Phie Ambo - Interview


Phie Ambo – filmmaker. Phie has had impact in Denmark and abroad with documentaries about existential, spiritual and environmental dimensions. She is also deeply involved in creating and running a new “green” elementary school in Copenhagen.

NV: The contemplative summerschool is going to be about different ways of having the meditative or spiritual on board, in lives of our time. One question that is important for many of our participants is how to best integrate it in work and career – e.g., how to be able to help people through mindfulness, psychotherapy and so on. But there are also important questions about how to integrate it in personal life. I have heard you say something about how an existentially meaningful must also be materially meaningful. Something about a special kind of natural responsibility?

– Yes! I think it’s important that we look at how one’s own meditative practice plays along with moves towards a better common life on this planet – for example in the areas we are currently talking about as “the green transition”, right? If you have such a practice in your life over a certain time, I think inevitably it starts to have consequences. It begins to make you able to make choices based in a more stable place. Instead of having to invent the wheel each time – each time having to figure out, “am I going to do this to secure a bit more for myself – or should I just do that little bit for the common good that I actually know I ought? ” For me there’s a lot of choices you don’t have to make all the time once you have connected with a natural basis through your practice. You don’t think twice whether to skip the queue, you just know you shouldn’t. For me this is very much the experience – that as a practitioner you grow a basis that make a lot of things more easy and spontaneous. There are a lot of internal discussions with yourself that you no longer need to have.

NV: I think I recognize this kind of shift, perhaps a bit slow in my case, but still… And it’s interesting to think about it, perhaps it has several layers. Some might say that the easier choices towards a meaningful lifestyle that you are talking about are based in good values and ethical standards. And they are very good to have and share, of course. But if I hear you correctly, you are saying that there is also something other than values flowing from contemplative practice? A kind of sensitivity for the others?

Definitely! And it also has a lot to do with patience. If you deeply trust that things are part of a huge development that you want to happen, of course you should still push on. But we must push on in a way that has resonance with exactly the time we are in now. Sometimes one might wish that we had gotten further than we have, but it is not helpful if you push too hard.

For instance, I have put a lot of time and effort into a project where we created a “green” (organic, sustainability-oriented) elementary school in Copenhagen – and just now we extending the project with a high school. This was a very natural thing for me to do because, if we really want to build a better understanding of how all sentient beings are linked, it starts in children’s shoes, right? It just has to be integrated already when you are in the education system from the beginning. For me this is so natural because, if I then sit in meditation every day and remind myself that I want this to benefit all sentient beings, then the motivation for this kind of project isn’t hard to find, even if it takes time and many small steps.

NV: There’s many who understand the necessary changes as involving a lot of renunciation – that it is about ethical boundaries and restrictions we impose on our space of possibilities. But isn’t there also – I think your own professional e engagement in film suggests that – isn’t part of it about aesthetics as well?

Yes, I always think aesthetics goes hand in hand with a positive development. If the place you are going is not beautiful, you have no desire to go there. I think the aesthetic value is super-important. The poetic and sensuous is a very a very essential part of what carries os as human beings. If you begin to take that out of the equation, motivation becomes just to formal mission statements and success criteria – not so attractive or seductive.

NV: So, does it make sense to say that this motivation for change emerges in the thick of things, emerges from below? Perhaps because we can somehow befriend and mobilize the forces that might otherwise manifest as greed, etc.?

Yes, from below, natural, pleasurable. Everyday life is beset with a myriad of small separate choices – or so it seems – but in fact they are connected in a deeper process. For instance, my husband and I walk our dogs on the beach every morning, and each time we pass a by piece of plastic we pick it up. For us it is easier to pick them up than just passing by, knowing that the composting or degradation process of this kind of thing can take 100-200 years. It takes us two minutes to bend down and take it – and recycle it the right way. This is not a sacrifice at all, we rather feel that “wow, how fortnuate it was right  here so we could pick it up.”

NV: The way you talk about it, it’s almost as if you can feel the effort it would be for the planet, to work on this piece for 200 years?

