How can we reconnect with our deeper selves, our essential nature?
All day long, and all night, our mind is busy with thoughts, plans, desires and memories. We are so engrossed in these thoughts that we begin to identify with them. To connect to our deeper Self, our true nature, we must still the mind and free ourselves from its busyness. Only when the mind calms down and becomes like a clear still lake, can we tap our essential nature and realize who we truly are. For me, the surest way to still the mind is through meditation; not casual or brief meditation, but long, deep meditation. One must give the mind time to release itself. But there are other ways to access this stillness. Nature is also a doorway to the Self. Sitting by a river, gazing up at a sacred mountain, walking with the beings of the trees, these are also ways to put aside the mind and be in our essential nature. We then realize they are no different from us, and we are no different from them. We are all expressions of the one consciousness, the one life energy.
How do you feel and live your connection to the earth?
I am a river girl and so the surest way for me to feel oneness with nature is to sit by a river and listen to her quiet wisdom. Rivers speak to us, often guiding us and helping us find solutions to our problems. But they speak from inside and so one must be very quiet and receptive to hear. I also love to stand or walk barefoot on the earth and to feel her healing currents pass through my body. I love to feel the strength of mountains and breathe in deeply the fresh forest air. Trees and all plant life give us the air we need, and we give them the air they need. This life-giving exchange bonds us to them and so we must make time to honor the tree and plant beings. We deprive ourselves when we fail to connect deeply with earth and all her wonderful expressions. So for me, it is taking time to love and honor all that earth is.
How can we create or reimagine a more compassionate world from within the current structures?
The structures must begin to change because they were born of an earlier, less conscious era, and we have moved on from that time. But change can come gradually and so we slowly have to insert more caring into the way our society is organized. To bring about change, we have to look into the causes of the current disfunction. We must look into why we as a society are so unhealthy, why people don’t have satisfying jobs, decent places to live, why there is so much unhappiness. We will find that one answer that comes up again and again is that we have divorced ourselves from the earth, from nature. We are unhealthy because of the processed and tainted food we eat, the toxins in the water, the chemicals we have put into the environment, the stress we submit ourselves to. We live in concrete jungles with little fresh air, no access to the healing currents of the earth. Even people in suburban or rural areas are for the most part cut off from the healing elements of the natural world because it is also a mindset. We must change the way we interact with nature. Compassion arises when we bring these healing elements back into our lives – urban farming, urban forests, undammed rivers, time to be with nature and oneself. Connecting to nature opens the heart and then one is able to connect more deeply with fellow human beings. When we ourselves are healed, we can extend our hearts to others. So we must begin, collectively as a human community, by cleansing the soil, the water and the air of the toxins we have poured into them. In doing so we will also cleanse our hearts. It is the hearts and minds of people that must change before we see change in our institutional structures.
Dena Merriam is the founder and convener of the Global Peace Initiative of Women. She is the author of, “My Journey Through Time: A Spiritual Memoir of Life, Death, and Rebirth”, and most recently, “The Untold Story of Sita: An Empowering Tale For Our Time”.
Sita is a beloved figure for Hindus around the world, as well as for non-Hindus throughout Southeast Asia. But the message of her life extends beyond these audiences and bears universal import, particularly relevant for the modern age when a new understanding of feminine wisdom and leadership is needed, and when we are facing an unprecedented ecological crisis. Mata Sita and Sri Ram were instrumental in setting the foundation for a new civilization during a time of transition from one era, or yuga, to another. We stand at a similar time in history, where we are experiencing the passing of one era and intuitively feel the birthing of another, as yet unknown. One thing seems certain, however, that the new society we are striving for must be ecologically-based. There is great value in looking to lessons of the past in order to move forward.
During Sita’s time on earth, humanity was beginning to shift from a nature-based way of life toward greater material development. Many concepts were implanted in the collective mind at that time that guided the subsequent development of human civilization. We have now reached the pinnacle of this development and are reaping the results of our abuse of earth’s resources—its land, water, and air. To survive as a human community, we will need to incorporate into our lives a new-found appreciation, respect, and love for the natural world, a love that was exemplified in the life of Mata Sita.
