The Unfortunate Secularizing of a Sacred Practice: Meditation
by Dena Merriam
There is growing debate within the spiritual community about the pros and cons of secularizing meditation practices. In order to reach more people – and generate more money — these sacred practices are being reduced to a means of stress reduction and mental focus. At GPIW and the Contemplative Alliance we have long warned about the downside of this trend. A recent op ed in The New York Times entitled “Can We End the Meditation Madness,” expressed all that we have feared. If meditation is no more than a stress reduction technique, why not go for a jog, or a swim, or take a glass of wine. The author argues that there are many activities as effective at relaxing the mind. He misses the whole point. Meditation was never intended as a stress reduction practice! It is being misused and misappropriated by commercial enterprises, the whole money-making mindfulness training industry that has developed. How sad that our society has come to abuse practices that have been developed over the millennia for attaining deeper realization of the Self, of shedding all that is non-essential and coming to know one’s true nature, the ultimate reality of all that is. It is time that spiritual communities step forward to reclaim the true purpose and goal of all meditative and contemplative practices. It is not time to “end the meditation madness,” because we should all be filled with a madness, an urgency to know the truth. But it is time to end the secularization, commercialization and misuse of these sacred gifts. Let us state once and for all, if you want to reduce stress in life, you can find many activities to help you achieve this end. But if you are compelled to understand the nature of life and to know who you truly are, meditation can surely lead you deeper into that journey.
The world is not a problem to be solved; it is a living being to which we belong. The world is part of our own self and we are a part of its suffering wholeness. Until we go to the root of our image of separateness, there can be no healing. And the deepest part of our separateness from creation lies in our forgetfulness of its sacred nature, which is also our own sacred nature.
The state of the Earth is our most pressing concern. Our present ecological crisis is the greatest man-made disaster this planet has ever faced: the signs of global imbalance, climate change, and species depletion are all around us. The Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh calls these signs “the bells of mindfulness” calling us to be attentive, to wake up and listen. The Earth needs our attention—it needs us to help heal its body, damaged by our exploitation, and also its soul, wounded by our desecration, our forgetfulness of its sacred nature. We can no longer afford to ravage the Earth with our collective nightmare of consumerism, poisoning the soil and the soul of the world.
Our response to this crisis has been mainly within the arena of science, politics, and economics. But Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Praise Be to You: On Care for our Common Home, has helped to highlight the relationship between spirituality and ecology and to bring this understanding into the mainstream. The ecological crisis is, at its root, a spiritual and moral problem. As Pope Francis stated: “There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself.”
Science can show us the physical symptoms of a deep global imbalance, of a civilization no longer sustainable—and economic models illustrate how painfully this affects the poorest among us. But it is our sense of being separate from the Earth that has allowed us to abuse it. If we held the Earth as sacred, as part of the living oneness to which we belong, could we treat it in this way—would we pollute its rivers, kill off its species? Forgetfulness is a most potent poison, enabling our desires to destroy what is most precious. We need to remember that the Earth is whole as well as holy, and then, from a deepening sense of relatedness, we can engage in the vital work of “care for our common home.”
The Earth needs both physical and spiritual attention and awareness, our acts and prayers, our hands and hearts. Life is a self-sustaining organic whole of which we are a part, and once we reconnect with this whole we can find a different way to live—one that is not based upon a need for continual distraction and the illusions of material fulfillment, but rather a way to live that is sustaining for the whole. And this way to live in harmony with all of creation has at its core a remembrance, an awareness, of the sacred nature of creation, which is also our own sacred nature.
Hearing the cry of the Earth we are drawn together from all corners of the world, from different religions and spiritual paths. And in response we bring the single voice of our love for the Earth. May we remember our role as guardians of the Earth, custodian of its sacred ways, and return once again to live in harmony with its natural rhythms and laws.
Statement by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee for COP21 Paris Climate Talks 2015
One of the most popular ways of referring to our planet is “Mother Earth”. There is certainly nothing wrong with this from a Christian standpoint, since it is obviously true. We all come from her womb, receive constant nourishment from her, and return our elements to her at death as a living matrix of recycling energy. Pope Francis does not hesitate to evoke “Mother Nature” in his recent encyclical (#92).
