Gathering the Spiritual Voices of America
by Shaikh Kabir Helminski
Camille and I were invited to participate in an event called “Gathering the Spiritual Voices of America,” which took place at the Aspen Institute in the days immediately following the elections. This was a participant conference with an agenda to assess and envision the spiritual possibilities at this defining moment of our nation’s history. About 150 invited guests gathered for four days in the beautiful, rarefied atmosphere of Aspen, Colorado, which one person described as the American Himalayas.
Religiously, ethnically, racially it was a diverse group, yet united by a transformational consciousness, the qualities of which gradually revealed themselves during our precious time together. Thanks is due to the Global Peace Initiative of Women, which assembled this exemplary group of people, some well known, some not, but each of them living examples of dedication to a deep, unifying, transformational consciousness.
The program began with a blessing by Kenny Frost of the Ute Nation. It took quite a while for him to pass his eagle feather over each of us, removing the negativity of the road so that we could begin together in a clear, refreshed state.
Two of America’s most beloved elder wisdom teachers, Father Thomas Keating and Rabbi Zalman Shachter, introduced the gathering and established a tone of humility and good humor. The presence of these elders, including Sister Joan Chittester, among others, was both uplifting and reassuring. We feel a deep gratitude for these wise elders who have reached a level of consciousness where our common spititual unhity is apparent. Reb Zalman described the various sacred traditions as organs of one body, needing each other to be healthy and functioning in a balanced way.
Our central task has been to reflect on how we might create a contemplative and transformative coalition that offers a voice that reflects this unitive vision and consciousness. We have all found ourselves in an atmosphere where spirit is speaking with unusual intensity, and if sometimes the reflections get a little too mental there is usually the spirit of the Divine Feminine (in both men and women) to call us back to the heart. As Deena Merriam, Founder of GPIW, reminded us, we are to “never forget the places of deep suffering in this world, for that is where the Mother goes.” With some extraordinary guests from China, India, Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur, and North American First Nations, our commitment to transforming America was tempered with a global perspective.
These days were a continual process of discovery as we met one extraordinary person after another and learned about so many inspiring initiatives. Perhaps what was most compelling about it all was the sincerity and humility of these people who again and again expressed their respect for each others’ paths of service and spiritual development. When, for instance, I expressed my regret for missing Lama Surya Das’s visit to Santa Cruz, he simply said, “Well, you didn’t miss much, except for a few of my wisecracks. Maybe the next time I come I can visit you and we can talk about translation, wiring, and spiritual practice.”
There’s a beautiful feeling of unity and grace among us. On Friday we held a remarkable Islamic Friday prayer in the center of the gathering—almost a hundred people sat around as about eight of us had a typical Juma: khutbah (sermon) and salaat (ritual prayer), led by Imam, Muhammad Bashar, a Syrian Naqshbandi, mureed of the late Grand Mufti Kuftaro. As I looked around after the salaat, I realized that two of the eight who had joined us were Epicopal priests! Many onlookers had tears in their eyes.
One of the most powerful sessions was “Bringing Compassion to Our Economy: Toward and Inclusive Economics.” Orland Bishop talked about how we condition children to believe that the world they have been born into is finished, that this is the way things are, and that we must accept a situation in which they are forced to compete economically to be who they truly are. Yet, these are just the agreements we have so far accepted. It is possible to create new cognitive structures that develop out of the primordial awareness of Being.
Again and again it was encouraging to see how the group as a whole could respond to the call of a very high spiritual truth. Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault proposed that “Giving-is-Receiving is the energetic frequency to which the planet is aligned. Everything else results in imbalance and disharmony.”
It is possible, on the other hand, that out of the contemplative experience we gain the energy to create something from nothing. It is because we come from an Infinite Source, and that there is nothing that is purely material, but rather everything is the energy of cosmic mind/heart. The earth groans under the footsteps of those who are merely “takers.” We can learn that it is possible to give more than we take, and that this creates true wealth.
While many people shared beautiful truths in the language of their specific spiritual traditions, just as many spoke in a new and inclusive language and from a shared value system. It seemed to be a process in which we all are learning to communicate with conviction from the inner transformative process we have experienced.
Sister Joan Chittester shared something from her own contemplative formation that could serve as a guiding principle: The activist must have a contemplative life as a foundation. Otherwise, we will become just another do-gooder who is in it for success. But we’re not in it merely for success. We are servants of the Divine.
Our part in this is to participate in life, to participate and angage with those who don’t know how to change or share. When, for instance, poor people demonstrate giving, the rich can learn to give. All the gifts are here and we must learn to give more than we take. To be faithful one has to embody the reality of what we truly depend on. Our gifts increase in value as they are given away. We have to cultivate our capacity for sacrifice, implement this reality in every transaction. Whatever happens we are not losing anything.
At one point the rhetorical question was raised: What is the use of all this talk? Someone answered: The Force of Creation needs our dialog. What the Divine has to give to humanity and nature is not completed, but it is our responsibility to perfect something in our relationships among ourselves, that will allow the Divine to bestow upon us the full plenitude of its Being.
Camille and I had been volunteered to lead an “interspiritual zikr” as the conclusion to this historical meeting of religious activists. How would we orchestrate this diverse group? What invocations would we choose? How much of traditional Sufi zikrs might we use, when there were only a few Muslims present.
Camille and I began with the Fatiha in Arabic and English. We then began a slow chant of “Om” with everyone standing in three concentric circles. One circle of men and two of women. We then added a slow rhythm of Ya Hayy (O Life) to the background of Om. Next Ed Bastian, Founder of our Spiritual Paths Institute read some words about loving-kindness in the Buddhist tradition. Next we began the “zikrs” of “Hallelujah” and “La illaha il Allah.” I had invited Imam Bashar into the center and cued him to begin a recitation of “Munajat,” inspirational phrases in Arabic. During the next pause, we had Father Joseph, Abbot of Saint Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, read from the beautiful Psalm 139. After that we began the “zikr” of Amazing Grace, and I had asked an African American sister to leada small chorus to sing the choruses over the rhythmic chanting of Amazing Grace, Amazing Grace. As this reached its peak with all of us moving in a clockwise circle, we switched to the simple invocation of “Amazing, Amazing, Amazing.”
I had invited our elders like Father Thomas Keating, Rabbi Zalman, Aster Patel, a teacher from the Sri Aurobindo Asham in Pondicherry, India, and dear Dr. Sakeena Yacoobi, one of the most heroic women of Afghanistan and founder of the Afghanistan Institute of Learning, to hold the sacred space in the center.
God is great. God is One.