CENTER COMMUNITY NEWS
Newsletter of the Center for Sacred Sciences
Vol. 36, No. 2 • Spring 2023
Announcing the Go As Nothing Writing Workshop Video Series
Merry Song, in association with the Center for Sacred Sciences, will soon unveil a four-part video series showcasing the Go As Nothing Writing Workshop. The series, which includes the participation of eight volunteers, will be offered to the Center community as well as to the general public. Stay tuned for more details on how to access and view all four episodes.
Writing prompts that unfold throughout the series, in-session guided writings without time to think, and the act of reading aloud without editing: these are three of the practices you will find demonstrated within the series. By varying points of view and verb tense as well as mixing fiction and lived experience, Merry Song uses creative writing to illuminate The Story of I.
For more details, see in this issue Robin Retherford's interview with Merry Song about the background of these workshops, as well as participants' responses to the writing prompt: Call 911! My Stories are on Fire!
Spring Retreat with Todd: Return to Wholeness
The Spring 2023 retreat, held May 16-20, 2023, was a hybrid Zoom/non-residential retreat. Todd guided retreatants to open into That which is already Whole through stabilizing attention and practices of spacious awareness.
"I value the excellent teaching and encouragement regarding my practice that I received from Todd. Todd is knowledgeable and compassionate. I recommend CSS offerings to Practitioners desiring to deepen awareness and connect with loving community!"
"I'm feeling a great sense of gratitude following the spring retreat. It was a wonderful culmination of my introduction to the Center's offerings which included this year's Foundation Studies class with Todd, and being with everyone in Todd's Practitioners' Group. Deep bows to all, including my friend Wesley Burden who introduced me to the Center. I found the retreat to be profoundly practical in the arc of its structured practices and a precious opportunity for deeper looking into the nuances of the self. The time in retreat was a great opportunity to see into the subtleness and depth of this energy of wanting and its relationship to suffering and selfing: Wanting to figure it out, wanting things to be different, wanting to be enlightened. The unfolding of the seeing has been profound. Thank you Todd, and all the wonderful teachers and practitioners at the Center."
"Another WOW. I write this knowing full well that just saying, “No, really, what Todd passed on to us over the course of four short days was amazing!” does not tell you really anything other than that I feel enthusiastic about it… much less what was actually conveyed. Well, sorry; you should’ve been there (even at least by Zoom). And I doubt anyone who was there will say anything different. I just finished re-reading my notes from our week together, and… we’ve been hearing the same teachings over and over again, for years! But this thing that can’t be said but only pointed at — there is definitely a refinement going on because it just keeps getting more clear. And every Retreat day that went by just added to the clarity, so that the End of the Path — which had been with us from the beginning — was VERY present and unequivocal by the end. I think trying to summarize ten pages of beauty and insight would be a kind of diminishment of the “full message.” But I can say that I came out of this retreat with a lot less resistance, in general. (Not 100%, for sure, but palpable nonetheless.) It’s like slow-working magic, and I feel we’re remarkably fortunate to have these teachings and teachers so present in our lives."
Interview with Merry Song about the Go As Nothing Writing Workshop Video Series
In the following interview, Center member and Go As Nothing Writing Workshop participant Robin Retherford asks Merry Song some important questions about her writing workshops and the Go As Nothing Writing Workshop video series. In turn, Merry Song asks Robin about her own personal experience as a participant in the workshops.
||Merry Song was asked to teach by Joel for the Center for Sacred Sciences. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and a BA in Broadcasting and Filmmaking. She adores teaching as well as audio/video production. She has been a Center member since 1994.|
||Robin Retherford has had the pleasure of attending several of Merry Song's creative writing groups via Zoom. Currently, she works as a nurse in Modesto, California where she enjoys walking in nature and time with her cats on her days off.|
Robin: Can you talk about the process of how you created the spiritual writing workshops?
