Do Not Try This At Home

The Most Reverend Metropolitan Kallistos Ware must be reading my blog, because he too is contemplating the corollaries between hinduism and christianity. The article’s tl;dr is that the hesychasm tradition in orthodox christianity is similar to meditative techniques in hinduism, mystical judaism (the so called ‘chariot mysteries‘) and the muslim dhikr (repetitive recitation of god’s names and attributes). In short, all four traditions teach repetitive prayer techniques geared toward ‘touching god.’

Hesychasm is something of a guarded tradition within orthodoxy, tagged with caution that if improperly practiced, or if practiced without the supervision of a spiritual father, great spiritual harm shall ensue. It’s pretty much slapped with a “do not try this at home!” warning. This is something I’ve noted about orthodox christianity in general: have a question or spiritual venture? Ask a priest.

My interest in the jesus prayer was piqued after reading The Way of the Pilgrim some years ago (I blogged about it here). Despite the supposed danger I began reciting the prayer off and on, usually aiming for ‘loops’ of 100. I would recite it during obstinate stretches of late-night insomnia. This was less to obtain enlightenment than to bore myself back to sleep, and along the way I memorized a few sanskrit mantras off youtube. These too I recited in 100-loops but I never really thought of it as “meditation.” For instance, I never utilized a particular posture or breathing technique (still don’t).

In my post about astral projection I mentioned I have no idea why this phenomena is hitting me with such frequency. What was once a rare and bizarre experience is now commonplace for me. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve projected just this month, and last night was in a state of near-constant projection.

Looking back to last year when I began projecting frequently, I realize it was around this time I began reciting the jesus prayer in force, using prayer beads to make sure I was getting those “100 loops” and not doing it solely to bore myself back to sleep- I just somehow felt compelled to do it. It was also around this time I memorized and recited those sanskrit mantras in earnest.

If I were to approach this from a non-partisan perspective, my guess is that repetitive prayer- regardless of the religion- “wakes up” spiritual points in the body and energizes- for lack of a better term- one’s spiritual capacities. This is something that has, apparently, been well known to ascetics from religious cultures ranging from east to west, indigenous to sophisticated. Keep in mind these ascetics practice not just repetitive prayer but deliberate starvation and sleep deprivation (amazonian shamans will starve and isolate themselves to achieve greater spiritual heights). Starvation (fasting) and interrupted sleep also likely trigger “spiritual points” within and without the body.

As for what’s happening to me I know orthodox christians would say I’m in a state of prelest– spiritual delusion- because 1) I ventured into repetitive prayer without permission or guidance of a religious authority and 2) my experiences and beliefs do not match orthodox christian doctrine. My use of sanskrit mantras, belief in reincarnation, and involuntary astral projections would be considered heretical (if not downright satanic) and even disqualify me as a christian. That all being said, I have no clue if repetitive prayer and astral projection are linked. I mean it’s not like I spend all day praying, and there have been many times I projected without having recently prayed.

Either way I’m not too worried about it- I’m not pretending to be in a place of spiritual authority here- I’m just sharing my experience. If someone asked me for advice I would do my best to give it, but that advice would be, at best, imperfect. I also don’t expect or even particularly want anyone to believe me. I share this information in case someone might take an interest in it, or perhaps someone in a similar plight might garner a little help from my words.

Sometimes when asked what I do, I have to stop myself from saying- “I’m a praying person.” Prayer is like a sport. It takes practice, endurance, determination. Just as it’s difficult to run x number of miles, it can be difficult to pray x prayer x number of times. Furthermore it takes practice to “navigate” prayers. Hard to explain what “navigate” means here, but it’s one thing to look at a map- it’s another thing entirely to TRAVEL what that map represents. Likewise you can recite a prayer rote (which still serves a purpose) or you can “travel” that prayer within yourself. This is why orthodox christians call it “interior prayer.”

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The Other Side

This post requires two disclaimers: 1) I don’t expect anyone to believe me, and 2) I know it sounds crazy. I provide this information only because I know there are people out there with a keen interest in it, or who are simply curious.

Exactly 20 years ago I was a new mother with a young baby. My oldest was about 4 months old when this happened. He was a difficult baby and I was in a continuous state of exhaustion and sleep deprivation. One saturday my husband announced he needed to go to the drug store. I pleaded with him to take our baby son, so I could catch a much needed break.

