The ambiance of the room grew cozier — harmonious as we listened to the soft vocals and compositions of Rasa Javedani who had written the fitting words to the melodies that were then sung by Shakeel Shaan and myself. The audience of old friends grew emotional in the atmosphere and we found it hard to hold back tears. The song we chose to sing that night was one to express our love for the friends gathered that day, the friends who had left the Kashmir valley three decades back. Today I welcomed them for the first time on their return to their home of Kashmir.
It took twenty-eight years for such an historic reunion to happen. We had spent our teens together, enjoying school and college life and now we had the chance to recollect a time that we remembered as being full of joy, unaware of the divisive atmosphere that was brewing and which we in our innocence could not foresee.
The turmoil that erupted in Kashmir was sudden and spontaneous and with fewer communication vehicles in those days our group couldn’t contact each other. Unfavorable conditions of the time forced many Kashmiri families (Pundit, Muslim and Sikh) to migrate far from their homes. It was ten years before we were able to trace one another after this abrupt departure, all that while yearning to reconnect, especially to be together again in the homeland. The idea to come together was sparked by a phone call and Rajesh Raina and I were determined to make it happen.
Even now as the situation in Kashmir is still ripe with violence and strife, such simple happenings as the reunion of a group of friends raises hope for others, hope of peace in the valley. We must be able to imagine peace, to remember what it feels like.
We were inspired by a youth initiative in Kashmir called Ripples. It was an idea that came from the wish to see peace in my valley once again. We believe that by bringing together those who longed for peace it will awaken the memories of a time when this vast area was the meeting ground of different spiritual traditions and people lived together harmoniously. We want this feeling to spread. Along this journey we met with the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a network of peacemakers led by women working for harmony and reconciliation. These women had been organizing and facilitating similar interactions and meetings between divided communities for many years and they took a deep interest in Kashmir after their first visit. It reignited some hope in me and we began to work together, mostly with young people, helping them create spaces of expression for their development. They had grown up amidst tension and conflict and had to know there was another way. We organized programs together with GPIW and invited some of these aspiring youth to come and dialogue with us and ask them what it takes to become true community leaders.
Although there had been many peace efforts by various organizations over the years, we felt our reunion was unique — at the very least it was an emotional one. Some of those who had migrated were scared to return, imagining their old homeland will feel unfamiliar and the people harsh with them. To their surprise they experienced the same love and affection from their friends in the valley as in the past. During our days together we visited old favorite places, ate our traditional Kashmiri foods, danced and sang. We sailed on Dal Lake for which Srinagar is famous. When it was time to take leave it was with tearful and moist eyes, visibly expressing the admission of their wrong perception about the reality. The truth is that the majority of the people of Kashmir still keep alive the real Kashmiriyat pluralistic values of simple and harmonious living.
In the Sufi spirit of friendship, the lyrics to the songs were intended to evoke the love and affection in our hearts… “oh friends your place and your glimpses are in our eyes always and your space is always here, which you have to fill by coming back to your homeland!
These feelings lingered as everyone left. They left knowing that the Kashmir of their youth had not died and there was hope for a future without violence and fear.
There is perhaps no more critical undertaking now than to bring together women who have the
commitment, knowledge and vision to make a difference in bringing about the needed global transformations. It is increasingly clear that we have arrived at a pivotal moment in the history of the world. There are forces pulling us forward toward the next stage in human evolution, and there are forces resisting this advance, seeking to pull us backward or at least to keep us from progressing. In almost every region of the world, we feel this tension between a movement forward and the resistance. Even for those of us who feel the forces of advancement, it is not clear where we are going, what is the next stage in our social evolution. We know that the current systems are not working but we don’t know the new formations that are quietly arising. This inability to put our current situation into larger context is creating anxiety. How do we ease this tension? I would describe the new mindset that is emerging as one based on a sense of unity –human unity and unity with the natural world – and I would describe the old mindset as one based on a sense of separateness and division. We see these forces playing out around the world. Globalization and communications technology brought us together in the physical sense. Now something akin to this is happening on a spiritual level. The interfaith movement played a role in that, bringing people into much deeper spiritual exchange. But now we have moved beyond interfaith into a new experience of spiritual unity. In response to this new reality, retraction is also occurring – people retreating into their separateness, into known and comfortable identities. But this retreat can only be temporary because the movement of evolution is a forward one. In addition to the tension between unity and separateness, we are feeling the tension of shifting from a paradigm of domination, which has lasted for millennia and is deeply imbedded in our psyches, to one of collaboration. The urge to dominate is based on fear and for a period in human evolution this fear was a necessity – it was self-preservation. But it has outlived its usefulness and has now become destructive. This shift is not a cosmetic or minor change in thinking but entails a significant growth in consciousness and involves deep systemic changes that will affect all aspects of our economic, political, social and religious life. This shift in consciousness away from a domination mentality applies to how we interact as a human community and to how we interact with the rest of the created world. So much of human history has been about one ethnic, national, religious or racial group seeking to dominate another, one gender seeking to dominate the other, and one species, the human species, seeking to dominate all that resides on Earth for our sole benefit. These old mental patterns no longer serve us. In fact, they threaten our survival.