Merry Song: Yes. When Joel asked me to teach in his lineage, it took me six years to say yes because I felt that I had some things yet to work through in my own psyche. And then after six years of profound clearing, finally I said yes. But what I noted was that I was coming to this act of teaching for the Center with thirty years experience of teaching college-level writing courses in classrooms along with my spiritual practice with Joel and my Buddhist Vipassana training with Ruth Denison—all of that together feels like it has culminated in this creative effort. So for me, it's cause to celebrate! I can see this unfolding as a beautiful result of all the things that I have done before. I felt that my best talent and gift was to lead spiritual writing workshops. Thankfully Joel allowed me to do that. I'm so grateful.
Robin: How do you think the writing serves as a spiritual practice?
Merry Song: I think it's a unique spiritual practice. When people hear that I use creative writing as a tool, they may think: Oh, writing workshop—does that mean I get to write a memoir about my spiritual life? Actually, it's not about writing a memoir. And it's not about becoming better writers; although, people are likely to become more skillful at writing once they make a commitment to a practice. And it's not about looking at your past and doing therapy over it. Rather, it's a practice that you can do to help illuminate the fictional nature of the Story of I. The phrase comes from Joel and he explains that this story is the continuous narrative streaming through our minds day and night and into our dreams. We often get lost in that story and think that’s who we truly are. My writing method is meant to cultivate Awareness because when the Light of Awareness is revealed, we become aware of the imaginary story, and the grip begins to dissipate on suffering which comes from believing in The Story of I.
Robin: So, it sounds like somebody doesn't need to be good at writing to participate in one of these workshops—that it's really not about the writing?
Merry Song: That's correct. It's not about the writing itself. And I think it's probable that some may think: I'm no good at writing. I don't want to jump in there and make a fool of myself. It's not about good writing. I am often waiting for someone to absolutely fail at this. And I've never seen that happen. No one ever fails because they're just being genuine, and they're not called upon to be poets. They're not called upon to be novelists or memoirists. And yet, I am always amazed at the caliber of writing that comes through. I'm not expecting it, and yet there it is. We all have creativity. It’s waiting to be revealed.
Robin: And what about your vision for where this is headed? What's your big vision?
Merry Song: The way I work is to let the vision unfold almost daily. I'm not someone who keeps a long-term plan with a big board showing the whole design. That's the way I write by the way—by not knowing what I'm going to write—and then I myself get to discover whatever is hidden in the gems of the writing. These writing workshops are the same way.
Four years ago I started with a group of Center members. I said, “This is an experiment. Let's try it.” And at the end, they all wrote letters to the Board of Directors to say how well it worked. For four years I’ve continued to develop the method including moving to Zoom sessions when the Pandemic came upon us.
This Go As Nothing Writing Workshop video series came about because Joel asked me to write a book. He called me one day and said, “Merry Song, have you thought of writing a book about your writing practice? I don't know anybody else who's doing what you're doing. The Center and the Board of Directors would be behind you.” Wow! I was energized by the idea. I thought: Well, I need to brainstorm. And that’s when I realized that a recorded video series would put this practice into action. Instead of a book, we did it for the camera, for the audience. So that's how this series came about.
So what will it be next? The Go As Nothing Writing Workshop video series is a threshold for me because these workshops had previously been held in confidential intimate groups. But in this case, everyone participating knew they were being recorded for an audience. So now, I'm bringing this to the public to see where it will go from here. I don't know where it will go. But my motive is to be in alignment with compassionate action. And whatever energy moves through me, may it move toward helping to alleviate suffering in the world.
Robin: And as someone who's participated in both your confidential workshops and the recorded series, I can say I love that spontaneity about it—it’s like being children playing in the playground, and you just don't know what's going to come next. And that's what's so fun about it!
Go As Nothing Writing Workshop Participants
Merry Song: I have a few questions to ask you if you don't mind.
Robin: Yes. Okay.
Merry Song: When you participated in the Go As Nothing Writing Workshop recorded series, did the notion of others seeing you and hearing your writing change the way you wrote?
Robin: You know, at first I thought that it would. I was concerned about it, and I thought: What am I going to leave out? And then when I just completely forgot about it in the spirit of the writing, it sort of took off. So in the end, it didn't matter.