I was asleep the moment the apartment door closed (we lived in a tiny one bedroom at the time).

Then something weird happened.

Even though I was dead asleep, I heard a roaring sound in my ears like tinfoil shaking, but much louder and sharper. This sound “woke up” my consciousness and I had full awareness of what was transpiring.

The roaring grew and now was accompanied by a distinct pressure at the back of my neck (this is the 6th chakra if anyone is interested- I did not know this at the time). This pressure built up as the roaring increased. The pressure built and built… it felt like a fist pushing my neck from the inside- then I was “out.”

I was staring at the roof of our apartment building. I was outside of my body.

At this point in my life I held a nascent, if fragile belief in god. I spent my teenage years as a loudmouthed atheist, but had read enough about near death experiences to immediately understand that my soul was- for whatever bizarre reason- out of my body.

Well, I thought to myself. If this is real I should be able to travel anywhere. Let me see my husband.

I felt a whoosh and was on the ceiling of the drugstore. There was my husband, there was my son in the stroller. My husband was browsing razors.

Okay… I thought to myself. If this is REALLY real, let me see my sister.

Another whoosh! And now I was above the rolling mountains of the Vermont-New Hampshire border. At that moment my astonishment turned to sheer terror and I snapped back in.

I was stunned. I had just experienced absolute (personal) proof of the human soul. It was real. Absolutely real. Since that day, even if my religious beliefs have faded or transformed, I always knew- even when I wished it were not true- the human soul irrefutably exists. It was a completely different experience from sleep paralysis, lucid dreaming and hallucinations (I have experienced all three- the hallucinations were from a raging fever). It was visceral and tactical- I physically FELT my soul push out of my body.

But this is only the beginning of the story. I continued to experience these strange projections (new agers call it astral projection, I simply called it “my soul leaving my body”) from time to time. I thought it was peculiar but didn’t pay it much mind, despite it being hard confirmation of the human soul (again, confirmation for me- I don’t expect others to believe me). Exactly a year ago, for reasons I still don’t understand, it began happening all the time. What was an occasional occurrence was now a near-nightly occurrence. Since october last year, the longest I’ve gone not projecting is two weeks, with the average rate of projection being three times a week, often more than once in one night. I have now projected well over a hundred times.

After a month of this I hit the internet, and for the first time in twenty years actually researched what was happening to me. New agers call it “astral projection,” native americans called it “spirit walking.” Hinduism has tomes of scripture about other dimensions and layers of bodies that encase the human soul. Most of what I found was instructional for people aspiring to astral project. Well I had no problem doing it, I just needed to know what to do once “out!”

Then I learned about retrievals. A retrieval is when a projected human soul (i.e. me) assists a “stuck” soul in moving on. I read that I should request “I would like to do a retrieval” when I project, and I would be brought to a stuck soul or soul shard in need of assistance. Most “stuck souls” don’t understand they are dead, or cannot accept it. For whatever reason they are unable to see the helpers (angels) trying to assist them. But they CAN see projected human souls, perhaps because we are still tied to this physical realm. And once they see us, they can usually see the angels/ helpers… and move on.

As for what “move on” means, I personally believe in reincarnation. I don’t know how exactly it happens- is it sequential?- our perception of time is linear but time may not in fact be linear. Perhaps all our incarnations are occurring simultaneously. Anyway, for all intents and purposes, let’s just say the successfully retrieved souls get “unstuck.”

Since october 2016 I have done countless retrievals during projections. I have also seen many parts of “the other side” ranging from heavenly… to flat out weird. And while I don’t expect anyone to believe me, if you are OPEN to believing, I can tell you with absolute conviction that the human soul is real and “the other side” is real.  When your loved ones die, the soul simply moves on and evolves elsewhere. They are not gone. And when you die, your soul will move on and evolve elsewhere. As I say to my agnostic daughter: like it or not, you’re stuck existing… eternally.

I can’t tell you which religion is right, what concept of god is accurate, nor even how you should live your life. I can only tell you what I have seen and experienced, that there is infinitely more to human existence than what we see around us. There may be reasons to fear death, but a terminal point is not one of them. As Mata Amritanandamayi (Amma) says: death is a period before the beginning of the next sentence.

