The Bieber, The Sufis, and Fixing Our Deepest Fear

Because it’s early days here, one thing you don’t know about me is that I looove all kinds of music. (There are two exceptions: hard-core rap and Phish.) I listen to Pandora,, alternative stations, random YouTube stuff, and a lot of Top 40.

Forgive me about the Top 40.
(There is no accounting for some people’s taste, I know!)

I believe that music is sacred, in all its forms (I may not like them all, but they are all sacred). And also that music, like a lot of pop culture, offers spaces where sacred ideas can shine through. 

I think this is one of the ways the Divine plays hide-and-seek with us: hiding Her truths in obvious places we would never think to look. Like pop music, or ridiculous TV shows, or lines from movies.

So, I was listening to Justin Beiber’s “All Around the World” (ft. Ludacris) and realized some of his lyrics speak the modern version of an old Sufi teaching.


Roof of the tomb of Hafez, Sufi poet


The Sufis ‘Open Secret’

The Sufi teaching is one of my favorite spiritual ideas. It’s called The Open Secret.
The Sufis understand that all humans have a deep, dark secret: they feel alone.
Sad and alone.

And (insult to injury) they feel ashamed about it.
Because – look! – everyone else seems to be connected. (So why aren’t I?)

And because humans feel alone and ashamed of being alone, they never reach out to anyone.
So they keep feeling alone.

The open secret is: everyone feels this way.
To some extent or another.
And we all know it.

If you pay even the slightest attention inside yourself, you will feel and see this: you feel slightly alone, and you notice that guy two desks away sure looks alone. This ‘secret’ is rather obvious.


Man sitting alone on the beach with his back to the camera


There are other open secrets:

We’re afraid to be all of who we are.

We all want to be happy.

We prefer to get numb instead of getting real.


These are all open secrets in our Western, post-modern world.
But if you say them out loud, people would turn and walk away from you.
They will think you are weird. Or they will think you are obvious- and we don’t pay attention to obvious people.

But ideas like connection, authenticity, happiness, and courage get Hallmarked into unrecognizable states and are given short shrift in most places. Unless you’re on a woo-woo website, or reading a self-help book, or going to a personal coach we’re not allowed to say these things:

  • I am afraid to live fully.
  • I want to be seen and loved.
  • I don’t know what to do.
  • I need connection.
  • I am afraid to take the step I know is right.

Unless you can slip them into a catchy song.

Thank you, Justin Beiber.

He sings:
“Cuz all around the world/
people want to be loved/
All around the world/
they’re no different than us.”

It’s not a new idea or hook, but it’s true.
We all want to be loved.
All of us.

And that idea alone connects us.

When we ‘tell’ the secret of our aloneness, it disappears.


hand reaching out to connect


Telling the Open Secret

How do you ‘tell’ an open secret then?

You sing this song in your car.
And tell people what you like about it.

And maybe, just maybe, you find a connection.
Like, ‘Hey, Joanna, I dig that song, too, even though I detest Justin Beiber.’

You tell the truth, basically.

And you do this about your work.
Or your kids.
Or your hatred of arugula.
Or your quilting bee.
Or your fondness for chipmunks.

One small step at a time, you tell the truth.
And when you are brave enough to do that, other people will be able to tell that same truth, too.
Maybe even other truths.

And in that way, we become connected.
As soon as we admit to feeling alone, we are no longer alone.
Because someone else will say, “me, too.”

There is no need to feel alone. Or to be ashamed of your alone-ness.
Once you say you are alone, you are no longer alone.


picture of a hand, holding a white card, with the words "You Are Not Alone" printed on it.



On Trying Tantra And It Not Working Like I Thought It Would

Let’s start with this picture: I agree with the quote, but why (why?!?) do all Tantra dudes look like this? Cut your hair and stop taking yourself so seriously.


photograph of couple in tantric embrace

So, I’m exploring the whole ‘Sex as Spiritual Practice’ thing.

It’s the latest in a long road of practices I’ve either wanted to investigate and experiment with or things I was…um…directed to do by the Divine. (God is a funny lady, okay? She’s got a terrible sense of humor and lots of guidance!)

I started exploring the overlapping areas between spirituality and sexuality when I was going through a super-huge hormonal upswing (libido through the roof) and didn’t know what to make of it. Tantra immediately sprung to mind since Sting gave it all that press for the hours-long orgasms.

I’ve done some reading on Tantra (love Urban Tantra by Barbara Carellas) and have practiced some of the techniques in the books I’ve read. Mostly I love the Tantric concepts that the body is a temple and its orgasmic energy can aid the development of the soul and that we can make love with all of Life.

Really, the concept that we can make love with all of Life is what made me want to explore more. When I think about that concept, when I pull it into my heart, everything inside me opens up and gets all squishy and tingly and wild.

