Contemplative Pause

contemplative pause meditative film series

How can art be used in service of a mission, toward a meaningful purpose? That’s the question I was set to address in a summer internship as part of my Master of Fine Arts program at California Institute of Integral Studies. I strongly believe that stories can be healing and lead us toward wholeness. My internship for Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico was a chance to put my beliefs into practice. Could I make something both beautiful and useful that wove teachings from their programs into a semblance of a story narrative that would be meditative and immersive?

At the end of the summer, I did a Q & A about my experience for my program’s blog on medium.com. I share it here for anyone who may have missed it there.

How did this project come about?

This project, which I call Contemplative Pause, arose initially because I wanted to dive more deeply into teachings from a year-long program I participated in at Upaya Zen Center. A group of 300 of us from around the world—representing a variety of religious and spiritual perspectives, not just Buddhism—met twice a month to consider how Buddhist wisdom can be used as fuel for action to make a positive difference in the world. As a service-offering culminating my year in the program, I produced a short, experimental documentary film telling the stories of nurses who provided frontline care for Covid-19 patients in the beginning of the pandemic. My first year of the MFA program coincided with this project. Our interdisciplinary arts workshops that year became an invaluable space for me to receive creative ideas and feedback from classmates and professors.

I wanted to build on the techniques I crafted in that project of creating multi-layered, abstracted visuals designed to focus the viewer deeply on the emotional tenor of the audio narrative. I did not want viewers to simply hear the nurses’ stories; I wanted viewers to have a visceral and bodily experience of their narratives. My question for this project was how might I use those same techniques to create an artful and meaningful contemplative experience from the raw material of over 30 talks given by a wide variety of teachers in Upaya’s program. Further, I wanted to explore how I might use the internship in our MFA curriculum to make art in service to an organization whose mission I admire. I was fortunate that Upaya Zen Center was open to the idea of having me use my internship to create such a project for them.

How did the internship and mentorship classes play a part in your process?

My intention with my summer mentorship with filmmaker and CIIS adjunct professor George Reyes was to expand my visual vocabulary and film techniques. George and I came up with a plan for me to produce short film experiments for our weekly meetings in which I would play with the interaction between sound, silence, voice, music, and visual imagery. I focused in these experiments on how I could use each element in concert with the others to encourage the viewer into deep reflection on the content. At the same time, I was sifting through approximately 50 hours of audio of the Upaya talks looking for short clips that could stand alone as powerful teachings without need for lengthy context. At first it was simply a matter of expedience to use the raw material from my internship project as the basis as the basis for my weekly film experiments in my mentorship. But very quickly I saw that the film results had even more potential for creating an immersive, reflective experience for viewers than the audio-only format I had originally envisioned for my internship project. The internship and mentorship ended up working together very synergistically, which had great benefits for my growth as an artist and the quality of the final project I produced for my internship.

How does this project fit in the context of your larger goals for your art?

The contemplative film series gave me extensive opportunities to test, experiment, and refine my visual techniques for illustrating narratives without relying on the standard “talking head” shots that are more typical of documentary film. I ended up with many experimental clips that never made it into the final project, which now gives me a library of visual ideas to draw from for future projects. At the encouragement of my mentor, I also began to research findings in psychology and neurology about how the brain receives and interprets visual and auditory information. I was fortunate to have access within the CIIS community to immediate resources to acquaint me with such research. Dr. Christine Brooks, a faculty member in the Expressive Arts Therapy Program within the School of Professional Psychology and Heath, graciously gave me an overview of the field and helped me situate my research in the most helpful context for my work. I am excited about the possibilities for insights from such research to help augment the intuitive approaches I am already using.

What’s your next project?

Next for me is a short documentary film in the same immersive, experiential style of my previous two projects. In this film, I will focus on a small group of American Zen Buddhist teachers who hold the master designation known as Roshi. Specifically, I want to highlight the experiences of women who were among the first of their gender to serve in this role. This film is part of an inquiry of mine that began with the nurses project to examine how individual stories can be combined to create a collective narrative in a way that respects the uniqueness of each individual’s story and also highlights the collective threads throughout them all.