 

The Mammogram

Last week I finally had a mammogram. The grim part of me felt I entered the world of Old People Tests. The bright side of me felt this was so cool sophisticated technology can peer at the inner workings of my boobs. I was a little worried about radiation exposure- supposedly for every mammogram a woman receives, her risk of breast cancer ticks up 1%. But I figured one time wouldn’t kill me.

As I sat in the waiting room I thought of Maryam Mirzakhani, the only woman ever to win the most prestigious honor in mathematics, the Fields Medal. She recently died of breast cancer at the age of 40. Why would god give a woman such an incredible gift only to take her from the world prematurely? Not only that, but make her suffer in the process? God, you’re weird. I nearly said it out loud.

Then they called me in.

The mammography tech was, unlike me, ample bossomed which somehow seemed apropos. She was also nearly a foot shorter than me. She asked cheerfully had I ever had a mammogram before? Nope. Did I know what one entailed? Uh… not really. I know big machines are involved.

She had me undress waist up in a dressing room and cover myself with a blue gown. I walked into the exam room and she announced she had to put these little stickers with metal dots on my… ugh… I opened my gown and let her have at it. She asked was there a history of breast cancer in my family?

Yes, my mother.

Ovarian cancer?

Yes, my aunt. She recently died from it.

Ah… she said, filling out forms.

Then she explained I would have to place each breast on a platform while images were obtained. I looked at that platform, looked down at my now-pastied boobs, and regarded her skeptically.

I don’t have much breast for the platform. This is true; my breasts are so small they may as well not exist.

Oh I’ll manage something! She was laughing in a good natured way. I thought of poor Maryam, all the boob examinations she must have endured.

Onto the platform the right one went. The tech twisted and crammed, eventually a plexiglas compressor bore down, trash compactor style. EEEEEeeeejjjjjj. That was the sound of the x-ray. EEEEEeeeejjjjjj. Then the left. EEEEEeeeejjjjjj.

It was definitely uncomfortable, not necessarily painful. I was more concerned about my back potentially spasming (my back likes to spasm) than the state of my breasts- she kept twisting my arms to and fro and grabbing my bare shoulder blades; the muscles on my shoulder blades are the most spasm-prone.

Then it was over! The whole ordeal was less than fifteen minutes. So if any of you ladies are avoiding a mammogram, please don’t. It’s not so bad, it’s not embarrassing, and if you have a history of breast cancer in the family the risk of minute radiation exposure is dwarfed by the worser fate.

 

Wimpy Wine

The island survived my absence: turkeys still grifting, opossums still gnawing through garbage, my oldest daughter kept the feral cat colony in our yard alive. My tomato plants died but that was written in the stars.

It was difficult being up there, not in ways I anticipated. Often while driving around it felt I never left. Nine years non existent, maybe a time loop. The town looked somewhat worse- I saw a meth head handcuffed & hauled into the police station- I never saw that while living here. I never saw anyone handcuffed until I moved to nyc.

My dad was irate. Ranting about my aunt, her lack of estate planning, nitpicking her last motions, grumble grumble grumble. God lord, I wanted to tell him- the woman was dying! Cut her some fucking slack. I kept my mouth shut.

My mother dragged us to church, “us” being the little guys and myself. Alright I get it, she wants to show off the grandkids. I’ll show them off too- they’re criminally cute.

The church was so depressing. They recently signed a compact with a lutheran church merging two dying churches, and I could sense one foot in there was turf war betides. The lutherans on one side, anglicans on the other. Stink eye ensued.

My lovely children started acting rotten so I dragged them to the back where exactly one child (I later learned he was being raised by his GREAT grandmother- both parents and grandma were unfit) playing with legos and toy sharks.

Did I like sharks!? he asked, full volume. I tried to shush him. Had I ever picked up a shark? Had I ever picked up a shark but failed! What was my favorite type of shark?

He rolled up his sleeve. I’ve gotta tattoo, he said proudly, showing off a temporary skull tattoo. I gave him a silent thumbs up then shushed him again.

Day before the funeral my parents had a wine and cheese event. My mom’s cousin was first to show up; they discussed weather, traffic, grandchildren, who was at what school studying what. There was discussion of family history. The cousin marveled how adept my two year old was at navigating stupid games on my defunct android. I listened politely… and thought of the steven king story where people slowly turn into vegetables.