There are other evocative images, however, of a feminine stamp that are associated with the natural world in the Christian tradition. To begin with, theology reminds us that the Creator, while aptly invoked as Father, is, in fact, beyond gender, and is likewise a Mother (Cf. Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, “She Who Is”). In more traditional, biblical language, we have the cosmic figure of Wisdom, feminine in Hebrew (Chokhmah), Greek (Sophia) and Latin, famously presented in Proverbs (8: 22-31). She is God’s companion at Creation, the “first of his works”, “playing” with abandon upon the earth, and “delighting to be with the children of men”. Christian tradition identified this Wisdom with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, since it was feminine, and seemed, at first glance, to be created. Mary thus rightly achieved a cosmic status, identified with the Eternal Feminine, even and precisely while remaining human. Nonetheless, Christ Himself is the Wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24), “the firstborn of all Creation” (Col. 1:15), through whom all things were made (Jn. 1:3). As the second Adam, he contains the eternal feminine in himself, the Church born from his side on the Cross. In turn, Mary is the Mother and Image of the Church, the Bride and Body of Christ, which “fills the universe in all its parts” (Eph.1:22). These dizzying correspondences open an abyss of untold mystical depth. In a real organic sense, the whole Universe is the Body of Christ, and, since we are members of that Body, the Universe is our body, too! In fact, like a mother, all creation is groaning in labor pains, awaiting the full redemption of the children of God (Rom. 8:22). Thus, to wound the earth is to wound, not only our mother, but the Body and Bride of Christ! It is to wound our own bodies!
Even the presentation of this Mother Earth as a Goddess, Gaia or otherwise, has vivid and beautiful resonances in our mainstream Western traditions. Our world is a vibrant, breathing organism, as even Plato recognized: a whole net of relationships, as modern physics affirms, and ecology recognizes. Furthermore, in early Christian tradition, the planets have angels associated with them, as do even the elemental forces on earth, such as those in charge of winds or fire in the Book of Revelation (7:1; 17:18). In addition, the alchemical tradition, very well-known in its time, assigned minor spirits to the elements of earth, air, water and fire. All of this subterranean tradition underscores the numinous and sacred quality of the natural world.
Still, Scripture scholars have long pointed out that one of the goals of the often ill-used first chapters of Genesis was to knock the stars and animals off their divine pedestal, to proclaim the unique Creator God. In this perspective, Mother Earth is, above all, a fellow creature, our Sister. Here, the elements likewise follow their linguistic gender (thus, feminine for the earth). Accordingly, St. Francis himself, in his famous Canticle of the Creatures, the inspiration for the recent encyclical of Pope Francis, refers to “Our Sister, Mother Earth”! Even Mary, as the same Sr. Elizabeth Johnson reminds us, in another of her book titles, is not only our mother, but “Always Our Sister”!
I suggest that these are a wonderful ways to incite our planetary affection and responsibility. They penetrate to the mystical Heart of our religious traditions. For Christians, who would not wish to respect the Body of Christ, in the mountains and rivers, as well as in the Eucharist? And who, in whatever culture, would not wish to protect, defend, care for and love, their sister, their mother, their own bodies? And if we truly esteem them and treat them as such, how can the planet fail to flourish?
Spiritual Leaders meet with Leaders in Science and Technology
March 27 & 28, 2015
Since 2008 the Contemplative Alliance has convened contemplative practitioners and concerned citizens in conversation around the pressing social, ecological and economic issues of our times. We have traveled to ten cities across the nation joining groups across faith and wisdom traditions, as well as other sectors of civil society, to advance the notion that contemplative practices and/or deep self-inquiry can deepen our understanding of interdependence as a global community. A common thread has emerged from these conversations the past seven years. It is the unified belief that some of the best outer solutions to societal challenges arise from consistent inner reflection on one’s individual purpose/being, and the potential to altruistically impact the whole is boundless when informed by this inner knowledge.
