To see the world in a mud puddle

CC Jean Stimmell

Some might call me a heathen for rejecting established religion. At least I’m not alone as I found out from an article in the Monitor last week: What’s your Religion? In US, a common reply now is “None’”

It turns out, 29% of us are not affiliated; if we were a church, we would be the largest religious group in the United States. Some are atheists, some agnostics, but many, like me, are spiritual. I agree with what one of the unaffiliated folks, previously a Catholic, said in the article: “It just means finding meaning and perhaps spirituality without practicing a religion …pulling from whatever makes sense of me or whatever fits with my values.”

Facing my fourth cancer has prompted me to look more closely at what makes my life meaningful. While I am comforted and buoyed up by something bigger than myself, it is not that bearded, old, white man in the sky. My spirituality, instead, comes from my Buddhist outlook coupled with my identity with Mother Earth.

Nevertheless, I still experience sacred moments with a sense of awe. For instance, just centering my breath on the present moment can induce a sublime sense of oneness, causing an involuntary smile to spread across my face: I am not my puny self anymore but tethered securely within a living Earth and the cosmos beyond.

I’m attracted to Buddhism because it provides a pathway toward living a meaningful life, not by worshipping a supreme being but by coming to terms with who I am within an impermanent world. It is now paying dividends by helping me deal with the uncertainty of my medical prognosis. Like being drenched with a bucket of ice-cold water, cancer has woken me up to the present moment,

An American Tibetan Buddhist, Pema Chodron, said it best: “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land. To experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again.”

Connected to my Buddhist sensibility is my bond to the Earth. I identify with what Pablo Casals, the great cellist, wrote about nature’s mastery: “I do not think a day passes in my life in which I fail to look with fresh amazement at the miracle of nature. It is there on every side. It can be simply a shadow on a mountainside, or a spider’s web gleaming with dew, or sunlight on the leaves of a tree.”

Casals’ ability to be present in the living moment was extraordinary, reminding me of William Blake’s famous quote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.

Or this from another of Blake’s poems:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour. “

I get fleeting epiphanies like this from my photography. I like to carry my camera with me because it forces me to slow down and actually see what is in front of me: a magical shadow on a rock, a hidden world in an ice crystal, or heaven in a mud puddle.

I am secure in my faith now, but as a young man, I was agnostic or worse. Christian Wiman has written a profound and poetic book: “My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer,” addressing folks who believe in God. I am cheeky enough to think it also applies to me:

When I assented to the faith that was latent within me- and I phrase it carefully, deliberately, for there was no white light, no ministering or avenging angel that tore my life in two; rather it seemed as if the tiniest seed of belief had finally flowered in me, or, more accurately, as if I had happened upon some rare flower deep in the desert and had known, though I was just then discovering it, that it had been blooming impossibly year after parched year in me, surviving all the seasons of my unbelief.



Wiman, Christian (2013–04–02). My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (p. 1). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition. Page 10

Please note: I wrote the following essay in response to a Monitor article from last week. In no way do I mean to detract from the joy and sacredness of this Christmas holiday which I savor as much as anyone

Originally published at



psychotherapist, photographer, wonderer…a barnacle clinging to Earth Mother’s toe

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Jean Stimmell

psychotherapist, photographer, wonderer…a barnacle clinging to Earth Mother’s toe