Earth, our old and wise mother, is most beautiful.
Life, of which together with Gaia we are part and expression, is most beautiful.
We are immersed in a treasure ineffable and of a mystery so transparent that we almost can’t see it.
For almost five billion years the Earth has welcomed and enabled the living systems that make life possible.
Ancient and beautiful Gaia is the oldest living organism, a vital and powerful force far beyond what we can see or understand with mere human perception. Wherever we are on the planet, each day brings us into direct relationship with her, and from her we are embraced and nourished. Even our ancestors — all were born and fed by Gaia’s generosity and by the light of the sun.
Through this ancient line of human evolution we are naturally connected to the body of the Earth and her heart, just as we are connected to all beings — the many other species which she hosts. Since time immemorial she has transmitted her wisdom to all living creatures just as the mothers do with children, generation after generation. Among all the species that exist we are the last to arrive, and like children we are still unable to appreciate Gaia’s sweeping simultaneous expression of inclusivity that is in benefit to the whole.
Despite the thousands of years of human presence on Earth, our juvenile behavior causes a great deal of trouble and brings suffering not only to ourselves, but to other species and the planet. We don’t even have the ability to live together in harmony yet. Selfishly we seek to control and exploit everything to our advantage; the life of plants, the water, animals of every kind, from insects to fish and mammals and even other human beings, believing we are separate and independent from it all. Within this illusion of separation we are blinded by ignorance and greed.
In our immaturity, although we know that we all breathe the same air and drink the same waters, are fed of the same soil, of an Earth that is round not flat, a sphere in an ancestral dance through an interdependent and infinite cosmos. Yet believing ourselves all powerful we claim the right to own and manage everything in nature. Audaciously we claim the place of a more evolved species. Full of desire for power, enslaved by our emotions, we find ourselves anchored to selfishness, asserting control of everything even if the damage we do is evident all around.
When we are confronted with the reality of the facts and information on the state of the planet that circulates the globe at great speed, shouldn’t our understanding be that we must wake up? Realize that the time to mature has come and that time is now and the place is right here, where each of us breathe moment by moment.
Even so, despite this collective spiritual underdevelopment, we find we are in a great momentum of positive change and there are enough individuals whose spiritual maturity is such that they can offer support at this time — in this evolutionary wave in which we find ourselves. But still that does not give us enough skill or wisdom to embody the next evolutionary step of the future — no longer as Homo Sapiens but as Homo Spiritualis.
So how do we abandon the old to make room for the new, both in nature and in ourselves?
How do we befriend ourselves in a deeper way, for I believe, it is in this profound state where we find the space and opening to sincerely befriend others, where we can step into service for all. This is the ancient teaching of Gaia.
And at just the right moment, to leave behind what has outlived its time, and in this space recognize the new. This dynamic is not always easy but it is essential and will lead us to grow spiritually and will give us a vision with a depth of transparency to reflect the mystery of which we are a part and should honor.
For this, time is needed, and often in solitude, because the intensity of this highly creative process requires utmost care and a state of total surrender.
Feeding bird at Bandas. Gallmann Conservancy, Laikipia, Kenya. Photo by Alice Kohler
It’s painful to realize that we are slow to evolve as a human community knowing that the fundamental changes that are necessary are needed immediately. We have what it takes but still we are lacking in the capability.
Personally I feel tremendous pain, a sorrow that can border on outrage – that we are not yet able to recognize and respect the beauty of life. How sad to note that we are incapable of equanimity or respect for life in its innumerable and myriad forms. Respect for our human brothers and sisters, for our relatives the animals, our relatives the seeds, respect for our home and Mother Earth. How is it that we are so immature? My pain turns to despair when I see the limits of what I can do to help. What can a tiny grain of sand do in the midst of an ocean? Why can’t we free ourselves from our greed and just live in peace?