Then my dead aunt’s buddies arrived. The greeted me uproariously- hugs, jokes, booze! My aunt’s best friend’s other best friend sat in an armchair, perched on a cane chatting brightly. Aunt’s best friend threw back a tumbler of gin. I don’t want any of that wimpy wine! — she bellowed– viking style. The other friends downed glasses of wine and nibbled on cheese. We discussed architecture, history… the house was rocking!

Then the funeral. It was at the merged church, beautiful in its day. Rich mahogany knotted the ceiling, elaborate stained glass pictographs: Ruth the Gleaner, John the Baptist, St. Michael– ready to charge.

I read from revelations, my sister read a poem. The gin drinker cried quietly.

A reception at my sister’s house. I wolfed down turkey and roast beef while my kids ate fruit. My sister’s german shephards skulked like patrolling soldiers while I clandestinely fed them pieces of meat. I watched our kids, all our kids, my kids, my sister’s kids, my sister’s friend’s kids, frolic in the gated garden. How surreal to regard such life in the shadow of death. The yard sloped down to a pond, endless acres of forest, the sky clear. I wonder as to the state of my aunt’s soul.

The funeral. We drove two hours to the grave site, my little guys surprisingly well behaved. An ancient retired pastor gave the homily while a grinning funeral home worker stood by his side. What a racket! (I later told my mom just to dump my ashes if I precede her in death.) The weather was sublime, a perfect breeze shimmering through towering oaks like god had planned it.

 

 

Paramahansa Yogananda’s Excellent Adventure

When I related my daughter’s Koran shopping episode I noted that Barnes and Noble carries exactly zero books about Hinduism in its religion section. Being married to my husband, I know that not a single book at B&N is accidentally placed: exhaustive research is executed on buying habits of customers, and the potential profitability of each and every book. In fact, even how the books are laid out is thoroughly researched and deliberate. You know those tables scattered throughout the store? Publishers pay a premium to have their volumes displayed on them, as opposed to the shelves.

There are tons of new age, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist books– but nary a volume on Hinduism. Which is strange, because immigrant Hindus in the U.S. tend to be well educated and of the book buying capacity.

However, I do occasionally see one or two volumes published by the Self Realization Fellowship, which as far as I can tell is a quasi-Hindu organization devoted to bringing the “spirit” of Hinduism to a western audience. So it’s not exactly Hindu per se, but probably the closest you’re going to find at B&N.

One day earlier this year I bought one of those volumes: Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda, pictured below:

paramahansa-yogananda
ommmm…

I got the book home and my husband immediately asked: why did I bring Steve Job’s book home?

Huh? I had no clue what he was talking about.

As it turns out Autobiography of a Yogi was handed out at Mr. Job’s funeral per his request. The Self Realization Fellowship had to scramble to supply oodles of copies, and those who watched the scion interred walked away with a parting gift. Which I now happened to own as well.

The book is not what you think– or at least it wasn’t what I anticipated. I imagined a few hundred pages of Hindu apologetics, and while the volume does include that betimes, Mr. Yogananda’s chirpy, almost silly voice delivers a spellbinding tale that, like most truth, is stranger than fiction.

Way back in the 1930s Mr. Yogananda received a call from God to preach Hinduism, or quasi-Hinduism to the west. So he peregrinates to the States and not only was he well received here, but eventually, with a couple western disciples, embarked (in a model T Ford!) on an around-the-world journey to interview a variety of saints and gurus, including Mahatma Gandhi and stigmatic Therese Neumann.

While in audience of Ms. Neumann Mr. Yogananda uses his vulcan mind-meld powers (yes, he can read minds, but typically only does so with permission) to see if she’s a fake: she isn’t, and by entering her mind Mr. Yogananda witnessed the passion of Jesus Christ in excruciating detail, just as Ms. Neumann did during her stigmatic episodes. He concludes that Ms. Neumann was granted the gift of the stigmata so that Christians could have the veracity and suffering of Jesus Christ validated. (Even if you don’t feel like reading the whole book, reading that chapter alone is worth the effort and $12.50… not to mention the volume is available free online in pdf form.)