What we are experiencing now as a global community is the breaking down of old patterns and the beginning of the formation of new ones. This is a painful process. As women know, it is only by passing through the agony of labor that we give birth to new life. This is not an easy or quick task. For an individual it takes a long time to change habits. For a global collective, the formation of new modes of behavior could take decades, but at least we can lay the foundations, and we do this essentially through our understanding of what is taking place and by changing our own consciousness. If you look at what is happening in the world today, on the surface, it can seem dismal. It almost feels like we are moving backward. Every region is experiencing tension – conflict, human barbarity, climate changes, environmental degradation, increasing economic disparity, the list goes on and on. In the US, on a political level we are in a state of deep polarization and paralysis. But spiritually something else is happening and a deeply unifying spiritual movement is emerging. The spiritual landscape of the country is changing quite rapidly, and in a positive direction, because it is based on unity rather than division. How long will it take for this to affect the political and economic life of the country – that is an unknown.
This unifying spiritual movement, which is emerging around the world, is drawing upon our many faith traditions. It is not negating our difference but rather it is using this diversity as a unifying force. Instead of dividing people, the world’s incredible religious diversity can and should unify people of all faiths. The premise for this is to embrace the “other” rather than to feel threatened by it. The old competitive pattern of judging which religion is right or superior is discarded, replaced by a new thought pattern of appreciating the special gifts of the “other.” The old pattern of seeking to convert others to our way of thinking is replaced by a celebration of the “other.” This shift will occur when we move away from the fear-based domination way of thinking. Just as we must evolve beyond our need to dominate other groups of people, we must evolve beyond the need to dominate the natural world. This will give rise to a newborn sense of love for the Earth and Her vast communities of life, and the feeling that we must do all we can to protect Earth’s precious life forms. The climate crisis presents a great challenge to the human community but also a great opportunity to change the way we view the Earth and to come together as a global society. We can choose which direction we will take, greater unity, or greater division. I believe the forces of unity are stronger and will eventually pull us forward.
I travel continually and I see these feelings shared by people around the world, regardless of culture or region. It is an undercurrent but one that is growing and will soon have enough momentum to trigger change – a sudden change in a positive direction. There is no denying that we are up against formidable structures that resist change. I believe women have a great role to play in guiding the human community through this transition, in building this momentum, but to do this we must fully come into our feminine awareness. Before going into what this feminine awareness is, I want to share a bit of my history and how I founded the Global Peace Initiative of Women to provide a global platform for the spiritual contributions of women.
I began working in the interfaith world nearly 20 years ago when I was invited to help organize a large religious summit at the United Nations headquarters in NY for the millennial year, the year 2000. The then Secretary- General of the United Nations, His Excellency Kofi Annan, consented to the organization of the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, to be held in
the General Assembly of the United Nation’s New York headquarters. It was to be the first time religious leaders would be allowed to gather in the General Assembly Hall and it was to be an historic event. I was invited to serve as the Vice Chair and to aid in the organization of the event.
Since the Summit was to be held at the United Nations, we were tasked with inviting officials at the highest level within the religious institutions. This was a real departure for me. Being a long time yoga meditation practitioner, I had far greater interest in the experiential and esoteric side of religion than the institutional side. However, I was soon to find that within the institutions there were people of wisdom and great commitment to the common good – and this attracted me.