In these difficult times it’s easy for people to become depressed. It takes strength to act in a positive way in this time of despair and grief – holding firm to the human values of trust, goodness, common sense in the midst of so much suffering so that we don’t lose hope. I have found myself wishing to withdraw from society, my spirit calling me into silence. I remember as a child being attracted to a way of living that would be willing give up something if it allowed for an opening of the heart.
More and more I am longing to live for the spirit, with fewer possessions and distractions, free myself from the madness I see around the world today. Tears flow warm while my words have no more power and somehow I know that we must still offer our help, accepting that the present is not the time to retreat, but to remain engaged and offer oneself in service to life. There is a goodness in dedicating ourselves with humility and gratitude. Each of us bring gifts and possibilities, qualities within that can come to fruition. Not expecting reward we can act trusting in the grace and the fortuitous randomness of life, for we are all vehicles for Life.
As I rise each morning I am grateful for the deep love that blesses each of us, day after day. I try to remain in a silence that directs me to see each tiny leaf, every cloud, the song of the bird, the raindrops, the highest mountain peaks down to the depths of the sea. The light of the moon. The cosmos takes care of all, including me and my incapacity. All that remains is the spiritual beauty of Gaia and of every being, this transparent silence revealing what cannot be explained.
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.
“It is only for the purity of the animals themselves that we [humans] are allowed to still live.” ~ Salvatore Gencarelle
Popular media like the New York Times contains an ever greater number of articles about animal sentience. Most recently, on January 29, 2016 Sally McGrane wrote “German Forest Ranger Finds That Trees Have Social Networks, Too.” The evidence is everywhere: much more goes on in the minds of living things in the natural world than we have been educated to believe.
A dozen years ago I wasn’t looking for a psychic way to communicate; I was just trying to manage my daughter’s Thoroughbred mare, Ginger. I wanted to speak ‘horse’, which seemed to be a matter of learning the right body language, plus some horse psychology. However much I learned from books and from human instructors — I realized that I was learning even more from Ginger. Her intelligence, although different from mine, was extraordinary. I eventually found that I didn’t need to use body language, Ginger read my mind. Could it be that my 8 year-old daughter had picked out a very special horse?
Then my son wanted a parrot, so I started reading about this species. Combining what I had learned from Ginger with what I learned from Irene Pepperberg, author of “Alex and Me” I found that rather than training our infant parrot, I was once again a student of the being that I set out to train. At a very young age Ttac would learn the name of a visitor with no prompting, in a couple of days. He is always the first to get a joke (watch out, his “heh-heh-heh” will give you away!), and he even knew when a family member passed away across the ocean, whistling the way that Grandpa had taught him, which we had not heard since the last time they saw each other two years earlier.
My husband wanted chickens, who are supposedly on the opposite end of the avian intelligence spectrum from parrots — and then our six hens taught me about their rich lives. The crows who would sometimes get stuck in the hen enclosure taught me how wild birds think and repaid my assistance to them with extraordinary favors.
Willing wild crows and pigeons have stepped into my bare hands. Feral mallards have shown me their hatchlings. Dogs, fish, cats, dolphins, trees, sharks and elephants have been among my teachers. When you show others your willingness to listen they seek to befriend you, and to cause you to hear.
Each time I read books from top researchers of a particular species, I notice one common feature: They all believe that the species that they are studying is the species closest to humans in terms of intelligence, empathy, loyalty and other measures of what we tend to call ‘human’ traits. I noticed something else: No matter the species, when I get to know an animal well I find individual character and reasoning intelligence, free will, morality — attributes my schooling taught me to believe were limited to human beings.
In 2014 I began studying Interspecies Communication with Anna Breytenbach, Jon Young and Wynter Worsthorne. None of us really considers that we are “learning” to communicate this way, rather we are simply remembering how to do so. Every human, every being that exists, is equipped to communicate with or without the use of verbal, written language and sound. Our educational system teaches us humans that we can’t do it, but we can. And we must now re-member how, for listening to our brothers and sisters is crucial to the survival of all.
