ANDREW COHEN: We're living in a unique time in the history of our planet, a unique time in the history of our species. The experts are telling us that, as a result of globalization, overpopulation, grinding poverty, destruction of the natural environment, pollution, not to mention the spread of weapons of mass destruction, if we don't turn things around very quickly, we are going to enter what evolutionary theorist Duane Elgin calls "an evolutionary dark age." Indeed, some are saying that we've already reached the point of no return. What I wanted to speak with you about was not so much the specific work you're doing—although I'm personally very inspired by your example—but rather, as a spiritual activist whose very life is a clear expression of a passionate response to the overwhelming pain and suffering that occurs on a daily basis in this world, what do you advise is the most appropriate way to respond to this crisis that we're in the midst of?
The kali yuga
[dark age] is like a huge swarm of curses. And the world, needs one word, and that word is awareness
. If you live and act in a state of ignorance, then who will take care of the children's children? Where will they run? Where will their feet step? I cannot be separated from my work. I am my work and my work is me. I am privileged to have an orphanage in the thick of the jungle in Uganda. I have two hundred children there. If I did not have that awareness and my chelas
[disciples], who know that my whole path is a path of service, did not have that awareness, perhaps these children wouldn't eat. Certainly they would have suffered more, due to AIDS. So it's all connected, like a gigantic lotus, and the very core of the lotus is awareness. I go all over the world touching people with AIDS. It's about awareness.
You talk about the environment; you talk about the world. I'm sixty years old; I've been serving for thirty years. I have never, ever felt such pain as I do now about the environment. The rainforests are gone. I believe your magazine can reach the people who need the most awareness—and that's not the average guy, but the spiritual leader. You're reaching the seekers, and that's fine, too. But I want to talk to the leaders. Those are the ones who have to open their doors.
I was a delegate for the United Nations, for spiritual leaders, at the Peace Summit last summer. And it shocked
me. There was a seminar about poverty that I was asked to attend. It was about the hungry, about the needy. And a Hindu stood up and began to scream at a Catholic priest that the Christians stole their religion. This was in the papers—this is real. I stood there in shock, . And the priest turned around and said, "You had no religion to steal!" And I stood up and said, "Excuse me. Have any of you ever seen the light go out in a child who had nothing to eat and just gave in to death?" And that kind of stopped it. The need to be right—and they're not right, but they think they are—takes away the awareness on an earth that's going nowhere and going nowhere very, very quickly. I've seen too much, Andrew. I've seen too much, and the world has never been in as much chaos. If I can go to a seminar on poverty at the U.N. and find two religions fighting, what's happening? We each owe this world of ours, this magnificent, beautiful world of ours. We must take care of her.
AC: I know you're a trustee of the Parliament of the World's Religions.
Yes, and if the spiritual leaders don't go there and don't touch these problems, we're going to lose everything. There's going to be nothing. Followers quit following, you know. People get disillusioned. But what if everybody took a small speck of this earth and made it their own, by taking care of whatever
is on that speck, whatever is in front of them? What if other leaders said, "Well, let me take a town and support them. Let me take a block. Let me take a house. Let me take a person." You know, automatically, you start the fertilization of your own earth with love. So when you say you admire my work—I don't want to be admired. I want to be copied
. In any way, however one has the ability.
I've been here at my ashram in Florida for twenty-five years. I have leaders coming. I have Muslims, I have Christians, I have Jews, I have Hindus. And I say to them, "What are you doing? How much can you pray? Take those hands that you hold together in a pranam
[gesture of reverence] and do
something. Caress a child." That's my message. Do
something. Start with exactly what is in front of you. The ability to take care of another human being in a sincere way enables a very small part of the earth, that which is in front of you, to shift, to change. I believe that with all my heart, because if we can't take care of each other as human beings, how are we going to take care of the earth?
Andrew, we're sharing now. You want something, not just for your magazine—you want something for the world. I do too. I want something so badly it brings tears to my eyes. I can taste it. And in this moment, both of us are aware. What's going to happen? As soon as I'm finished speaking to you, I'm going to retake my vows to serve even more. Because what I speak, I must do. I walk the talk. And maybe, who knows? Maybe you're going to get interested in helping somebody with AIDS.
AC: What would you say to the individual who says, "I can't bear to face it. What you're asking for is so psychologically and emotionally and spiritually overwhelming that I just can't bear to face it. Even when I do begin to face it, I can't stay with it because it's too much to bear."
It's so overwhelming that one is like a deer in a headlight. You can barely look at it. So what I would say is start very small. Start very small. See how it feels to take care of one thing and let it nurture. Let it grow. Yes, you get overwhelmed. But I have such passion about what could be done! And if we go down, we go down—but we go down trying. We go down knowing we did not waste our love and our life. If you waste your love and your life, what's going to happen? Put it toward
something. Is it a human being? Is it a forest in Brazil? My grandson studied in Argentina. He says, "Ma, you don't understand the destruction that's there." It's all over the world, and
it's right in front of us. When I came back from Africa, I saw that half an hour away from where I am in Florida, there are people living in little tin huts. So, it's all over the world, but we need to stop a moment and look at what's right in front of us and take care of it. And if we get overwhelmed, there is the solace that we've given something. We've given birth to a moment of love.
AC: I spoke to Roshi Bernie Glassman about this the other day. He speaks a lot about "bearing witness," being able to just face directly into the crisis without any preconceived ideas about how one should respond to it. He says that out of bearing witness, just being willing to bear it directly, an appropriate or right response is going to occur. That takes a lot of courage.
It takes courage. But does it really
take courage to become who we are? Is it really a courageous thing to be in that moment? That moment brings liberation. That moment brings enlightenment.
AC: How is it that bearing witness in this way brings enlightenment?
Bearing witness is another term for awareness. If you are physically in this moment—because
you are in this moment—you can't avoid the hardship. Because you are in this moment, as the hardship is in front of you, so is the movement to help fix it. It's the same moment. There is the reaction to the moment and the action. Not tomorrow. In the same moment. So as you bear witness to your own breath, you're looking around you. You can do it right this second, and you can see, "Look what I notice!" And whatever you're looking at becomes bigger and more magnified, and as you bear witness, you
become more magnified. And you have the tools to fix it, even if it's ever so slightly.