A few incidents occurred during the process of organizing the summit that deeply affected me. The Secretary General’s office had put together an advisory council from the United Nations, and we kept them informed and updated on how things were progressing. One woman on the council, an under-secretary general of the UN, was particularly concerned about having women religious leaders participate in the Summit. I was unaware of any problem in this regard, and so began to seek out women religious leaders. I was seated at a dinner at Oxford, England with a group of religious leaders when I happened to mention to the man seated next to me that we were having trouble finding women religious leaders for the Summit at the UN. I was only trying to make dinner conversation, but he reacted strongly to my remark and asked in a rather stern voice, “Why do you need women religious leaders?” When he saw the surprise on my face, he added, “take my advice and stay away from that issue or you might find that nobody will come to your summit.” That was in 1999.
We had difficulty finding women religious leaders and so we compensated by finding women public figures. I was not happy with this solution, but I was still in a learning phase. Much of our time during the organization of the Summit was involved in dealing with political issues – like the fact that the Dalai Lama could not be invited to the United Nations because China would object, and the response from some prominent religious leaders who said they would not come if the Dalai Lama was not invited. So the gender issue got lost amid the political negotiations.
On the opening day, as we were waiting for the religious leaders to enter the General Assembly Hall to begin their prayers, we encountered another gender crisis. A prominent monk was to open the prayers, but he wasn’t permitted by his particular order to come in close contact with any woman, and there was a Buddhist nun, the only woman in a delegation of about a dozen Thai Buddhist monks, who was seated near the entrance where he was to enter. I was told she had to be moved, and when I asked why, the response came, “because she is a woman.” A number of people on our staff had tried to get her to move, but she didn’t understand English and refused to be separated from the monks of her delegation. The clock was ticking and we had to begin, and so I was told that I had to move her. It was a difficult moment for me. But when I went up to her and took her hand, she smiled and followed me. The crisis was solved but it left a deep imprint in my mind. Later when the Thai delegation came to greet me, I apologized to her, and we became fast friends. Ven. Mae Chee Sansanee became one of the founding co-chairs of the Global Peace Initiative of Women.
There were very few women religious leaders at the Summit, and they were not happy. They requested a follow-up Summit specifically for women religious leaders. We went back to the Secretary-General’s office and he agreed, suggesting that we hold it at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. Work began with the religious communities in Geneva, and the first response that I received was, “we don’t want your American feminism here. We don’t have women religious leaders.” I was again taken aback, because I never thought of this work as a feminist matter, and I began to wonder why this issue was threatening to so many. In order to get around the subject of women religious leaders, the Geneva community suggested we change the title of our event from “The Global Peace Initiative of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders” to “The Role of Women in the Faith Communities.” I refused to give up on the idea of women religious leaders, and so began the difficult process of bringing this vision to fruition.
In 2002, we managed to bring over 500 women leaders, mostly from the religious communities but also some from business and government, from over 75 countries to the Palais des Nations. Whereas there were many political issues and much competitiveness at the 2000 world peace summit in New York, there were no politics at the Geneva Summit. It was a far greater success. We had no thought of forming an organization out of this gathering, but we immediately received requests to come to conflict areas and help organize peace dialogues, and so The Global Peace Initiative of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders was born. We later shortened the name to The Global Peace Initiative of Women (GPIW).
We spent our first five years organizing dialogues with those in conflict and post-conflict areas –– including Israel and Palestine, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and between India and Pakistan. The dialogues were initially with women, and then young leaders, then both male and female religious leaders, and finally a mix of everyone. What was distinctive about these dialogues is that they were shaped and led by a diverse group of women religious leaders, always balanced between East and West. So we brought Buddhist nuns and women swamis to meet with the group from Sudan, Iraq and other conflict areas. This had a tremendously positive impact as it opened the participants to the wider world and they saw the role women can play in other cultures.
