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Opening the Conversation

Excerpt from Your Soul's Compass

by Joan Borysenko & Gordon Dveirin

It was the summer of 2004, on a surpassingly beautiful day in Barcelona, Spain. We were privileged to be attending the Parliament of the World’s Religions, where I (Joan)—as a scientist interested in consciousness studies—had been invited to participate on a panel about prayer. Perhaps the most fascinating session we attended at the Parliament was a conversation about fundamentalism. The participants were Rabbi Michael Lerner, a political activist and the editor of Tikkun magazine (tikkun is a Hebrew word meaning "to heal and repair the world"; former nun and respected writer on world religions Karen Armstrong; and female Islamic scholar Kamah Kamaruzzaman.

Drawing on her seminal book The Battle for God, Armstrong discussed the recent rise of virulent forms of fundamentalism in virtually all world religions, characterizing it as a reaction to a soulless and technologically driven Western worldview. Lerner described modernity itself as a form of secular fundamentalism. The Islamic scholar Kamaruzzaman, who was the last to speak, passionately affirmed that the way to transcend these two competing yet interrelated fundamentalisms was for us to discover the common ground of our shared humanity.

An awareness of that common ground can emerge from a special kind of spiritual conversation that goes beyond external differences in belief. One of the Sages whom you’re about to meet in these pages, Father Thomas Keating, convened an annual conference at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, in 1984, inviting participants from a variety of religious traditions to converse in just such a special way. One of the basic tenets of the Snowmass Conference is that participants speak from their tradition—sharing their experiences of God or Ultimate Reality—but not for their tradition in terms of dogma. This kind of dialogue is called interspiritual, and it’s a profound form of interfaith understanding and communication.

Interfaith conversations occur at two levels:

1. Externally, they focus metaphorically on the varieties of flowers in the garden of faith and cultivating an appreciation for—or at least a tolerance of—the differences among them.

2. Internally, they focus on a shared spirituality that transcends differences in belief. These internal, interspiritual conversations reveal the common ground out of which the diverse flowers grow and the sunlight, wind, and water that nourishes them all.

In his beautiful book The Mystic Heart, Brother Wayne Teasdale writes:

The real religion of humankind can be said to be spirituality itself, because mystical spirituality is the origin of all the world religions. If this is so, and I believe it is, we might also say that interspirituality—the sharing of ultimate experiences across traditions—is the religion of the third millennium. Interspirituality is the foundation that can prepare the way for a planet-wide enlightened culture, and a continuing community among the religions that is substantial, vital, and creative.1

The 15 spiritual leaders from the Snowmass Conference arrived at a consensus on the principles of authentic interreligious conversation—principles that you’ll come to recognize as being interspiritual as you eavesdrop on some of the highlights of the discussions we had with the Sages in the pages that follow.

Father Thomas Keating outlined these guidelines in the book Speaking of Silence:

1) The world religions bear witness to the experience of the Ultimate Reality to which they give various names: Brahman, the Absolute, God, Allah, [the] Great Spirit, the Transcendent.

2) The Ultimate Reality surpasses any name or concept that can be given to It.

3) The Ultimate Reality is the source (ground of being) of all existence.

4) Faith is opening, surrendering, and responding to the Ultimate Reality. This relationship precedes every belief system.

5) The potential for human wholeness—or in other frames of reference, liberation, selftranscendence, enlightenment, salvation, transforming union, moksha, nirvana, fana—is present in every human person.

6) The Ultimate Reality may be experienced not only through religious practices but also through nature, art, human relationships, and service to others.

7) The differences among belief systems should be presented as facts that distinguish them, not as points of superiority.

8) In the light of the globalization of life and culture now in process, the personal and social ethical principles proposed by the world religions in the past need to be rethought and reexpressed.2

The fourth basic principle—that "faith is opening, surrendering, and responding to the Ultimate Reality" and the recognition that this essential "relationship precedes every belief system"—is a way of saying that guidance is available to all human beings.

A dinner conversation that we had with our friends Sara and Rachael spoke to this guiding function of Ultimate Reality in a very down-to-earth way. Recounting some of the startling synchronicities that had occurred during the past year that had deepened her spiritual journey, Rachael—who’s petite, vivacious, and seriously smart—laughed and told us, "God leaves bread crumbs to show us the way back home." In other words, we can count on a beneficent force—like the prince’s parents in the Hymn of the Pearl from the Introduction—to help us find our way to becoming more skillful, loving human beings.

But if we can rely on spiritual guidance to lead us to a realization of our true identity, then how come the journey seems so difficult and the road so long and so often disheartening? As Dr. Ed Bastian, another one of our Sages, remarked with a laugh, "If we’re the Buddha, then how come we don’t know it?"

Perhaps the reason for our ignorance is that there’s a second variable in the equation of spiritual growth (as the fourth principle of the Snowmass Conference states): surrender to, and cooperation with, the force of guidance. Surrender and cooperation aren’t always easy. They entail letting go of our own agenda and waiting patiently for the path to open step-by-step.

Releasing ourselves into the unknown can be scary. Most of us would rather chart our own course if for no other reason than that it helps manage fear. But letting go of the steering wheel and trusting in a greater compassionate intelligence not only has the potential to be anxiety producing; it’s also paradoxical.

On the one hand, surrendering to guidance involves the bone-deep realization that we’re helpless—no matter how hard we try to control things, we’re ultimately not the sole author of our experience. On the other hand, in some mysterious way entirely beyond the capacity of words or rational thought to convey, we’re one with the author of all experience. The realization of that oneness is at the heart of the spiritual journey and our ability to trust that a wisdom greater than our own is helping us evolve.

The journey home to our true nature and to God-realization—which are one and the same thing—has three parts according to Father Thomas Keating:

1. First, as the journey begins, there’s a compelling experience of a Mysterious Other.

2. Second, as we progress along the way, there’s an effort to come into union with that Mysterious Other.

3. Third, at the point of realization, we understand that there never was an Other. Our own true Self—the answer to the question Who am I?—is Ultimate Reality.3

If this sounds abstract, confusing, or heretical to you, you’re in good company. From the beginning of time, people have struggled to find words for what can’t be said but may only be realized in the laboratory of the heart. Our hope is to make this all as transparent and clear as we can, giving you the means for discerning your part in the ongoing symphony of life.

Both of us, your humble authors, as longtime students of the world’s great wisdom traditions, are somewhat familiar with various theories and stages of the spiritual journey. But there’s an enormous chasm between head knowledge—the rational concepts we have about things—and direct, embodied experience. The former is like a menu that describes what we could experience; the latter is the actual meal, which can only be appreciated when tasted. When rational thought gives way to direct experience, the events of daily life become a revelation and a mystical, mythical journey—whether (as you’ll read about in the next chapter) spiritual guidance comes dressed in a robe of glory or in the rags of stress and disappointment.

The preceeding excerpt is taken from the book Your Soul’s Compass:What is Spiritual Guidance, by Joan Borysenko & Gordon Dveirin . It is published by Hay House (October 2007) and available at all bookstores or online at: www.hayhouse.com

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