Merry Song: That's great to know because I took into consideration that it might change the depth and intimacy of the writing. But, in fact, when we actually did the recordings, they seemed pretty deep and beautiful. So for you, it didn't cause too much concern or worry, like: I shouldn't have said that. Or I better not say this.
Robin: No, I think I just forgot about that. Once we started, I got so into what we were doing that the notion that somebody else was going to hear it fell away.
Merry Song: Okay, great. Did you find yourself wanting to create something brilliant or have other thoughts that might get in the way of your being spontaneous in your writing? Did you think: I want to really write something good this time?
Robin: Absolutely. I do remember complaining off camera about how I was wanting to say something brilliant or illuminated-sounding. This had more to do with wanting to perform well for the audience.
Merry Song: That urge to be brilliant, to stand out, to create something wonderful for the audience who'd be tuning in, did that actually get in your way?
Robin: No, I wouldn't say that it got in my way. I would say that there were moments of freezing up when I wanted something more. But as soon as I let go of that and could just let whatever wanted to come through come through, then it didn't matter. It was just fine.
Merry Song: Reading aloud is an important part of the method. And I wondered, did you feel a buildup toward your time to share? Did you feel that energy, like: Soon I will be able to read my piece!
Robin: Sometimes, like when I knew that I'm going to be next, there was that feeling of sharing something in public and feeling vulnerable. But generally, I noticed that would fall away, too, because everything everybody was sharing was so creative, and I knew that I was just falling into that and probably wouldn't impress anybody too much with any vulnerable thing that I shared.
Merry Song: Yes! So if my goal is to help illuminate the Story of I through this writing practice, do you feel that it has been successful for you in cultivating Awareness around stories that have bogged you down?
Robin: It comes and goes. There are moments of clarity, like anything in a spiritual practice, and then moments of total murkiness. But in the middle of the writing, I really did love the way that we played with our perspective in terms of point of view. It changed it so much for me and gave me the freedom to step out of the story. I would say that was very helpful.
There's really something powerful that you add through your facilitation, the way that you set it up and the way you guide us to be present. That really is unique. I couldn't really describe how you do it.
Merry Song: Thank you for that. What we don't know is the unfolding of the Butterfly Effect. When someone sees this series, how it will unfold for them? And there may be people who say: Oh, you know, I don't like this at all. I'm not going to watch Episode Two.” But my hope is that people have a look at the first one and say: I want to see what happens next. And then I'm going to see what happens after that.” And as they go through it with us, they may feel a sense of unfolding. I do hope something happens for our audience. It's what this project has been about: a gift to the audience. And so we will see how it goes.
Robin: Yes, I hope so too. Thank you so much, Merry Song.
Merry Song: My pleasure.
Call 911! My Stories are on Fire!
As the participants in the Go As Nothing Writing Workshop video series moved through the writing prompts, the response to one prompt in particular stood out to Merry Song. She collected the responses and offers them below with the hopes of demonstrating to you the creativity that emerges. The prompt is: Call 911! My stories are on fire!
Call 911! My stories are on fire! It started with the “me,” and the fire is catching everything else it touches. The pots, the pans, the window blinds. I only wanted to start a little fire, not burn the whole place down. I’ve been trying to put it out, one spoonful of water at a time, and I’ve been somewhat successful. The fire is controlled in the bedroom, for example. But I’m at my wit’s end and when I get it out in one place, it just keeps popping up somewhere else!
The “me” was first. The “you” is next on the chopping block. This fire is making me doubt, is there even a “you” there? The smoke makes it hard to tell. I keep telling myself, “This quiet place is the only refuge I’ll ever need.” But it, too, crumbles, like the floor, and I latch onto the lamp for safety. Pretty soon I’ll have nowhere to lay my head and sleep. So it’s not even up to me, but the wind blows in and fans the fire even more sometimes.