When the Global Peace Initiative of Women was established in 2002, it was the only global interfaith organization founded and led by women. Soon after other interfaith groups began to notice and develop special women’s programs. But in my mind this missed the whole point. Separate chapters or programs designed for women would not compensate for the lack of women’s participation in the leadership. What we wanted to convey was that women must be empowered to shape and lead the interfaith and religious movements, along with men. Without a true partnership, only token changes would take place. I cannot count the number of times when I have been invited to speak on a panel to find myself as the only woman speaker. It is daunting to have to represent my entire gender! Not surprisingly, the absence of women’s voice in the religious and interfaith world continues today. Just a few months back there was a major global interfaith gathering. I was pleased to hear that for the first time they held a pre-conference one-day’s women’s summit. But at the official opening of the event, during the opening plenary session, among the array of men on the stage, I am told there was not one woman. I don’t allow myself to be discouraged, but after 20 years of trying to make this point…..
After many years of advocating for a greater role for women in interfaith work, we began to realize that the gender issue was deeply embedded in our theologies, and without addressing theology, it would be hard to achieve true gender balance. So we organized a larger conference in India in 2008 on the theme of the Divine Feminine – the female aspect of Divinity. Most people would acknowledge that the Divine has no gender, and yet in institutional religious life the Divine is always referred to as male – the Father – at least among the Abrahamic faiths. Hinduism is an exception. In India, it is far more common to refer to the Divine as the Mother, rather than the Father, and in fact this is what drew me to India when I was young. The Mother relationship seems far more intimate and loving.
The conference that we organized on the Divine Feminine was revolutionary in many ways. One of our Co-chairs is a prominent and courageous Catholic nun from the US, who is very committed to women’s issues. She was speaking at our conference in India and even for her, it was a stretch to talk about the Divine as Mother. She approached me and said, “Dena, I don’t know if I can do this. I have a theological problem with it.”She was clearly anxious. I replied, “address the theme as you see fit.”Well, it forced her to do some deep reflection and she spoke beautifully on the Mother aspect of the Divine. Since that conference, for years after, she spoke on the theme of the Divine Feminine – the Mother qualities of the Ultimate Reality. Now, of course, there are many books and talks on this subject.
People would ask me why it was important to tackle the gender issue theologically. It has to do with deep subconscious feelings about oneself, feelings of which we may not even be aware. I remember seeing a study some years ago that determined the one feeling most common among women across the world, regardless of income, education, status in society, etc. is that they don’t feel their voices are heard. Women don’t feel that they have a voice. If our concept of the All Knowing, the All Powerful, the All Beneficent Divine is male, than the female is subordinate, of lesser value. But if this Divine power has both female and male aspects– there is gender balance, and this can serve as an inspiration and model for the rest of us.
Our inability to see the feminine aspects of the Divine has led to great gender imbalance, which affects so much about our world – from our economy to our social, political and religious structures.
What would the world look like if we could truly awaken the feminine wisdom and restore Her to Her rightful place?
For my generation, the challenge for women was to be able to rise to the top of their professions – to be heads of businesses, governments, etc., to break the glass ceiling. There was no talk at that time of what type of leadership would be natural for women. There was no talk of the need for a transformation in our institutions. Women were meant to just fit in and follow the mold.
I was born into a secular business family. I have two sisters, one older and one younger, and both became successful business women. I was less interested in business and more interested in literature and religion. But after my divorce I had to go into the family business to support my sons. I was told, and have been repeatedly told over the years, to cut my hair so I would look more businesslike. I was told to stop wearing flowing skirts and to take up suits. In other words to succeed in business, I had to fit into the male mold. Many women of my generation have had this experience. If you wanted to succeed in business, politics and even religion, you had to downplay your female attributes. This was very unfortunate because the very attributes that can bring about creative change were being dismissed and seen as a disadvantage.
So what are the qualities of the feminine? What is feminine wisdom and how can it help us address the challenges we face?
A few months ago we invited a delegation of spiritual teachers, men and women, to the UN Climate Summit in Paris to speak about the spiritual dimensions of the climate crisis. The formal negotiations were on ways to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. We were astounded that there was little mention of the spiritual perspective of climate crisis. We are causing an untold number of species to go extinct, killing how many millions of trees, destroying our soil through chemical inputs, and the list goes on – and we take no responsibility for this destruction? We have brought spiritual teachers to most of the UN climate summits to speak about the moral dimensions of the issue, and increasingly the women in our gatherings are sharing dreams where the Earth, in a much weakened state, addresses them. According to them, the soul of the Earth is crying out. I have also heard this cry. It is interesting to me that it is mostly the women who are hearing this. Why is that?
