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Aryae Coopersmith: Raising the Sparks: Retrieving the Hidden Light Around Us
Guest: Aryae Coopersmith
Theme: Raising the Sparks: Retrieving the Hidden Light around Us
Host: Nicole Huguenin
Moderator: Afreen Malim
Nicole: I must say a big, big heartfelt thank-you to all of the volunteers whose really quite invincible work allows us to hold this space every single week. And I'm really honored and excited that one of those volunteers who is often on these calls and leading these calls is our guest for today, Aryae Coopersmith. He really embodies our theme today, which is "Raising the Sparks: Retrieving the Hidden Light around Us." Thank you again. What I understand from this is, when things are dark, when things aren't going as they should, when it's truly the darkest hour, where does the light come from, and how does that show up in your daily life for your personally? I know Aryae has some really wonderful stories and reflection and wisdom in that particular space. I'm really excited to hear more of those stories and engage in this sharing.
And I'm very excited to bring you in, Afreen. I would have you kick off by asking a couple of questions. Before I begin, though, I personally wanted to say thank you for all of the invisible wonderful work that you do for ServiceSpace. I was just looking at some of those things and thought, "Wow! Afreen does a lot." I wanted to tell her thank you before we even got started.
Afreen: Thank you so much, Nicole, for hosting this call. I want to say it's such a pleasure to moderate this call with Aryae this morning. So welcome to all the guests and a warm, warm welcome to Aryae. I first met Aryae at the Awakin Circle in Santa Clara and immediately his warmth and soft-spoken voice was instantly striking. As we're going to find out more on this call, the wisdom and poetic insights that Aryae brings to any space are just like precious gems. So we're absolutely delighted to have him as a guest this morning.
From his early days and spiritual explorations in San Francisco in the 60's to the corporate world of Silicon Valley and working with HR* executives and bringing the spirit of Circles to that space, to founding an organization called "One World Lights," a community of global citizens that share a vision for people to change the course of humanity through interfaith circles, there’s so much richness here to dive into today. With that, Aryae, I just wanted to say a warm, warm welcome and thank you so much for giving us the space and time to get to know your journey a little bit more and hear your insights.
Aryae: Thank you for your very generous and kind and warm introduction. Although you said I was soft-spoken, I hope I won't be too soft-spoken on this call (Laughter).
Afreen: I think your message reaches directly to the heart. Thank you so much for joining us. I'm so glad we're able to hear your voice. Nicole had a great idea. Maybe, Nicole, we can put a pause on that and come back to that. Because I know, Aryae, you were interested in hearing from the audience a little bit about the spaces of great light that come from darkness. Is it okay if we come back to that and jump into the questions with Aryae?
Aryae: That's what I was thinking. That I'd shared with both of you that when we get to the time for people to ask me questions... I also want to ask a question, which is that if anyone would like to call in and very briefly share a time from your life when you were in a time of great darkness and you discovered great light there. In the meantime, let's go. I'm ready to answer your questions, Afreen.
Afreen: The first question I have for you, Aryae, and we chatted a little bit about this. You were a young man in San Francisco in the 1960's. In your own words, it was that the spiritual revolution at that period had impacted the course of your life. Can you share a little bit more about these roots, and also particularly about how that period has affected your current values?
Aryae: I was a college student in San Francisco in the 1960's. I happened to, just by pure accident --- I needed a place to live while I was going to school --- I moved into a neighborhood called the Haight-Ashbury (Laughs) and it turned out to be a pretty wild place in those days. I have a Jewish background but I wasn't religious. I was actually an atheist. Like many other young people who wound up in San Francisco in those days, I was a spiritual seeker. I was looking for God in all kinds of places. At that time there were teachers from all over the world that were coming to San Francisco. There were people from India, people from Japan, people from China, people from all over. Our generation --- I was 20 years old --- we were very hungry for spiritual connection.
I was a student at SF State and there was a concert, and the concert turned out to be by someone called "the Singing Rabbi." His name was Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. I'd never heard of him. It was an amazing experience. There were hundreds of us, of all different kinds of backgrounds. We were dancing. That's what Shlomo did in those days. He was a folk singer; he brought people together --- young people dancing, we had our arms around each other --- and while we were standing in a circle with arms around each other, I had this very, very strange experience that we were all one. It wasn't just an idea. It was an actual physical reality. I couldn't tell where my arm ended and where the next person began. We were all one. We were in that space. Shlomo was telling a story from a great Jewish mystic who founded the Hasidic movement. His name was the Baal Shem Tov. What the Baal Shem Tov said was that if everyone in the world would hold hands, the hands would reach to Heaven. That was a theory; he was describing a physical reality that I was experiencing at that point.
Shlomo became my teacher and I started a house for him in San Francisco. There were various teachers. Yogi Bhajan --- there was a commune for him. And Swami Satchidananda --- there was a commune for him. So I started a commune for Shlomo. He wanted to call it the House of Love and Prayer. So I said, "Shlomo, what is a house of love and prayer?" And he said, very simply, "When you walk in, someone loves you. And when you walk out, someone misses you." That became what we did. At that time I was married. I'd been to Israel, and had married a woman who was Israeli, and had some other friends, and we just moved in together, we opened our doors. Within a few months, we found ourselves in the center of the spiritual revolution. The Sufis were coming, the Charismatic Catholics were coming, Jews were coming, and the Buddhists were coming. We learned how to connect with each other. On one level, we were young kids; we didn't know what we were doing. On the other hand, on some level we knew and all of our teachers were showing us how.
That's really stayed with me my whole life. Ever since then I've been finding myself in situations where I wind up bringing people together, to discover, underneath all of our diversity what's the underlying Oneness?
