Looking to Autoethnography as Spiritual Practice
1. Autoethnographic Method and Spiritual Explorations
2. Looking to Autoethnography
It is January 2021, almost a year into the COVID-19 pandemic. I am getting way too accustomed to my semi-reclusive self. This is distinctly a new me, and I am kind of liking it. The old me was inviting clients into my home office, riding my bike to weekly gatherings at our local Turkish church, and regularly doing life in the company of “others.” The two conferences I had been looking forward to attending in person in 2020 were of course canceled. But I settled for virtual participation, recording my presentations, and also sharing in real time over Zoom. It was not too bad. This ISAN 2021 is my third virtual conference since the beginning of Covid. I am starting to be really comfortable attending events that previously seemed off limits to me due to distance, cost, and because I tend to keep going to the same conferences every year. I have been branching out, and this is my first autoethnography conference. Sometimes being an outsider is awkward in person; I wonder what it will be like over Zoom.
It is Day 3 of ISAN 2021
This is a very different conference! It’s people, over Zoom, sharing their stuff, just like at the other virtual conference I’ve been to, but it’s distinctly not like the other conferences.
Today I attended the presentation Betweener Autoethnographies: A path toward social justice with presenters Diversi and Moreira (2018). When Marcelo and Claudio (first time “meeting them” but I feel like they would want me to address them as friends) were reading excerpts from their book, Betweener Autoethnography (Diversi and Moreira 2018) I was saying Amen out loud, as if the passages were words from friends, reaching me in a far away land. I even gasped a few times I was so touched. They were speaking about what it means to lead a life of “betweener autoethnography” and how a betweener path is a life of vulnerable sharing, truth seeking, speaking out about injustice, describing how it is felt in the body, mind, and spirit, and how it calls to listeners/readers for a response. Another gasp from me, with my hands crossed over my heart.
Throughout the session I notice people commenting in the chat boxes that they felt love, saw friendship, were inspired, moved. Those seem like spiritual states to me. So! I am not alone in sensing this was a spiritual encounter. I didn’t think so. I’m not sure why but, I sensed what happened there, in that session was something of a spiritual nature.
I immediately think of Martin Buber’s I-Thou encounter as a bridge to visit the Eternal Thou, that is God, the Sacred Presence. Yes, that is exactly what this was like for me. And now I think others who have written about this type of encounter (Rumi, Jesus, Proust, Friere). Is betweener autoethnography another way of connecting to the Eternal Thou through the sacred act of sharing truth and inviting witnesses?
Last Day of ISAN: I needed this. It was the proverbial “breath of fresh air.” The Covid air of keeping to myself, staying six feet away, mouth covered, afraid, was replaced. But by what? What was that?
I felt like I knew all of those presenting their autoethnographic stories. Even though I was not presenting my story I felt seen inside of theirs, being inside of something familiar, that connected us. It was a moment of true encounter, connection, something that I was used to feeling elsewhere. Maybe in church? Or at a concert where the minor chords and crescendos make me cry? Or during a poetry reading when the rhythm or the rhyme carries me off to someplace that can’t be explained?
Yep, that’s what happened there. I was so moved each day, sometimes crying, sometimes laughing, enjoying the beauty of human connection like I had not encountered before, even at the other virtual academic conferences. Is it just the contrast to the loneliness of Covid?
The words “That was spiritual” concluded my entry.
It was 10 months before I experienced something similar. The next time it was at the 6th Annual Critical Autoethnography Virtual Conference in October 2021. The theme was This BUBBLE Moment. “Oh, what a cute theme. This should be fun, interesting…”
Today is the first day I was able to attend the conference. It is located in Australia and the time difference threw me off. I missed a whole day of it already and I feel sad. But I entered my first session, surprised by the creativity of the descriptions of the presenter’s bubble moment. It is Ellissa Foster, on the fragility of life as she lamented the death of a goldfish entrusted to her care. The realization that “bubbles, like fish are not built to last and no matter how hard we try, the bubbles of safety are a delusion, an illusion of control, that rituals of safety will protect us from murder, conspiracy, pandemic, racism...death. Because we live our destinies tied together. Maybe bubbles last when they’re tied together, bump up against each other, providing support, and like this conference we are all bubbles bumping against each other in solidarity.” Gasp, my heart is full.
Then Dan Harris responds to the story with “it’s the emotion that sticks with the everyday that we identify with,” such simple words, but deeply felt in me; I realize my head is nodding continuously. Christopher Poulos chimes in, surrounded by the green of his room and a sweet dog laying on his bed, watching him. Chris shares a story about the death of his childhood pet, a gerbil I think. And Zoom! I was transported to my own ungrieved moment of a traumatic childhood memory when I accidentally stepped on my hamster Ollie, killing him (his brother Stanley survived). I can’t believe I never really grieved that before. Uhhhh, these bubble moments are not cute. They’re heart wrenching, joy giving, hope filled, bubbles of connection, to each other’s stories, emotions, hearts, spirits. I guess it’s a little bit cute, but mostly it’s deeply spiritual.