If a spiritual concept can do that to me, why wouldn’t I try it?


photo of tantric temple carving

 Don’t forget, they used to build temples dedicated to this stuff.

Using the Knowledge: Down and Dirty

Okay, so, I’ve read the books, tried some stuff, and experimented with Taking Life as my Lover (more posts on that in the future). In the last few months I’ve really been considering taking a class, though. I wanted to get some guidance and wisdom from someone who’s already been on the path awhile.

So I signed up for a week-long class where the focus was ‘Sex, Magic, and Manifestation.’ The core of the class is just to practice basic Tantric principles: building orgasmic energy, not climaxing before it’s time to, breathing techniques, and sending that lovely orgasmic energy to something we care about (or wanted to manifest).

Sounds good, yes?

It has been, but not in the way I expected.

First night out, I did as directed. I made a sacred space, kept it warm, and set my intention (what I wanted to manifest).

I did a little ‘pre-practice’ work with my love muscles (which is not a term I dig). The love muscles are the pubo-coxygeal muscles- they control your ability to stop yourself urinating – squeeze them and you stop pottying. Squeeze them at other times and you get an automatic orgasmic jump. (Try it, you’ll see!)

Then I started in with the practice. I began to ‘pleasure myself’ – which, if you’re over the age of 14 and not all religiously hung-up, you know exactly how to do.

And then I started adding in the breathing technique we were supposed to use. As I breathed in, I imagined energy coming up from the Earth, into the base of my spine and travelling up to my heart. As I exhaled, I was to imagine the energy going back down from my heart to the Earth.

If I felt like it, the instructor said I could add the tense/release practice with the ‘love muscles’ as well. So I added that to the mix.

And I held on to all three of those things for about 37 seconds before I broke into full-belly laughter. My mind could not take it.


artistic picture of the chaos of tantric overload- many colors and shapes

 Inside my brain during my first Tantra practice.

Combining everything did not feel sexy (or spiritual) at all!

And it didn’t feel spiritual or soulful. It felt like my brain was on fire, trying to manage all the different processes happening.

This was not working like I thought it would.
So I had a good laugh at my own expense.

And in the laughing and the crumbling of the practice and feeling a little frustrated and overwhelmed I realized: when I start out with a new practice, I need to keep it simple. There are Buddhist initiation rites that call for extensive preparation, symbolic decorating, and even testing of the initiate. But I sure as shootin’ wasn’t at that stage.

I am at the training wheels stage of Tantra.


meditation and tantra picture of generic body with energetic symbols overlaid in many colors

I think this is the advanced practitioner.

If I practiced self-pleasuring and the breathing at the same time, that would have to be enough. I could be a beginner and not a perfectionist. The point, after all, was to connect with my soul – not to help my mind stay in control.

The other thing I noticed was the fact that I fell into a fit of laughter when the practice fell apart. That I was kind of blown-away by.

Any spiritual practice that makes you laugh when you’re feeling overloaded is a keeper.

I think the fact that I did laugh at that exact moment of feeling so mentally stretched shows the core principle and value of Tantra: experiencing the luscious juiciness that lives in your body. And how that body-fullness can provide a funny, voluptuous, and soft way of living in the world.

I didn’t want to ask forgiveness or sit still or flail myself to ‘correct’ what had happened. I just wanted to laugh it off and try again. I think this is the first time I’ve really had a practice that accepted and encouraged such a thing.

Yes, Tantra, we like you- but not in the way I thought we would.
And I definitely want to hang out with you some more.




51 Things Your Spirit Can Do With Music

  1. Dance
  2. Hum
  3. Jiggle
  4. Tap
  5. Snap
  6. Jump
  7. Touch
  8. Sleep
  9. Make love (with yourself)
  10. Make love (with someone else)
  11. Dream
  12. Fuck
  13. Sweat
  14. Lie to yourself
  15. Lie to someone else
  16. Receive messages
  17. Feel yourself
  18. Relax
  19. Feel alive
  20. Change your mood
  21. Tell the truth
  22. Wander
  23. Discern
  24. Connect
  25. Redeem yourself
  26. Redeem someone else
  27. Forgive
  28. Die
  29. Weep
  30. Sink in
  31. Be Reborn
  32. Mosh
  33. Remember
  34. Relive
  35. Reclaim
  36. Stretch
  37. Hold
  38. Accept
  39. Walk
  40. Run
  41. Fly
  42. Breathe
  43. Heal
  44. Let Go
  45. Trust
  46. Giggle
  47. Wiggle
  48. Laugh
  49. Scream
  50. Adore
  51. Surrender

For the past few months I have been practicing 5 Rhythms- a type of ecstatic dance that connects mind, body, and soul (and heals them). This list comprises what I have learned through sweating my prayers.



