Three Questions with Ali Ahmad Felhi

How can we reconnect with our deeper selves, our essential nature? 

I think the answer is in the question posed: stating that we need to (re)connect with our deeper selves presupposes the preliminary existence of a ‘connection’ to an essential nature, and that this connection was ‘lost’. This reading imposes a specific chronology of first an authentic, created, primary human truth, then a moment of loss, and finally a phase of recovering. To use a more platonic terminology, What we are required to adopt here is a simple act of ‘remembrance’. The truth to be remembered is a simple one: there is nothing in you to be known, you only exist in the other, and if there is a reconnection to be made, it is not through an inquisitive look towards yourself but through a loving gaze towards those surrounding you.

How do you feel and live your connection to the earth? 

Earth is an interesting word because of its modern polysemy. Earth goes from the cosmic level to indicate the planet itself, to also describe a little handful of mud or sometimes simply a color or a perfume. with this multiplicity of uses, the ‘spiritual’ meaning of the word has been eroded ( to remain within the same lexical field). The scientific modern hijack of language makes it difficult today to understand earth as a ‘spiritual matter.’ And I think we are very much in need today of a ‘re-spiritualization’ of earth ( we are, should we remind ourselves, at the brink of an ecological catastrophe). For that matter, the Abrahamic use of earth is interesting. The three monotheist traditions understand it as the origin of all life (Quran describes humans as made of mud) but they also consider it as the perfect locus of death (these traditions requiring their adepts to burry their dead in the ground). Earth is where all starts ( the cosmic material constituting humans is brought from earth) and where all returns ( dead bodies come back to what they have all always been; dust). Monotheisms offer a perspective where earth is the Locus of both the ‘eternal return’ and of the ‘eternal restoration”. Earth, in that understanding leaves the realm of the ‘commodity’ and enters the sphere of the sacred. and it is this linguistic and conceptual sacralization of earth that will, I think, start a new and much needed ‘ecological imaginary.’

How can we create or reimagine a more compassionate world from within the current structures? 

I don’t think it is possible to do it within the current structures. A system built around an intensive commodification of human relations and an emphasis on ‘competition’ as the major social engine cannot be more compassionate. Today, it sadly appears that the only way for the existing system to be more compassionate is to transform ‘compassion’ into a commodifiable item ( Buy a Starbucks cup of coffee and we will help the Colombian lady in the picture have a better life ). You then buy a brief and joyful moment of good conscience with your espresso. Placebo. A radical, all encompassing and revolutionary reconstruction of our social relations is, I think what is needed. What I am stating here is not meant to be sheer nihilism. I just wanted to recenter the ‘political battle’ within the humanitarian project. The noble act of compassionately helping the other should also be paralleled with a healthy struggle against existing political systems that reveal themselves to be an obstacle to a more compassionate world.

Ali Ahmad Felhi. Architect, author, and Sufi adept

Three Questions with Judy Lief

Acarya Judy Lief, Buddhist teacher and author

How can we reconnect with our deeper selves, our essential nature?

Our true nature, our inner depth, is a thread that runs through all of our experiences, from the most mundane to the most profound.  It can be discovered in the midst of our ordinary everyday activities. It is always possible to connect with this deeper reality; we can do so at this very moment.  

In the midst of the busyness, distractions, and pressures of life, it is easy to lose this connection. We may have glimpses, but they are unstable. However, our link to something deeper can be nourished and restored. We can reconnect again and again, repeatedly bringing ourselves back to that deeper level of trust within ourselves. We can engage in the provocative, dynamic process of returning—and then returning again.  

It is so simple: stop, remember, connect.

How do you feel and live your connection to the earth?   

To feel and live such a connection, each day I try to make time to get out of my head and step back from the ongoing plans and concerns of the moment. I come back to my body at a very simple level.  Sensing, feeling, experiencing. I touch in with the reality of aging and dying and the passage of time. I feel grateful for the support of the body, its pleasures and its pains.

I go outside and look up at the sky.  It is so vast and inconceivable. Somehow, looking at the stars and planets or the blue sky brings me back to my connection with the earth. I feel held by gravity, grounded and simple. 

Stopping and looking in this way opens my connection to fellow living beings, humans, plants, animals. I recognize my placement in the structure of life, as an animal, a mammal, a sapiens, a planet Earth dweller.  That recognition is so pure, so simple and literal. Ironically, when I stay with the simplicity and don’t try to overlay either a scientific or a spiritual interpretation, a feeling of awe and sacredness arises naturally and spontaneously.