Looking back to the time when humanity was beginning to divorce itself from nature and to cultivate more of a separate, individual identity will help us understand the pitfalls of this separateness in consciousness. Seeing ourselves as disconnected from nature has given mankind the false impression that we can control nature and recklessly deplete it, discounting the rights of other life forms and ignoring our interdependent relationship.
One cannot go backward in time, nor would one want to. The goal is to incorporate the wisdom and knowledge of the past into the developments and scientific advances of today. We can learn again how to care for and love the earth and all her communities of life. There is much that Mata Sita can teach us if we invoke her. She and Sri Ram are living presences, not just historical figures, still very much engaged with the lives of those who turn to them. During the life journey of Mata Sita and Sri Ram, each assumed roles that were different but equal in importance. Neither could achieve their life’s mission without the other. Their lives exemplify a balance of the masculine and feminine qualities and energies, despite how patriarchal forces have tried to shape the Ramayana narrative to suit later social norms. If we recapture something of life during the higher ages we can see the story with new eyes and perceive the inner dynamic that drove the outer narrative. Remembering the harmony that existed during the higher ages will help us re-calibrate our society so that it honors the sacred feminine and the sacred masculine, both of which are needed to help restore balance to our society and to the earth.
The ambiance of the room grew cozier — harmonious as we listened to the soft vocals and compositions of Rasa Javedani who had written the fitting words to the melodies that were then sung by Shakeel Shaan and myself. The audience of old friends grew emotional in the atmosphere and we found it hard to hold back tears. The song we chose to sing that night was one to express our love for the friends gathered that day, the friends who had left the Kashmir valley three decades back. Today I welcomed them for the first time on their return to their home of Kashmir.
It took twenty-eight years for such an historic reunion to happen. We had spent our teens together, enjoying school and college life and now we had the chance to recollect a time that we remembered as being full of joy, unaware of the divisive atmosphere that was brewing and which we in our innocence could not foresee.
The turmoil that erupted in Kashmir was sudden and spontaneous and with fewer communication vehicles in those days our group couldn’t contact each other. Unfavorable conditions of the time forced many Kashmiri families (Pundit, Muslim and Sikh) to migrate far from their homes. It was ten years before we were able to trace one another after this abrupt departure, all that while yearning to reconnect, especially to be together again in the homeland. The idea to come together was sparked by a phone call and Rajesh Raina and I were determined to make it happen.
Even now as the situation in Kashmir is still ripe with violence and strife, such simple happenings as the reunion of a group of friends raises hope for others, hope of peace in the valley. We must be able to imagine peace, to remember what it feels like.
We were inspired by a youth initiative in Kashmir called Ripples. It was an idea that came from the wish to see peace in my valley once again. We believe that by bringing together those who longed for peace it will awaken the memories of a time when this vast area was the meeting ground of different spiritual traditions and people lived together harmoniously. We want this feeling to spread. Along this journey we met with the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a network of peacemakers led by women working for harmony and reconciliation. These women had been organizing and facilitating similar interactions and meetings between divided communities for many years and they took a deep interest in Kashmir after their first visit. It reignited some hope in me and we began to work together, mostly with young people, helping them create spaces of expression for their development. They had grown up amidst tension and conflict and had to know there was another way. We organized programs together with GPIW and invited some of these aspiring youth to come and dialogue with us and ask them what it takes to become true community leaders.
Although there had been many peace efforts by various organizations over the years, we felt our reunion was unique — at the very least it was an emotional one. Some of those who had migrated were scared to return, imagining their old homeland will feel unfamiliar and the people harsh with them. To their surprise they experienced the same love and affection from their friends in the valley as in the past. During our days together we visited old favorite places, ate our traditional Kashmiri foods, danced and sang. We sailed on Dal Lake for which Srinagar is famous. When it was time to take leave it was with tearful and moist eyes, visibly expressing the admission of their wrong perception about the reality. The truth is that the majority of the people of Kashmir still keep alive the real Kashmiriyat pluralistic values of simple and harmonious living.
In the Sufi spirit of friendship, the lyrics to the songs were intended to evoke the love and affection in our hearts… “oh friends your place and your glimpses are in our eyes always and your space is always here, which you have to fill by coming back to your homeland!
These feelings lingered as everyone left. They left knowing that the Kashmir of their youth had not died and there was hope for a future without violence and fear.