Afreen: That's been a theme, you can tell, in the rest of your work. Oneness, universalism, is something that strikes through the rest of your journey. Speaking about that, your book, "Holy Beggars," is partly about the complexity of the relationship between spiritual teachers and students. As you shared about you how started off in your early 20's organizing and starting the commune for your spiritual teacher, can your share a little bit more about this complexity and any insights around this topic that you've come to throughout the years?
Aryae: I wrote the book 40 years [ago]. It was quite an exercise for me. I was running the House of Love and Prayer for Shlomo four years. That's what I did, 24-7, four years. Then it was time to head out on my own and live a life. I wound up living a pretty secular life in Silicon Valley and got reignited spiritually again. We maintained contact with each other from time to time. He passed away in 1994. I was kind of devastated. I think like a lot of us do, I had been living my life like we all live forever, and if there's something that hasn't been done today, there's always tomorrow. There was a lot of stuff I wanted to talk to him about. But I hadn't and I was kind of devastated.
So I spoke to my other spiritual teacher, who is Shlomo's best friend, Reb Zalman, also a very great spiritual teacher within the Jewish world. Zalman said, "Well, Aryae, you have to do two things at this point." And I said, "What's that, Reb Zalman?" He said "First of all, you have to figure out who you are as a spiritual person at this point. And the second thing you need to do is to figure out how to give back to Reb Shlomo. He gave so much to you, to so many people, and you haven't given back yet." And that was a big "Aha!" He said "You have to figure out how to give back." So I hung up the phone, took some deep breaths, and thought about that.
The next morning I woke up and it occurred to me, "Maybe I could tell the story." So I started writing that book. It was hard for me to write. It took me 16 years before I finally got it published. The complexities --- Afreen, it's like a relationship with a parent. That person may be a very fine person, but they're also human. He was not a saint. He had his issues. He was a really famous person. He was traveling all over the world all of the time. So I got to see him only occasionally and when I was getting the book ready to publish I had a lot of long conversations with one of his daughters. She shared that one of her difficulties was that when she was a little kid she wanted her father for herself. But she never got him for herself because he was traveling all the time. He was there for the whole world. That was one of the challenges in her life --- that she had to learn how to deal with that. There were a lot of things that I wanted to do with him, conversations I wanted to have, but there just wasn't time. He was there for everybody. And how to come to terms with that in a relationship.
That was one example of some of the complexities that I had to navigate. There were other things as well. In the process of writing the book, I had to say, "Hey, I forgive you for issues you had in your life with me and with others and I love you, I accept you as a human being, and maybe if I can do that with you, maybe I can learn how to do that with myself --- to accept myself for all my flaws and all my issues, and with other people as well. It was really a very big learning for me.”
Afreen: That is absolutely profound. And it so resonates. We, all of us, have a tendency to put either spiritual teachers or mentors on some kind of a pedestal, therefore not allowing them to be the humans that they are. That's a beautiful learning, and it almost sounds like the years that it took you to write and therefore process and reflect in a very deep way, enabled you to bring that compassion and understanding of the complexity of the situation.
The question that naturally comes up now, Aryae is, you're in the role of being a spiritual leader over the years. How has understanding the complexity impacted the way that you bring yourself into these relationships and the spaces?
Aryae: For me, Afreen, when I was in the House of Love and Prayer, I was expected to hold things together there when Shlomo wasn't there. I realized that I didn't know enough to do that. I didn't know enough about our tradition. So the way I wound up doing that was by bringing people together in a circle and saying, "Okay, we're all going to learn together, we're going to learn this piece of Torah, this piece of sacred text. What I learned how to do that I really love to do is to function in the space where the circle is the teacher. I'm just a person. I can bring people together. I know how to do that. Then we share and we learn. So the art of that becomes how to bring people together in a way that their hearts are open, our minds are open; we share with each other. Everything I've done in my life since then, whether it's ---- I started a career consulting business in the 70's, did work for the State of California, and changed some of the way career consulting happens in the Department of Rehabilitation. Then in the 90's I started the HR Forums. We did a similar process. And now with One World Lights we're bringing together global citizens from around the world. It's not that somebody is showing someone else the way; it's that we're all learning through the dialogue.
Afreen: It really sounds like those early insights of depending on the wisdom of the circle rather than one person to guide the way all the time is something that has impacted your professional life as well as the work you've been doing later on. Are there specific stories or anecdotes that stand out, of your time in the Silicon Valley corporate world, and how the learning from your spiritual path impacted that work?
Aryae: I've got a couple of Silicon Valley stories. When I first started working in the Silicon Valley in the early 80's I was actually doing sales and marketing, believe it or not. I discovered that I was pretty good at it. I was selling large computer systems to large companies. I didn't know anything about computers. I had no computer science background. What my background was --- when I went to graduate school in the 70's at Sonoma State, I was basically learning Family Therapy, I was learning Family Systems, and learning the systems approach to working with human communication. It's the same, right? You're not looking at any one person; you're looking at the whole system of how a group of people interact. I learned how to do that in a corporate setting, if you're selling a mainframe computer.
I was working for Unisys for a while. We were competing with IBM, which was pretty tough in those days. IBM was the leader and Unisys was sort of... we called ourselves "The Junkyard Dogs." The way I discovered that I, given my skill set, could do that is that I could bring everybody together in the room. What about the finance group? What about the marketing group? And what about the engineering group? And what are some common issues that are holding back corporate growth and corporate performance, and how can people connect with each other to get past those issues and make some positive changes? And then how can a good information technology system facilitate those kinds of interactions and those kinds of conversations? I discovered that I, with no technical knowledge, as a family therapist, could bring large systems into large organizations.