Women are deeply connected to life. We have an intuitive knowing of that which gives and supports life. Since the beginning of time our bodies and minds have been programmed for this. We function from a space where we know the interconnections of life, this vast web, one part supporting every other. That is, if we are tuned in to our feminine wisdom, if we have not repressed that aspect of our being in order to fit in to the prevailing mold.
And if we are more connected to life, we are more connected to Earth and the natural forces, because they are the systems that support life. So, more of us can hear the cry of the Earth now, the cry of the rivers and forests – all of which have been so degraded due to a domination mentality. Rather that respecting and caring for these living forces of nature, we have abused them to the point that many of our ecosystems are dying.
The violence against the Earth and the suppression of women come from the same source – from a mindset that rationalizes the right to domination. To restore the Earth, we must restore women. To restore women to our rightful place, we must restore nature to its rightful place. We must honor the natural world for its own intrinsic value rather than its monetary benefit.
In the Eastern or Dharma religious traditions, the feminine energy is considered to be the transformative power, the energy that brings change. There is the understanding in the East that the Ultimate Reality, the Divine, has both a masculine and feminine aspect. One might say that the masculine maintains the universe, keeps everything functioning, but the feminine force drives it forward, providing the transformations that bring about new life. This would apply both at the macrocosmic as well as the micro level, in the greater scheme of things and also in the movements of everyday life.
It is this evolutionary force, this driving forward that we very much need now to move us into a new global consciousness – which is intuitive, inclusive, non-hierarchical, more compassionate and balanced.
It is not only women who have access to this feminine force. We have found in our work that many men resonate with this energy, more than some women. Ultimately, just as the Divine can be considered to have both a male and female aspect, so do we all. What is desperately needed now to move the world out of its conflict, tension, and destructive tendencies, is to allow for the feminine wisdom to come forward.
As long as the female is repressed, the world will be greatly out of balance, and imbalance creates tension and destruction. As long as the Earth is abused, the same will be true. A similar imbalance would occur if the feminine forces were to overpower the male. It is balance that is so essential, and this balance will help us move beyond the paradigm of fear, domination and division to one of greater collaboration, trust and unity. Some of the themes that I have discussed may be obvious, and some are quite subtle. This is because the issues that we face in our societies and globally reflect deeper shifts that have to do with larger movements of time. The changes we seek may not manifest for centuries, but the only thing we can be sure of is that change will come. Yet we must stay focused on the specifics of what we can do now. What can we do as women in our everyday lives to help foster change?
I think the most important task for us now is to connect to our intuitive nature, and to begin to question what are the life-supporting actions and positions that we can take that will bring balance to our societies – not further polarization, not anger and distrust, but greater unity. Ultimately the greatest change will come about not through any action but through our changed consciousness. That is where true transformation begins.
Can we ourselves outgrow the fear and domination mentality and not see the “other” — be it the religious, ethnic or racial other – as in any way inferior? Can we know ourselves to be an intrinsic part of the interconnected whole, not apart from it, but one with it? Can we evoke the feeling of love for the Earth and truly see Her as a Mother? Can we speak to Her and hear Her response? Can we feel our connection to the plant and animal worlds and know that they have as much right to life as we do? Can we look beyond our limited time frame and know that we are providing the foundation for changes that may be decades, even centuries ahead, changes that we may never see but that will benefit our grandchildren? Can we believe that if we ourselves overcome the consciousness of division, separation and domination that perhaps our grandchildren will know a more peaceful, balanced, inclusive and compassionate world? This belief is what inspires my work.
On June 6, 2012, a meeting was held on Wall Street in New York City to discuss “Re-envisioning Prosperity”, organized by the Global Peace Initiative of Women / Contemplative Alliance. Almost 70 people were invited, including financiers, investors, economists, intellectuals, representatives from the activist movement known as Occupy Wall Street, and a select group of religious leaders from different faiths known as the Contemplative Alliance. Swami Atmarupananda was one of three religious leaders asked to open the meeting with a short talk to set a tone for the ensuing day-long discussion. Below is the substance of what he said, adapted for suitability as an article.