How can we create or reimagine a more compassionate world from within the current structures? 

We can begin close to home, by doing the work of self-examination.  How deeply do we know ourselves and our capacities? How honest are we about our limitations? Given who we are, what is the best we can offer to help shape a sane and compassionate world? In the Buddhist tradition, the first challenge is quite modest: it is to do no harm. We may not be able to fix things, but we can at least not add to the chaos. We can reduce harm. That is the bottom line. 

It is hard to accept our flaws and limitations, but when we do so, we become more accepting of others and more able to work with flawed structures and institutions.  At Naropa University, this is described as “meeting the world as it is and changing it for the better.” 

We can’t fix everything, but we have countless opportunities to make a difference.  We make choices all the time, and those choices have impact. 

The world needs help. Every gesture of kindness and compassion, small or large, has force. Your circumstances may be quite constrained, and you may have few resources, but you can still do something. If you relate to whatever you do through the lens of compassion, you will be able to make a difference.

There are so many things wrong, so much entrenched injustice, so much needless suffering. It is easy to be overwhelmed. But we are called to engage, to be willing to get messy. How to begin? We have to start somewhere. In response, the advice I have found most helpful is: If you have the circumstances or ability to do something about a problem, don’t hesitate or cop out, but get involved. However, if you do not have the right skills or strength to help, just let it go. Appreciate what you can do and don’t dwell on what you can’t. You need to be realistic:  help where you can, and don’t get bogged down in despair at all the problems you cannot fix.  

Three Questions with NaRon Tillman

NaRon Tillman, Pastor of One Ministries and Mindfulness Coach

How can we reconnect with our deeper selves, our essential nature? 

We can reconnect with our deeper selves through focused Spiritual practice. This can include things such as prayer, meditation, contemplation, and a variation of connecting with mentors that are purposed to guide you in these practices. 

How do you feel and live your connection to the earth? 

I feel my connection to earth by being mindful of our connectivity. I live this out by teaching these truths to my children, congregation, and others that I come into connection with. 

How can we create or reimagine a more compassionate world from within the current structures? 

The Scripture teaches the followers of Christ teaching ”Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” I believe that if we did this then we would remove the impulse to be greedy and possessive. By caring about others, not just our families or people that think like us, we position ourselves to transform our local communities and then our world. This happens in one community at a time. 

NaRon Tillman, Pastor of One Ministries and Mindfulness Coach. 

3 Questions with Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

How can we reconnect with our deeper selves, our essential nature?

There are many ways to reconnect with our essential nature. Any spiritual practice, prayer or meditation, that takes us beneath the surface of our daily life, beneath the clutter of the mind and the demands of the outer world, can be a place of reconnection, a place where we can rest inwardly and be nourished by the deeper roots of our being. And if we need an added ingredient to help us in this work, silence is most valuable, especially in today’s world where noise surrounds us more and more. To learn to be present in an inner and outer silence is a doorway to what is real within ourselves and in the world around us.

And as our world appears to spin more and more out of balance—temperatures and sea levels rising, species depleted—there is a pressing need to return to a this deep place, a place of belonging where real healing and transformation can take place. Returning to our essential self we may find a balance resurfacing from deep within, a balance that reconnects and restores us, and also allows us to contribute in unseen ways.