This past summer, a friend Ann-Sofi Carlborn wrote me an email telling me of the Global Peace Initiative of Women [from which the Contemplative Alliance emerged] and their intention to attend the climate conference in Paris. At the time I was visiting with two elephant friends in Tanzania, so I spent part of my evening reading about GPIW’s mission of peace and learning about their members. The following morning and continuing for the next ten days, various species of wild animals told me some of their own notions of peace and harmony, in order that I share them with GPIW. As they ‘spoke’ to me, I wrote in my journal; this understanding is what I shared with the faith leaders that joined GPIW during COP21.
Elephant: Notice the hierarchy. It serves a purpose in peacekeeping. Notice how accepting everyone is. How respectful.
Baboon: Notice how calmly we all accept our place. You [humans] have forgotten how to position yourselves and what your status means. No one owns the waterhole.
January 29th, 2015
Zebra: Learn about herd unity. Learn about the power and value of Approach and Retreat. Let time be timeless. The urgency is in the transformation, not in your sense of time. If the birds and insects and frogs are singing, that is the time to accomplish what is needed. Push gently into your comfort until you are reaching outside of it to others.
Wildebeest: Why are our energies separated? It is right and good this way. For balance. Look at the shape of our energies now. Always ask for permission when your energies are different/varied. To blend must be consensual. The more singular dominant energy must declare loudly his intention, as a way of asking. He shall then accept if the answer is no, even if he intends to return and ask again. Withdraw. Approach and ask. Withdraw. Approach. Thus, through the blending of energies does creation occur. It has been so for ages. Now is the time for returning closer to Oneness. Your kind is ready. Now is the time to approach. And blend. Be not afraid.
July 31, Day of Thanks
Elizabeth: Do you have advice for us?
Eland, Zebra and Wildebeest: (Wildebeest singing) Listen. Listen all you can and trust. Then and only then will you find the way home for us all. Fear not. You will be surprised by the ease with which change comes, and the simplicity with which it may be implemented. Listen and heed.
Voice of the Waterhole: You! You are welcome. You people cannot spoil my calm, my depth.
Warthog: With regard to the question of private property and ownership. It is not so much a question of never owning or making claim of territory. It is more a question of understanding that that claim is temporary. That eventually you must, you will, give it back. The humility in this equation is what you often lack. Search for it and keep searching, for it is there in you.
Vervets: Hear this. Because you are not usually present/consistent, there is great power of intention when you DO focus your love and thanksgiving. And when many more of you do, the results will be astounding to you. We, your brethren in the other nations, have been waiting for you.
August 1, 2015
Eland, Zebra and Wildebeest: See how we all come together. (Wildebeest singing) We welcome your desire to rekindle the peace between our nations. Know that there are those of your kind here (in Africa and elsewhere on Earth) who never lost it.
“We are called to return to the root of our being where the sacred is born. Then, standing in both the inner and outer worlds, we will find our self to be part of the momentous synchronicity of life giving birth to itself.”
In listening to each other’s experiences we recognize that we are all different. We perceive the worlds through different colors while truth shines through the veils of every single experience and yet is beyond them – it just is. There is subjectivity and a relativity to all experiences, those of the outer worlds as well as those of the inner worlds, the visible and invisible. And still there is much more than we can ever imagine that we can listen to, that speaks to us. I share here a fragment of a personal experience. May it serve to fill in a little piece in this great kaleidoscope.
As I write down these reflections it’s been forty days since a group of nearly 20 people – spiritual teachers, young leaders, and contemplatives from different spiritual traditions and regions of the world came to Paris. As a delegation of the Global Peace Initiative of Women we joined many NGOs and civil society leaders from around the world at COP 21, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
We gathered to share and discuss spiritual perspectives on climate change and give attention to its inner dimension. This included an afternoon event at the Climate Generations Area with a panel of faith leaders, contemplatives and young activists.
Unlike the outer events that were well documented, I would like to share some of my inner experiences from our time in Paris – experiences perceived by the heart.