From March 27 to 28, 2015 we continued this journey with sixty leaders from the technology, science and spiritual communities in Half Moon Bay, California for a free-form think tank called TECHNOLOGY, CONSCIOUSNESS and the FUTURE near Silicon Valley. Our dialogue addressed the following sub-themes:
Prominent spiritual teacher, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Founder of The Golden Sufi Center, opened the dialogue with a talk titled ‘Mystics and Scientists – The Convergence of Science and Spirituality’ (click for audio of talk), which stressed the importance of global human interconnection made possible by technologies like the Internet. He shared a little of his background that has included nearly forty years of dedicated meditation practice with deep mystical experiences, including being awoken on a plane of consciousness where all is light, sometimes referred to as the ‘plane of the Self.’ He then shared with the contemplative and technology leaders in the room, a vision in which he saw the internet as a gift given to humanity, that would one day awaken to its full potential to give humanity access to an inner level of reality, an interconnected web of light that would bring about the coming together of human consciousness. A state where human consciousness can come alive to function as a living organic whole. “The internet is not designed as ‘information technology’; it is designed as ‘relationship technology’. It is about people coming together.” And we have yet to understand fully the significance and potential of the internet in terms of a global awakening and the concept of Oneness.
There were other technologies of the future that he has been shown; the energy of the future would use light, similar to the process of photosynthesis, non-polluting and be almost free. He stated the technologies are already present and waiting to be given, but can only be given to those of the right attitude. The knowledge cannot be accessed through greed, but will be given to those who hold deeper core values of inclusivity and service. He offered the example of Tim Berners-Lee, the British computer scientist who invented the World Wide Web. He did not do it to make money and took no royalties.
Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee said, “The real innovations that belong to the future should be in service to life and in service to humanity. Then they will be given. If you have that attitude, your consciousness can be aligned to where the information is, to where the technology is waiting. You don’t have to work for it. It’s effortless.”
These opening remarks were followed by comments for discussion by three young people who are working on interconnectivity in their fields: Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, who is sharing the diversity of the human community by the telling of stories through his films at the Global Oneness Project, Dharmista Rood at Code for America who is making government services more universal through open source technology, and Vincent Horn, who is bringing together the Buddhist and technology communities through his annual conference Buddhist Geeks.
Tiokasin Ghosthorse, Host of the First Voices Indigenous Radio in NYC and a Sundancer spoke to the importance of remembering Mother Earth and the ways in which her resources are used. He explained that the Earth is the foundation around which all of creation is birthed on the physical plane, and it is therefore our sacred duty and responsibility as humans, who are an interconnected part of the Earth, to respect this symbiotic relationship by not misusing its generosity, gifts, and perhaps most importantly, not ignoring the intricacy and intimacy of this balance.
Tiokasin’s message opened space for the group to address the inner conflict that arises when considering the benefits of technology, yet knowing the dangers resulting from the manufacturing process, for example. Some participants specifically inquired about the Resource Usage Cycle, as well as raised the issue of mining, often in places of conflict, where minerals are sourced to power smart phones and basic appliances. Another very present challenge is the Digital Divide, those who have access to technology and its benefits versus those who remain at distance because of social, racial, age or economic disparities. It is clear the many problems that exist, but perhaps it is with turning inward, looking to our higher selves and Mother Earth – the living being that is holding the shifting energy of civilization – that we can find true answers.
This two-day dialogue between technologists, scientists, contemplative practitioners and spiritual teachers, yielded many moving and impressive moments, but one development stood out in particular: the degree to which the mindfulness movement is penetrating Silicon Valley. The initial purpose may be stress reduction in a highly competitive industry, but we heard from many that the end result is greater introspection and a reassessing of priorities.
It was clear among the young technologists present – heading startup companies or leading groundbreaking research – that many were motivated by the desire to make a meaningful impact in the world. They offered great emphasis on the current and future potential of technology to do good works, such as:
An example of altruism and social good that was motivated by a deep inner calling was shared by Jim Fructerman, Founder and CEO of Benetech, the largest maker of affordable reading systems for the blind.