It is only the second presentation of my first day, and Shoot! I’m crying again. I’m listening to Jonathan Wyatt read his autoethnographic prose. He was describing a therapeutic encounter he had over Zoom; saying something about the presence of the therapist, “hearing and seeing her has an impact upon me…I feel present, connected, something is rising, looking for meaning.” That is exactly what is happening to me as I listen to him. I want to reach through the screen and hug him. Instead I click off my video, because I’m crying. Feeling like a coward I click back in and just look into all the faces of the others on the screen, to see if they are crying too. Some are I think.
How did his words touch that place normally reserved for the sacred spaces, like a cathedral, or my pillow at night after prayers. I have the sensation of rising upward and connecting with them from the place where my personal experience meets theirs. It is a sacred space between us: me him, all the other faces listening in and sharing this moment.
There is more. Bozz Connelly has magic and cards and the magic of stories is breaking down barriers. We’re feeling the sense of “two or more” gathering together through story, and there IT is, the divine sacred presence, in the midst of us.
It’s January 2022 ISAN. I think I know what I’m looking for this time. It’s the familiar faces, being greeted knowingly by a few, being invited into intimate and vulnerable moments through stories, there’s some reminiscing among the foremothers and forefathers of autoethnography (Denzin, Ellis and Bochner sometimes sitting next to each other, Richardson shows up in a Zoom window, as does Pelias3), really all of them who I’ve been following and knowing through their writing for years. I’m reminded of a book in our family library when I was young. It was called Jewish Heroes of the Faith, and I read it over and over trying to understand my Jewish faith, and who all went before me. I realize I’m bracing myself with readiness to hear from them like they are my heroes of “the faith”. Haha I would never tell them that, it feels too much like idol worship. But it seems significant to me.
The session was great, a history lesson, of where we’ve been and where we’re going, as autoethnographers. I feel I’ve been in the presence of superstars. Or maybe it’s more like a good old spirit-filled church service. And without fail, I got it. Spiritual Connection. I’m connected, I’m with them, I’m one of them.
In each session I follow the Zoom link and hear and say words like “I was so inspired,” “your creativity moved me,” “what courage I see in your writing.” It seems to me there is a feeling of being enlightened, maybe lighter, more movable, empowered to do something good in the world. A corporate response to what this conference meant to us - and everyone said amen, and went in their own directions, to their part of the world, to change it, to make disciples.
For the next few days, even when I’m talking to Haluk at home or meeting when Caleb and Megan come for dinner, it’s autoethnography this, autoethnography that. I’m like a fanatic.
I realized later at the dinner table I sound like I’ve been in some kind of religious big tent meeting and I’ve had a spiritual revival, a re-awakening. A spiritual connection, made from sipping from the same cup of autoethnographic experiences. That’s what communion is right? Connection around the remembrance of who we are, to each other, and in connection with all that is, the Eternal Thou, that is God.
4. Looking to Buber
5. Looking with Buber to Autoethnography
Autoethnography is at its core relational-
It is not I-I (that would be solipistic-narcissitic)
It is not I-IT (that would be using others are a means to an end, my end, with no reciprocity or movement between us)
At its best, autoethnography is an I-Thou practice.
An exploration of I that is inter-dependent on Thou (ISAN 2021 Reflective Journal)
6. Looking to Autoethnography as a Spiritual Research Paradigm
7. Final Thoughts
Data Availability Statement
Conflicts of Interest
The words spirituality and spiritual experience are at times used interchangeably throughout.
Vignettes are italicized throughout and left in an informal vernacular in which they were originally written in the authors reflective journal. There were many other portions of narrative in my reflective journal that I could have included, that speak into the power of work by the many autoethnographers who offered their work at each of the autoethnographic conferences that I write about here. Time and space simply do not allow to name and honor them all!
That is Norman Denzin, Carolyn Ellis, Arthur Bochner, Laurel Richardson, Ron Pelias, all who have been adding to the autoethnographic world for years.
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Bilgen, W.A. Looking to Autoethnography as Spiritual Practice. Religions 2022, 13, 699. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13080699
Bilgen WA. Looking to Autoethnography as Spiritual Practice. Religions. 2022; 13(8):699. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13080699Chicago/Turabian Style
Bilgen, Wendy Anne. 2022. "Looking to Autoethnography as Spiritual Practice" Religions 13, no. 8: 699. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13080699