We all have these experiences, but, as we all know too well, the inner worlds that are invisible to our outer eyes have become covered and obscured from our human perception in today’s world. It is difficult to even speak of the inner world as it has been so neglected and is no longer valued in our culture. And as feeling is not valued as much as thinking, and as we define ourselves more through doing rather than being, by sharing inner experiences we are always taking a certain risk of being misunderstood or – depending on the audience – even risk a response of doubt or disrespect. Perhaps one of the reasons we rarely dare share them.
Yet as it was important to us as a group to offer a unique contribution to this event, an emphasis on the inner dimensions of climate change, approaching the question as to the roots as well as solutions from an inner perspective, so I feel that speaking about inner experiences along with what we were outwardly engaged in might round off the picture.
During my first morning in Paris, several hours before we were to sit at a Tibetan temple to pray for the Earth, I strolled with my husband in the Jardin du Luxembourg, situated close to our hotel. We walked among trees, flowerbeds and statues, among people enjoying their Sunday morning sports and families who were out to walk like us. I wanted to greet the place, the Earth here, which I always do, silently, when I travel and my feet first touch the ground of a new place. It is similar to showing our respect when we enter the house of a friend we visit, like taking off our shoes and thanking our host for being welcomed as a guest. And as we came to Paris for a climate conference, I felt a particular need to feel the Earth in Paris, not only in the beauty of her buildings and cathedrals, but first in a spot of nature.
Sometimes, in an initial greeting, there is a response, in the form of a feeling or a sense of the spirit of the place. I can feel being welcomed by the Earth through a particular fragrance in the air or a special tree that draws my attention. This Sunday morning in Paris it was a sudden cry that cut into my thoughts and abruptly took me straight into a different realm of perception. It woke me up. I was drawn into a deeper awareness and immediately knew this was a response and it was a call at the same time.
Instinctively I turned and looked up toward the treetops, high above where the cry had come from. I spotted an exotic and colourful bird, definitely not native to Europe. Perched on a branch it cried out three times, first a cry to draw my attention, then two more times, a strange and piercing call before it flew off. I wondered if it was a formerly caged bird from a far off continent that had escaped its cage, and now lost was searching for a place to stay in this unknown and chilly winter landscape. No one else seemed to notice it, though this cry was very loud and unusual.
A tremendous feeling of someone lost filled my heart. A bird is a symbol of the soul – that inherent part of each of us that has wings to fly and is not bound by gravity or limitations. It is free and belongs to the infinite sky. I felt the soul of the world, of which we are all a part, like a bird that is lost, estranged in a cold environment and unable to find its way. It felt an urgent call, the Earth was signalling for my attention. I could sense it in the cry of the bird calling us to relate to the Earth as a soul, as a sacred being whose divine essence and origin we have almost forgotten — a soul astray calling to us to include this relationship, this love and remembrance in all that we were here to do at this conference. This experience, with a language other than words and explanations used the symbolic world which can take us effortlessly into the realm of divine presence. I was thankfully made more present and attentive than I had been before.
As I followed the reports and watched what was taking place at the conference I realized that most participants, sincere and willing to make a difference to contribute to change for the planet with great effort, were nevertheless mostly concerned about themselves, about humanity. It seemed so much to be about what we as humans are doing, what we are thinking, what concepts we develop, how we are acting, and how we could be rescued. But what about the Earth herself? Was the Earth really present, even though there was much talk and action related to the planet? Did we feel the Earth as a being, with her anguish, her yearning to be related to? As a being that is made of light like us, that connects us all, that nourishes us, that we are a part of? Did we listen?
