Spirit is the foundation for everything – part 2
BOB BOISTURE speaks with JUDITH NELSON at the Spirit of Humanity Forum, held in Reykjavík, Iceland on the 1 June 2019. In part 1, he shared with us the vision of the Fetzer Institute, and the need for personal transformation and love to bring about the changes necessary today to address the most pressing issues of humanity and our planet Earth. In part 2, he continues by focusing on how this translates to practical activities in our day-to-day lives.
BB: We’re working with one of the biggest civil society umbrella groups in the US that’s had a longstanding commitment to support leadership development within civil society. With some encouragement and support from us, they’ve taken the bold stand that there’s a new dimension to leadership development, and it is this inner work. We’re working with them to firstly take that message into civil society, but then, necessarily, to begin to build the ecosystem of supports for that inner work. Hopefully that can support, at scale, a rapidly growing number of leaders at the community state, national level.
We’re also bringing together faith leaders across the faith spectrum, which in our country also means across the political spectrum, and inviting them to reflect on why is it that so often their communities have shown up in our public conversation as part of the polarizing dynamic, when surely their faith commitments compel all of them to be part of the reconciling solution. We’re working with all communities to change in the context of our next presidential election, with the hope that faith leaders across politics will stand together and say the most urgent priority all of us are compelled to have is reconciliation.
I’m optimistic actually, because I think anybody who is awake and has children or grandchildren, realizes that we can’t go on like this. We have to go to a deeper level and recover a shared moral vision of the society we’re trying to create. None of us have all the answers. We have to listen to each other; we have to come together.
Whether we’re thinking about global leaders
at the highest level or each of us as leaders in our daily lives,
I think committing to the discipline of
daily spiritual practices is actually
the most serious work we need to do.
That will transform the way
we are in all aspects of our life.
Q: Is that how you came to be involved with the Spirit of Humanity Forum? How did that relationship evolve?
BB: Exactly, and that really goes back to the vision of a merging global movement. One of the most important things that needs to happen to accelerate that movement is that we need to find each other. Those of us who are committed to this vision need to find each other and support each other, because there’s tremendous empowerment in knowing that we’re not alone in this. Together we can support each other and make a difference.
Fetzer has been connected with the Forum since 2014, but this is my first time to be here. I’m taking away new relationships and new energy that are not going to be one-offs. I have committed to a number of people here that we’re going to get together and figure out how we can support each other in our work. So that’s one thing, the connection.
But now, let’s go back to this “Shared Sacred Story” idea that we are creating here. We’re creating the language to take this vision out into the world, and I think that’s tremendously important. We’re creating very open, spacious language, and our vision of this Shared Sacred Story is that it’s not one story, it’s a meta-narrative, if you will, that has plenty of room for each tradition to tell their version of the sacred story. Also, people who are on this journey but don’t identify with one of the major traditions, are in that wonderful place where they can draw on the riches of all the traditions. You can feel it in the freedom of this gathering; we’re finding a language that is spacious enough to bring us all to a common ground without any of us having to abandon the depth of our particular story. I think that’s a wonderful, exciting thing to be part of.
Q: Humility is a quality that has come through at the Forum, in people like yourself and other speakers. What’s your view of that in terms of how we approach all these big problems that are out there in the world?
BB: I think humility is one of the virtues we most need, when you think about these angry fights we’re having with each other. What’s wonderful here, and I’ve sensed the same humility, is the discernment. Maybe it’s a collective discernment, that each of us has come to whatever wisdom we’ve come to through our life’s journey. In the grand scheme, it’s a very particular life journey. The exciting thing we’re called to is to open to the richness of everybody else’s journey, to realize that we’ve got to create this new world together, and that none of us has all the answers. There’s also humility in relation to the cosmos and the transcendent. We realize that there’s something at work here that’s so much larger than any of us. We have to stand in awe, reverence and humility in the face of this cosmic movement through love towards love. There’s no room for ego, I think there’s only room for gratitude.
Q: You spoke this morning about what world leaders could be doing to be different in their approach. Can you expand on that?
BB: I think it has to start inside of each of us as individuals, and for all world leaders in creating the culture. Our fundamental challenge is we’re stuck in a culture that encourages us to engage from a place of ego and separation and fear, and the real challenge for us individually and collectively is to shift to engaging each other and the world from a place of wholeness and all-centeredness and love. That’s hard. It’s not just waking up one morning and saying, “I’m going to be a more loving individual.” It’s in strengthening the muscle that really helps us when we face the tough choice of deciding to commit to the solution that’s in the interests of the whole, rather than a particular interest.