That's one story. But I will give you another one. Later on, in the 90's, and then into 2000 through about 2013, I was running the HR Forums. When I started the HR Forums, first I'd been working for the Tom Peters Group in Palo Alto. Then later I was working for a large management consulting company on the East Coast. And I knew people in the HR community. So I thought, let's bring together some people in the HR community, while I was employed by this management consulting firm. We’ll do a presentation and we'll share some information. I brought together a group of people; the heads of HR from Oracle, from Sun, from Cisco, and from a number of other big companies. We were having breakfast and I brought the team out from Massachusetts; they were very knowledgeable people with all sorts of interesting information to share. We did our slide presentation and in the middle of that, someone interrupted the presentation. It was Ken Alvarez, who is head of HR at Sun. He said "Wait a second. We don't need you guys to tell us a bunch of stuff. We've been at our jobs for a long time. A lot of us are PhD's. What would really be valuable for us --- why don't you just let us talk to each other?” There was kind of a silence in the room (Laughs). "What do I do now?" And I thought, "Okay, let's go for that." I motioned to the guys from the East Coast to just kind of relax and let the people in the room talk to each other. They had a great time, and they wanted to get back and do it again. I wound up quitting my job for the consulting company and starting the HR Forums, where we would bring together the HR leaders in Silicon Valley to learn from each other.
There were some amazing things that happened there. I'll give you one more example of this. We were meeting; I believe this particular meeting was being hosted at Cisco. This was in 1999. Anybody who was involved in HR in Silicon Valley in 1999 [knows] the big issue was H1B visas. At that point, the H1B visa program had a limit of about 60,000 visas a year. That just wasn't enough --- the companies needed to bring good people from India and Europe and other places, who had the skills that people just couldn't hire from, from people here in the U.S. And there was the IEEE and other organizations that were saying, "Hey, wait a second. This is just a bunch of companies trying to hire people on the cheap and not hire Americans here, because they didn't want to pay them wages." That was the line was being said. Being in Silicon Valley in the HR communities, I knew that wasn't true, that people would have hired anybody that could do these jobs. So we brought the different people from the different companies together. When you're doing a meeting like this, there's always a question of what's proprietary information, how much can I disclose to my competitors? Because we had competitors there in the room. The H1B visa issue came up. Someone said "We've got a new product rollout slated for February. And if we can't get more H1B visas to get the people on the team, we're going to have to move our development center over to Ireland." And the room was quiet. And someone else said, "You know, we haven't said this to anybody, but we're thinking of moving our development center over to Canada." Somebody else was going to move theirs over to India.
What we discovered was something none of us knew when we walked into that room. That was, the people who were pressuring Congress in the name of saving good American jobs were in fact going to force all those jobs to be exported overseas. We all looked at each other: "Wow! This is bigger than any of us thought." The group decided that somebody had to deliver that message to Congress. So, one of the people there worked for Cypress Semiconductor, and the CEO there was T. J. Rodgers. He was kind of a notorious and colorful Silicon Valley figure. He decided that T. J. was just the messenger to bring the message to Congress (Laughs). So the group managed to recruit him. He flew into Washington. He brought the message to Congress. And the visa program was expanded the next year.
Afreen: What a huge accomplishment. Both in the story of bringing together people that led to the message being taken to Congress, and also earlier, when you were facilitating HR executives, as a consultant, I'm really struck by the presence of both trust and understanding the value of connection that is important when you bring people in the room, whether it's the corporate world of technology or spiritual home, or later on, it sounds, like the One World Lights circles. It's beautiful to see how you've been able to take that thread of that particular value through all these very different kinds of spaces. And therefore really bring those spaces to their highest potential.
Aryae: It's kind of what I do, whether I intend to or not. Around the time I started the HR forums, my mother was living in Florida. She was approaching 80 years old. She wanted to know. Jewish mothers are in some ways much like Indian mothers, right? They're very, very interested in their kids' careers and they want the very latest. My mother was asking me, "So what are you doing now?" And I described what I was doing in Silicon Valley. “Basically I had breakfast with people, and we go to their company and somebody else pays for the breakfast, and they all talk to each other.” She listened to that, and her response was "So when are you going to get a real job?" (Laughter). For me it hasn't been a real job, it's just what I love to do, and find different ways to do it where I've been.
Afreen: And what an absolute privilege and fortune. I'd love to transition into hearing more about One World Lights. You're the founder of this organization, and if you can share more about the work of this organization, but also the continuation of that theme of trust, and trusting the circle and the presence of everybody there, and the connection that happens when you come to that space in such a way. What does the organization do and what have you learned from this?
Aryae: I want to share with you how it got started. We would bring thought leaders to the Silicon Valley HR executive community and then our members would have a chance to interact with those thought leaders. One of the thought leaders we brought one time was Bob Johansen. Bob had been, I believe it was, originally a Presbyterian minister. Then he got involved in working as a futurist. He was one of the founders of Institute for the Future (IFTF) in Palo Alto, which is one of America's great futurist think-tanks. We were very fortunate to have him as our thought leader for this session with 15 or 20 HR executives. What Bob and what the Institute for the Future did, and they still do (he's in an emeritus role right now), is something called the "10-year forecast." They have scientists of all types --- social scientists, climate scientists, information people. They go around the world and map the trends and roll it all up into a 10-year forecast. Each year, the 10-year forecast evolves: "the next 10 years, the next 10 years." This was 2013 and Bob was telling us about the 10-year forecast at that point, which was the world in the year 2023.