Whales were very much on my mind. I had just returned from a dialogue in Japan that included a discussion on the impact of pollution and climate change on the communities of life in the oceans and was preparing to go to Poland for the United Nations Climate Conference. I had also just read an article on how the US administration had just approved the use of sonic cannons to find oil and gas reserves in the Atlantic, up and down the coast, a devastating decision for marine life. My heart ached for what these animals would now have to endure.
While on route to Poland, I had a dream, one of those dreams that is more vision than dream. I saw myself standing by the window in my Manhattan apartment looking out over the East River when I saw a beautiful large whale quietly and speedily swim up the river until it stopped just in front of my building and stared up at me. All I could do was whisper, “I see you. I hear you.”
This was the dream that followed me to Poland and haunted me as I walked through the hallways of the conference wondering how to bring the voices of the ocean into a meeting that would help determine whether life in the ocean lived or died. There was one session on oceans, which I did attend, but sadly it made no mention of the whales, the dolphins and other marine life. The main message to come out of that panel of marine experts was that the scientific organizations studying the oceans are now cooperating, whereas they had previously been working in their own silos. Well, a good first step, but the audience was not satisfied. When a member of the audience pressed them on why more action was not being taken, the response was that action will only come from the bottom up, not from the top down. The UN can do its studies, bring the best scientific minds and data to the fore, present the predictive models, and then — and then, if the governments don’t act, there is not much more these officials can do. All they can do is warn, which is what the United Nations Secretary General just did when he flew to Poland to try to encourage some progress. If we don’t act, we are on a suicidal mission, he said. At the same time, UN officials continue to appeal to civil society, which is why they let so many of us into these annual climate conferences. Again and again we are encouraged to pressure our governments toward concrete and meaningful action. In the US, for the time being, that means at the local level – our state and city governments that are part of the “we’re still in” movement.
A few months ago, I attended the Climate Action Summit in San Francisco and there much time was devoted to oceans. The presenters shared that too little attention and funding has been applied to researching the oceans, and in fact we understand very little about them — not very comforting. But one thing was made clear — the oceans determine the climate. If the oceans die, we die. Human life depends on the health of the oceans, and the oceans now are not very healthy.
So there was the dream, and the warning, and the positives and negatives of COP 24. Whatever is decided at the end of this climate conference, we will know that the responsibility partially rests on our shoulders. We must speak now not only for the human species, but for all who inhabit our precious planet.
I will remember the whale who appeared and appealed to me. I will continue to see and to listen.
It was difficult to watch and remain silent as recent news in India has shown us how our popular culture and the media has come to use the word “ guru” with great frivolity, at the detriment to all of us. To reduce India’s great spiritual traditions by casting shadows on this word is a disservice to seekers everywhere. Even in spiritual circles, all too many today seek to become a guru. It would do us well to reflect on the meaning of the word and the responsibilities it entails. The root meaning of “guru” is to lead from darkness to light; in other words, one who has the ability to lead the student to full awakening to one’s true nature. A person may have spiritual attainment and still not have the ability to lead the student to self-realization. A guru is one who can take on the karma of a student if that will help the student advance; a feat not many are able or willing to undertake! The guru can even take on collective karma to relieve world suffering. The only goal of the guru is to awaken those still lost in pain and ignorance. There is no other motive – not building an institution, not amassing followers and a big bank account – there is no “I” left to desire any of it.
As long as there is any ego seeking to be adored, how can one be a true guru? As long as there is any action that strays from Dharma, how can one be a true guru? The best way to help society develop its discrimination is for the public voices, including the media, to distinguish through its choice of words as to who is the true guru, and who is rather a charismatic public figure, an entertainer, mind trainer, etc.
It is sad to see anyone take advantage of people’s material deprivations, their hopes and disappointments in life, but it is extremely important to clearly distinguish such figures from those who provide true spiritual guidance.
Let us not stand silently by when the word that has been applied to the greatest among us for millennia is now being so debased.