From a political perspective, the final outcome was a success —also due to much engagement of indigenous and environmental groups who gave a foundational energy to it — so much so that eventually they came to an agreement that all nations could sign. This process called for a tremendous amount of energy, and the many who worked and put their heart into this deserve our great respect. One could argue that — although the agreements on the necessary outer actions to be taken are far from sufficient — but since an agreement of all parties was a first priority aim, there was little or no space left for other concerns such as inviting in the presence of the Earth. To come to this consensus was work enough. However, if we look deeper things do not work in this way and are not as linear as we are accustomed to thinking. Could it not be the other way around? Is it that our approach is mainly from our human perspective, human centred, focusing on our own limited goals, and because it excludes the “presence” of the Earth that we need so much energy for agreements, so much effort to overcome our greed and competitiveness and antagonistic demands. I am convinced that if we had included the Earth, to which we are all interrelated and connected, and allowed her to be present in us, felt her suffering, acknowledged the light that we share with her, we would have spared much energy that we put into negotiations about our human needs and could have seen results far more easily.
The Earth was present. But she was not much present in the perception of the people–not present in a relationship. Shortly after returning home from the gathering I wrote to a friend, ” All the time in Paris my focus partly was on feeling the Earth, staying in close contact, listening to her soul – underneath the asphalt and the concrete, underneath the ceaseless talking and speeches and chatting, within the walls, the stones, the dirt, the numberless cars and traffic jams, and under the hopes and the dispair, the busyness, the talks and negotiations, the agitation and rage and the suffering. And she was there. She was waiting. She gave her love. I felt the Earth communicating her presence to me, her longing, her waiting. This was very touching”.
There was one experience in particular of this presence that left a deep imprint in my heart. It was when we walked with a small group of friends through the “ Climate Generations Area,” the space for civil society and NGOs that had been set up in a huge airplane hangar, where we were scheduled to have our panel discussion the next day. It was a crowded place with many events going on at the same time, noisy, chaotic, filled not only with exhibitions, talk and exclamations, but with the countless thoughts, emotions and the sorrows of people. It was like a big fair. Places like this are often difficult for me, and usually I am completely focused on coping with the overstimulation. But here in the midst of this noise and chaos there was suddenly a great silence in me. I turned my attention inwards and there was the Earth. She was here in this place, even though no one noticed. I listened. She conveyed not through words but again more through a feeling, how much she loves us – despite everything. In this place of so much action, of thinking, of outer engagement, far away from stillness was the depth and silence of the Earth’s love. It was as if she said, “I am here, I am so much waiting for you. Where are you? ” She was waiting for us to relate to her.
A second time when I felt the love of the Earth so fully was when our group went to pay respects at the memorial site for the victims of the Paris shootings. At Place de la République we prayed silently while some offered moving chants from the Lakota, Buddhist, Hindu and Christian traditions. Even from across the street as we approached the memorial I could feel waves of love flowing through me and everything surrounding me, through all people, through stone and concrete, through a stray cat as well as the mild breeze of the early evening. The memorial site welcomed us as a place of sadness, of tears— and as a place of tremendous love. The grief of so many before us had been transformed into love, and this could be felt easily, but there was more to this love. I had the physical sensation of a love that rose from beneath my feet from the depths of the ground through the Earth flowing warmly to my heart.
Also here I felt the love of the Earth.
In this place where I sensed a violent rupture in the fabric of life, a deep wound that caused much grief and suffering, not only here but also in many other places of the world, I felt a tremendous love at the same time. The intensity of this love came from the Earth herself. I felt it in the cells of my body. I thought that it must be heart breaking and heart opening at the same time for many people who come here. In the midst of this great sadness I was left in awe at the wonder of this limitless love that is just present, prepared to transform and heal if we really opened to it.
The search for solutions to the crisis of our planet, and to climate change, is in large part based on suffering and deep wounds. It is not only we humans who suffer; it is the planet who suffers. Our planet Earth is being attacked every day, the Earth is being raped and plundered, violated and depleted on a daily basis. Humanity has forgotten the Earth is sacred, long forgotten this sacred relationship. The Earth suffers at this loss of relationship, and more and more, I hear people who tell me they hear the cries of the Earth.