All of the great spiritual traditions confront that core human challenge, and they’ve developed spiritual practices and communities that can support us as individuals, whatever path we’re on. And for people who don’t live within one of the traditions, but are on a spiritual path, they also can draw on those resources to support their own spiritual journey. Whether we’re thinking about global leaders at the highest level or each of us as leaders in our daily lives, I think committing to the discipline of daily spiritual practices is actually the most serious work we need to do. That will transform the way we are in all aspects of our life.
Q: Are you happy to share a bit about what you do to interiorize and to keep yourself going?
BB: Yes. I grew up and lived in the Christian tradition where, as a very young child, I was taught that God is love, we’re all children of God, and we’re here to love. That all landed with me at a young age, so since adolescence I’ve approached life as a meditation on what it means to love in this moment, in this situation. I have a practice of prayer, I do a lot of meditation walking reflection, writing reflection, but I always joke that my most important spiritual practice is marriage! I think it’s in those intimate places where we’re most challenged to overcome our own ego and our self, and really commit to the flourishing of another. We have a wonderful opportunity in intimate relationships, whether it’s marriage or our work setting, to approach it as a continuing practice of love. How can I bring as much love into this situation as I can? I have found that a very life-giving way of approaching things.
Q: You’re describing something very practical and in touch with living in the real world, rather than perhaps an old-fashioned expectation that people have to go away somewhere else. Would you agree with that?
BB: Yes, but I’m also big on going away. Time out in the natural world is tremendously renewing, but I think it’s finding the way to link that inner cultivation with practical action. That is where we grow, because it’s that back and forth between meeting the tough situations that all of us face in our daily life. It is hard to always meet people with the commitment of love, so going off and reflecting on how we did and what we can do better is helpful. As a person of faith, connecting with that something greater empowers us all to love. I don’t think it’s either-or, I think it’s both. Finding the way to weave that into our busy lives is a challenge, but even if you can steal five minutes to find a quiet place, I find that tremendously life-giving.
Q: That balance between spiritual and practical daily life.
BB: Yes. We don’t love people in the abstract. We love them in how we treat them. We nurture our ability to love by going deep within ourselves, because we connect with something much deeper that calls us to love.
Q: Young people are very much at the forefront of the world at the moment and world change. Do you have any advice or guidance that you want to share with them? Any words of hope?
BB: I am inspired by the global movement of young people that is really challenging us to care about the environment, to care about peace. I guess the one thing I’d say is that the most life-giving thing any of us can do is to commit to this greater call. From my own experience, having made that commitment, I’ve been blessed to find wonderful people to work with, experiencing the gratification of being part of positive change. It’s a gift to ourselves to make that commitment.
Q: How do you share this vision with your grandchildren?
BB: Given their young ages, just by loving them. Growing up being loved is the most precious thing that can happen to a child. Hopefully I’ve grown into some real wisdom in my later years that I didn’t have when I was parenting the first time around. So one of the things I’m excited about is finding the right way to share with them. Another exciting opportunity for me personally is that my oldest son, who grew up in the Christian tradition, has married a wonderful Indian-American woman whose tradition is Hinduism. So, how can their two little boys grow up in the richness of both traditions?
To answer your question, I haven’t figured it out yet, but that’s one of the wonderful challenges of this stage in my life as a grandparent.
Q: The quality of love has always been a mystery to me, because people’s interpretation and understanding of love can be very different. There can even be a rather selfish approach to love. So how do you define your version of love?
BB: In the relationship between the lover and the beloved, in its deepest form, what is it that we want? I think there are two things. We want the deepest possible communion with that person. The Irish have a beautiful expression “Anam cara,” meaning soul friend. We want to be soul friends. The second thing is that we want the beloved to flourish.
We don’t love people in the abstract.
We love them in how we treat them.
We nurture our ability to love
by going deep within ourselves,
because we connect with something
much deeper that calls us to love.
I used an example at a personal level, but it’s just as true at the societal level. In our country we don’t have nearly enough social commitment to early childhood development. I can’t personally be in loving communion with all the children in America, as with my grandchildren, but I can take that same sense of affection and ask, “How can I help create the social systems that can support the flourishing of all of those children?” It’s not soft and it’s not abstract. It’s something we can operationalize.
I wrote a paper a number of years ago, largely for myself, with the title “Love as the Organizing Principle for Life.” We can apply that working definition of a desire for the deepest communion and commitment to the flourishing of others across all the dimensions of life. That’s my take on love.
Interviewed by JUDITH NELSON
July 30, 2020
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June 29, 2020