Yes, this is how it feels, isn’t it? I do very directly experience it as a gift that this piece of plastic is on the shore and not in the sea. And then of course we pick it up – because we can. Instead of it having to stay in the ocean, getting wrapped around the neck of a fish, eaten by a bird and, you know, all that the stuff that happens if we let these things lie around.

So as I see it is much more strenuous and exhausting to go by it than just picking it up ….

NV: I think this rings a bell for many of those who read this. With some years of experience with meditation, etc., I guess many might say that, yes, something emerges that could be called empathy with not just beings but also perhaps with the world. An emerging sensitivity for all the stuff that is not “usesful” in terms of one’s own immediate gain or project …

Yes, and it doesn’t need to be something huge. I had a talk with my 14 year old daughter yesterday – she had been watching television news with some friends, and had become more and more worried about where the world is going when adults do not act on all the warnings on climate change etc. When grown-ups know something needs to be done, but don’t do it, how is the world going to make it at all? This really made her anxious.

So I talked to her and said that as soon as you understand that we are all connected, it becomes a great pleasure to be able to act in helpful ways. But one shoulnd’t think too much about what all the others are doing or not doing. One should focus on the joy it is for oneself when you feel you can do something – and you actually can do something, too! And you also have to remember that the world is built on human ideas. Teenagers can sometimes feel that they are completely superfluous and that there is no way that they can make a difference; the world is already on tracks and it all just feels overwhelming. But it helps to remember that the world is composed of people who act and choose in small ways every day. For my daughter and her friends it is easy to get into comparing themselves with others and what they do and don’t. But it’s not helpful to go down the path where you just get frustrated and angry that others don’t bother to do anything.

NV: Yes, and I suppose it’s true in the same way that one shouldn’t get too frustrated with one’s own habits? So perhaps there is a kind of generous acceptance a forbearance with others as well as oneself? IWe can try to bend and push our set of habits, but it is not going to be perfect. Habits can be pushed or nudged in the right direction. But as everyone knows who has been on a diet – if you push hard, you may well be successful for a while, but it is almost certain to break in the long term. I think we are all more or less aware that changing habits through self-control or through cycles of feelings of guilt and success  this doesn’t work so well. We need to get down to a place that lies beneath habits. A place where you actually befriend with the forces that govern habits.

Yes. And this is also where you find out what is truly motivating. You can never be truly motivated for doing something just by being told from the outside what you ought to do. No matter how bad your conscience, it will just shortsighted at best, and sooner or later you’ll be caught in the same patterns again.

NV: Yes, and that was why I thought of the aesthetic. It is in a way your domain as an artist / filmmaker, creating aesthetic openings into what many only on the head – you can not say it like that? So how does your work as a filmmaker with this?

I don’t think art has an obligation to be political, as a sort of posts in the public debate. Art should be free. But I do very much feel an urge and need to draw attention to the human values that exist. To show a light to the future generation. The people on my daughter’s age who are just about to engage in the fight and embrace with being citizens – they need to see that they are connected with others and with deeper processes. I feel a deep need of making that community clearer and more accessible to them – that they are not alone! But I must do it in a way that is artistic interpretation, it must not become a credo of correctness or a sectarian manifesto. I can’t take that kind of thing myself. I even get chills if there are too many people in one place who think the same.

So I need to sort of wedge myself into a place where things are still up for interpretation. It is aesthetics that has to carry that. So I believe that when something is beautiful and attractive, it speaks to the place in ourselves that is soft and compassionate. It is the place where we can recognize ourselves in another person, or being, even if they live somewhere else and have completely different life conditions. This is something one can do through the aesthetic. So in this way the artistic-aesthetic language of form and sense is a kind of bridge or shortcut to the heart as well as the understanding.

There are so many channels and so much communication in our time, with more media and words and moving pictures than ever. I think it’s important to find ways to make any communication a little more beautiful, in a deep and true sense – important to begin to turn communication into an ally in the move towards more whole, happy and loving life in this world. It doesn’t just have to be about larger works as a film, it can also be in all our small everyday communications. Exploring this idea of living aesthetics, and finding ways we may nourish it – this is where I would especially like to contribute in the contemplative summerschool project.