To acknowledge this suffering is a first step in transforming it into love — a first step to access the tremendous love that is there waiting for us.
How can we do this? We can allow for space, listen to the Earth, relate to her and allow her to relate to us— and to feel. Feeling belongs to love. Without feeling, without acknowledging the pain, without feeling the grief, there is no love. When we allow for it, the suffering can be transformed, and then the love can flow into it.
At that moment when I felt the suffering as well as the love, the clarity and simplicity of what we all know but so often forget was deeply affirmed: there are no real solutions without love. No negotiations will be possible, will be fruitful and lasting if love is not present; not only love for our human fellow beings, but love for the Earth.
We all know that we need love and need to love. Great teachers of all traditions have stressed the importance of love and of relating to the Earth. We like to hear this, it gives comfort to the heart, we can agree so easily. And yet, while these teachings guide us and point us in the direction of where we need to go we must, in the end, go on our own two feet. We need to live the love, live it in our beating heart, coursing through our blood, pulsating in our cells. We must feel the pain and the joy and the heartbreak that comes with love and relationship. And sometimes it is also helpful to listen to each other so we don’t only understand it in an abstract way, but experience the love with the Earth concretely, how it speaks to us, how it touches us, what it feels like when the suffering is included. I am always moved listening to someone who experienced this relationship, this love. It reconnects us.
In beautiful and manifold ways all the friends on our panel stressed, explicit or implicit, from their different perspectives and traditions how important and crucial love is, when we are referring to the inner dimension of climate change. With gratitude I listened to the presentation holding the spark of hope in my heart and a prayer that the energy of love in these messages may spread everywhere, to the Earth and to those who were sitting day and night in the midst of negotiations for an agreement by the nations of this earth.
It is sad to realize that many of the decisions, politically as well as personally, are made out of fear. The need for action as a response to climate change is often emphasized through arguments of threat: “We are in danger. We are threatened to not survive.” We fear weather catastrophes, we fear the climate refugees, we fear hunger or those who are hungry. We act out of fear and fear divides and separates. What might happen if we were motivated not by fear but by love, not by separation or division, but by a sense of oneness?
Of course it would have been naive to expect all decision makers to fall in love with the Earth immediately or motivations changed instantly. But it is not naive to hope – acknowledging the oneness and interconnectedness of life – that by activating the feeling quality in our hearts of love for and from the Earth, recognizing Earth as a living and sacred being, could have added something to the whole and the whole of the process. By connecting with her light from the light within us could become an interwoven part of the way we work as humans, now and in the future and may bring about effect.
Which kind of effect—that of course, we will never know, as it is not in our hands, as it is not about us. Life remains a great mystery that we cannot plan for nor limit or define. We leave our prayers and experiences to that which goes far beyond ourselves. We leave it to love. We leave it to the great mystery of love. We offer it to God.
This past week I joined a group of 17 interfaith leaders and more than 30,000 delegates and media at COP 21 (Conference of Parties) in Bourget outside of Paris, to witness whether 195 countries could find consensus on a plan to reduce their planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. The answer is now clear – an historic agreement was reached.
According to the Woods Hole Research Center, “The good news is that nothing like this has happened before (have 196 countries ever agreed to anything?). The bad news: the Paris commitments are largely non-binding, but they are a good start.”
The agreement will push countries to pursue efforts to: Limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change;
Increase the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience;
Allow finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate resistant development. This was a big win for climate change activists; President Obama, who pushed hard for an agreement; and religious leaders such as Pope Francis and millions of citizens who have worked hard for so long to get us to this point. It’s a big win for Planet Earth and all future generations.