He was saying we're looking at a planet with roughly 9 billion people and about a third of those people are going to be without what most of us would consider necessary for a comfortable life. They won't have adequate housing, health care, food, education, you name it. A third of the world's people. Inequality is going to continue to get worse and that's going to drive instability. But then he said, the kicker of it all is that everyone, regardless, is going to have some sort of mobile device that will allow them to connect with everyone else on the planet. This was when he was in his 60's, toward the end of a long career as a futurist. He said, "This is the scariest 10-year forecast I've ever seen. And also I'm the most optimistic." I said, "Why is it the scariest?" And he said that just with the background I had given, 3 billion people who are not happy and have nothing to lose and have mobile devices is going to drive increasing global instability. I said, "So why are you the most optimistic?" And he said, "Because we're all going to be able to have that ability to communicate globally in that way." People will be able to self-organize. Change is no longer going to be the domain of governments or international organizations or NGOs. Change is going to be something that anyone can organize. People all over the world are going to be responding by organizing positive change. That was a very profound message for all of us.
In 2013 I was getting close to my 70th birthday, and I thought, "Okay, what am I going to do next? I'm ready to close down my business, and what am I going to do next?" I had to ask myself, "What am I good at doing? I'm good at bringing people together to talk to each other." So maybe I could start reaching out to some of those people around the planet who were driving positive change, who are supporting a positive human course change which can bring about a positive planetary change, and find ways that people can get together to talk to each other. That's really what started my idea of One World Lights.
The other thing I have to share is I have to credit my wife, Wendy. My book had just come out the year before, "Holy Beggars," and I had taken a little time off from work and was traveling around doing a book tour. I was bringing people together to talk to each other. Some of it was in Jewish community, because my teacher was a Jewish teacher, and Jewish people were interested in this. But it was also people from all kinds of communities in bookstores all over. What I began discovering is that the spiritual revolution, this experience that I write about, was something I experienced in the 1960's in San Francisco, but it's something that's always happening. It's just that sometimes people seem to talk about it more. Everyone had a spiritual revolution experience that came from their own lives, or most people did. And underneath all the differences, all the diversities, we had all had that experience --- that I don't know where I stop and someone else begins. That we're all one. I was really struck with that, and I came back one time from traveling, and I told Wendy, and Wendy --- who was going to work every day as a nurse practitioner and seeing people who were sick and needed help --- she had that kind of orientation, very practical, what can you do now? She said to me, "What can you do now about any of this? How is this relevant today?" I thought about what Bob Johansen had said and said, "Okay, I'm going to start bringing people together to talk to each other. Maybe by doing that, we can support each other and make a difference."
There was a lot of experimenting initially, but I was able to bring together some of my friends from Silicon Valley that I knew, and some of my spiritual friends. I was very fortunate. I was able to bring my other teacher, Reb Zalman, to support this community. So we got some really good people. Reb Zalman's tag line is "The only way we're going to get it together is together." He had been friends with the Dalai Lama, he had been friends with Howard Thurman, he had been friends with all kinds of spiritual leaders around the world. He was always looking for ways that people could get together. So we started experimenting. We started talking, and we eventually discovered that doing things via global video conference seemed to be a very exciting way to bring people together to share our stories.
Afreen: I had goosebumps when you were sharing about the futurist's prediction for the next 10 years and just even in the last two years since he shared that. It seems you can see the signs of that prediction, both the hope and the potential danger of it so palpably in the world that we live in today in 2015.
Aryae: I was just struck. As recently as yesterday [25 Sept. 2015] Pope Francis in New York gave his homily. This gets to the theme of the light and the darkness. I wrote this down, as reported in the New York Times. He was in Madison Square Garden, and he quoted from Isaiah. He said, "The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light." I checked that out in Hebrew and that's exactly what it says. Following that it says, "Those who sat in the land of the shadow of death, the light shined on them." After he quoted that, the Pope said, "In every age, people of God are called to contemplate this light." Here it is today. All of us who were so taken with the message that the Pope had to deliver here in the US, we're living it, we're living in a world where there is so much darkness going on, and there is so much light that's shining within that darkness. We all have these experiences.
Afreen: It's beautiful. One of the first things that comes to mind is oftentimes in the midst of darkness, among the last thoughts is about the greatness of the potential of light within. I would love to transition into that theme. I know that's something you're holding very dear. The quote that comes to mind is often the famous quote by Rumi, "The wound is the place where the light enters you.” And the beautiful quotes you shared from the Pope's recent visit, and how that ties into all the work that you've started with One World Lights, and really recognizing that the time is really ripening to bring out and pull out all of the positive work that is going on in the world, and bring it to almost a global scale of connection. Going back to the light within the darkness, you could start off by sharing your personal connection to that idea, or a personal story from your life, where you feel like you've experienced that.
Aryae: I'll start off with a personal story from my life, and then there are stories from the global citizens in the One World Lights community that are so inspiring. One story from my life, Afreen, had to do with my younger brother, Ronald. It turned out at an early age he had the diagnosis that he had schizophrenia. He was in a state of chronic schizophrenia. He would hear voices, he would see things. He lived in a delusional world. Needless to say, it was very troubling for our family. At that time I was already out of the house; I'd been through college. As a result of trying to understand what was happening with Ron, and trying to understand the family system, how somehow we had all been a part of his "craziness," that's one of the things that led me to go into psychology. I thought I wanted to be a family therapist. I was in a graduate psychology program at Sonoma State.