Why I Just Can’t With “Nebraska Jesus”

Not unlike a lot of people, I left my childhood faith when I went to college. I spent four years in high school devoted to Protestant Christianity – Presbyterian-style. I loved almost everything about my church, my youth group, my faith community. I felt connected and cared for by those groups.

Because of my church, I had great resources to turn to when I needed help- resources that were not my parents, which I was grateful for as a teenager. And I got to have fun and explore my inner world at an important phase of my life – I learned early to listen to my heart and connect with my soul.

But when I got to college, the god they had shown me –a god I accepted and deeply loved- was too small. This may sound funny because I come from a metropolitan city. (Or at least the suburbs of a metropolitan city.) You’d think I would be exposed to lots of things. But not really. And certainly not through my church.

My church (as I think most churches do) drew a very small circle around “Us” and “Things that Are Okay For Us.” As I learned when I got to college, a lot of life was outside that circle. The god inside that circle was pretty small, too. (Both by necessity and design, I think.) The god they offered could not describe or categorize all the things I saw when I went to college.

What I saw in the world included:

  • Couples of the same gender who looked just fine to me; not at all sinful.
  • Books like Lady Chatterly’s Lover and MAUS.
  • Ideas such as re-writing Bible stories from another characters perspective.
  • People having sex before marriage and remaining healthy (and maintaining healthy relationships).

Oh, the bogeymen of adolescent religious guidelines.

The god I was given in high school couldn’t hold these things in his creation. The boundaries of his creation was too small for what I saw, heard, and felt in my freshman year of college.

I needed a bigger god, but I didn’t know how to find or make one.
So I quit god.


Nebraska Jesus

I grew up with a Jesus that looked like this.


Traditional Jesus image from 1960s prayer cards.


Basically, he looked like my Dad and all the guys on the church softball team when I was six.
That creamy, smooth Caucasian skin.
The nicely trimmed moustache.
Willowy arms.
Light eyes.
The blondy-brown hair, cut long (‘cause that was the style in Judea, right?!?).

Basically, Jesus looked like someone from 1970s Nebraska. Or a member of ABBA. He obviously got his eyebrows waxed on a regular basis.

I remember feeling somewhat betrayed, but also calmed, when I saw a more historically and culturally accurate picture of what Jesus looked like.




A man of Middle-Eastern descent.
Dark skin.
Dark hair.
Dark eyes.
A working, heavy, muscular body.

By the time I saw this image, I was old enough to realize that it was truer to the historical, actual human, Jesus than the Nebraska Jesus picture. I felt calmed because this was the Truth about the human Jesus. I also felt betrayed because the ‘real’ picture told me (again) that my religion didn’t really care about the truth.

They preferred to worship what was comfortable.
That which was recognizable.
That which was ‘like us.’


Truth and Religion (‘Cuz That Isn’t A Hot Mess To Get Into)

Now, I can’t really blame them- the designers of religion. We all do this. It’s so much easier to connect to things that are familiar and similar to what we already know. I get that. I sure as hell wish my path was familiar and easy and similar to something I already knew.

I guess what upsets me is, by using that picture, my childhood religion made god small. And instead of offering me a picture of Truth, they offered me a picture of Easy. And god is not easy. Nor small.

When I quit god it was – at least partly – because they hadn’t taught me that god was flexible and large. I had to learn that on my own. I don’t suppose the culture of any religion is really concerned with the largeness or flexibility of god. They just want the parts of god that work for them.

But that’s just not good enough for me anymore. Because it’s not the truth. Nebraska Jesus is nice (easy on the eyes, actually), but he’s not the truth. I prefer the difficulty of a Jesus who doesn’t look like me and a complex god, because I believe that is the Truth. And I am concerned with Truth.

If we don’t have Truth as a requirement or tool on our path, we have very little to work with.


Working with Truth and Its Difficulty

They mystical path is more difficult, but also more prized (IMHO), because we ask “what is the Truth?” we ask “Who am I?” and “What is God?” and “What is the Truth of Life?” And we don’t have any pat answers to trot out and make life easy.

These are tough questions. Complex, large, and frightening to many. What if the answers are different, bigger, or include more people, ideas, or technologies than we had imagined?

Ah, well, then we get a chance to glimpse the real God, don’t we?
God is bigger than all of it.

Even bigger than what I believe is Truth. (Which is painful to admit. I would also like My Way to be The Way.)

But that is the point, I believe.
To discover, over and over again, just how big, how utterly unknown God is to us.

I have no tidy way to tie these ideas together. Just to notice, and remind myself, God is complex. God is big. Vast. And there is no way around that. It is both frightening and comforting.

And it is the Truth (whether we like it or not).