The book is not entirely autobiographical and does delve into Mr. Yogananda’s theological “unifying theories–” namely that there are no vital differences between Hinduism and Christianity. Of course, this will make your average believing Christian’s head explode, but he does offer salient points, or at the very least food for fodder. For instance there is evidence that early Christians held a tenet of reincarnation- as does mystical Judaism, from whence Christianity arose.  When Jesus heals the man born blind, he asks: did this man sin, or did his parents sin? Well a baby cannot sin, so where did this sin originate? Plausibly this is a reference to a previous incarnation, hearkening to the concept of karma. Furthermore the gospels imply that John the Baptist is the “recycled” (to use the hebrew term, gilgul) version of Elijah. In Matthew 11 Jesus says of John the Baptist, And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Mr. Yogananda’s theories on Christian-Hindu unity are complex and I can’t pretend to understand them fully. However, one his stranger postulations is that the Hindu concept of maya– illusion- is synonymous with the Christian notion of Satan. This will be a foreign concept to believing Christians, who view Satan as a personified fallen angel who tempts mankind toward evil deeds.

The book is an easy read and would be of interest to anyone with a yen for religion or history, as the era in which Mr. Yoganada travels prefaces World War II. Heck, it would be an interesting read even for people with an interest in Steve Jobs! So if you are looking for a book to page through by the pool, this one comes highly recommended.

Pretzels From God

I’ve been making homemade pretzels for the kids recently. No, not the kind you heat up from the freezer. The kind you make from strange items like flour and yeast.

pretzels

My fourteen year old said they taste like they were made by God. Well, if ever a cook has received a compliment, that is it! I used Alton Brown’s recipe but tweaked it a little. I used vegetable oil instead of butter, paid more attention to the dough texture than his ratio of ingredients (the texture is incredibly important since you have to shape and boil these) and eventually shaped them differently– the above picture shows Alton’s method. Good but not great.

My picky eaters devoured them like locusts and my oldest daughter has begged me to make them every day.

The irony is that I can’t eat them, as I have type 2 diabetes! I did try one bite to verify their verdict, and yes they are delicious. So go ahead and give these a try, you’ll never buy regular soft pretzels again!

Believers Behaving Badly

My earliest memories of religion are the Anglican church my mother hauled us to, and later the elementary school attached to it. Every so often an uninspiring priest would visit us students with a rousing… or not… lecture. I remember once, he instructed us to reach our arms into the air (a strange thing for stodgy Anglicans to do, I’m sure you all know the joke about the Anglicans in hell for using the wrong fork). “Everything around you is God,” said the priest, and he encouraged us to wave our arms, reaching for God.

Well, all I felt was air. No God. What was this dork talking about? So at the age of six I was a resolute atheist. This didn’t change even in high school, when I enraged a muslim guy by informing him his mosque wasn’t a house of God– it was a house of air. He got a look in his eyes like he could kill me on the spot. Good grief, what was all this God fuss about?

The parade of religious people I encountered over my life did little to soften my heart. The Anglican priest at the church we attended after our move to New England was discovered to be stealing funds from the coffers. His replacement, a charming, extremely tall man from the faraway and seemingly mythical land of Manhattan, eventually confessed before the Sunday crowd that he was a raging alcoholic in need of help. In middle school I befriended a girl whose father was a pastor of an evangelical church. She expressed great concern for my unsaved soul (but I was technically a Christian, wasn’t I?). Meanwhile she was having sex with every male on her block under the age of 25… all at the tender age of 14.

In college I encountered a guy who identified himself as a born again christian. He always made a big to-do about holding the door open for women, or insisting they enter the elevator first. He didn’t do this out of chivalry: it was a trap. Because god forbid a woman declined his gesture with a “No thanks,” or, “That’s not necessary.” In which case he would unleash a tirade against women and feminism the likes of which would make Rush Limbaugh blush.

Also in college I encountered a few guys who expressed amorous interest in me, only to discover they didn’t actually want a relationship, because they could only be in a relationship with someone of the right religion (then why express interest in the first place? Ugh!). One was Jewish, one was Mennonite (I didn’t realize, at the time, how remarkable it was that he was in college at all), and the other Mormon. The Mormon guy was eventually commanded by his “elder” to leave me alone.

