Living Lives of Meaning: A TC conference seeks to define spiritual activism
“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.”
That advice, from philosopher and psychologist William James in a 1908 letter to Helen Keller, could have been the tagline for Teachers College’s second annual Spiritual Life Conference, held in late June.
“Ours is a place of meaning, and our work is a path, a journey,” TC psychologist Lisa Miller told an overflow audience of “spiritual activists” – educators, students, parents, authors, bankers, artists, healing professionals, researchers, lawyers, policy makers and clergy – who had converged on West 120th Street from as far away as China, Istanbul, South Africa and Jordan (in many instances also completing inner journeys of much greater distance). Their goal: to address what Lauren Foley, a TC doctoral student who helped organize the conference, called “the dire need to live in a society based on spiritual values – a new way of living in the world with one another that is based on kindness, contribution and love.”
What, exactly, is spiritual activism?
The audience heard an assortment of complementary answers to that question.
“You, in this room, are more qualified and more prepared to be able to make the kind of transformation that needs to happen in the world today because you have the knowledge that change begins within.” -- Bob Roth
Keynote speaker Bob Roth, Executive Director of the David Lynch Foundation (DLF), which has brought transcendental meditation (TM) to over 500,000 inner-city youth in underserved schools in 35 countries, described it as the product of conviction and persistence, which he said that his teacher, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, called the keys to successful implementation of any good idea.
“Conviction is vertical – ‘I believe deeply in this,’” said Roth, who has taught TM everywhere from American Indian reservations to San Quentin Prison. “It’s true in relationships, it’s true anything. Persistence is horizontal over time – ‘I believe deeply in this and I want to commit to this, either full-time as a vocation or as an avocation.’ And my message is that you, in this room, are more qualified and more prepared to be able to make the kind of transformation that needs to happen in the world today than anybody who’s attending law school or anything else, because you have the knowledge that change begins within. You have the knowledge through your channels to transform lives from within, and then you can transform education, health care, architecture, agriculture, politics.”
Roth said that one of the most satisfying aspects of the Lynch Foundation’s work is its Women’s Health Initiative to heal and empower survivors of domestic violence and assault through Transcendental Meditation.
“The world’s most pressing problems, at a fundamental level, require spiritually derived solutions – and we cross into that vibrant territory.” -- Lisa Miller
For Miller, Professor of Psychology & Education and author of the New York Times best-selling book The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving, the path to a more spiritually aware and active world is through science. At TC, Miller has not only founded SMBI, but also hosted think tanks with world-renowned scientists, educators, psychologists and healers, and launched a spiritually integrated wellness center. Each of these efforts supports inner work for outer change by “exploring the intersection of science, spirituality, psychology and education.”
Miller added that the lens of science has been particularly effective way to
“give witness to spirit” by “giving testimony to the power of experience.” Taking a page from her recent book, she suggested that when science gives witness to the impact of spirituality on children, even the most skeptical change their thinking.
“If you were to go out into the world and say, ‘I want to help people be more spiritual,’ that may be met with great enthusiasm or it may not,” she said. “That may get into the public square or it may not.” But everyone will listen, Miller said, “if you go out into the world and open your hand and say, ‘Let me show you the possibilities expressed through the child.”
“What keeps a lot of us going every single day is the thought, ‘I might be able to be part of something that is truly miraculous by empowering others to see their capacity for heroism, for miraculous growth, and miraculous achievement, and to work with others all in service to society.’” -- James L. Gardner
In accepting SMBI’s 2016 Spiritual Activism Award, James L. Gardner, TC’s Associate Vice President for External Affairs, suggested that “what keeps a lot of us going every single day is the thought, ‘I might be able to be part of something that is truly miraculous by empowering others to see their capacity for heroism, for miraculous growth, and miraculous achievement, and to work with others all in service to society.’”
The day also included innovative workshops created by graduate students from the Spirituality Mind Body Institute’s Summer Intensive MA program. The workshops included Only Breath, which provided simple diaphragmatic breathing techniques that cultivate neurophysiological systems involved in supporting attentive awareness, relaxation, positive affect, and emotional regulation. Spiritual Storytelling reawakened the ancient practice that serves as a powerful healing force for the listeners, as well as the storyteller. Unapologetically You explored what it means to connect with one’s self and others on a deeper level of understanding. Cultivating Life: Navigating the Seasons of Lifecycle Wellness supported participants in accessing their innate strength and healing through practical tools to navigate life’s changing seasons. Spirit in Video Storytelling: We are One explored the timeless art of communicating storytelling in the digital age as a means of transformation and healing.
The Spiritual Life Conference has also served as a meeting point for attendees who typically are heavyweights in their fields, akin to a TED or Wisdom 2.0 audience, but assembling under a different banner and tackling global challenges from a different perspective.
“The world’s most pressing problems, at a fundamental level, require spiritually derived solutions – and we cross into that vibrant territory,” Miller said.
“I look forward to this conference every year, these are my people, this is my spiritual-professional community,” said a participant from New Orleans. And a woman from a leading accounting firm in Istanbul, who was looking to develop partnerships around spiritual education in business, told colleagues, “I wanted to meet you all, so we could start our work together.”
Sarah Sherman, the Director of SMBI’s Summer Intensive MA program has noticed a sense of urgency emerging in the three years since SMBI’s inception. “There is a deep heartfelt hunger to actively engage in conversations on spirituality, and a desire to share with others and be of service. Our students come from over eleven different countries, many religious and spiritual backgrounds.” And despite the fact that SMBI is only three years old, “one of our students said that she had been preparing for the past ten years to be in our program.” – Suza Scalora
Published Friday, Jul 1, 2016