Darnell Lamont Walker leading Rituals Writing Workshop
Exploring Compassion and Serenity through Film
Photo by Sara Paredes.

This July, Dr. Francis Lu and Brother David Steindl-Rast will be hosting their annual seven-day seminar on mindful viewing of film, particularly those which feature Japanese and Western perspectives. Francis, the Luke & Grace Kim Endowed Professor in Cultural Psychiatry, Emeritus, in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, Davis, and Brother David, noted author, psychologist, and Benedictine monk, have been co-leading these workshops at Esalen since 1990.

Francis shares with us how together they explore compassion and serenity through film.

eNews: How did you and Brother David first conceive of a workshop centered around mindful viewing of film?

Francis: Even though I had known of Brother David’s work, including Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, I was not prepared for the immediate connection we mutually felt about film as a vehicle for spiritual experiences and development (as opposed to escapist entertainment) when we first met at Esalen in 1989. I said that I was interested in how film could facilitate contemplation as seen in Tokyo Story by Yasujiro Ozu, and Brother David responded that the monks at the monastery watched films to help with meditation. From this one-hour conversation hatched our first film seminar that we co-led together on “Film and Contemplation” in 1990.

eNews: How do you select the films for each workshop?

Francis: We select films that not only illustrate certain themes, but also are considered artistically great films that touched our souls deeply. Such films would often depict characters who both experienced an epiphany that led to a transformation of consciousness and embodied the Hero’s Journey myth described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. We also pay close attention to the sequencing of films so as to invite the participants into the process: more inviting and gentler films on the first day and more difficult and complex films on the second and third days. The films take on a cumulative effect as the seminar unfolds and our collective attention focuses on the films in the contemplative setting of Esalen, undistracted by the everyday world, senses opened and sharpened by the Pacific Ocean. For this upcoming workshop we will be viewing seven Japanese and seven Western films by directors such as Charlie Chaplin, Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, and Terence Malick, among others. Eight of these films are among our 20 favorite films from our film seminars dating back to 1990.

eNews: How do you shape this workshop experience?

Francis: The processing of the film viewing has developed over time to involve the following steps: after the showing of the film, we remain in silence for a few minutes with the lights turned down; for the next five minutes, participants are encouraged to write or draw in their journals; and then, we gather in a circle and go around sequentially asking each person if they wish to share for one minute the one image or scene that especially moved them. In this way, we see the film through the eyes of the other participants. Finally, we  open up the discussion focused on our collective experience of the film.

eNews: What films speak to you?

Francis: There are two films that Brother David and I share as our first and second favorite films of all time, which we have shown at several of our seminars. The first is Ikiru (1952) by Akira Kurosawa, which is about an elderly man’s transformation of consciousness as he realizes that he will die in six months from stomach cancer; “Ikiru” means “to live” in Japanese and herein lies the paradox of this profoundly moving film. The second is Tokyo Story (1953) by Yasujiro Ozu, which is about the serene acceptance of the transience of life through a contemplative, compassionate love of the now.

eNews: What has your Esalen experience meant to you?

Francis: I am most grateful to have had the opportunity to teach with and learn from Brother David during these seminars, which I consider the most meaningful activity in my professional life and the highlight of each year for me personally. I have been enriched in the process of deciding on spiritual themes that spoke to us, selecting and sequencing the films to be shown and conducting the seminars where the participants shared their personal experiences with us.

The workshop Through Compassion to Serenity in the Mindful Viewing of Japanese and Western Films is sold out. If you would like to be added to the wait list, please submit a reservation request and we'll notify you if spaces open up.

“Remembering to be as self compassionate as I can and praying to the divine that we're all a part of.” 

“Prayer, reading, meditation, walking.”
“Erratically — which is an ongoing stream of practice to find peace.”
“Try on a daily basis to be kind to myself and to realize that making mistakes is a part of the human condition. Learning from our mistakes is a journey. But it starts with compassion and caring. First for oneself.”

“Physically: aerobic exercise, volleyball, ice hockey, cycling, sailing. Emotionally: unfortunately I have to work to ‘not care’ about people or situations which may end painfully. Along the lines of ‘attachment is the source of suffering’, so best to avoid it or limit its scope. Sad though because it could also be the source of great joy. Is it worth the risk?“

“It's time for my heart to be nurtured on one level yet contained on another. To go easy on me and to allow my feelings to be validated, not judged harshly. On the other hand, to let the heart rule with equanimity and not lead the mind and body around like a master.”

“I spend time thinking of everything I am grateful for, and I try to develop my ability to express compassion for myself and others without reservation. I take time to do the things I need to do to keep myself healthy and happy. This includes taking experiential workshops, fostering relationships, and participating within groups which have a similar interest to become a more compassionate and fulfilled being.“

“Self-forgiveness for my own judgments. And oh yeah, coming to Esalen.”
–David B.

“Hmm, this is a tough one! I guess I take care of my heart through fostering relationships with people I feel connected to. Spending quality time with them (whether we're on the phone, through messages/letters, on Zoom, or in-person). Being there for them, listening to them, sharing what's going on with me, my struggles and my successes... like we do in the Esalen weekly Friends of Esalen Zoom sessions!”

“I remind myself in many ways of the fact that " Love is all there is!" LOVE is the prize and this one precious life is the stage we get to learn our lessons. I get out into nature, hike, camp, river kayak, fly fish, garden, I create, I dance (not enough!), and I remain grateful for each day, each breath, each moment. Being in the moment, awake, and remembering the gift of life and my feeling of gratitude for all of creation.”
“My physical heart by limiting stress and eating a heart-healthy diet. My emotional heart by staying in love with the world and by knowing that all disappointment and loss will pass.“
–David Z.

Today, September 29, is World Heart Day. Strike up a conversation with your own heart and as you feel comfortable, encourage others to do the same. As part of our own transformations and self-care, we sometimes ask for others to illuminate and enliven our hearts or speak our love language.

What if we could do this for ourselves too, even if just for today… or to start a heart practice, forever?


Esalen Team