I am no longer an atheist, but I’m still rankled by reports of religious people– particularly those in positions of authority– behaving badly. Ted Haggard, all those Catholic priests and the church-wide cover up of their actions, baby-snatching nuns, the occasional molesting rabbi. These stories all dishearten me. In the video I recently posted of Fr. Lazarus, he describes how, as a child, he could not reconcile people’s bad behavior with their avowed religious beliefs. Quite frankly I’d rather people come out and say they worship the devil, instead of pretending to worship good while practicing evil.

I’m being thoroughly hypocritical here, because I’m also annoyed when atheists denigrate religion based on the unsavory behavior of believers. I once read a scathing online comment in a local news publication against Catholicism. This guy’s ex-wife– a Catholic– had cheated on him twice and had an abortion. This, in his view, delegitimized the entire institution of Catholicism. Ok, I get it. The hypocrisy outraged him not unlike it bewilders me. Yet I also understand that human beings are thoroughly imperfect and that religious belief is not always straightforward, is deeply personal, and quite possibly means something different to each individual adherent. And without knowing the private lives of every religious person on earth, the extent of religious hypocrisy will have to remain untabulated in our mortal view.

The World Before Her

“The World Before Her” is an outstanding documentary detailing the crossroads of modernity and traditionalism in India. Canadian documentarian Nisha Pahuja follows two groups of women– one preparing for the Miss India beauty pageant, and the other being trained at a quasi-military Hindu nationalist camp for girls.

The beauty pageant contestants are subjected to 30 days of botox, skin lightening treatments, body-toning aerobics and “hot leg contests.” The girls at the Hindu camp are taught to commando crawl, shoot guns, and are drilled on the importance of being married by age 18 “because by age 25, women are unmanageable.”

I had not known this, but the existence of beauty pageants in India has long been a contentious issue, with traditionalists convinced that the trojan horse of such past times will usher in the decay of Hindu culture and human dignity. As Prachi Trivedi, the hard nosed daughter of a camp leader eloquently states: “Egyptians, Romans, they are history now. It’s going to happen with us. So we are trying to save ourselves. That is the only thing I want, nothing else.”

I was gobsmacked by how much “work” the pageant contestants– who are all stunningly and naturally beautiful– have done in preparation to capture the crown. The skin lightening chemicals are painful to endure (one girl is seen writhing on the table), and the net result is a greenish, unnaturally pale complexion that makes the girls look seasick. And what 19 year old, especially an unbelievably beautiful 19 year old, needs botox? So I felt the girls actually looked less attractive after they washed out their complexions and plumped up their lips. But my understanding is that skin whitening is all the rage in India.  Indeed, in “Enlighten Up,” the laughing guru had that same unnatural, corpse-like paleness to him.

The film opens on an upbeat note, and the comparison between the nationalist camp and the pampered beauty queens makes the documentary temporarily lean toward fluff piece, until 2009 Miss India and her mother describe how she narrowly escaped infanticide at birth. Miss India’s mother was given two choices by her husband: surrender the newborn daughter to an orphanage, or kill her.

pooja chopra
Pooja Chopra, Miss India 2009

What is startling about this is that the contestants draw from middle class, urban and suburban families. I had no idea abandoning and murdering baby girls was still practiced in urban, educated settings. I always assumed this sort of thing took place in backwoods villages by families with no education or means. I have seen pictures from Pakistani morgues showing rows of sheet-bundled infant corpses neatly lined up on metal tables, all of them baby girls killed at birth, their bodies discarded like trash.

At this point in the film, the images of beautiful women poised on display suddenly take on a chilling and haunting tenor. As the mother of six daughters, I found myself, while watching this film, very grateful to live in a society that does not routinely pressure women to abort, abandon, or kill baby girls. This is not to say that we don’t have our own gender hopes and disappointments; I know for a fact my own parents were bitterly disappointed when I came into the world a girl, as they had desperately wanted a son. But it would be virtually unheard of, in mainstream American society, for a child to be abandoned solely for her gender. Yet I doubt even the most tolerant and urbane Indian husband would endure six consecutive daughters (there were actually seven, if you count the one I lost).

If you’re a documentary hound like me, you know that the topic of a well done documentary is of little importance; it’s how the subject matter is handled that makes or breaks a documentary film. “The World Before Her” is beautifully filmed, expertly handled, and its fascinating characters shine unfiltered from the screen.  So even if you have no interest in Hindu nationalism or beauty pageants, Nisha Pahuja’s offering comes highly recommended.

