Spirit is the foundation for everything – part 1
BOB BOISTURE speaks with JUDITH NELSON at the Spirit of Humanity Forum, held in Reykjavík, Iceland, on 1 June 2019. He shares 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.
Q: Welcome sir. One of the lovely things I read about the Fetzer Institute is its approach to life and the fact that it comes from a foundation of love. Can you tell us more about the Institute and this principle of love? How does it work?
BB: I’ll start with John Fetzer, the founder. He was born in 1901 and died in 1991, so he lived in every decade of the 20th century and his life had this amazing trajectory. He was born in a very small town in the American Midwest, into a fairly conservative, narrow, religious environment. The course of his life was an opening to a global spirituality, beginning fairly early in his life when he became a student of world religions and practiced within a number of traditions. He was always perhaps grounded in his Christian beginnings, but was very open to eastern traditions.
It was really extraordinary because in his public life he became a very successful businessman and entrepreneur in the early days of radio and television. He then bought one of the major league baseball teams and was a pioneer in putting broadcasting and sports together. He did all this in a culture where if you were a businessman you didn’t talk about spirituality and, if you did, you talked about it in the context of the Christian tradition. But his passion was this global spiritual vision.
As he got older and accumulated a significant amount of wealth, he became increasingly convinced that his calling was to set up an organization, a spiritually-grounded community, that could do its small part in helping humanity as a whole to take the next big step in the spiritual journey. The grounding for his vision was that the fundamental reality is not atoms and energy, it’s spirit – “Spirit” with a capital S. For him, Spirit and Love (with a capital L) were really synonymous.
His vision was this: Love is the core energy that holds everything together. If only we would profoundly open our hearts to love, we would be able to take that next big step together in humanity’s spiritual journey.
Love is the core energy that holds everything together.
If only we would profoundly open our hearts to love,
we would be able to take that next big step together in
humanity’s spiritual journey.
He had this incredible generosity of spirit and saw this as a long term vision; he saw it in terms of several centuries for this evolution in our spiritual journey to take place. He knew that he couldn’t see the future that far, that only a community capable of continuing renewal could carry that vision forward over time.
Unlike a lot of donors who try to say in their wills, “This money has to be used exactly for such-and-such,” he said to the community, “Listen for the ring of truth and it will be calling you to create [he had this beautiful phrase] this community of freedom. There, you, the community, will discern what the work of the foundation will be. The only thing I’m sure of is that the summary will be unconditional love.”
So how about that as a gift to us? We’ve been trying to live by that vision, and be worthy of that vision, in the more than 25 years since his death. The fundamental insight we think we’ve come to in our life as a community is that Spirit has to be the foundation, the touchstone, the source of guidance and energy for everything we do.
We’re a community of about sixty, which in the world today is enough to have a lot of diversity on a lot of dimensions, including spirituality. So the first question is: Can we find a place to stand together? And is there spiritual common ground across all our different paths? How do we find it and deepen it, but at the same time honor the fact that we get there in very different ways? So we bring our whole community together every Tuesday morning for three hours to really work on that challenge, and we do a lot of different things. Most importantly, we practice together. We have engaged with a broad range of spiritual practices from both the Abrahamic traditions and the Eastern traditions to understand a bit more about our diverse paths and to realize that love is all about relationship.
We’ve done something very unusual for an organization – very unique in my experience – we’ve taken the time to share our deep stories with each other and that’s been transformative. You can be together with people for a long time in an instrumental way and it remains at the surface, but once you know their life journey, your connection goes to a much deeper level. We feel like we’re working in a microcosm on what the global community needs to be working on, which is how to find that spiritual common ground across our differences, and deepen it. And also honor the fact that we reached that common ground on very different paths and make that something that’s mutually enriching not dividing.
Q: There are sixty of you in a microcosm, reflecting or hoping to reflect what could happen in the world. So how do you feel your influence can go from small to large?
BB: We have this theory of change. It starts with the optimistic proposition that the same forces that are pulling us towards the conviction that humanity desperately needs spiritually grounded individuals and societal transformation are pulling literally millions of people around the world in that direction. The result is that there is an emerging global movement.
I don’t think it’s yet aware of itself as a global movement, but when you really begin to connect the dots you find that there are people working on all of the big challenges – whether it’s climate change and environmental degradation, social justice or gender equality. They come from a deeply spiritually-grounded place, with this same conviction that inner transformation drives outer transformation. If we can find each other and realize that together we comprise a comprehensive global movement, it can unleash an energy that is powerful enough to enable us to meet all these big existential threats.