There is perhaps no more critical undertaking now than to bring together women who have the
commitment, knowledge and vision to make a difference in bringing about the needed global transformations. It is increasingly clear that we have arrived at a pivotal moment in the history of the world. There are forces pulling us forward toward the next stage in human evolution, and there are forces resisting this advance, seeking to pull us backward or at least to keep us from progressing. In almost every region of the world, we feel this tension between a movement forward and the resistance. Even for those of us who feel the forces of advancement, it is not clear where we are going, what is the next stage in our social evolution. We know that the current systems are not working but we don’t know the new formations that are quietly arising. This inability to put our current situation into larger context is creating anxiety. How do we ease this tension? I would describe the new mindset that is emerging as one based on a sense of unity –human unity and unity with the natural world – and I would describe the old mindset as one based on a sense of separateness and division. We see these forces playing out around the world. Globalization and communications technology brought us together in the physical sense. Now something akin to this is happening on a spiritual level. The interfaith movement played a role in that, bringing people into much deeper spiritual exchange. But now we have moved beyond interfaith into a new experience of spiritual unity. In response to this new reality, retraction is also occurring – people retreating into their separateness, into known and comfortable identities. But this retreat can only be temporary because the movement of evolution is a forward one. In addition to the tension between unity and separateness, we are feeling the tension of shifting from a paradigm of domination, which has lasted for millennia and is deeply imbedded in our psyches, to one of collaboration. The urge to dominate is based on fear and for a period in human evolution this fear was a necessity – it was self-preservation. But it has outlived its usefulness and has now become destructive. This shift is not a cosmetic or minor change in thinking but entails a significant growth in consciousness and involves deep systemic changes that will affect all aspects of our economic, political, social and religious life. This shift in consciousness away from a domination mentality applies to how we interact as a human community and to how we interact with the rest of the created world. So much of human history has been about one ethnic, national, religious or racial group seeking to dominate another, one gender seeking to dominate the other, and one species, the human species, seeking to dominate all that resides on Earth for our sole benefit. These old mental patterns no longer serve us. In fact, they threaten our survival.
What we are experiencing now as a global community is the breaking down of old patterns and the beginning of the formation of new ones. This is a painful process. As women know, it is only by passing through the agony of labor that we give birth to new life. This is not an easy or quick task. For an individual it takes a long time to change habits. For a global collective, the formation of new modes of behavior could take decades, but at least we can lay the foundations, and we do this essentially through our understanding of what is taking place and by changing our own consciousness. If you look at what is happening in the world today, on the surface, it can seem dismal. It almost feels like we are moving backward. Every region is experiencing tension – conflict, human barbarity, climate changes, environmental degradation, increasing economic disparity, the list goes on and on. In the US, on a political level we are in a state of deep polarization and paralysis. But spiritually something else is happening and a deeply unifying spiritual movement is emerging. The spiritual landscape of the country is changing quite rapidly, and in a positive direction, because it is based on unity rather than division. How long will it take for this to affect the political and economic life of the country – that is an unknown.
This unifying spiritual movement, which is emerging around the world, is drawing upon our many faith traditions. It is not negating our difference but rather it is using this diversity as a unifying force. Instead of dividing people, the world’s incredible religious diversity can and should unify people of all faiths. The premise for this is to embrace the “other” rather than to feel threatened by it. The old competitive pattern of judging which religion is right or superior is discarded, replaced by a new thought pattern of appreciating the special gifts of the “other.” The old pattern of seeking to convert others to our way of thinking is replaced by a celebration of the “other.” This shift will occur when we move away from the fear-based domination way of thinking. Just as we must evolve beyond our need to dominate other groups of people, we must evolve beyond the need to dominate the natural world. This will give rise to a newborn sense of love for the Earth and Her vast communities of life, and the feeling that we must do all we can to protect Earth’s precious life forms. The climate crisis presents a great challenge to the human community but also a great opportunity to change the way we view the Earth and to come together as a global society. We can choose which direction we will take, greater unity, or greater division. I believe the forces of unity are stronger and will eventually pull us forward.
I travel continually and I see these feelings shared by people around the world, regardless of culture or region. It is an undercurrent but one that is growing and will soon have enough momentum to trigger change – a sudden change in a positive direction. There is no denying that we are up against formidable structures that resist change. I believe women have a great role to play in guiding the human community through this transition, in building this momentum, but to do this we must fully come into our feminine awareness. Before going into what this feminine awareness is, I want to share a bit of my history and how I founded the Global Peace Initiative of Women to provide a global platform for the spiritual contributions of women.