Hell

I sometimes wonder, if I end up in Hell, what will it be like?  Will it be a barren, fire-spotted wasteland like Searing Gorge in Warcraft, or will it be a relatively normal place of chatty intellectuals, like the Algonquin table?  There is a Jewish saying that heaven and hell are the same place– a Torah academy– and it’s either heaven or hell depending on who you are.  I usually imagine hell looking something like Manhattan– beauty and misery cemented together, megalith architecture staring down on condemned souls like faceless moai.  And with Manhattan being hell, the outer boroughs are its purgatories– gentler, if uglier, architecture; easier parking, and more affordable grocery prices.  We know Woody Allen will be in hell, since he screwed his stepdaughter, and more than a few Catholic priests (given the current state of affairs).  In fact there will probably be sufficient high ranking officials in Hell to establish a highly stable infrastructure, especially with Tesla and John Nash counted among the ranks.  Oscar Wilde too.

Or perhaps Hell will be as expected: a lonely place where souls are picked over by vultures and gnats, no one to talk to, no one to listen to, no water to drink even with our thirsting bodies decaying earthside.

Wake Up

“Wake Up” is an odd documentary about Jonas Elrod, a cinematographer who one day starts seeing visions of angels, demons, spirits, and “energy.” The film follows him over three years as he grapples with his newfound abilities. He is greatly distressed by these visions, clearly does not like talking about them, and after a battery of psychological and physical exams rule out schizophrenia or brain anomalies, he seeks the counsel of gurus, mystics, and paranormal researchers.

wakeup
Elrod getting his chakras massaged.

In one particularly spooky scene, he consults “ghost photographer” Umberto Di Grazia in Italy, who places him in a chamber where images of a woman and a wide-eyed alien are picked up while Elrod meditates. Elrod is visibly shaken when shown these photographs and refuses to discuss them further. Di Grazia, who’s had similar visions, postulates the extremely creepy theory that aliens, or “interdimensional beings” are using us remotely as “viewing pieces,” or for vicarious experiences or emotions, and when glitches in wiring occur (as happened to Elrod) we get a glimpse into what is truly going on, much like Neo with his deja vu of the cat in “The Matrix.”

dejacat
Glitchy kitty.

I began to wonder at this point in the film, if the whole thing was a hoax. However, if a hoax, it’s a poorly done one. There’s no real narrative to the documentary, neither Elrod nor his whiny girlfriend– both aging, chain smoking hipsters– are very likable or watchable. Elrod comes across as spoiled, temperamental, irreligious and lost. In fact, the prospect of another side to terrestrial existence clearly disconcerts the quasi-atheistic couple.

Another reason I don’t believe this docu is a hoax, is because I’ve had similar, though less dramatic, experiences myself. In 2004, after a ragingly high fever, and after nearly a year of suffering from recurring infections (causing the fevers), I started having visions much like Elrod describes. I saw spirits, streaks of “energy,” and what I think might have been angels or divine beings (I never did see big-eyed aliens though). These experiences gradually faded over the course of a month and lingered, sporadically, for months after that. During the “visions” I felt no fear whatsoever, and remained skeptical even while they were happening, assuming my brain had been fried from stress, pain, and fever. Even today I’m not entirely sure what exactly I was seeing.

Elrod visits Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment, a sort of summer camp for would-be mystics, which provides one of the few humorous points in the film. He also speaks to Roger Nelson, the coordinator of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research laboratory. In one experiment, they place small random 1/0 number generators (“electronic coin flippers”) at 65 locations around the globe, and notice that during emotionally fraught events, the devices stopped emitting equal numbers of 1s and 0s as they do under normal circumstances. This phenomena was seen not only on 9/11, but beginning four hours before the first tower was hit. Their theory is that humanity emits a collective “resonance” that impacts the number output.

Overall this was a somewhat sad, rambling documentary but the subject matter was so interesting that it kept me watching. Elrod’s struggle with his spiritual “abilities” versus the dearth of sustenance offered by organized religion– even the religions of the fringe variety– is poignant and at times difficult to watch, and is probably something we can all relate to on a lesser scale.