My identity is also at stake, though the “me” is burned to ash. The identity of being in the world. I thought it wouldn’t come to this, but even my strategies to put the fire out are burning up. In fact, I once convinced myself that this burning was my doing. And I even enjoyed it at first! My little fires. Look at what I can do! But oh dear, I’ve let it go out of control, and now it’s starting to catch the couch, all my deepest, most familiar places of refuge and repose.
I would delight in the roof disappearing into ash, revealing the clear blue sky (which I do from time to time), if this fire wasn’t also crawling up my own leg, into my body and chest, I think most of all, it’s burning all my strategies away. The neon Exit sign is all but destroyed, and the lost bits left seem to be my pride, my shame, and bedrock desire to do something meaningful for the world. Please, may the fire spare me my sanity. May it spare me my place in all this.
Call 911! My stories are on fire! Water will drown them, air will feed the flames, earth will bury the ashes, light will illuminate the carnage.
No! They must be saved! Right? No? You’re saying no, maybe let them burn? How much though? Down to the ground? Into the bowels of the earth? Wash away the embers, too? Make soap by dripping lye through the ashes of my stories? Soap that can cleanse? You’re saying soap made from the ashes of my stories is the only thing that can cleanse me of those stories. Is that what you’re saying? Tell me! Be clear! You know how I can’t stand it when you beat around the bush. You know how frustrated I get when you don’t say precisely what you mean, when you cloak each word in velvet to soften your true meaning. That is what has come between you and me, a colossal wall made of velvety words that refer to prickly problems. You think the velvet does the trick. You are tricking yourself and have been for a very long time. I allowed myself to be tricked. I went along with this, even participated, because I can write a mean sentence, too. And by that I mean crafted to sound soft when it is really hard. But some people say it is mean to be honest. I believed that story, too.
I can velvetize words with the best of them. That is part of my mask. A mask for the trash heap. Or is it for the burn pile? Ah, yes, my mask is a story. I believed it. I don’t anymore, but the mask is fused on from decades in its place, and it needs to be prised off with surgical precision so as not to damage what’s beneath, which is my face. Throw my face on the burn pile, too. Let it all go.
But, but, but…what will be left. Nothing? No thing? Is this what you mean by “go as nothing?” All words. Just words. Just velvety words. I’m afraid of what's beneath. Put the fear story on the pile too, tuck shreds of paper bearing my stories all around it and strike the match.
Call 911! My stories are on fire! It is about 8am and time to walk Jojo, the rescue dog, up the back hill to the ridge line. The sun is barely up and mist rises from the trees like smoke. Everything is damp or slightly frozen. Quiet. Awe inspiring. I open the gate behind the barn and start up, and it begins—the thoughts condemning me: What right do you have to enjoy this when there is so much need in the world? You are the privileged part of society that causes inequity in the first place. You should be on your knees begging for forgiveness. You are BAD. I fast walk up the hill. Jojo ahead of me exploring scents. I notice him briefly, but the critical voice talks louder and my feet move faster, almost racing. You are just part of the whole privileged chain going back years and years. Why aren’t you doing more to stop it? Shame, shame. Now I’m at the top of the back field overlooking the barn, the smoking hills and fir trees that go on forever. It is magical. I have to stop and take it in. I raise my hands and another voice suggests that I relax, that I am profoundly loved, and laughs at my oh-so-serious ramblings. I remember that it is not my problem to solve alone, it takes a tribe. The voice reminds me that the work never is finished and that I am good. I walk mindfully and slowly now, into a grove of oaks and firs and maples that embrace me. Tears come. The fire has burned down for now.
Call 911, my stories are on fire!
