The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
January 2010 – Vol. 12 Issue 11
Over 5,000 participants from 80 countries and 228 faith groups met in Melbourne, Australia, from December 3 - 9 for the Parliament of World’s Religions. With the theme “Making a World of Difference: Hearing Each Other, Healing the Earth,” it explored how religious and spiritual groups can address the pressing problems facing humanity today. At the same time, it acknowledged the real and sometimes irreconcilable differences among groups. Rev. Michael W. Brown from Illinois observed: “As the week progresses, it seems like there are two major ways of looking at interfaith dialogue. One is to want to be as inclusive as possible and therefore not to enter into disputes about sensitive social or political issues. The emphasis … is on relationships, not issues. The other major point of view is that the human community has urgent needs and that action is needed right now, action that will inevitably ruffle some feathers and make some people unwilling to participate. . . . Exactly the same issue of how to approach interfaith dialogue is present in Unitarian Universalist congregations and other religious communities. And in some ways, both views are right.” [Read more of Rev. Brown's impressions of the Parliament at http://mynohellspace.blogspot.com/search/label/Parliament]
Three of the themes the 2009 Parliament accentuated were poverty, the place of women, and inclusion, particularly of indigenous peoples. Surely in a world with enough food to feed all people, the failure to do so is a moral as well as a technical failure. Sessions explored the implications of shifting and expanding emphasis from charity for specific tragedies to social justice that addresses the root causes of poverty and the systems that support them.
Women and feminist issues were prominent. A Pagan from San Francisco reported on her blog: “Seeing hundreds of people – including an Eastern Orthodox Patriarch, Pagans, Jews, Muslims, Buddhist nuns, Christian clergy – leap to their feet to give feminist theologian Sr. Joan Chittister a standing ovation, gives me hope for our world … Hearing Anwar Ibrahim and Pal Aluwalia – prominent Muslim and Sikh thinkers – state unequivocally and clearly that any inferior or unequal position of women was strictly cultural and not part of their religions gives me hope for our world. (I have heard this stated by feminist Muslim thinkers, but hearing it from these two respected men was heartening confirmation.) Seeing Native American Rights lawyer Steven T. Newcomb harshly challenging Catholic Bishop Peter Elliott in the question period of a panel and then seeing the two engaged in conversation when all was said and done, gives me hope for our world.”
At the original Parliament of 1893 indigenous peoples were excluded. Meetings from 1993 on have reversed this policy. This Parliament included more recognition of and respect for the many indigenous peoples present, notably the Australian Aborigines, both in ceremonial and intellectual events. A friend who visited the exhibit area noted the scarce representation from major Christian churches and the prevalence of Eastern and New Age displays. However, several other attendees noted that religions outside the big three or five (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism) were rarely included on major interfaith panels, where they too could have offered relevant insights. Still, there was very wide representation at the Parliament as a whole, with even atheists included.
[Another very prominent topic was climate change, but it was too extensive a subject to address in this newsletter.]
In remarks closing the Parliament, the Dalai Lama urged attendees to act when they returned home so that the dreams and possibilities they’d discussed would become realities. He advocated a strong secularism that respects practitioners of all religions and none, and the need for religious and secular people to form a single community of compassion and mutual respect. In addressing the moral crisis behind the world’s urgent problems, all people need to work together united by the core human values of love and compassion, rather than remain divided by differences. No single religion can solve global problems alone, so collaboration is crucial.
Cooperation among religious institutions and believers seldom appears in media dominated by coverage of extremists, fundamentalism, and conflict. One participant remarked that the great struggle of the 21st century is not between the religious and the secular, but among religious people them-selves and how the power of religion will be harnessed in resolving human conflicts and challenges. This event certainly fostered religious and world harmony.
Perhaps New Year’s resolutions are so hard to keep because they represent fantasies or the voice of “Mr. Should” rather than what we’re actually willing to do. American Buddhist Pema Chödrön’s valuable book, Taking the Leap, looks deeper by considering how to become more aware of ourselves and our choices moment by moment. A major cause of problems is that the universe is fluid and unstable while people want permanence and security: “Our energy and the energy of the universe are always in flux, but we have little tolerance for this unpredictability, and we have little ability to see ourselves and the world as an exciting, fluid situation that is always fresh and new. Instead we get stuck in a rut – the rut of “I want” and “I don’t want,” . . . the rut of continually getting hooked by our personal preferences.” (p. 32)
She emphasizes simple techniques for being aware, such as pausing periodically to take a few deep breaths while connecting with the moment. Most of the time we’re escaping the present by thinking, planning, worrying, etc. Then something happens that throws us off balance. Often we react by distancing ourselves from this uncomfortable reality, perhaps using blame, aggression, denial, or withdrawal. She calls this habit “biting the hook” or “getting caught.” The trick to avoiding it is to create a space of awareness between the stimulus and our reaction, to stay present even though it feels threatening or we think we already know what’s going on.
“Usually when we’re all caught up, we’re so engrossed in our storyline that we lose our perspective. The painful situation at home, in our job, in prison, in war, wherever we might find ourselves – when we’re caught in the difficulty, our perspective usually becomes very narrow, microscopic even. We have the habit of automatically going inward. Taking a moment to look at the sky or taking a few seconds to abide with the fluid energy of life, can give us a bigger perspective – that the universe is vast, that we are a tiny dot in space, that endless, beginningless space is always available to us. Then we might understand that our predicament is just a moment in time, and that we have a choice to strengthen old habitual responses or to be free. Being open and receptive to whatever is happening is always more important than getting worked up and adding further aggression to the planet, adding further pollution to the atmosphere.” (p. 71)
We always have a choice about what our reaction will be, and not getting hooked involves being open and curious rather than judging or recoiling: “We are encouraged to get comfortable with, begin to relax with, lean in to, whatever the experience may be. We are encouraged to drop the storyline and simply pause, look out, and breathe. Simply be present for a few seconds, a few minutes, a few hours … with our own shifting energies and with the unpredictability of life as it unfolds, wholly partaking in all experiences just exactly as they are.” (p. 33) Of course this is difficult. Progress is apt to be slow and fitful, but we should not be discouraged or beat ourselves up. Even being aware of what we did after the fact is a victory. At first,
“We can contact our inner strength, our natural openness, for short periods before getting swept away. And this is excellent, heroic, a huge step in interrupting and weakening our ancient habits. If we keep a sense of humor and stay with it for the long haul, the ability to be present just naturally evolves. Gradually we lose our appetite for biting the hook. We lose our appetite for aggression.
“If we choose to work with this kind of practice, it’s wise to start by practicing with . . . the small irritations that happen all the time. If we become familiar with catching ourselves, acknowledging that we’re hooked, and pausing in these ordinary everyday situations, then when major upheavals come, the practice will be available to us automatically. If we think we can wait until a major crisis arrives and then it will spontaneously click in, we’re wrong.” (p. 42)
There are no prerequisites for beginning to make changes, and accepting both ourselves and life has larger implications: “The crucial point is that we can relate with our life just as it is right now, not later when things improve. We can always connect with the openness of our minds. We can use our days to wake up rather than go back to sleep. Give this approach a try. Make a commitment to pausing throughout the day, and do that whenever you can. Allow time for your perception to shift. Allow time to experience the natural energy of life as it is manifesting right now. This can bring dramatic changes in your personal life, and if you are worried about the state of the world, this is a way that you can use every moment to help shift the global climate of aggression toward peace.” (pp. 73-4)