One of Carl Jung’s favorite stories was “The Rainmaker,” in which a world out of balance, in a time of drought and suffering, was healed not through activity, but through a rainmaker retiring to a hut in silence. Three days later the rain came and the drought was over. When he was asked how he brought the rain, he replied, “Oh, I can explain that. I come from another country where things are in order. Here they are out of order, they are not as they should be by the ordnance of heaven. Therefore the whole country is not in Tao, and I am also not in the natural order of things because I am in a disordered country. So I had to wait three days until I was back in Tao, and then naturally the rain came.”
If we are to participate creatively in these toxic times, to bring rain to a land where the inner and outer wells have run dry, first we need to be present “in another country where things are in order.” And this “other country” is not so far away, but can be found in the Earth beneath our feet, and in the space between the in-breath and the out-breath where the soul is present. But first we need to reconnect, to return to this place of balance. And the simplest way is through stillness and silence.
Silence draws us inward, away from the clutter and distractions of our outer life, to the deeper roots of our being. Here our soul nourishes us, here we can be replenished, and here we can help replenish our world. The Earth is dying from the ravages of our culture, of our materialistic nightmare which pollutes the air we breathe, the water we drink, and starves our soul from its natural connection to the sacred. In the silence we can drink deeply of the waters of life that are still pure, we can commune with the primal forces of nature, we can return to what is sacred and essential to our life and to the life of the Earth.
Here in this “other country” the air is not toxic, and the miasma of today’s world in this post-truth era is not blurring our vision. The laugher of children rings true. Stillness is here, and the seasons are in balance. Every in-breath and out-breath is sacred. The breath, the soul, the Earth and its seasons, are linked together, nourished by each other. It is a time to heal.
Sitting here beside my window I look out onto the wetlands. I watch the tides rise and fall, the sun red in the morning, sometimes breaking through the mist. Traffic may pass on the road just beneath me, the early morning milk truck, but the silence remains. As I get older I am less and less drawn to activity, more of me remains in stillness, sensing the Earth, watching the birds at my birdfeeder—I love the woodpecker with his bright red crest. Now it is springtime, apple and cherry blossoms already carpeting the ground.

How do you feel and live your connection to the Earth?

In my daily life there are two practices that help me to reconnect with the Earth and Her sacred nature, walking and prayer.
I have always loved to walk early in the morning, to sense the Earth at the beginning of a day, to feel Her pulse, Her beauty and magic, before thoughts and demands clutter my day. Waking early, I have a hot cup of tea, meditate in silence, and then, as soon as the first light comes, I walk down the hill to the road beside the wetlands where I live. Sometimes the frost is sparkling around me, sometimes the water is clouded with fog, an egret appearing white against the reeds. This is another time of silent meditation, walking, breathing, feeling the Earth. I try to be as empty as possible, just to be present in the half-light, aware of what is around me. Prayer, meditation, presence, awareness – these are just words for a practice that immerses me in a mystery we call nature. Here the sacred speaks to me in its own language, and I try to listen.
Now I live beside the wetlands, and the tidal water is part of this meeting, this communion. Other times, in other landscapes, it has been rivers and streams, the sounds of waterfowls’ wings, the dawn rising across meadows. Or in forests, a different bird chorus, animals skittering across the path, a deer and her young. Always it is a listening awareness, a deep receptivity to what is around me, an honoring of a world other than people. It is a remembrance of what is essential, elemental, and its nourishment carries me through the day. It is a return to the sacred, sensed and felt, without words or thoughts – a primal consciousness as if of the first day.
This is a practice that has been with me since my teens – when I first started to meditate I also needed to walk. It was not taught or learned, but came as a need, a way to be, an antidote to much of the world around me – a world of people and problems, demands and desires. When one foot follows the other and the day has hardly begun, it seems these demands cannot touch me, as if I am immersed in something simpler, more essential. Placing each foot on the earth is a practice, but a practice that comes from my own roots, not a book or a teacher. Later I came to hear it called “walking in a sacred manner,” and it is sacred, a return to what is sacred. But it also is deeper or more primal than any purpose. Nature speaks to me and I listen. Nature calls and something deep within me responds, and I just need to give it space. I am part of a life far greater than any ‘me’.
