through the crowd.

I soon saw how people’s eyes lit up when as this great bird came to hover over them, lit from within, twice as big as a real owl, and moving as if on its own accord. I began then to play with the bird and with the people, deliberately making it swoop down close to their heads as they looked up with delight. Some people raised their arms, as if to embrace this cosmic being or be touched by it.

The moments when we are able to transcend downward don’t last long. We’re lucky if they last a full minute. But they are reminders that beauty, life, creativity, and plain old perseverance persist, no matter what is going on in the world or in our own lives At the Cosmic Mass, the transcendence happened with shared grieving, shared ecstatic dance, and animal puppets that glowed from within and made humans glow in response.

Photo above: Cosmic Mass at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, by Mary Plaster

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