Tricycle Film Club

Buddhist films and discussion for the
Tricycle Community

January Film Club: American Mystic

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Set against the rich, color-soaked backdrop of America's rural landscapes, American Mystic is a bold documentary that braids together the stories of three young Americans who have chosen to sacrifice comforts in order to embrace the fringes of alternative religion. The film follows Chuck, a Lakota Sioux sundancer in the badlands of South Dakota; Morpheus, a pagan priestess living off the grid in northern California's old mining country; and Kublai, a Spiritualist medium in the former revivalist district of upstate New York. In the radical, separatist spirit of early America, each has extracted himself from the mainstream in order to live immersed in his faith and seize a different way of life. It is a film, as one critic wrote, about "people's struggle to maintain their deeply held beliefs in a world that doesn't share them."

The film's director, Alex Mar, will be available to answer questions about the making of the film throughout the month. Have a question? Go ahead and post it in the comments below, and Alex will get back to you.

 

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James Mullaney's picture

Thanks for this. It put me in mind of Jungian psychology - how every Path is an expression of the Self. There's no "wrong way." You can't make a mistake.

mel_sweetnam's picture

Fascinating film, and beautifully made. I found myself curious for more information about the belief system/cosmology within which each of the profiled individuals’ practices are embedded. There was a little more of that context provided for/by Morpheus and Kublai than for Chuck, I felt, but perhaps on another viewing I may glean more. I found myself thinking a lot about another documentary I saw recently called “Godless” about the growing popularity in North America of atheist and agnostic churches, and the challenges that members have in the US, particularly Texas, exercising their freedom of thought and religion. As a Canadian it’s endlessly fascinating, and perturbing, to observe a country where a constitutional amendment guarantees freedom of religion, but the tyranny of a narrowly defined version of just one path constantly seeks to thwart the exercising of that right. I was horrified to recently learn that there are states in the US where atheists currently are barred from public service and/or elected office. So this film made me feel deeply the courage of people like Morpheus, Kublai and Chuck, walking their own spiritual paths in the midst of such culturally dominant forces for religious hegemony. I’m very grateful to them, and to the film’s Director - we have so much to learn from other traditions, and they are keeping alive the history, knowledge, insights and practices of some of the bountiful paths of our common human quest.

Dot Luce's picture

I found the film touching, a reminder of my own various paths, when I was younger. I haven't lost the seeker's mind, I hope, but am more settled in the Buddhist practice of zazen, and precepts for now.
Thank you for Remembrance of Things Past.

David Gould's picture

This was a fascinating film. Fascinating because it portrayed faith - and a very real faith component, outside the American Judeo-Christian mainstream. They seemed to be real practitioners of a faith and not simply using components of a faith - something that we see with people who "do meditation", or even like Tibetan Buddhist chanting, but yet don't identify as Buddhists.

TW77's picture

very cool and inspirational. I wish I could go to that valley for 4 days and 4 nights! I love when people are so open about their spirituality (I'm not). The part where they are singing "row, row, row your boat" was sort of creepy. I'd love to get to hang out with all 3. I always wanted to know about Wicca so that was very interessting. And I'm not native but always felt a connection, maybe a past life. I wonder where the single guy will be in ten years!

The score was subtle but key.

Good job...love it!!

Jfree's picture

This was a nice movie that was beautifully filmed with very interesting subject matter. Thank you, tricycle for presenting it to us.

tanmcg's picture

Thank you for this work!

I liked how their individual stories knit together with more similarities than differences. I also appreciated the footage of Chuck given that Idle No More is turning out to be a global reawakening of Native American voices.

Great work!

johnrosset's picture

I thought this was an exceptionally well done movie, bringing the seekers, as well as their families, communities, and physical environments, to life in an incredibly personal, tangible way. Despite the obvious differences between traditions, the film was able to link them in ways that demonstrated the universal nature of the spiritual quest (I found myself thinking repeatedly of Gandhi's "Truth is one, paths are many").

rioss's picture

This film is all about seeking, a word that the narrator introduces to the audience towards the end of the film maybe sooner. It's about seeking, finding, and walking the path which we feel will help us with the search for truth and meaning in our lives. We all walk the path whether we want to or not. Some people are more aware of the fact than others. These three people have shared their unusual paths with us, but every single human being could be the subject of a similar film even though some have certainly strayed or lost sight of the path.

Alex Mar's picture

Thanks, rioss. The major theme of the film for me -- and I say this over and over -- is the search for meaning. And I agree that, across faiths and backgrounds and divergent identities, this is a search that universally human.

sionedwynn's picture

my first Tricycle film - I enjoyed it very much, more than I'd expected. Interesting to see from a UK perspective - I have been on a pagan path and am quite familiar with that, but the other two were less familiar to me.
An interesting choice of film, not what expected!

Alex Mar's picture

Hi, sionedwynn. How interesting that watched the film from a UK-Pagan perspective! If you don't mind, would you tell us more about what stood out for you as a result of that? Were you surprised by some of the practices in an American context?