I began working in the interfaith world nearly 20 years ago when I was invited to help organize a large religious summit at the United Nations headquarters in NY for the millennial year, the year 2000. The then Secretary- General of the United Nations, His Excellency Kofi Annan, consented to the organization of the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, to be held in
the General Assembly of the United Nation’s New York headquarters. It was to be the first time religious leaders would be allowed to gather in the General Assembly Hall and it was to be an historic event. I was invited to serve as the Vice Chair and to aid in the organization of the event.
Since the Summit was to be held at the United Nations, we were tasked with inviting officials at the highest level within the religious institutions. This was a real departure for me. Being a long time yoga meditation practitioner, I had far greater interest in the experiential and esoteric side of religion than the institutional side. However, I was soon to find that within the institutions there were people of wisdom and great commitment to the common good – and this attracted me.
A few incidents occurred during the process of organizing the summit that deeply affected me. The Secretary General’s office had put together an advisory council from the United Nations, and we kept them informed and updated on how things were progressing. One woman on the council, an under-secretary general of the UN, was particularly concerned about having women religious leaders participate in the Summit. I was unaware of any problem in this regard, and so began to seek out women religious leaders. I was seated at a dinner at Oxford, England with a group of religious leaders when I happened to mention to the man seated next to me that we were having trouble finding women religious leaders for the Summit at the UN. I was only trying to make dinner conversation, but he reacted strongly to my remark and asked in a rather stern voice, “Why do you need women religious leaders?” When he saw the surprise on my face, he added, “take my advice and stay away from that issue or you might find that nobody will come to your summit.” That was in 1999.
We had difficulty finding women religious leaders and so we compensated by finding women public figures. I was not happy with this solution, but I was still in a learning phase. Much of our time during the organization of the Summit was involved in dealing with political issues – like the fact that the Dalai Lama could not be invited to the United Nations because China would object, and the response from some prominent religious leaders who said they would not come if the Dalai Lama was not invited. So the gender issue got lost amid the political negotiations.
On the opening day, as we were waiting for the religious leaders to enter the General Assembly Hall to begin their prayers, we encountered another gender crisis. A prominent monk was to open the prayers, but he wasn’t permitted by his particular order to come in close contact with any woman, and there was a Buddhist nun, the only woman in a delegation of about a dozen Thai Buddhist monks, who was seated near the entrance where he was to enter. I was told she had to be moved, and when I asked why, the response came, “because she is a woman.” A number of people on our staff had tried to get her to move, but she didn’t understand English and refused to be separated from the monks of her delegation. The clock was ticking and we had to begin, and so I was told that I had to move her. It was a difficult moment for me. But when I went up to her and took her hand, she smiled and followed me. The crisis was solved but it left a deep imprint in my mind. Later when the Thai delegation came to greet me, I apologized to her, and we became fast friends. Ven. Mae Chee Sansanee became one of the founding co-chairs of the Global Peace Initiative of Women.
There were very few women religious leaders at the Summit, and they were not happy. They requested a follow-up Summit specifically for women religious leaders. We went back to the Secretary-General’s office and he agreed, suggesting that we hold it at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. Work began with the religious communities in Geneva, and the first response that I received was, “we don’t want your American feminism here. We don’t have women religious leaders.” I was again taken aback, because I never thought of this work as a feminist matter, and I began to wonder why this issue was threatening to so many. In order to get around the subject of women religious leaders, the Geneva community suggested we change the title of our event from “The Global Peace Initiative of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders” to “The Role of Women in the Faith Communities.” I refused to give up on the idea of women religious leaders, and so began the difficult process of bringing this vision to fruition.
In 2002, we managed to bring over 500 women leaders, mostly from the religious communities but also some from business and government, from over 75 countries to the Palais des Nations. Whereas there were many political issues and much competitiveness at the 2000 world peace summit in New York, there were no politics at the Geneva Summit. It was a far greater success. We had no thought of forming an organization out of this gathering, but we immediately received requests to come to conflict areas and help organize peace dialogues, and so The Global Peace Initiative of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders was born. We later shortened the name to The Global Peace Initiative of Women (GPIW).
