On making SDI’s Listen

One of the most interesting aspects of my role as Creative Director at SDI is producing Listen – a free digital publication on spiritual companionship we produce quarterly. It’s designed to be an outreach publication, in that we introduce people to the depths of the spiritual journey, and the importance of having a guide to mirror back to us where we are in relation to God/The Divine/The Universe/The Ground of All Being.

The formula for this publication is a written reflection by our Executive Director, Reverend Seifu Anil Singh-Molares, artwork and layout by me, poetry written by our SDI community, and materials related to SDI’s myriad offerings of events, conferences, workshops, and educational resources. We also feature advertisements from partner retreat centers, formation training programs, and publishers.

We work to make Listen an accessible and inspiring resource to people outside of SDI, while providing depth for the spiritual traveler. I spend many hours to make it elegant and delightful – I want people to open it and be surprised, stirred, and awakened. I want people to read it on a Saturday morning, with a cup of coffee, and to luxuriate in it. I want people to print it out, and use it as a meditation and a journal prompt. And ultimately, I want it to move the reader towards opening more fully to their true self, and to provide meaningful prompts for a spiritual direction session, or a cup of tea with a trusted spiritual companion.

The highlight of the Listen production process is the collaboration between myself and Rev. Seifu. We work closely and collaboratively as he writes his reflection on spiritual companionship, and I create the artwork to go alongside.

This begins with Rev. Seifu and I talking through a few ideas  that he is processing as a theme for his full written reflection. You could call this the early “thumbnail” stage – except a typical session of thumbnailing involves jotting down quick doodles and ideas, even if they’re not good. An artwork has to begin somewhere. When I begin with Rev. Seifu however, it’s like he’s starting on the other end of the spectrum, in regards to where he’s going with the spiritual lesson. For example, these are the “thumbnails” he gave me to work with for this most recent January issue (from my notes):

“Story of the Buddha – begins a prince, becomes an ascetic, moves beyond all of them to achieve enlightenment.”

“Moving beyond Heaven and Hell manifestations. Consolations and desolations – each gives us a piece or is a representation of what we’re seeking.”

“The street-smart daring spirit, not reckless but informed, able to float in pieces through open space.”

The bar has been set. And then he’ll smile and say something like, “good luck making something about that!”

This is what it’s like working for a Zen Priest.

With Rev. Seifu’s ideas swimming in my head, I go to my art studio and start making things. A lot of times I don’t really know what’s going to be made. I just begin. And I usually end up making multiple things. Then I let these art objects and sketches bounce off each other, along with the original intents I brought in, and usually I make something new, or combine them, to make what will go in Listen. For January’s issue, I started drawing things that appear.

A vacuum cleaner, a desk lamp, an indoor plant, candles, a tea kettle – these things appeared around me in my home and in my studio. A Buddha statue, people walking, a desert landscape, a whale, a jumbo jet – things we have seen and encountered in the world; perhaps mindfully, perhaps loaded with meaning and significance, and perhaps never really considered or even over-considered. Traffic jams, a forest fire, an AR-15 rifle – things that annoy us, things that trouble us, things we fear…

Things we worship. Things we idolize. Things that matter. Things that don’t. What these things mean to you, or for me, or to anyone, is not so relevant for the artwork. What matters for the art, and meditating on Rev. Seifu’s ideas, is that they are mere appearances.

Appearances in our daily lives, things that matter to us, things that delight us, and things that trouble us. Things appear to all of us, and usually, we respond.

But to the spiritual seeker, as Rev. Seifu writes, we must move beyond our appearances, and to let go of being too strongly attached to these, if we are to allow the Divine to speak to us. I am reminded of the Old Testament story of יְהוָֹה appearing to Elijah (the Hebrew word for God, or the LORD, is יְהוָֹה or YHWH, or as my friend Wendie Lash says, “really is better translated as “being-ness”)

(Words, appearances, and meanings catch us up all the time!):

“Then  יְהוָֹה  said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before  יְהוָֹה . Behold,  יְהוָֹה  is about to pass by.” And a great and mighty wind tore into the mountains and shattered the rocks before  יְהוָֹה , but  יְהוָֹה  was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but  יְהוָֹה  was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was a fire, but  יְהוָֹה  was not in the fire. And after the fire came a still, small voice.  When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.”

The “still, small voice” also gets translated as the “gentle whisper” – both are good.

How do we hear the gentle whisper, if we are caught up paying too much attention to earthquakes and fire and storms? The spiritual sojourner learns to be still, and quiet, and not be shaken by the noise. The things that appear to us – in media, in the world, in our relationships – can be deafening.

So I drew these appearances. Then I thought, what if I broke them, or cut them up? Like a collage – but of the internal mind? My train of thought is nothing if not appearances and meanings, constantly flowing in and out of my head, and taking up my attention, or affecting me in ways that can be distracting or even harmful. If the things of the world – the way these things appear to me, and my affective or emotional response to these things – is the extent of my spiritual understanding, I must acknowledge I am merely allowing my ego to create an echo-chamber in my heart. To allow any appearances to take primacy in my heart is to make idols out of them, and I’m not going to hear any gentle whispers anytime soon, unless I can quiet the affect of these appearances, and be still to what is – to being-ness.

I photographed the drawings, imported them into Photoshop, and began cutting them up and fragmenting them, creating a sense of noise and fracturedness – this is a good representation of my noisy brain!


It needed a good background, so I created a quick painting with acrylics on a wood panel.


Finally, to bring spiritual companionship to the fore – as a way to help us navigate these appearances and find That which whispers gently to each of us. I had this recent photo of my wife and son walking through our neighborhood, which became a sweet reference for the finished artwork.


The composite, finished artwork for Listen:


Bonus: Here’s an additional artwork that made it into this issue. From Rev. Seifu’s idea of “moving beyond Heaven and Hell manifestations” – we are both into the work of 18th century artist/mystic William Blake, who made this piece for a book called The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (public domain).

Here’s my riff on this work, in which we companion one another between and through heavens and hells. We used this image for our meditation/journal page.


Listen is a quarterly publication of SDI. You can check out all our issues of Listen for free on our website.