IN THE MIDDLE OF THE TANGLE

THIS MOMENT

THE NATURE OF EVERYTHING

Manifesto reimagined

What if the word manifesto was not a dictum imposed on others but an invitation into your evolving purpose and practice in the world?
Manifesto by Studio-Lu

A recent assignment in my M.F.A. program called on us to write a manifesto for ourselves. My first thought was, “I have no idea how to write a manifesto!” Yet, the moment that thought evaporated, another was close on its heels: “Be particular.” It is a phrase my grandfather used often. Honestly, I am not 100% certain what he meant when he used it, but it became a catch phrase in our family over the years—a response that could suit more occasions than you would imagine. “Be particular” became the beginning of my manifesto.

More words followed easily. I pulled phrases from my website through the years and thoughts I realized had long been guiding principles behind my work. Voila. A Manifesto. Homework completed.

Sharing it with my writer’s circle after submitting it for class, my fellow writers liked the sentiments I expressed but bristled at the word “manifesto.” For most, it conjured notions of “manifest destiny,” of conquering and taking by force. These meanings are the antithesis of what we foster in our circle, where we cultivate deep listening and seek to nurture each of us as writers to find and live into our own voice.

I admitted to the same initial reaction. My feelings shifted, though, when I thought about manifesto as more akin to manifestation than dictum. With that lens, the word became more of an evolving process to me, a sense of creation and offering, rather than an imposed mandate. We talked about reimagining the word as coming from birthing rather than conquering and what that transformation might look like.

 

After the Manifesto by Craig Buckley Columbia University
Searching to see how others are thinking about manifesto in this day and age, I found a book called After the Manifestoedited by Craig Buckley and published by Columbia University Press. While Buckley investigates manifesto in terms of architecture, he captures the spectrum of viewpoints on it in a way that is applicable to uses of manifesto in any genre. Of the various reactions he mentions, I find myself in the “protean camp” at the moment, willing to re-vision what this word means, repurpose it to be more fitting now and into the future. In the spirit of manifesto as an invitation to growth, evolution, purpose and practice in the world,  I offer you my mine. What’s yours? Or, what’s a better word than manifesto that can accompany us with ongoing relevance?
MANIFESTO | BE PARTICULAR  ©2022 Lucy Mathews Heegaard.

A Story of Nurses

An immersive, audio-driven, essay film that bears witness to the experiences of nurses providing care to Covid19 patients at the beginning of the pandemic 

“I don’t know who I am anymore.” The comment gave me chills. Spoken by a healthcare provider who had faced agonizing, life-and-death decisions about patient care in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, I was hearing the comment quoted in a talk by Cynda Rushton (PhD, MSN, RN, FAAN). A colleague of Dr. Rushton’s had made the remark when confiding feelings of mental and spiritual distress to her. Rushton is Professor of Clinical Ethics in the Berman Institute of Bioethics and the School of Nursing at Johns Hopkins University. Her book, Moral Resilience: Transforming Moral Suffering in Healthcare, delves into the moral dilemmas many healthcare professionals face as part of their jobs and the burnout that often results.

The talk was part of a year-long program I participated in at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, during 2021. We met twice a month online to hear speakers and consider ways that Buddhist teachings could anchor and fuel actions to help alleviate suffering in the world. Each of us was tasked with designing our own service project as part of the program. When I heard Dr. Rushton recount her colleague’s anguish, I felt a call to bear witness to the suffering I heard in this statement about loss of identity and knew I had found my project.