I would like to begin by asking, what am I doing here, addressing such a distinguished gathering of economic thinkers and economic actors? [Laughter] I have never attended a formal class on economics or finance; I have no money to invest and therefore am not involved as an actor in the financial world. What, indeed, can I contribute?
Worse yet, I’m a contemplative, dedicated to leading a spiritual life, and thus, according to common opinion, I’m hopelessly impractical. No, had I any sense, I should have refused when Dena Merriam asked me to open today’s discussion.
But I didn’t say no. Let me explain why.
First of all, it isn’t true that contemplatives are by nature impractical. An important member of the business community here in New York City in the late 1800s and early 1900s was a man named Mr Francis Leggett, who was a major innovator in the wholesale grocery business. He was a wealthy man of the time, and a friend of a famous Hindu monk from India named Swami Vivekananda. Mr Leggett was once asked why a hard-nosed businessman like himself should be friends with an oriental mystic, and he replied, “Because I have never met anyone with more common sense.”
Nor is it true that a contemplative has no connection to the interests of economists and financiers. Where does our economic system come from? Our financial system? Wall Street? They aren’t in the air, natural products of the earth or water. They come from human beings, from inside human beings, from the inside out. All human institutions, human civilization, culture, sciences, arts, come from inside the human mind and heart, manifesting outside. And it is the human mind and heart that is the special field of research for the contemplative; not the surface, but the deep mind, the deep heart, the very roots of human existence.
And further, the true contemplative is in search of experiential reality, not theories or concepts. A prominent modern belief—and it’s nothing more than a belief—is that reality is what you make of it: there’s no such thing as reality itself. If that’s true, then we are all prisoners of our own concepts and illusions. The contemplative’s experience, however, is that there is reality, there is truth beyond his or her concepts and projections.
So the contemplative seeks deep in the human heart and mind, the same place from which all human activities proceed, all drives, all needs, all aspirations. But the contemplative seeks to go deeper, to an experiential reality which is prior to needs and drives and aspirations and activities.
What is found there? Certain truths, a couple of which I want to share with you before I turn the conference over to those who know much more than I about the actual workings of the economy.
First, one finds at a deep level of our being a remarkable freedom. A freedom that gives us a sense of inner inviolability, of timelessness, adamantine in quality, unaffected by the waves of action and reaction in the world.
One also discovers a sense of connection, connection to everyone and everything—an apparent contradiction, where we go inward to find connection with the outer; but it is a fact replicated in the experience of countless inner travellers over thousands of years around the world.
And then there is the apparent contradiction between freedom and connection. Freedom we think of as “freedom from”—freedom from people telling me what to do, freedom from things I don’t like, freedom from duty and expectations, freedom from all botherations (and most people and most circumstances we experience as botherations). Yet “connection” means connection to others, to the world, to everything that seems to deprive us of freedom. But the contemplative begins to experience both of these—freedom and connection—at a deep level, where they are joined, where they are expressions of the same thing, which can best be described as love.
What does this have to do with us gathered here today? A great deal, actually.
A deep inner freedom translates at the level of ordinary human activity to the freedom to choose the motivations of my actions, and to choose my reactions to circumstances. That means I need not be a slave of old patterns of behaviour, a slave of habitual reactions to situations. And so this deep sense of freedom paradoxically makes me more responsible for my actions. I can begin to take responsibility for my actions, and therefore I begin to make the effort, out of a sense of freedom.
And a deep sense of connection to everything makes me feel a sense of loving responsibility toward others. “Responsibility” is not the right word, being heavy, connoting something forced, and guilt-based. Simply love for others, the desire for the best for others. That, combined with the freedom that allows me to take responsibility for my actions, radically changes my relationship to the world in a wonderful, positive way, difficult at times, but eventually liberating, joyful.
How is this related to economics and finance? Intimately.
You, whether you are thinkers or actors, have a tremendous responsibility. Tremendous, because as Peter Parker tells his Uncle Ben in Batman, “With great power comes great responsibility.” And you here have great power. Decisions you make help people or hurt them, even devastate them, as happened in 2008, largely through misguided and greedy actors in the real estate and financial sectors. The welfare of millions—vulnerable people, the elderly, the sick, the poor, those who have no alternative but to trust the system—is dependent upon you.