Ronald, it turned out, wound up being hospitalized in the same hospital where Ken Kesey had been hospitalized in Oregon, and about which he wrote "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest." My brother Ron was there in that "cuckoo's nest." As a result of learning stuff in family therapy I was able to bring myself, my other brother, and Ronald together for a week. The result was that we got him released from the hospital. He went through a lot in his life. He went through a lot of crazy stuff. At one point he was even arrested for what they thought was an attempted hijack of a plane. Toward the end of his life he wound up in a peaceful place, a nice assisted living facility in Florida. I would go down there to visit him. My brother Paul and I were trying to get Ron to stop smoking. He smoked a lot. And we said, "Ron, you're going to die young if you smoke so much." And he said, "Oh, I don't care. It doesn't matter to me. I'm going to die when I'm going to die. I'm not worrying about it." I spoke to his psychiatrist about it and his psychiatrist said "People who are schizophrenic, that's a lot of what they do to self-medicate. It calms down their anxiety. That's what they do."
It turns out that at age 58 my brother had terminal lung cancer. I got a call: he was dying. We both flew down to Florida. We went to the hospital and we were there for his last minutes. He was unconscious. We were watching him, and Paul said, "You know, whenever I would call Ronald, he would end the phone call by saying, 'You know, I love you.'" And I said to Paul, "You know, whenever I would call he would end the phone call by saying, 'You know, I love you.'" So spontaneously we just started singing Stevie Wonder's song, "I just called to say I love you. I just called to say how much I care." And we sang it over and over and over again. We basically sang him out. His soul left his body while we were singing that song. It was a place of great darkness, because he was dying. And it was also a place of great light because we had that love that connected the three of us right in that moment.
Afreen: Once again, I'm struck by the presence of reconnecting and bringing that love into that space where it could have easily been something about anxiety or fear or all the other emotions that come with death.
Aryae: I also wanted to share with you: One of our people in the One World Lights community is a young Muslim Nigerian. His name is Usman Mohammed Inuwa. He lives in the Bauchi State in northern Nigeria, where there's a tremendous amount of violence. That's where Boko Haram operates. Talk about darkness. Most of us have no concept of darkness. That's where he lives. He had connected with a couple of other people who are in our community, Len and Libby Traubman, who live right here in San Mateo. They've been peacemakers for 20 years. They run something called the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue. They started bringing Israeli Jews and Palestinians together to talk to each other, to understand each other. They've reached out to all over the world. They were in Nigeria at that time in 2010 where there was a tremendous amount of violence. They met Usman and they shared their material and their process with him. Usman began bringing together Christian youth and Muslim youth. The results were amazing. They formed deep, deep friendships and formed bonds of deep affection with each other. It went beyond making peace in the sense of stopping fighting. He just brought together so many friends in the Bauchi State of northern Nigeria.
In the meantime, there was a young Christian in nearby Cote d'Ivoire in Africa named Offuh (Offuh James Offuh). There had also been a tremendous amount of violence there during a civil war there, around the same period, 2010, '11, '12. He connected with Usman and with Len and Libby. As a Christian he began doing the same work there, bringing people from warring Christian and Muslim tribes together for dialogue, for talking to each other. These two young men, they're just ordinary guys in these countries in Africa who in the midst of that darkness were able to take the inspiration, bring people together. It was both themes --- the lightness and the dark. It was also the circle of the teacher, where people could listen, could learn, could open up their hearts. To me they are such inspirations of finding and connecting with the light in the darkness.
Afreen: My family left India in the midst of horrific, really violent riots between Hindus and Muslims, and it has definitely left an impact on my family and my Mom in particular. I'm in an interfaith marriage with a Hindu man and over the years what we've seen is that as hard as it was for both our parents to accept and later embrace this idea, when you make space to get to know somebody as a human being and a part of your family and part of this very intimate circle, in your home, you can't help but open your heart. The wonders that come through --- not only the violence and very egregious animosity going away, but the wonders of getting to connect with somebody who is the enemy image and is now somebody you love deeply, and now what do you do with the complexity of that and how you hold that? --- has been beautiful to watch unfold in our families and in the examples you're sharing.
Aryae: Afreen, you're really a living example of this. I want to interview you some time.
Afreen: (Laughs) I'm not sure it would be as exciting as asking you questions.
Nicole: Thank you both for sharing all of your stories, and your insights and thoughts. I would love to bring in the rest of the audience. I have a couple of questions as well. I'm wondering, Aryae, you shared earlier about the 10-year outlook, and I'm wondering what your 10-year outlook is starting from today. Do you have one?
Aryae: Do I have a 10-year forecast for the future of the planet? (Laughter) Let me look into my crystal ball here. Unfortunately I don't have a team of scientists at my disposal. From talking with people --- recently with ServiceSpace and with the OWL, One World Lights, community, we just had our second gathering of the Interfaith Wisdom Circle where we're bringing people of different faith backgrounds together from all over the world, and we have these other conferences as well --- what I am seeing, Nicole, is a continuation of Bob Johansen's original vision. We look around the world, we see the news, we see what's going on. One day the Pope comes to visit Congress and the next day John Boehner quits under pressure from the right. We see both of these kinds of things happening, the forces that are tearing us apart as humanity and on a planetary level, climate change, etc. And on the other hand we see more and more people coming together to connect. ServiceSpace, to my knowledge, is just the largest and most inspiring network of people from all over the world who are coming together to change ourselves, change the world, do whatever good we can.
My crystal ball tells me we're going to see a continuation of both. Sadly, we're going to see more environmental deterioration that will become manifest in the years ahead. We're going to see more violence. That's going to happen. And we're also going to see more and more people linking up to do good --- more peacemakers, more climate activists. Exactly how that's going to play out, who knows? But I choose to be doing something. I choose to be working every day on changing myself and changing the world in whatever way I can. I choose to support others who are doing the same. I can give you that forecast, that that is what I'm going to be doing, and that's what a lot of us are going to be doing.