Of all healthcare professionals, I chose nurses because they struck me as the frontline of the frontline. In April of last year, I posted an invitation on my website to nurses who had provided direct care to Covid patients. The pandemic had been underway a little over a year, but vaccinations had begun and held promise for relief. I realized I was making a difficult request to ask nurses to revisit memories of what they experienced as they provided care, but I hoped that what felt like a small lull in the pandemic’s progression would offer space for such conversations. My goal was to record audio of a variety of voices offering first-hand perspectives and to create from them a story that reflected the collective experience—a story that would be art as much as documentary, that would connect viewers with feelings rather than facts and statistics, and that would capture what ER, ICU, and Covid unit nurses saw and felt as they cared for patients.

Author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “To listen to a witness is to become one.” I wanted those of us, like myself, who had been safely on the sidelines during the pandemic, to become witnesses—to feel the weight and depth of the experiences endured by nurses in a way that words alone cannot adequately convey. And by reflecting the real and raw narratives nurses shared with me, I hoped the project would offer them a sense of feeling seen, heard, and valued.

From May through September last year, I amassed ten hours of audio through one-on-one conversations by phone or Zoom. Typically, in editing a project, the “sound bites” that move me will leap out as I re-listen to an interview. I know how to distill an hour’s worth of raw material into five minutes that capture the essence of what was said. But this story was different. Many of the nurses spoke in present tense as they remembered moments and narrated them to me. They spoke with an urgency, vulnerability, and authenticity that made me feel I was right there with them. Countless times as I listened and re-listened, I had to stop to take off my headphones and weep. “If I am feeling all of this emotional intensity second-hand,” I kept thinking to myself, “how on earth did it feel to be in these nurses’ shoes?”

Every minute of every interview felt essential. I realized quickly that the nurses’ voices and words carried so much power that my job was to help the viewer listen as deeply as possible. I created the film’s imagery to draw the audience into the emotion of the story rather than to illustrate each moment literally.

“I don’t know if anyone else has talked about all the death,” one nurse said. “It’s not just that they died, it’s how they died.” Unwittingly, she had summarized the common thread of all my interviews. “I’m tired of witnessing so many crappy deaths,” another said. Nurses described the pain of seeing people die without their loved ones present; of struggling to show compassion and care, while covered head to toe in PPE; of yelling through two masks and a face shield to be heard over the sound of a ventilator; of witnessing patients kept alive on machines as their bodies became unrecognizable from their former selves. “We’re moving into a place for which there are no words,” one concluded. “And that was essentially every day.”

Not every nurse who contacted me about the project chose to participate. I traded correspondence with twice as many people as I interviewed. One nurse sent a message back saying, “I may have too much anger, at the moment. Plenty of stories but may be blocked right now.” Even these short exchanges helped inform the film. Of those with whom I spoke, most echoed at least some level of anger, in addition to the fear and grief that may be the more expected storylines of their experiences. Most also admitted that they had barely begun to process all that they had been through. They all affirmed that the relationships they had with their fellow nurses were vital to their ability to bear the circumstances.

By the time of my last interview in September, the landscape of the pandemic had shifted again. The Delta variant was causing a new surge. When I was finishing production of the film in late December, Omicron was usurping Delta. As we have learned more about how to protect ourselves from the virus over these past two years and as the medical community has learned more about how to treat it, the stories from the beginning of the pandemic began to stand out to me as unique because of how little we knew in the face of such a deadly, fast-moving threat. As one nurse said, “We didn’t know what we were dealing with, but we knew we were the ones who had to deal with it.”

Even as the pandemic continues to stress the healthcare system, it is clear that many of us have become accustomed to the successive surges, new variants, and the existence of vaccines that bolster people’s ability to survive the illness. I wondered if we may have already lost touch with the precarious uncertainty that pervaded the pandemic’s beginning. This thought brought me back to my mission to bear witness through this film and reminded me of what one of the first nurses who responded to my invitation wrote to me: “I want to offer my story for this project to be of service to the memory of what we, as nurses, have experienced. This time should not be forgotten.” Through our bearing witness to the stories of the nurses in this film, may we become witnesses ourselves in service to the memory of this time, that it not be forgotten.