Our humble goal is to do what we can with our gifts and resources; to help inspire and support the continuing emergence of this global movement. We take that in multiple directions. First, we think that one of the things that can really empower this movement is a shared vision. We use the phrase “shared sacred story”: at the root of all this is this need and possibility of humanity reclaiming a sense of the sacred in everything.
We feel that humanity can come together
in a shared affirmation of sacredness and love,
and build a world in which everyone and everything
At the most fundamental level, we’ve had this love affair over the past few centuries with scientific and rational ways of trying to understand the world. It has produced huge benefits in terms of our greater understanding of physical reality, but in the process we have lost the confidence of our spiritual intuitions. We see the key is bringing that spiritual way of knowing back into a balanced relationship with science.
We feel that when we do that we open ourselves to the deep discernment of all the great traditions: The fundamental reality is not meaningless matter and energy, it’s the cosmic consciousness that holds us all in love. That should be the headline for the 21st century. Humanity has in fact spent millennia probing the ultimate mystery of existence, and none of the great traditions have come back from that probe and said it’s meaningless. They’ve all come back and said it’s sacred. They’ve come back and said the only appropriate human response to this sacredness is some mix of awe and gratitude and reverence and, most importantly, love.
We feel that humanity can come together in a shared affirmation of sacredness and love, and build a world in which everyone and everything can flourish. It’s a tremendously hopeful vision. It’s not our vision, we feel like it’s the vision that is being called forth around the world by the sense that we can’t go on as we have been.
We’ve played out the string of an egoistic approach to life because we’re realizing that, at rock bottom, it pulls us towards despair and separation and fear. We don’t have to live from that place; if we wake up into this knowledge of the sacredness of reality, we open our hearts to each other and to the natural world in a way that everything and everybody flourishes.
Our conviction is that the only thing powerful
enough to create that world of flourishing is love.
And love begins in each and every heart.
One thing we’re doing is bringing together the voices that can help co-create that shared sacred story and then take it out into the world.
The second thing is: Our conviction is that the only thing powerful enough to create that world of flourishing is love. And love begins in each and every heart. So we focus on how to inspire and support as many people as possible in committing to that inner journey of opening our hearts. In the simplest terms, we feel that if we go deep enough inside, we encounter that transcendent reality that’s much deeper than ourselves – the sacred reality of love. And that encounter is transformative.
One of the wonderful things about this present moment is that our technology can help us provide support for the spiritual journey to everybody around the world, whatever tradition they’re in. We want to do our little bit for that.
We also feel that something special happens when we come together, in person and with the natural world, so another of our initiatives is to support and strengthen the web of retreat centers around the world.
The last thing I’ll say is that individual transformation has to connect in powerful ways to societal transformation, because when you look at the world through this lens of love and hope, and you ask “What needs to change?” pretty much everything needs to change. Whether it’s our educational systems, our economy or our health care systems, how can we help make that happen?
We’re starting to put a tremendous amount of energy right now in trying to renew our ability to come together and engage in collective action. Certainly in the United States, and in too many countries around the world, our societies are pulling apart and our politics are breaking down into division. So we have a major initiative we’re calling “Healing the Heart of American Democracy.” We’re stepping into the public conversation and saying that the polarization and toxicity in our common life has reached such a point that it’s an existential threat to our free society and there’s no political solution. This is not going to be solved by one side or the other winning. This is a challenge that has to be addressed at the deeper heart level. We’ve become so good at de-humanizing and even demonizing the people we disagree with that we can’t come together and do anything. We can’t come together and address climate change; we can’t come together and address racism and inequality. So, the first challenge is to move from this place of de-humanization to re-humanization and that’s precisely about this inner work.
We’ve had some interesting conversations here at the Spirit of Humanity Forum about the bad things that happen when we try to work for a better world from a place of anger. That’s something I’ve certainly experienced in more than three decades of working on non-profit advocacy causes in Washington – the destruction of the angry advocate, however worthy their goals.
So we are inviting people to consider that the most important work for any of us who are inspired to help save the world is to commit to this inner work of transformation, because only when we can get ourselves to a place of sufficient wholeness, inner peace and love, do we have any chance of bridging these polarizing divides.
To be continued
Interview by JUDITH NELSON
February 02, 2020
December 31, 2019
October 31, 2019