Nicole: I love that. That inspires me. And it actually leads into my next question, which is, something I've really heard throughout all the stories that you've shared is this innate ability to bring together groups and foster connections within a circle. I would love to know any pointers or suggestions, or do you have an equation or something to guide those of us who are looking to hold similar spaces and maybe have never done that before? It wonderful to get some wisdom from you in that space. You have done that so brilliantly throughout your entire career.
Aryae: I'd say, for starters, anyone who wants to get involved, one good way is to come to a few Awakin Circles, and just sit in the Awakin Circles and experience that. But you've already been doing that. Beyond that, I've had to work on myself to let go of my own agenda when I bring people together.
I'll give you an example. Wendy and I have been bringing people together in our Jewish Renewal Community from all over the Bay Area once a month to our house for the Torah Circle, and we study a piece of Torah each time, a sacred text. Then everybody gives over their own reflections. And when we first started doing this, I found that I would feel annoyed or a little disturbed when people would get angry at God, you know, "How could God do a thing like that or like this?" Or "Why does the text say this or that?" In anybody's scriptures there are those passages that can make people angry. My anger about what people were saying detracted, obviously. What I learned is to trust that the circle itself was a teacher --- if I would just make sure it was a safe space for everyone, everyone had the same amount of time and opportunity to speak, and that we would respect each other. There were no evaluations, no grades, no negative comments, just, "We're there and it's sacred." And trust the circle. There really is a greater whole that comes through. Over the years I have found that the diversity of opinions in that particular circle is its most magnetic part. People come in feeling one thing, and they really listen to other people and they feel something else at the end. And it's a beautiful, beautiful thing.
The other thing is that I've had to learn to know myself. We each have our own kind of gifts and quirks and blind spots. One of my gifts, personally, which is perhaps also a blind spot, is that when I look at a circle, when I look at a group, I can see a little bit ahead of time what's about to happen. I had to learn gradually that most people see things in a different way. I'm looking about 30 seconds ahead and I could see when it was time to change. "Okay, let's change, it's time to get up, it's time to have lunch, or whatever," and other people weren't ready yet, because I was seeing it a little sooner. What I had to learn was just to hold myself back a little bit and rather than go with what I was feeling was needed at any point in time, to watch people's body language, and to see when people started moving, when they started looking a little uncomfortable, when they started looking like it was ready for change. So rather than plugging into my own nervous system, I had to learn how to plug into the nervous system of the whole. That made a big difference.
Nicole: that comes from a lot of practice. We have a comment from someone in St. Paul, Minnesota, and they said, "My repeating light in times of darkness is to recognize the insignificance of 'one,' the recognition of my being a mere part of a great whole as Aryae described at the onset, and at the same time the significance of 'one,' the ability of one person to change our lives. P.S., I'm never out of darkness. How neat is that?" Any thoughts on that?
Aryae: I'm not sure that I understood that if the person who was asking was saying they recognize the potential of light, but that person said they were never out of darkness?
Nicole: It was a little complex with the parentheses, but recognizing that simultaneously the complexity of how insignificant an individual is, yet at the same time how significant, an individual is, and therefore their ability to change themselves and change the world.
Aryae: That reminds me of a story. There was one Rabbi, I believe it was one of the Hasidic teachers... who said that a person should walk and always carry two notes, one note in the right pocket and one note in the left pocket. In the right pocket the note says, "For my sake the Universe was created." A person needs to remember that, that this Universe was really created for me. In the left pocket, the other note says "I am but dust and ashes." We need both of those notes in our pockets.
Nicole: I am going to share another comment from Deborah, who says "Aryae, thank you, you're an inspiration to others. Thank you for sharing what you shared and for doing what you do." I want to echo that as well.
Aryae: That was very sweet. Thank you.
Palavi (Caller): This is Palavi calling. This is so beautiful. I'm thinking I should start putting notes in my pockets. It's just so amazing (Laughter), the paradox and the polarity. My question for you is over the time that I've known you, I've always felt you're always present. The question that popped in my head is, when you're alone, more on a personal level, how do you shift from scarcity to abundance?
Aryae: How do you shift from scarcity to abundance? Palavi, that's a very deep question. How do you shift from scarcity to abundance?
Palavi: Especially since you're talking about darkness and light, for me it has been to go into the darkness. I've found methods to just look at the darkness and find out the deeper meaning of it. Sometimes it takes 10, 15 minutes, a half an hour; a couple of things have taken two years. But I find I'm unable to still always be present. In my external impression of you I see you're always in that space. So I would love to know how you address those in your private moments.
Aryae: That's a beautiful question. I want to answer you with something that occurred to me when you were just talking. I was thinking about Senoi dreamwork, something I learned about in graduate school in my psychology program in the 70's. The Senoi are a Malaysian group of hunting and gathering peoples. They've been practicing a way of dealing with dreams. I actually learned this in our process that we were doing back then. You know how, in a dream sometimes, when we're having a nightmare, there's some sort of dark, fearsome figure that's approaching us? That's the scarcity. That's the negative voice. That's the voice that's going to say "I'm going to destroy you." Their spiritual practice in their tribes, in their groups, was to get together every morning and people would tell the stories of their dreams. The point was to learn the skill of going back into that dream, to that darkest place, with the most fearsome figures, and confronting that figure and saying "What are you here to tell me, and what's your gift to me?" People who could do that would have the most amazing experiences, that the dark monster would turn into an angel bearing them a diamond. There is something, there is a gift hidden within that darkness. It seems to me that that practice embodies something, I think, that could be accessible to any of us, and something that I have actually practiced.