Jim gave a moving account of how Benetech came into being – by enhancing technology created for an optical recognition missile launching into something that could serve humanity. An idea that was said not to be profitable is still around after 26 years, employs 80 people, and engages a community of volunteers in human rights, conservation and global literacy issues. Also with us was Zakiya Harris, a shapeshifting maven and Co-Founder of Hack the Hood, which provides technical training in high demand multimedia and tech skills to youth, enabling them to take on real-world consulting projects with locally-owned businesses in their communities. The story of World Pulse, founded by Jensine Larsen, mirrored the impact of network scalability; the organization is providing digital empowerment training programs to build online movements and promote female voices for change around the world. And finally, Adam Pumm, the Co-Founder of Hive in San Francisco talked about applying his expertise in computer engineering and design to help connect and educate extraordinary mission-driven leaders and entrepreneurs who are working to create a better world. These leaders showed us the possibilities of marrying heart centered wisdom with the gift of technology to serve with deep intention.
The conversation also tapped into the history of this rapidly evolving industry. Many tech affiliates in the room shared that the technology movement was started by innovators and creative idealists, but since the influx of venture capital, a different energy has influenced the sector. This background provided greater context for the motivations behind the race for the next $1 billion product often heard in media soundbites today. Within that reality, however, there are still those looking for deeper purpose, a return to the optimism of the earlier days but now with the awareness of technology’s far greater reach, demand and sophistication.
Through this gathering, the Alliance also saw great hope in a new generation of technologists, who are incorporating contemplative practice into their daily life so they can find a way to make a satisfying contribution to the future – to do good by being aware and engaged. Perhaps no other industry is imbibing into their corporate culture the principles of mindfulness practice as much as these technology companies. We left the conversation inspired by the idea that perhaps they can lead American business in a new direction.
Among our discussion of the social and ethical dimensions of technology, it became clear that there is much thinking in the Valley about the potential benefits as well as dangers of artificial intelligence (AI). This gave way to a deeper exploration of intelligence versus consciousness. Some technologists in the room acknowledged that consciousness based on data and information patterning is possible, but the ability to feel, experience, and self-reflect is an entirely a different matter. Expanding on this debate, a number of participating scientists talked about the need to shift the scientific paradigm from one that believes matter precedes consciousness to a paradigm that understands it is consciousness that precedes matter. These ideas opened a whole new avenue of exploration for the Contemplative Alliance, and deepens our understanding of the ongoing conversation between physicists and contemplative leaders.
We are grateful to everyone who shared space with us and helped to bring to light the intricate aspects of technology and science that directly impact the Earth community. This conversation will continue with another gathering planned for 2016.
Technology, science and thought leaders who also offered opening remarks:
Nichol Bradford, Co-Founder, Transformative Technology
John Briggs, PhD, Prof. Em., Author & Poet, Co-Author, Quantum Mechanics, Chaos Theory and Fractals
Federico Faggin, President, Federico & Elvia Faggin Foundation
Rich Fernandez, Co-Founder, Wisdom Labs
Ari Goldfield, Meditation teacher, Founder, Wisdom Sun
Anasuya Krishnaswamy, PhD , Scientist on experimental solid-state physics & Yoga Teacher
Birju Pandya, Managing Director, Armonia, Volunteer, ServiceSpace
Jim Phoenix, Poet, Vice President Metta Center for Nonviolence
Christine Peterson, Co-Founder, Foresight Institute
This program was made possible with the kind support of
Kalliopeia Foundation, Fenwick Foundation and The Fetzer Institute.
by Dena Merriam
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.
Launched by GPIW in 2008, the Contemplative Alliance is an inter-spiritual movement grounded in contemplative practices and approaches with the goal of heightening awareness and generating actions to address the critical issues of our times. We seek to accomplish this by creating an alliance of organizations and individuals from across religious, faith and worship traditions who believe that inner development is an essential element in the positive transformation of the global community. By sharing this message, our vision is that individuals and organizations will act from a place of deep inner wisdom to advance the wellbeing of the global community. Currently the Contemplative Alliance is being organized under the auspices of the Global Peace Initiative of Women (GPIW) http://www.gpiw.org