The BigI Interfaith Conference: Interspiritual, Integral & now Evolutionary Spirituality

Amy EdelsteinBlog, Contemplation, Cultural Development, Values, Ethics, MoralsLeave a Comment

BigI Interfaith Conference - Amy Edelstein on evolutionary spirituality

I just returned from a weekend of contemplation myself that I was so moved and inspired by that I was compelled to share it with you.

The interfaith conference was the third annual BigI Conference, and was held at the Franciscan Renewal Center in the desert outside of Phoenix, Arizona. BigI refers to many “I”s – Interfaith, Interspiritual, Integral. The renewal center was a simple and meditative environment. It was like being in a monastery, with several robed Franciscan monks walking through and lovely grounds that open out onto the Southwest desert, saguaro cactus, red rocks, stunning light. The center is an open one, over the 2 days I was there it also hosted at least 4 other events, including representatives of local Native American tribes doing a private retreat and ritual for the earth, a dog and cat adoption day where ten rescue organizations brought several hundred stray dogs and cats, many of whom went home with new caretakers. (Yes, the conference I was a part of donated to care for 2 dogs and one participant took a third home. Conference host Rabbi Rami Shapiro is a total softy when it comes to pooches.)

The conference was a beautiful and intimate gathering, hosted by OUnI, the Order of Universal Interfaith, and populated by deep practitioners. There were many interfaith ministers with backgrounds in a variety of traditions (Judaism, various schools of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, Integral, and now also Evolutionary Spirituality). I felt like I landed in the middle of so many new-but-familiar dharma sisters and brothers and also dharma elders, those with a forty-year commitment to a spiritual path. Everyone was so generous with their experience, sharing intimate stories about time spent with Swami Satchidananda or traveling with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1970s. These Eastern masters in all their multi-dimensional humanity seemed to have imbibed the nectar of awakened insight. Their lightness of being uplifted many and continues to inspire us to this day in ways well beyond their own lifespan and direct reach. I learned that Dean Ornish’s holistic view on lifestyle, nutrition, and reversing heart disease comes from his time with Swami Satchidananda. (Now that was a radical infusion of Eastern insight into Western medicine! Ornish’s advice and recipes have found their way into so many homes, from the Clinton’s White House to my parent’s kitchen.)

What I have always loved about hearing first hand accounts of great practitioners is that you really get the sense of how these individuals surfed the edges of life and culture, inspiring people to come together across boundaries, traditions, or perceived limitation. They live with a love for Spirit and what Teilhard de Chardin called a “zest for life” that is infectious.

OUnI set in place for the first time this year an annual award for lifetime achievement in Interfaith work. Huston Smith gave permission for the award to bear his name, and he personally selected the first recipients.  This gave a perfect platform for various individuals to share their stories and recent photos of Dr. Smith and his intimate embrace of the study of the world’s religions. Huston Smith truly was one of the fathers of interfaith. His attitude was to take the great wisdom traditions and immerse himself in the study and practice of them, one by one, to really discover from the inside-out the gifts that a particular tradition offers. While some now think of interfaith as dilettantish, and others accept it as the SBNR (spiritual-but-not-religious) that is more and more the common ground our culture shares, Huston gave himself to his respect for the profundity of each faith, honoring the intent of the multitudes who practiced it across centuries.

At 95, Smith is now in the last phase of his life—and still inspiring people. Recently, I heard from someone at the conference, Smith underwent some medical procedures that required him to move to an assisted living facility for two years. A challenging environment as many of us know who have parents or relatives in that kind of care. He told someone that for a couple of days he was depressed, then he came up with a 3-step practice he could do each day. I don’t recall the first 2 steps that well, they were something like reflecting on his gratitude to God and his gratitude for life, it was the third practice that moved me so deeply. Smith pictured in his mind each of the residents in the assisted living facility, one by one, then thought of one thing he could do that day that would make their day a little better. That’s a spiritual life well lived, giving strength and direction in those circumstances! Huston is now home, in better health, being tended to by a gracious Tibetan family.

So many stories and great people, from spiritual activists like Polish born Adam Bucko with his outrageous work with street kids in NYC (watch this documentary, it’s well worth it!) to the new education work of Ed Bastian, PBS and Smithsonian exhibit creator, trained at Sera Je Monastery (the Princeton of Tibetan Buddhist training). Mirabai Starr shared some of her beautiful writing on the great mystics and Phil Goldberg illumined some of more complex ways to understand interfaith with his cultural commentary on the pulse of today’s spiritual world. People who’ve spent a lifetime dedicated to the study, education, and practice of religion like Darrol Bryant  extended their knowledge, insight, and gentle spirits. I learned so much and was so inspired by how many tributaries feed the river of contemporary spiritual study.

This weekend also saw the initiation of an eco-chaplaincy, a designation for interfaith ministers dedicated to serving the earth. This consortium of eco-chaplains has some serious endeavors coming up, working with scientific and religious groups on behalf of the biosphere. While their initiatives may be less visible, it is so good to know that these high level meetings are taking place among those who have the knowledge and professional positions to potentially make a big difference.

On a personal note, I presented about the views of evolutionary spirituality and guided the room in a meditation to catalyze an experience of process and a glimmer of awakening to unity and non-separation. We had a great time. I was also honored to receive ordination as an interfaith minister of Evolutionary Spirituality. The commitment is to a path of service to Spirit, to each other, and to our collective future. In addition, as part of this I was asked to serve as OUnI’s wisdom keeper of Evolutionary Spirituality, representing the quarter century I’ve been part of this path, as a participant, an explorer, and witness to its current formation. Evolutionary spirituality will now have a placeholder and a chair at the interfaith table, where those deep in the practice of their respective traditions dialogue and debate, exchanging insight and participate in a process of spiritual growth and discovery. I hope to inspire many to create more diversity and depth in this relatively new path as we explore subtle truths and questions. There is much to look forward to as evolutionary spirituality comes into dialogue more directly with the traditional wisdom paths and we explore and evolve our understanding of Spirit and this miraculous world we live in.

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Now back at my home base on the East Coast, I am appreciating the inner space and deep contemplation that follows an immersion like this past weekend. I am also appreciating how little it seems to take to open up a much wider portal to Spirit. If we have just three things — time together among interested souls, conducive environment and directed inquiry — magic happens.

If you are inspired and would like to attend a weekend of retreat and renewal yourself, click here for more information on a Spring Retreat I will be leading April 18-20.


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