Palavi: One thing I'd like to share is, for years, I would think I should start working on my dreams, but the timing wasn't right. So I let it go. A couple of months ago, after I cleared a lot of other stuff, the dreams showed up. So what I started doing is keep a notebook by my bedside. When you wake up, one thing I've found is, do not physically move. Do not move your body upon waking up. And that's when you can remember your dream. So for a little while I tried noting down my dreams. I wasn't trying to get into lucid dreaming; I was just going with my intuition. And after a while I realized the scary dreams had all the same kinds of fear repeating. I ended up using tools I used in my waking life to clear my darkness. I used those on... dreams. Slowly I realized the dreams stopped. I haven't got the new ones yet; it's reached a sort of blank state, from what I can tell. So my understanding is the subconscious and the dream state is actually the deepest part of us and it has immense gifts for us. I'm still working through that.
Aryae: thank you for sharing that. It certainly has gifts for us. I want to share one more story that I believe I shared one time in an Awakin Circle. But I think it's relevant to your question of how to find the abundance in the scarcity. This is a Hasidic story.
There were two students who went to their spiritual teacher. They said, "Rabbi, it says in the Torah that we should love God the same in times of abundance and times of adversity. How can we love God the same? We can love God in a time of abundance and we can love God in adversity but those are not the same thing. What does the text mean when it tells us to love God in the same way?" The Rabbi said, "Well, in order to learn the answer to that, you've got to go to visit Reb Zusha." They looked at each other. Reb Zusha! He was that guy who lived outside of town on the edge of the forest. His whole life he had known misfortune, he had known scarcity, he had lost loved ones, he had had to live in poverty, but somehow he managed to live peacefully and serenely at the edge of the forest. So he said "Go and ask Reb Zusha and he'll tell you the answer to your question." They walked and walked and came to the edge of the forest, and they found Reb Zusha's little tiny hut; he was living there. He greeted them very warmly, saying "what can I do for you?" And so they told them about their question, and that the Rabbi had sent them. Zusha thought about that and shook his head, and said, "You know, the Rabbi made a mistake." They looked at each other: The Rabbi made a mistake! They said "What do you mean?" Reb Zusha said (He always spoke about himself in the third person), "Zusha has never known misfortune." That's the state that he lived in. I can't claim that I do that. But that's certainly something that I aspire to.
Palavi: Aryae, when you tell stories, I want to just settle down and listen to your stories for hours. Thank you, thank you.
Nicole: I'm going to move to an online question coming in from Kozo. He says, "Thank you for all of your authenticity, love, and wisdom. I know you have a multicultural, multispiritual perspective on life and spirit. What are the unique parts of Jewish spirituality that you don't find in other spiritual practices? Or, on top of that, in what ways have you supplemented your spirituality with practices from other traditions?
Aryae: Thank you, Kozo, thank you, Brother, your life and your story are certainly an inspiration to me and to many, many of us, of finding light in darkness. So thank you for your example. Your story of what is in my tradition, in Judaism and Jewish mysticism, that is not in other traditions... what do we have to offer each other? I want to start off with the second part of your question, how have I supplemented my practices? Our teacher, Reb Zalman, made it a practice to be friends with spiritual teachers from all kinds of traditions. He knew how to do the Catholic Mass in Latin. He knew how to do a Sufi Zikr in Arabic. All kinds of things. What he used to say is that back when the world was different, it was sufficient for our tradition to focus on ourselves. You know, "We'll focus on the Jewish people, you focus on the Muslims, you focus on the Christians, you focus on the Hindus." that was okay, that worked. In today's world it's not sufficient. None of us has all of it. He likened it to a multivitamin. We may be very strong in one vitamin and the next tribe over is very strong in another, and the next tribe over is strong in another. And we need multivitamins in today's world. He also said another thing that, just as in a bio-system, resilience requires diversity, diverse types of corn or diverse types of apple trees, or whatever it might be. Spiritually, the world requires biodiversity as well, of all of our different traditions.
I want to share another story, a particularly Jewish story that reflects a little bit of the flavor from Judaism and from Jewish mysticism. This was one of the first Jewish stories, when I was coming back into my spiritual heritage, that I came across, and it was in a book by Martin Buber:
Once upon a time there were a husband and wife who wanted more than anything to else to have a child, and they tried very hard. No matter whatever they did, she never got pregnant. So she went to the Rabbi in town. And that's what people did in the Jewish communities in those days in Eastern Europe; if things weren't working you'd go to the Rabbi and ask for a blessing. The Rabbis, if they were tuned in, would give you a blessing, and sometimes it would work. The Rabbi who was the Mezeritcher Maggid (that was his title, the Maggid of Mezeritch) said "Hannah, let me tell you a story. I'll tell you the story of my mother. My mother, whose name was Sarah, also was in a similar situation to yours. The great master, the Baal Shem Tov, was traveling through town. She came to visit him, and she said, 'Rabbi, can you give my husband and me a blessing that we should have a child?' And the Baal Shem Tov said, 'What would you give for that blessing?' And she thought about it and she said, 'Rabbi, we're very poor. I'm a very poor woman. I do have one possession that I really value. That's a beautiful cloak that my mother left me.' The Rabbi said, 'Okay, why don't you go get the cloak?' She turned around, she ran home, she ran back to the Synagogue, and they told her the Rabbi had gone, that the Baal Shem Tov had gone. She said, 'Where is he?' They said, 'He's traveling back to his town. You can go to the next village; he's probably there.' So Sarah traveled on foot. She didn't have a coach, she was very poor, carrying her cloak. Picture this woman, maybe barely with shoes. She's on this dusty road and she's carrying her cloak and walks to the next town. She goes to the synagogue and she says 'Has the Baal Shem Tov been here?' They say 'No, you just missed him by a few hours. He's on his way to the next town.' She travels like this many, many miles across Poland. Finally, after many days of travel, walking, nothing to eat, she comes to the little town of Medzhybizh, where the Baal Shem Tov lived. And she walks up bringing her cloak, she's overjoyed, and she said, 'Rabbi, can you give us a blessing now?' She offers him her cloak. And he says, 'Sarah, you don't need my blessing any more. They've heard you in Heaven. Go home and be with your husband.' "
The Rabbi, the Mezeritcher Maggid who's telling the story, says "She went home and nine months later I was born." And Hannah was listening to this story with wide eyes, and she's crying, and she's saying "Rabbi, that is so beautiful. You know, I have a cloak, too. I'll go home and get it." And the Rabbi says, "Hannah, no-no-no, that won't work." And she says, "Why not? It worked for your mother." And he says, "The reason it worked for my mother is that she didn't know the story."