Responsibility to others. The US Supreme Court may say that a corporation’s responsibility is simply to enhance value for the stockholders, but that is much worse than nonsense, it is poisonous. Because it is a decision of the Supreme Court, it may stand in a court of law, but it doesn’t reflect the way life actually works. Whether we want it so or not, we are responsible to others: it’s the way the universe is built, because all this infinite diversity we see out here is founded on a deep inner connection, I would even say a deep inner unity, but at least connection, a connectedness that can be demonstrated scientifically, psychologically, morally, and spiritually. It isn’t a matter of belief, and that’s why simply ignoring it doesn’t work: what you do to others comes back to you. Not for some New Age touchy-feely reason, but because the outer world is intimately connected to you in experiential fact.
So I close by saying that many of you, perhaps all of you, are here today because you are sensitive to the welfare of others. Otherwise you wouldn’t waste time on a meeting like this. But the present financial system, and the even larger economic system, will last only if this understanding, this sensitivity becomes widespread within it. Otherwise the system is on its way out, not today, but in ten years, maybe, or fifty years, certainly less than a hundred years. And if the system breaks irreparably because people didn’t learn to care for others, then the breaking will be devastating to countless people, causing untold suffering. The only long term hope is learning to adjust the financial system to the way the universe is actually built, the way it actually works. This is no time for denial, and there is no time to delay. This is the raison d’etre of the Contemplative Alliance, why it was called into being, to be a voice for human concerns as illumined from the contemplative perspective.
To be published sometime in 2016 in the Prabuddha Bharata, a monthly journal published from India.
Some months ago I received an invitation to bring a delegation of American religious leaders to meet with theologians in Qom, Iran for a dialogue on the theme of human unity. A group of us from the inter-spiritual organization known as the Contemplative Alliance spent the first week of June in Iran, visiting Isfahan, Qom, and Tehran. What we found was a revelation to all of us.
I had been to Iran only once before, in 2001, to attend a conference on religion and the environment organized by the United Nations in collaboration with the Center for Dialogue Among Civilizations. At that time, I encountered much revolutionary and anti-American sentiment, and I expected to find the same on this visit. But despite the rhetoric we hear through the media and from some in its government, the Iranian people, like the rest of the world, have moved on.
Americans need to know the new Iran.
When deciding which religious leaders to include in this delegation to Qom, I chose to show the new religious face of America, as our country has also changed greatly. We had among us a prominent evangelical leader, the president of the oldest Protestant seminary in the country, a renowned Benedictine nun, a Zen Buddhist priest, and two American swamis. The Iranian theologians were very surprised, and I believe pleased, to see this diversity.
Our invitation had come from the University of Religions and Denominations in Qom. This university is the only place in Iran where seminary students can study Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Sufiism, and the history of mysticism. Unknown to many people in the West, there is growing interest in Iran in these subjects. They, like the America of some decades ago, are experiencing what officials are calling “the eastern cultural invasion.”
With the spread of the Internet, it is impossible now to limit people’s spiritual quest. The mixing of spiritual approaches is a growing reality that cannot be stamped out, and it is a positive trend as it is helping to connect cultures and to cultivate a deeper understanding of human unity. America provides one of the best examples of how to embrace this new reality. The integration of multiple spiritual traditions is perhaps our greatest strength.
Our visit to Iran began in Isfahan. As we walked the streets in our religious garb, the swamis in orange robes, the Zen priest in Buddhist attire, we attracted much attention — all positive. So many wanted to know where we were from, and when we said America, a smile would cross their face.
“Welcome,” they would inevitably say and sometimes add, “We love Americans.”
There was great curiosity about us in Qom as this is a city of seminaries and we were a most unusual crew. After an hour discussion with one of the most senior Grand Ayatollahs, we finally reached the University of Religions and Denominations. There we met theologians eager for dialogue with Americans and interested to know more of the Eastern or Dharmic religions, which is a new area of study for them.