The Earth gives us sustenance: the air we breathe, the food we eat. She is generous in so many ways, even as we forget Her and abuse Her. But there is also this deeper nourishment, this invisible, intangible giving. My early morning walk is a communion – if I am receptive, it is a wine drunk deeply. It comes through Her landscape, moss dripping from the trees, white and pink blossoms welcoming spring, the cry of a sea bird. Those first rays of sunrise are always a blessing. I do not understand this with my mind, but my soul feels it, needs it. Once again we are back at the beginning, in that elemental world we never truly leave. Our present culture may have forgotten it, disowned it, covered it over, may pretend we no longer need this communion, but my soul and my feet know otherwise. This is the landscape of the soul as much as it is the wetlands stretching towards the ocean. But it is also any landscape we walk. A walk on city streets is made of the same elements: feet touching ground, the rhythm of walking, breathing, the same sky overhead, the wind touching the face.
I would like to say it is easy, but so often I have to remember to reconnect, to empty the clutter of the coming day from my mind, my everyday thoughts. I have to stay in a place of awareness, sense my feet, feel the air, listen. I have to remember that I am not separate but part of everything around me. I have to push aside this great myth of separation, the great untruth. We are the air we breathe, the earth we touch, the same one life, alive in so many ways. We are the Earth awakening in the early morning, just as we are the buds breaking into color in the spring. To be fully alive is to feel how we are part of this embracing mystery. My morning walk is a remembrance, a reconnection, experienced in the body and felt in the soul.
My own morning walk is in many ways a prayer. In prayer there is a meeting: I meet and bow before the One in Its many colors, sounds, and smells. Of course, many mornings I forget and take my own thoughts with me on my walk. But then I am reminded—hearing the waterfowl call across the water, glimpsing the sun through the fog—and I awake from myself and see more clearly—the colors, the sounds, the beauty, the Divine. Once more I am attuned to how “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
I feel that there is a specially pressing need at this time to bring our heart’s witness to this natural world we live in. Our world is starving, dying from a lack of the sacred, and human beings have always been mediators between the worlds, linking matter and spirit, the visible and invisible. Our witness, our prayers, can help awaken the sacred that is within creation.
And there is another form of prayer that touches me deeply at this time of the Earth’s distress. With our own heart we can pray for the Earth, just as we pray for another person, for a sick relative or friend. It helps first to acknowledge that She is not “unfeeling matter” but a living being that has given us life, and to open our heart to Her suffering: the physical suffering we see in the dying species and polluted waters, the deeper suffering of our collective disregard for Her soul and sacred nature. And then from this depth of feeling, and a deep love for the Earth, I place the whole Earth in my heart and offer Her to God, to the Creator, to my own Beloved. It is a simple and powerful way of remembering the Earth in my prayers, an offering of love.
We each have our own way to pray, the way we cry out in our need and longing, the way we listen to the quiet voice or to the deepening silence of the Divine, the way we open our hearts to the Earth. There are so many ways to pray for and with creation, to listen within and include the Earth in our spiritual practice. Watching the simple wonder of a dawn can be a prayer in itself. Or when we hear the chorus of birds in the morning we may sense that deeper joy of life and awake to its divine nature, while at night the stars can remind us of what is infinite and eternal within us and within the world. In whatever way we are drawn to wonder or pray, what matters is always the attitude we bring to this intimate exchange: whether our prayers are heartfelt rather than just a mental repetition. It is always through the heart that our prayers are heard. Do we really feel the suffering of the Earth, sense Her need, hear the cry of the Earth? Do we feel this connection with creation, how we are a part of this beautiful and suffering being? Then our prayers are alive, a living stream that flows from our heart. Then every step, every touch, will be a prayer for the Earth, a remembrance of what is sacred. We are a part of the Earth calling to Her Creator, crying in Her time of need.