And would you mind telling us what tradition you practice as a British Pagan (only if you're comfortable with that)?

dixraile's picture

I was deeply moved by many aspects of this film. As a native Montanan turned Vajrayana Buddhist and deeply immersing myself in that living in a dharma center in California for almost 6 years I am now back in Montana; Gods country in more than one way. So many times I must keep my spiritual beliefs hidden so not to offend or call ridicule upon myself. In a country that was founded upon religious freedom we do such a fine job of taking that freedom away from one another. The Indians were not allowed to practice the Sundance for many, many years as a result of religious prejudice and still keep it very private because people may not understand what appears to be self inflicted cruelty.
I think this film is long overdue and should be shown in schools and at 4th of July picnics! Spiritual diversity needs to be honored and celebrated. There are many roads up the mountain; I hope we all meet up there someday! Thanks so much for this film.

Alex Mar's picture

Thank you, dixraile. My hope in making this film was that it could be a small step towards acknowledging how diverse spiritual practice is in this country, how fascinating and rich that can be, and the need for tolerance of those many paths. During production, it also became increasingly clear how much each of these groups/individuals shared in common even across such different traditions -- and I think that's possibly the closest this doc comes to sharing a "message."

roadrunner's picture

I enjoyed the journey into the lives of practitioners. While it may not be mainstream I found it relieving that people are actually living out the purity of their practice no matter the current expectation of the day. The sundancer inspired me to do what it takes to be one with that higher spirit. Sometimes the 'spiritual" world is misconstrued with comfort. It takes a phenomenal amount of dedication in order to truly know something other than humanism. And so it is. Thanks for the work on the film..

Alex Mar's picture

Thanks for watching, roadrunner. And I agree with you that comfort and spirituality often don't walk hand in hand. That's why I wanted to include subjects in the film who were clearly making sacrifices, in one way or another, in order to live by their beliefs...

mpuenteduany's picture

I really enjoyed this film. I had made the connection between paganism (or witchcraft) and Buddhism some time ago, especially referencing the simililarities between European witchcraft with Tibbetan Bon. At least in my experience, it has been more difficult fo find legitimate practitioners of witchcraft (as opposed to people who enjoy to dress up and do rituals) than to find legitimate practitioners of Buddhism. In any case, thank you for this wonderful presentation of mystical experiences!

Alex Mar's picture

I'm glad you enjoyed the film! It's interesting that you were already familiar with Pagan practice in this country -- it really is a growing phenomenon right now.

I think this difficulty you say you've had in finding "legitimate" witchcraft practitioners makes a bit of sense: there definitely is a Pagan "lifestyle" thing happening, supported by that community's larger festivals and gatherings, that has little to do with how seriously individuals practice. I have, however, encountered many dedicated covens across the country, and their level of dedication often has a relationship to their level of privacy and the length of time required for training within that coven. To put it simply, as with most spiritual traditions, serious Craft practice requires that you walk the walk before you talk the talk, with years of study taking precedent over, say, a great-looking velvet cape...

Alex Caring-Lobel's picture

Alex,
How did you find these three people? Was it difficult go get them to agree to be filmed?

Alex Mar's picture

Hi, Alex. The casting process was really an extended one -- I traveled the country on and off for almost 6 months before deciding we were ready. The challenge was not only to gain people's trust, since spirituality is a pretty intimate thing to talk about and share with others, but also to find individuals who were comfortable and accessible on camera. Then there was the added question of, Are we striking the right balance between all three subjects, in terms of the range of their practices, the region of the country they live in, and what's going on in their lives? And as far as agreeing to be filmed, that's always a delicate thing -- but more often than not people are eager to share their stories, and keeping your approach and your crew quite lowkey and intimate definitely helps.

Jim Spencer's picture

I thought that the sun dancer and the witch had a clear and purposeful path that they were following while the spiritualist seemed rather lost. The bending of the silverware seems to serve no purpose other than the demonstration that the individual has acquired the ability to manipulate their environment, akin to the old zen stories of monks crossing rivers on leaves and hats, etc. As an end, these seem pointless. As an interesting by-product of practice, okay, but then get over them.

Thank you, Tricycle, for giving us this look into what our neighbors are up to.

Alex Mar's picture

Thanks for your thoughts on the film, Jim. It's been interesting for me to see the range of reactions viewers have had to each of the portraits. I definitely captured the young Spiritualist, Kublai, at a different stage in his life than the other two subjects: he's just out of college and back home working just to make ends meet as he tries to suss out a future for himself. He's long been dedicated to a unique spiritual practice -- Spiritualism, which does not typically attract people at his young age -- and he's becoming increasingly determined to make that a more central part of his identity and his future. But the questioning and unsteadiness of his age does come through at times, I agree.

