Growing Trees to Grow People

In a world becoming increasingly engrossed in technology and consumption, it is essential to bring people out of isolation and instead back to community. The living Earth sustains its inhabitants, including humans, who can still become grounded in place and regain inherent, vital connections despite certain obstacles of the modern age.

Situated among the bush growth of the Koreelah Forest, the community at Peace Valley center their work around such goals. They envision their site as an opportunity for place-making and regenerative, healing work between people, other beings of nature, and the land.IMG_1756Peace Valley was established to address a growing need for natural spaces of solace and reflection for urban dwellers. Joy Foley, the founder, began the Australian bush retreat at Bindarrabi Community, a developing ecovillage on a piece of their common land. After several phases of building, expanding, and fortifying their structures, Peace Valley now functions as a camp and event center. It continues to host volunteers and guests who engage in practices of simple living and shared activities such as meditation, gardening, walks, and swimming.

By putting the idea of “gift economy” into practice, no one is excluded on a financial basis from enjoying the Peace Valley bush retreat area. Among the restorative permaculture onsite, Peace Valley is also working to set up an edible grove of native Australian trees, as they believe in “growing trees to grow people.” The indigenous tree and plant propagation of flora such as hoop pine, silky oak, and acacia seed is one of several efforts to maintain indigenous biodiversity in the region, in addition to removing invasive plant species.IMG_1700Foley recalls the “deep calling to reforest, revegetate, reconnect, and simply be in love with nature, with life, and with the earth” that “strengthened in me.”

It is vital to promote access to the natural world, especially for those who are the furthest removed from it. In particular, as young people grow up more and more enclosed in artificial and technological surroundings, we must find ways to overcome the distance from our shared home and its abundance of gifts and wonder. The ability to receive the gifts that nature, as well as others, in our innermost selves, all have to offer, is what sustains life and gives so much purpose.australiapeace valley logo

Emma Szymanski

Dr. Doudou Diene: 1 Minute Advice for Today’s Youth from GPIW & Contemplative Alliance

Dr. Doudou Diene is an intellectual, and a man of deep spiritual wisdom and full of life’s experiences. He was the former UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance from 2002—2008 allowing him to travel to many parts of the world to witness first hand injustice, suffering and at the same time the power and beauty of those who promote healing and unity. Here he delivers a short and powerful message when asked what would he like to say to young people at this moment in time.

Forty days after the Paris Climate Conference

 

Gaia“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.”

 —Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

 

Reflections and Experiences   by Angela Fischer

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Panel with Tiokasin Ghosthorse, Angela Fischer, Swami Atmarupananda, Rev. Richard Cizik

 

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.

Angela Fischer

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.

Elm

 

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?

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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.

Ashaninka tribal leaders - Peru
Ashaninka leaders – Peru               Photo Eliane Fernandes

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”.

Climate Generations Area COP21 Paris

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.

Winter trees

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?

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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.

Angela Fischer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dispelling the Myth of Iran

by Dena Merriam

Group at the Imam Mosque - with new friends
Contemplative Alliance delegates visit Imam mosque in Isfahan – Dena Merriam, Sister Joan Chittister, Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, and Swami Atmarupananda and Rev. Richard Cizik (back row)

 

In the gardens of Kashan
Dena Merriam and Swami Atmarupananda speaking with friends in the gardens of Kashan

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.