So that this fire will not spread where it is not wanted, the experts at putting out this fire will need to intercede. But as for my stories, their time has come. As nothing is permanent, neither are my stories. They are burning and will soon be gone. But other stories will still have their time, their opportunities to be written. So let the authorities douse the fire before it spreads too far. Douse them with TV stations playing news stories about super important things like “changing weather” or “changing politics”. Let my stories be turned into smoke and ash, as I no longer need them anyway. But as long as you need to, hang on to yours. They are your teachers. And as the sages say “The teacher will appear when the student is ready.” Build up your stories and protect them with culture and values and belief. But when enough fuel has accumulated—watch out! Because the bigger the story gets, the hotter it burns. But have no fear of this impending apocalypse, for the destroyer is also the creator and as one thing is removed, a way is set for the next thing. So add and add to the pyre, and when the day arrives for the funeral, let it burn! But the fire does not need to spread beyond the boundary of your own particular stack of fuel. Your own collection of journals, your own pile of belief. The only thing truly suffered is what is believed in—belief in your story of “I”, your belief in identifying with yourself. So when the day comes that lightning strikes your accumulation of tinder, hope for the hottest, strongest inferno ever, so that all remnant is sent up into the sky, up into the firmament as a gift to the gods who will use it like so such fodder for those left behind still, building on belief.
Call 911 my stories are on fire! Or maybe just let them burn—they have been great stories, but do I really need to keep them forever? Adventure, love, failure and success, death and birth—it really is a great collection but, I think it’s time to let them burn—so don’t call for help.
Oh, but I see now how burning these stories could create a huge inferno—my stories, after all, are tied in with all stories and when this really starts burning, well who knows what will happen.
(Ah—another great story in the making.)
No, let them burn. But, would I lose them forever? Is it all or none? Maybe I can pick what to throw in the fire—but what would I pick? Even the most traumatic stories of a charismatic narcissistic lover and a near-death car crash have brought me here—and if the stories burn but they take all the consequences as well?
So if I let them burn, if I let “the Story of I” burn, then what is left? At this point I can just tell another story about what might be, so yes—
Let my stories burn!
Do not call 911!
The next unknown adventure awaits. Tragedy or comedy—my curiosity wins.
Call 911, my stories are on fire! I must have left the oven on and now it's caught and my whole house is going down with it. It's burning and burning. Oh how those stories burn HOT like dry wood that's well seasoned. But wait—actually—cancel my call. CANCEL MY CALL! I love to watch them burn, every last one. The one about the embarrassing moment when you were a teenager and all the other ones about what they did to you and why. It's the "why" that has always gotten you in trouble, the supposing and postulating and mulling, the trying to understand and interpret—it never seemed to end well.
I stand now and add fuel to the fire, pouring on a whole can of white gas I had stored in the cupboard. “Take them,” I say. “Take them all!” I'm curious to know what's left and who I was before they were born. “Take even my wedding day and trips to far places. Take my greatest achievements that they may not continue to cast some shadow onto me in reference to what I am now.” How can anything be new when dragged down by an anchor into past memories? “And let me see all the people in my life with fresh eyes and begin again.”
But should a shred of story be left in the smoking pile of ash the next morning, I won't mind. I love to scavenge. A partially burnt photo here, a word fragment of a sentence or two there, and wonder at the person I thought I was and maybe have a good laugh.
Call 911! My stories are on fire! They're not just smoldering there – they've burst into flames!
Call 911! My life history is in there!
Call 911! It is too an emergency! Believe me, I spent years creating those stories. You can't imagine the efforts that I went to to support my wimpy theories, ideas, and concoctions. Do you know how hard it is to convince someone to believe in the nearly impossible odds that I've conquered? How 'bout that one about me being a suave, confident know-it-all? Do you realize how much work went into describing such a super-hero alter ego as that for a guy like me – shy, introverted, scared, lacking in confidence?
Call 911! It's not just my stories, but my whole life that's on the line here! This pile of paper – or should I say “pyre” of papers was really everything I had. Money? I can go back to work or borrow what I need from friends. Food and water? Social services has me covered there. Transportation? Still got my own two legs. But History? Credibility? Loyalty? Trustworthiness? Believability? Those are all encapsulated in those ashes rising to the sky.
Oh, alright, let 'em burn.
…are on fire!
Help does come
My parents my fears
Sunday Talk Videos on CSS YouTube Channel
Are you subscribed to the CSS channel on YouTube? In addition to recent videos, the YouTube channel has video recordings of many older talks, some dating back almost 40 years!