As far as the spoon-bending, you are correct that it's a demonstration. Those kinds of "phenomena" -- as well as the group sessions in which messages from the dead are supposedly delivered by Spiritualist mediums (as shown in the film in the woods of Lily Dale) -- are included as a nod to the history of Spiritualism. Back in the early days of the religion, the mid- and late 1800s, the community believed it would be a helpful way to build public awareness and to invite outsiders into a deeper exploration of the possibility of life continuing after death. So spoon-bending is not a spiritual practice, per se, but more of an exercise, included in "American Mystic" as a historical reference and an image some viewers might already be familiar with.

Jim Spencer's picture

Yes, Kublai is young. Thanks for the reminder. He is to be commended for his dedication to his path, that is very true. He is setting an example for others of his age, an example that it is okay to question and explore things outside the norm, and also that we shouldn't be afraid at that young age of appearing to be different.

I have counted a few spoon benders, dowsers and mediums among my friends over the years. I need to remember that, even though I do not take much of what they do very seriously, they do and deserve respect no matter what.

Sometimes I ride a high horse.

waynebow's picture

I had moments over the spoon bending at first, until I realized that this was a practice. My thinking is that you would learn the feeling state when the bending occurs and practicing this would lead to familiarity with where your consciousness is when the phenomenon occurs. Exercising..as it where.
Beautifully done film. I really enjoyed the perspective from all three practitioners. Thank you!

rioss's picture

I thought of the spoon bending as a means to an end. In other words, think of weight lifters. While the goal of being strong enough to lift a heavy weight might be the final goal, the act of lifting weights of having the self discipline to train the body is the real reward. So with the spoon bender where the final goal of having bent a spoon is the immediate reward, but developing the mental strength or concentration to bend the spoon is what is what is being sought. It's not all for show.

celticpassage's picture

If spoon bending is presented as some kind of mental or spiritual ability then said spoonbender is knowingly committing fraud and is intentionally attempting to deceive the 'student'.

There is no such thing as bending a spoon with one's mind

rioss's picture

One could say the same about talking with spirits. There is no such thing as talking with spirits. Mediums commit fraud when claiming to talk to your dear auntie May dead these last ten years. Why were the scenes about spoon bending included in the movie? The issue of spoon bending brings to mind the scene in the first Matrix movie where there is a kid bending spoons and the question is asked as to whether the spoon is bending or maybe it is the spoon bender's mind that is bending. I'm not too sure of the scene or quotation as it's been awhile since I saw the movie. In this case what counts is not what you believe but what Kublai believes.

celticpassage's picture

I think talking with spirits is a different case.

Metal bending is an obvious, easily seen physical manifestation, probably used to check how well the student is doing spiritually (the more you can bend it, the better you're doing). But of course, since the student never gets the metal to bend, he/she still has a long way to go and must try harder and take more classes.

Although I don't want to make too much of it since it was a very minor point in the movie.

celticpassage's picture

There is no 'phenomenon'. Spoon bending is a trick that many magicians do (or at least used to do when it was popular. I still can't believe that Uri Geller made a lot of money doing that!). Spiritualism has a history replete with fraudulent mediums and 'phenomenon' which are simply deceptions aimed at garnering particular mediums more fame and or more disciples.

Alex Mar's picture

Hello, all. I wish I'd jumped back into the fray over spoon-bending a bit sooner! You all bring up relevant points on the topic, and it's certainly a practice that raises a lot of questions.

Some of the Spiritualist mediums I met were not completely enthusiastic about the inclusion of a "physical phenomenon" such as spoon-bending in the film, as associated as it is with an earlier, more showmanship-oriented era in Spiritualist history. But spoon-bending and table-tipping (included among the DVD's additional footage) are still practiced/performed by some Spiritualists today as "proof" of spirit life. These are among the practices that Houdini sought to ferret out and expose as fraudulent back in the day, and as such...it's a complicated business.

Again, I considered this scene a historical nod above all else. The larger focus in the Spiritualist section of the film, by far, was on their attempt to connect with the other side, with the deceased, and to find comfort in the concept of continuing life. Obviously, not everyone agrees that such a thing is possible, but I wanted to create the space in the film to respect each subject's belief system, regardless of how many people might or might not share the same viewpoint.

Jfree's picture

I understood the historical nod right away as well as the odd choice of songs. If anyone wants to read more about spiritualism in upstate New York this is a good place to start:
http://www.amazon.com/Lily-Dale-True-Story-Talks/dp/0060086661

rebeccahopkins's picture

What a wonderful foray into the lives of three brave and courageous beings who follow their path no matter the challenges or doubts that may come to their presence in order to walk their truth. Thank you for sharing such a gift.

Alex Mar's picture

Thank you very much, Rebecca! I'm glad you enjoyed the film. I agree that it takes courage to structure your life around a belief system that isn't necessarily embraced by the mainstream culture -- that was a big part of what drew me to making the film in the first place. Thanks for watching...

margees2002's picture

Enjoyed this so very much. Thank you!