How can we create or reimagine a more compassionate world from within the current structures?

There is a world waiting to be born, a world founded upon cooperation rather than competition, a world that honors all of life in its diversity and wonder. A compassionate world in which we return to what is simple and essential and remember the “Original Instructions” given to our ancestors and held by Indigenous Wisdom Keepers—“how to get long with all of creation.” And this world that seems so different to the broken structures of today’s divisive and exploitative culture, is not so far away. It is a world seen through the eyes, the consciousness of oneness, rather than the consciousness of separation. It is a simple shift from “me” to “we.”

Oneness holds the essential vision that we are one living, interconnected ecosystem—a living Earth that supports and nourishes all of its inhabitants. If we acknowledge and honor this simple reality, we can begin to participate in the vital work of healing our fractured and ravaged world and embrace a living unity that is our human heritage. This is the opportunity that is being offered to us, even as its dark twin is constellating the dynamics of nationalism, tribalism, isolationism, and all the other regressive forces that try to divide us.
Oneness is not a metaphysical idea but something essential and ordinary. It is in every breath, in the wing-beat of every butterfly, in every piece of garbage left on city streets. This oneness is life—life no longer experienced solely through the fragmented vision of the ego, through the distortions of our culture, but known within the heart, felt in the soul. This oneness is the heartbeat of life. It is for each of us to live and celebrate this oneness, to participate in its beauty and wonder. And through our awareness, and actions born of this awareness, we can help to reconnect our world with its original nature.
There are many ways to experience and participate in this living oneness. But if I have learned anything after half a century of spiritual practice, it is the power of love. Love comes in so many forms and expressions. There are the simple acts of loving kindness towards friends and family, members of our community, or strangers. Love reaches across boundaries, expressing what is most essential and human: what unites rather than divides. “Small things with great love,” are more potent and powerful than we realize, because they reconnect us with the spiritual roots of life and its transformative and healing energies. Because life is an expression of love, each act of love is a participation and gift to the whole.
Cooking a meal with love and care, listening to another’s troubles with an open heart, touching your lover’s body with tenderness, or going deep in prayer until you merge in love’s infinite ocean—in all these acts, we live the love that unites us. And through our loving, we nourish life in unseen ways.
And at this time of ecological crisis, as we are tearing apart the fragile web of life, there is a vital need for us to love the Earth, to bring her into our hearts and prayers. We have a spiritual as well as a physical responsibility for ‘our common home,’ and she is calling out to us, crying for our help and healing. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh:
Real change will only happen when we fall in love with our planet. Only love can show us how to live in harmony with nature and with each other and save us from the devastating effects of environmental destruction and climate change.
We need to reawaken to the power of love in the world. It is our love for the Earth that will heal what we have desecrated, that will guide us through this wasteland and help us to bring light back into our darkening world. Love links us all together in the most mysterious ways, and love can guide our hearts and hands. The central note of love is oneness. Love speaks the language of oneness, of unity rather than separation.
Love can open us to our deep participation in the life of the whole; it can teach us once again how to listen to life, feel life’s heartbeat, sense its soul. It can open us to the sacred within all of creation and can reconnect us with our primal knowing that the Divine is present in everything—in every breath, every stone, every animate and inanimate thing. In the oneness of love, everything is included, and everything is sacred.
And from there, we can begin to respond. We cannot return to the simplicity of an indigenous lifestyle, but when we let love guide us we can become more aware of the oneness of life and recognize that how we are and what we do at an individual level affects the global environment, both outer and inner. We can learn how to live in a more sustainable way, according to a deeper understanding of sustainability that rests on an acknowledgment of the sacred within creation. We can live more simply, saying no to unnecessary material things in our outer lives. We can also work inwardly to heal the spiritual imbalance in the world. Our individual conscious awareness of the sacred within creation reconnects the split between spirit and matter within our own soul, and also—because we are so much more a part of the spiritual body of the Earth than we realize—within the soul of the world.
Love is the most powerful force in the universe. Love draws us back to love, love uncovers love, love makes us whole, and love takes us Home. In the depths of the soul we are loved by God. This is the deepest secret of being human, the bond of love that is at the core of our being and belongs to all that exists. And the more we live this love, the more we give ourself to this mystery that is both human and divine, the more fully we participate in life as it really is, in its wonder and moment by moment revelation.
Love and care—care for each other, care for the Earth—are the simplest and most valuable human qualities. And love belongs to oneness. We know this in our human relationships, how love draws us closer, and in its most intimate moments we can experience physical union with another. It can also awaken us to the awareness that we are one human family, even as our rulers become more authoritarian, our politics more divisive. And on the deepest level, love can reconnect us with our essential unity with all of life, with the Earth herself.
The Earth is a living oneness born from love, being remade by love each instant. And we can be part of its spiritual transformation, its awakening. The Earth is waiting and needing our participation. It has been wounded by our greed and exploitation, and by our forgetfulness of its sacred nature. It needs us to remember and reconnect, to live the oneness that is our true nature. And love is the simplest key to this oneness, this remembrance. Love is the most ordinary, simplest, and most direct way to uncover what is real—the innermost secrets of life. It is at the root of all that exists, as well as in every bud breaking open at springtime, every fruit ripening in fall.
Love will remind us that we are a part of life—that we belong to each other and to this living, suffering planet. Love will reconnect us to the sacred ways known to our ancestors, as well as awaken us to new ways to be with each other and the Earth. We just need to say, “Yes,” to this mystery within our own hearts, to open to the link of love that unites us all, that is woven into the web of life. And then we will uncover the love affair that is life itself and hear the song of unity as it comes alive in our hearts and the heart of the world.

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee Ph.D. is a Sufi teacher and author. In recent years the focus of his writing and teaching has been on spiritual responsibility in our present time of global crisis, and an awakening global consciousness of oneness More recently he has written about the feminine, and the emerging subject of Spiritual Ecology. ( He has been interviewed by Oprah Winfrey on Super Soul Sunday, and featured on the Global Spirit Series shown on PBS. His most recent book is Including the Earth in Our Prayers.