Reflections on the 30th Anniversary
of the Center for Sacred Sciences
Recorded in 2017
A Sunday with Joel
at the Center for Sacred Sciences
Recorded in 1993
Blast from the Past: Newsletters from the 90s
CSS was founded 36 years ago! If you've ever wondered what it was like to be a member of the Center back in the early days (or if you were there and want a reminder), archived issues of the newsletter during the 1990s are now available on the Center's website. These issues contain many gems, including timeless teachings by Joel, interviews with Center members, photos from retreats and social events, and accounts of retreat experiences. You can check all this out and more at the Newsletter page on the CSS website.
In this installment of the Library Corner we feature several new acquisitions to the library from local authors.
Treasures from the Heart of Presence
Matthew Peters Sieradski
Heaven Earth Circle, Eugene, Oregon, 2020. 53 pages.
Now affiliated with Heaven Earth Circle in Eugene, former CSS teacher Matt Sieradski's book of mystical musings is available in the CSS library. In it you will find pithy insights such as this: "The fear of death itself is the agony of life under delusion, whilst the Death of Fear is the triumphant attainment of the Bliss of Eternal Life as Consciousness-Itself.” p. 42.
"I read it cover to cover-to-cover in one sitting, but it’s worth many hours of pondering." —Joel
Metamorphosis of an Awakened Heart: With Teachings from Mother Ayahuasca
Cathy Rosewell Jonas
Free Heart Press, Eugene, Oregon, 2021
This book is Cathy’s follow up work to her earlier book, Bringing Home the Mountain: Finding the Teacher Within. It describes the next steps of her path and her experiences of connecting with the healing power of Ayahuasca.
"Are you planning a pilgrimage to Peru to partake of the sacred plant medicine Ayahuasca, or simply wonder what it might be like? Cathy Jonas has made the journey multiple times in her quest for self-healing and the wisdom to help others. Metamorphosis of an Awakened Heart contains a richly detailed account of her personal adventures and Mother Ayahuasca’s ever-deepening teachings." —Joel
That Which is Before You: An Invitation to Enlightenment
Empty Press, Eugene, Oregon, 2020
In addition to this book, the library also has two follow-up books by Eugene-based nondual teacher Matthew Lowes: When You Are Silent It Speaks: Charting the Spiritual Path and A Billion Fingers Pointing at the Moon: Deciphering Spiritual Language.
"Since, in the end, we cannot escape execution, it’s best to pray for a headsman with the sharpest axe possible. Matthew Lowes possesses such a blade and he wields it with unerring accuracy." —Joel
Mission and Programs of the Center for Sacred Sciences
The Center for Sacred Sciences is dedicated to the study, practice, and dissemination of the spiritual teachings of the mystics, saints, and sages of the major religious traditions. The Center endeavors to present these teachings in forms appropriate to our contemporary scientific culture. The Center also works to create and disseminate a sacred worldview which expresses the compatibility between universal mystical truths and the evidence of modern science.
Among the Center’s ongoing events are Sunday public services with meditations and talks given by the Center’s spiritual teachers; and — for committed spiritual seekers — weekly practitioners groups and periodic meditation retreats. The Center is accessible. We are a welcoming and inclusive community.
The Center maintains an extensive lending library of books, audios, videos, and periodicals covering spiritual, psychological, philosophical, and scientific subjects. In addition, the Center provides a website containing information and resources related to the teachings of the world’s mystics, the universality of mystical truth, and the relationship between science and mysticism. The Center also publishes this newsletter.
The Center for Sacred Sciences is a non-profit, tax-exempt church based in Eugene, Oregon, USA. We rely chiefly on volunteer staff to support our programs, and on donations to meet our operating expenses. Our spiritual teachers give their teachings freely as a labor of love, and receive no financial compensation from the Center.
About the Center Community News
The Center Community News is published on the CSS website several times a year. Its primary purpose is to help foster a community of spiritual practitioners by sharing original teachings, experiences, reflections, artistic expressions, and reports among members of our community.
To submit your original spiritual reflection, report, poetry or art to the newsletter for publication, please use the newsletter submission form.
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