We spent our first five years organizing dialogues with those in conflict and post-conflict areas –– including Israel and Palestine, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and between India and Pakistan. The dialogues were initially with women, and then young leaders, then both male and female religious leaders, and finally a mix of everyone. What was distinctive about these dialogues is that they were shaped and led by a diverse group of women religious leaders, always balanced between East and West. So we brought Buddhist nuns and women swamis to meet with the group from Sudan, Iraq and other conflict areas. This had a tremendously positive impact as it opened the participants to the wider world and they saw the role women can play in other cultures.
When the Global Peace Initiative of Women was established in 2002, it was the only global interfaith organization founded and led by women. Soon after other interfaith groups began to notice and develop special women’s programs. But in my mind this missed the whole point. Separate chapters or programs designed for women would not compensate for the lack of women’s participation in the leadership. What we wanted to convey was that women must be empowered to shape and lead the interfaith and religious movements, along with men. Without a true partnership, only token changes would take place. I cannot count the number of times when I have been invited to speak on a panel to find myself as the only woman speaker. It is daunting to have to represent my entire gender! Not surprisingly, the absence of women’s voice in the religious and interfaith world continues today. Just a few months back there was a major global interfaith gathering. I was pleased to hear that for the first time they held a pre-conference one-day’s women’s summit. But at the official opening of the event, during the opening plenary session, among the array of men on the stage, I am told there was not one woman. I don’t allow myself to be discouraged, but after 20 years of trying to make this point…..
After many years of advocating for a greater role for women in interfaith work, we began to realize that the gender issue was deeply embedded in our theologies, and without addressing theology, it would be hard to achieve true gender balance. So we organized a larger conference in India in 2008 on the theme of the Divine Feminine – the female aspect of Divinity. Most people would acknowledge that the Divine has no gender, and yet in institutional religious life the Divine is always referred to as male – the Father – at least among the Abrahamic faiths. Hinduism is an exception. In India, it is far more common to refer to the Divine as the Mother, rather than the Father, and in fact this is what drew me to India when I was young. The Mother relationship seems far more intimate and loving.
The conference that we organized on the Divine Feminine was revolutionary in many ways. One of our Co-chairs is a prominent and courageous Catholic nun from the US, who is very committed to women’s issues. She was speaking at our conference in India and even for her, it was a stretch to talk about the Divine as Mother. She approached me and said, “Dena, I don’t know if I can do this. I have a theological problem with it.”She was clearly anxious. I replied, “address the theme as you see fit.”Well, it forced her to do some deep reflection and she spoke beautifully on the Mother aspect of the Divine. Since that conference, for years after, she spoke on the theme of the Divine Feminine – the Mother qualities of the Ultimate Reality. Now, of course, there are many books and talks on this subject.
People would ask me why it was important to tackle the gender issue theologically. It has to do with deep subconscious feelings about oneself, feelings of which we may not even be aware. I remember seeing a study some years ago that determined the one feeling most common among women across the world, regardless of income, education, status in society, etc. is that they don’t feel their voices are heard. Women don’t feel that they have a voice. If our concept of the All Knowing, the All Powerful, the All Beneficent Divine is male, than the female is subordinate, of lesser value. But if this Divine power has both female and male aspects– there is gender balance, and this can serve as an inspiration and model for the rest of us.
Our inability to see the feminine aspects of the Divine has led to great gender imbalance, which affects so much about our world – from our economy to our social, political and religious structures.
What would the world look like if we could truly awaken the feminine wisdom and restore Her to Her rightful place?
For my generation, the challenge for women was to be able to rise to the top of their professions – to be heads of businesses, governments, etc., to break the glass ceiling. There was no talk at that time of what type of leadership would be natural for women. There was no talk of the need for a transformation in our institutions. Women were meant to just fit in and follow the mold.
I was born into a secular business family. I have two sisters, one older and one younger, and both became successful business women. I was less interested in business and more interested in literature and religion. But after my divorce I had to go into the family business to support my sons. I was told, and have been repeatedly told over the years, to cut my hair so I would look more businesslike. I was told to stop wearing flowing skirts and to take up suits. In other words to succeed in business, I had to fit into the male mold. Many women of my generation have had this experience. If you wanted to succeed in business, politics and even religion, you had to downplay your female attributes. This was very unfortunate because the very attributes that can bring about creative change were being dismissed and seen as a disadvantage.
So what are the qualities of the feminine? What is feminine wisdom and how can it help us address the challenges we face?
