Water as a Spiritual Teacher
On Learning to be Strange to Yourself
by June Xie
Interview with June Xie
William Hopkins: What is your favorite subject so far?
June Xie: Blurriness and wistful wonder.
WH: Do you prefer to photograph people or places? Or neither?
JX: I prefer to photograph life — things that seem to have breath in them, even if they happen to be technically inanimate. However, I try to remember that sometimes the best way to capture it all is with my eyes, and not with the lens.
WH: What technique or theme excites you the most? Why?
JX: I like pictures of the accidental and the random moments in life. Sometimes, I enjoy just clicking the shutter button without really looking at what I'm taking a photo of until it's uploaded on to my computer. I also gravitate towards macro photography because I get to see the details of a magnified subject that are often too invisible to my eyes.
WH: Why do you do photography?
JX: During my senior year of high school, my father encouraged me to take some photos of my school before graduation. At that time, I was against the idea of photography. The idea of keeping memories externally - of keeping, through photos, memories that your brain can't hold on its own - bothered me. (I hadn't thought of photography as an art form until more recently.) My father seemed determined to get me to record my life, so I took his point-and-shoot camera to school and snapped pictures of my classmates, my teachers, the hallways, and classrooms.
... Now, I have a job as a campus photographer, for which I am very grateful. It gives me the opportunity - and the perfect excuse! - to attend many more events than I ordinarily would. I've also learned in the past year that many students really appreciate having their lives on campus documented, so photography has become a very fulfilling activity for me. There is so much to see — perhaps too much to see. I find that, sometimes, I don't perceive these things as individual items until I stop and put a frame around them. It becomes easier for me to truly focus on the elements captured in the picture.
"It is an ongoing yarnball being unfurled in my head, and that was just a piece of the knot I had at that time."
"Much of living in this world for me is gaining perspective, learning to let go of a current (and comfortably stable) idea of the self. I'm still having a lot of trouble with doing just that; peace, balance within the self is a constant struggle."
-- June Xie
On Being Strange to Yourself: A JJB Reflection
A friend told me I had to watch Aquaphobia by June Xie. I didn't want to at first, because I rarely enjoy anything I have to watch, and also because I love and trust water. It's the closest thing I know to God except maybe music and dogs.
I watched it anyway, and I am so glad I watched it. I find myself grateful to water for being so strange. And grateful to June Xie, too. You can learn about her by reading an interview with her at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, where she went to college.
June Xie reminds us that a healthy spirituality lies in letting go of a current (and comfortably stable) idea of the self. She admits that she is still have trouble doing that. Aren't we all?
But I suspect there's a whole lot of spirituality in struggle, too. There's a beauty in imbalance that cannot be contained by balance. Peace that is too balanced becomes stagnant.
Harmony is Not Sameness, and
Sometimes It's a Little Imbalanced, Too
In JJB we often use the word harmony as a synonym for peace. We speak of spirituality as desiring to be in harmony with other people, with the natural world, with heaven, and with ourselves. These are the four kinds of harmony to which Zhang Zai (1020-1077) points. He was a Chinese philosopher in the Song dynasty, and he wrote the Western Inscription, a short article with only 253 Chinese characters. You will find a discussion of it in Can China Find its Soul? by Haipeng Guo.
Perhaps we all know that if we are to dwell in harmony with other people and the natural world, and perhaps even with heaven, we need to appreciate and celebrate their diversity, their uniqueness, their strangeness. Heaven must be so strange, but drops of water are, too.
But in her video June Xie invites us to be strange to ourselves. If we are too comfortable inside our skin -- if we know what we think and where we stand -- we miss something deep and wonderful. We lack awareness of the many perspectives on life, and we lack awareness that we are ourselves many lives, moment by moment, each of which is a perspective. We live our lives drop by drop...one drop of experience at a time.
This is what process theology teaches us. It reminds us that our very souls are not self-same substances that endure over time, but rather a series of experiences. We are not things but moments. This moment and then this moment and then this moment.
And the truth is that no two moments are alike. Each moment is a coming together -- a concrescence -- of heaven and earth, and they are always changing. As heaven and earth change so we change. It is all so fluid.
I remember a Zen teacher being asked how the world was created and she lifted up one finger. With that single act, she explained, a new world was created, a world that did not exist prior to that moment.
Indeed, says June Xie, life is a lot like water. So strange, so fluid, so scary, so different. And isn't peace strange, too? A static peace that remains fixed, devoid of change, would be suffocating.
Yes, water can be our teacher. Perhaps heaven is a perpetual invitation to let go of false stabilities which are always different, always strange, and so often immensely beautiful, precisely in their strangeness. Heaven wants us to fear water for water's sake and for our own sake, too.
Only when we delight in strangeness can we know the beautiful. Only when we are not entirely comfortable within our own skins can we know the happiness -- the peace -- that surpasses all understanding, in ways forever strange.
-- Jay McDaniel