What's the teaching there? It's that we've got to go into that place of darkness where we don't know the story, because that's where the blessing is. And I would say, Kozo, this is kind of a particularly Jewish way of conveying that lesson.
Nicole: I've heard you share that story.... and every time what sticks with me is hearing stories more than once helps take you to that place of, "Oh Gosh, I didn't think in this one particular way," or "I didn't hear it," so thank you for sharing that again.
Tom (Caller): It's Tom, from the Washington, DC area. Thank you very much for your very rich, valuable conversation. I love how the Universe puts together the synchrony, and though you were just talking about it, without knowing the story, the idea of not knowing the story. You mentioned several times over the course of your comments about letting go of your agenda. I loved the story of the round table, where a Silicon Valley guy suggested something else and you let that go. I have a personal initiative called "Conversations with Cancer," where cancer itself is the darkness, and pairing people who have cured themselves with newly-diagnosed people is the inquiry. I want to put that in the conversation. I was wondering; you must have had, over the course of your work with Jewish mystics --- and I'm reading a book by Fred Allen Wolf right now called "The New Alchemists." It's about reduction of the story into the sacred symbol. He goes through the Hebrew alphabet. Each chapter is started with a Hebrew letter which, you probably know, represents the metaphysical forces of the Universe... I have no idea what the derivation of my question is, because so many things went together. But something like, when you're working with groups and putting people together, and putting people in the right place.... It sounds as if you're very, very successful at that. Is there something in the realm of letting go of stories, is there something iconic or is there a symbol or do you hold a presence of some sort, or is there some way to connect them using something other than words and a story and logical information?
Aryae: That's a beautiful question, Tom. Given the work that you do, it sounds like you do that yourself. How do you do it?
Tom (Caller): I'm just discovering it. I'm discovering new ways to do it every day. You were talking about being on a personal journey; I think the main thing that I like to show people is, it's about me, it's about self, it's about personal journey. And being okay with the idea that it worked or it didn't work for the other guy over there, but for the person that's undergoing the trek or the journey, that person will find his or her own best version of the next version of themselves.
Aryae: I'm sure you've had the experiences of how to do that. We learn when we're face-to-face with people. You're also reminding me of another image from Jewish mythology, from Jewish tradition. When the people of Israel were standing at Mount Sinai, and God was giving the Ten Commandments, in Hebrew, the first word of the Ten Commandments is "Anokhi," and there's the word "ani,' which is the little "I," and Anokhi, which is the bigger "I." That's not the little "I" of the ego, it's the larger "I" in the Universe. That's the very first word of the Ten Commandments. But then the very first letter is the letter Aleph, which is silent. So the beginning of all of it, the beginning of any spiritual practice, is that infinite silence. The teaching is that you start there, then the practice will take us where we need to go.
Tom: Beautiful. Yes, that's how he starts Chapter One, actually, is with Aleph. And the representation of the Supreme Energy. It's really fascinating how we, much like the evolution of Nature, you pointed to it, we have the evolution of different trees, a people or story or ethic or whatever that is, and we're tied to a legacy. And if we can let go of the legacy and let go of the gravity of our story, then we're back to Aleph again.
Aryae: It's an honor to meet you, Tom, and wish you well on your good work.
Tom: I'm really glad I was here today. Great gift.
Nicole: We're at the end of our time together, and I wanted to ask you one final question, Aryae, which is, "How can we in the larger ServiceSpace community, support your work?"
Aryae: Two things. One is for every one of you on this call who are already in the ServiceSpace community and volunteering, my take is for all of us to keep on what we're doing. To keep on serving each other and the community in this way. That's the most beautiful. My second answer is, if anyone here would specifically be interested in being involved in the Wisdom Circles of the OWL community, there are number of them. We have the One World Lights community, video calls of global citizens who are supporting a course change for humanity by supporting each other. You'd be very invited to check us out and join those as well. It's “owl1 dot net,” and maybe we can include that in the note that goes out after the call.
Afreen: I'm feeling very similar to the space that Tom just shared right now. It feels so great to be here with you today, Aryae. I feel really, really grateful to get to know you more through this call, and for your beautiful and sincere sharings.
Aryae: It's great to be here with you, Afreen.
Afreen: And this is the spirit of yours, which is so earnestly curious and present with people through all of the circles that you have been in, and been a part of, and cultivated through all these years. It feels like such a valuable gift for us to get to taste the fruits of some of that today. A quote that comes up --- it feels like you embody this in your spirit and in your life --- is a quote that was shared in a circle recently, which was really touching for me: "May we never forget what a blessing it is that we are the keepers of each other’s highest potential." I feel like a bow of gratitude to you, because you've been living that and you've shared about that work with us today. It's so deeply inspiring to hear from you today.
Aryae: Bow of gratitude to you.
Nicole: To both of you, and I would love take that sentiment and move that gratitude into a moment of silence in gratitude.
*HR = “Human Resources”
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