Let’s face it–we as a nation are addicts to fossil fuels like oil and gas. Breaking this addiction and moving to renewables such as wind and solar is happening, but way too slowly. We should see the Paris agreement as an opportunity to envision a new way of seeing the world. “Without a vision the people perish,” say the Scriptures. As our case is new, so we must see the country anew,” Abraham Lincoln declared in 1962. “We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
Ask the residents of the West and Southwest whether the drought doesn’t require a new mind-set. The Colorado River already drying up will be down 10 percent flow by mid-century. Ask the victims of more intense and powerful hurricanes, such as Katrina and Sandy, whether we can ignore the science of climate change. Our illusion of human supremacy over climate change will not make it go away. As said before, you can’t bribe or bully Mother Nature. But we can mitigate and adapt to that which we are producing by our use and abuse of fossil fuels–climate chaos.
Accepting a new vision–seriously shifting to renewables and getting off fossil fuels–will help us disenthrall from old illusions.
Nevertheless, a vision for change without a workable strategy is an hallucination. The Paris agreement is the best strategy yet for solving a planetary emergency. And the best advocates for endorsing and implementing the agreement lies with the world’s faith communities–the four largest religions being Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist with more than 76 percent of the people on the planet–all acting in ways that reflect their deepest values of stewardship, concern for the poor and protection of natural resources.
Cop 21 meetings, housed in a refurbished airport hanger outside Paris, included exhibits for “green” advocacy organizations to help move 7 billion people and counting toward environmental sustainability. All well and good. But incentives, or other rewards and punishments, are easily forgotten when the pressure of living the status quo with existing consumption patterns, reasserts itself.
Midweek at COP 21, our group of religious leaders from every continent held a “Faith and Climate Change” session on how to move fellow believers to this vision. Adam Bucko, a Gen-X Christian born in Poland and now an American citizen, sporting knee-length dreadlocks and a commitment to a “new monasticism,” called getting off our carbon addiction “impossible except through a spiritual revolution.”
He’s right, but we’re not yet there as a society. Now too many of us are like the elderly man driving down the highway who turns to his wife and says, “Honey, my hand-to-eye coordination is not good and my eyesight is even worse, but thank God I can drive!” Some of our leaders who oppose the Paris agreement are like the couple blindly driving the country and planet into great peril.
Bold leadership is needed in this new era. Someone who has watched these COP events for many years is Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters. I ran into him in the Green Zone and asked for a prediction. He prophetically said that “the one community with the clout to make COP21 pronouncements a reality are the world’s faith communities.”
They can’t be silent, however. One image that stands out to me from COP 21 was a group of young people all standing in a row, mouths taped shut, with a sign declaring: “Don’t Bracket our [Future].” In other words, don’t silence us or others from speaking the truth.
The same goes for confronting politicians. Conservative columnist David Brooks has written that “on this [climate ] issue the GOP resembles a Soviet dictatorship–a vast majority of Republican politicians can’t publicly say what they know about the truth of climate change because they’re afraid the thought police will knock on their door and drag them off to an AM radio interrogation. “We need to make it possible for these GOP officials to come out of the closet.
Voters, particularly in conservative religious communities, can do this by no longer giving them political cover. We see changes already. Conservatives who support clean energy initiatives are freer to accept climate change because they’re already contributing to the solution. It’s framed as an issue of liberty to choose a cleaner source of energy rather than a belief in rising temperatures.
With Christmas and the New Year nearly here, we should chart a new course and define a new era. Just remember, if you’ve never changed your mind about something, pinch yourself, you may be dead. Not literally, just intellectually or spiritually. Let’s be the leaders we were meant to be.
We pride ourselves as Americans in being the leaders for the rest of the world. May it be so on climate change.
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.
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:
The Role of Technology in Fostering Greater Human Unity and Interconnection
Emerging Technologies That Will Shape the Future
Are We Transitioning From a Nature Based to Digital Based Civilization?
Technology & Social/Economic Transformation
The Convergence of Science, Technology and the Consciousness Movement
Balancing External Technology with an Inner Technology
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:
The power of scalability to create & strengthen platforms for the unseen/unheard
The Internet as a convening portal for communities of change
Advance engineering/robotics to solve medical conundrums
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:
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.