A few months ago we invited a delegation of spiritual teachers, men and women, to the UN Climate Summit in Paris to speak about the spiritual dimensions of the climate crisis. The formal negotiations were on ways to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. We were astounded that there was little mention of the spiritual perspective of climate crisis. We are causing an untold number of species to go extinct, killing how many millions of trees, destroying our soil through chemical inputs, and the list goes on – and we take no responsibility for this destruction? We have brought spiritual teachers to most of the UN climate summits to speak about the moral dimensions of the issue, and increasingly the women in our gatherings are sharing dreams where the Earth, in a much weakened state, addresses them. According to them, the soul of the Earth is crying out. I have also heard this cry. It is interesting to me that it is mostly the women who are hearing this. Why is that?
Women are deeply connected to life. We have an intuitive knowing of that which gives and supports life. Since the beginning of time our bodies and minds have been programmed for this. We function from a space where we know the interconnections of life, this vast web, one part supporting every other. That is, if we are tuned in to our feminine wisdom, if we have not repressed that aspect of our being in order to fit in to the prevailing mold.
And if we are more connected to life, we are more connected to Earth and the natural forces, because they are the systems that support life. So, more of us can hear the cry of the Earth now, the cry of the rivers and forests – all of which have been so degraded due to a domination mentality. Rather that respecting and caring for these living forces of nature, we have abused them to the point that many of our ecosystems are dying.
The violence against the Earth and the suppression of women come from the same source – from a mindset that rationalizes the right to domination. To restore the Earth, we must restore women. To restore women to our rightful place, we must restore nature to its rightful place. We must honor the natural world for its own intrinsic value rather than its monetary benefit.
In the Eastern or Dharma religious traditions, the feminine energy is considered to be the transformative power, the energy that brings change. There is the understanding in the East that the Ultimate Reality, the Divine, has both a masculine and feminine aspect. One might say that the masculine maintains the universe, keeps everything functioning, but the feminine force drives it forward, providing the transformations that bring about new life. This would apply both at the macrocosmic as well as the micro level, in the greater scheme of things and also in the movements of everyday life.
It is this evolutionary force, this driving forward that we very much need now to move us into a new global consciousness – which is intuitive, inclusive, non-hierarchical, more compassionate and balanced.
It is not only women who have access to this feminine force. We have found in our work that many men resonate with this energy, more than some women. Ultimately, just as the Divine can be considered to have both a male and female aspect, so do we all. What is desperately needed now to move the world out of its conflict, tension, and destructive tendencies, is to allow for the feminine wisdom to come forward.
As long as the female is repressed, the world will be greatly out of balance, and imbalance creates tension and destruction. As long as the Earth is abused, the same will be true. A similar imbalance would occur if the feminine forces were to overpower the male. It is balance that is so essential, and this balance will help us move beyond the paradigm of fear, domination and division to one of greater collaboration, trust and unity. Some of the themes that I have discussed may be obvious, and some are quite subtle. This is because the issues that we face in our societies and globally reflect deeper shifts that have to do with larger movements of time. The changes we seek may not manifest for centuries, but the only thing we can be sure of is that change will come. Yet we must stay focused on the specifics of what we can do now. What can we do as women in our everyday lives to help foster change?
I think the most important task for us now is to connect to our intuitive nature, and to begin to question what are the life-supporting actions and positions that we can take that will bring balance to our societies – not further polarization, not anger and distrust, but greater unity. Ultimately the greatest change will come about not through any action but through our changed consciousness. That is where true transformation begins.
Can we ourselves outgrow the fear and domination mentality and not see the “other” — be it the religious, ethnic or racial other – as in any way inferior? Can we know ourselves to be an intrinsic part of the interconnected whole, not apart from it, but one with it? Can we evoke the feeling of love for the Earth and truly see Her as a Mother? Can we speak to Her and hear Her response? Can we feel our connection to the plant and animal worlds and know that they have as much right to life as we do? Can we look beyond our limited time frame and know that we are providing the foundation for changes that may be decades, even centuries ahead, changes that we may never see but that will benefit our grandchildren? Can we believe that if we ourselves overcome the consciousness of division, separation and domination that perhaps our grandchildren will know a more peaceful, balanced, inclusive and compassionate world? This belief is what inspires my work.
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.