America’s swamis and Buddhist teachers have been in training for 40-plus years, as it was then that the wisdom of the East seriously took root in American soil. But for the Iranians, these traditions are a new arrival. It is a challenge for them to integrate these theologies with their own Shia Islamic tradition.
We addressed the issue of whether human unity was truly possible. We all agreed that not only is it possible, it is our natural state. We are one human family; all religions emerge from the One, and we are all aspiring to rejoin that single Source of all. Our dialogue contained great depth. Again and again we affirmed that the religions must deepen their exchange, so that true appreciation, spiritual affection, and friendship will arise.
Finally we arrived in Tehran, a beautiful, dynamic, and elegant city, more akin to the capitals of Europe than the Middle East. Sitting in fashionable coffee shops, eating at a top notch vegetarian restaurant, we could have been in Soho, New York. Our group could not get over how different the city was from what Americans imagine.
Do our politicians know of the new Iran?
For sure, there are policies of the Iranian government with which we don’t agree. There are reactionary and unfriendly elements there like everywhere else. But Iran is a country of young people, and they look and act just like the young people in our country. They are part of an awakening global consciousness.
As we traveled through Iran and were so warmly received, I could not help but wonder how much our politicians know about this new Iran, a country that today hosts many European and Chinese tourists — especially the Chinese, who are heading there in droves to buy up Iranian goods while the rest of us debate how to proceed. With or without America, this new Iran has already entered the global community, and business people are lining up, hungrily eyeing the market.
We can hold on to the myth, the memories of the Iran of 30 years, or even a decade, ago, or we can move on as they have already done. Iranians are welcoming Americans. They want engagement. It would be worse than folly to miss this opportunity, which has the potential to shift in a positive way the dynamic of the whole region. Sandwiched between Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran is a pillar of stability in an endangered region, and we should appreciate rather than seek to undermine the stability it offers.
Before voting on whether to increase or be rid of sanctions, it should be mandatory for every member of Congress to visit the new Iran, or they risk voting on false information, as was the case with Iraq a decade ago. The failure to support this new agreement will lead to greater instability and the possibility of expanded war, something neither the American nor the Iranian people want.
There is no other sane position than to support the agreement that has been negotiated with such great care and consideration of all possible options. This will begin a new chapter not only for Iran but for America as well.
This article was originally published on Faith Street’s OnFaith blog.
Kevin Fisher lives and works as activist for global HIV treatment and prevention access in New York, but has begun the feel the pull of climate protection advocacy.
To experience the natural world in 2015 is to experience simultaneously its beauty and the stress, loss and pain caused by human action. How can we react? Is outrage consistent with contemplative practice? Is change possible without outrage?
On a warm Saturday night in September a few hundred people came together in New York City for an evening of singing, chanting and teaching entitled “Mindfulness – Stop Waiting and Start Living” organized by Senior Monastics in Thich Nhat Hahn’s tradition. The evening’s program, with its very “American” title as one monk wryly noted, had special significance coming during a month when Thich Nhat Hahn had spoken his first words after a year of debilitating illness. It was a time to stop waiting and to start talking. As we entered the auditorium and walked to find our seats, the monks exhorted us to sing with them immediately. We sang as we moved quickly to our seats. There would be no waiting.
The path to COP21, also known as the 2015 Paris Climate Conference in December, has been the story of talking and waiting over 20 years of UN negotiations. The aim of COP21 is to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate among as many as 25,000 delegates from up to 190 countries to keep global warming below 2°C. An essential and critical goal, but how is consistent with mindfulness and living in the present. COP21 will come together to agree on a course of action for the next century that will engender conflicts of interpretation over decades. It would be difficult to envision a less “present” undertaking.
Yet if we engage and participate and contribute, is that work alien to contemplative practice? This issue was on the minds and the audience the monks shared their own experiences that night at “Mindfulness – Stop Waiting and Start Living.” Can mindfulness co-exist with social activism. How does one bring oneself back to the present while also projecting out into the world? And what to do with anger that is so much a part of activism? The conversations that night left the impression that activism is one end of a seesaw that has at, it’s other end, mindfulness. This balance is one to be watched, managed and ultimately accepted. One thing is clear, a contemplative practice that embraces the notion that there is no waiting, is necessary, right and overdue as we approach COP21.