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Reaching Toward Synthesis

A gathering of visionary-activists looks for the next step
by Craig Hamilton

"We must be quite a sight," I thought to myself as I took my place in the line of beaming faces stretching out from the retreat center's front door. Pakistani diplomat, Chinese nun, Indian doctor, Native American shaman, American biologist, Austrian monk. And across from us, another line, parallel with ours, making a near perfect aisle out to the curb: African-American minister, Sri Lankan activist, Thai social critic, Chilean economist, Brazilian guru.

If any of the locals had been able to see us through the driveway's house-high iron gates, they could only have thought one thing. We must have been waiting to greet the Pope. A few blocks from the pontiff's seasonal residence in Castelgandolfo, on the rim of an ancient volcano overlooking the breathtaking Lago di Albon, the spacious retreat center had been built for the express purpose of hosting his summer audiences. But as the gates parted and the police-led procession of cars rushed to a stop, it was to be a different spiritual leader who would soon hold our collective attention in thrall. A wave of joy rippled through the crowd as the Dalai Lama climbed out, looking surprisingly bright after his long flight from India (on one of only two planes allowed in Italian airspace that day, the other being Air Force One), and exchanged a low bow with the group.

From the outside, it might have looked like the beginning of just another day of speechmaking and handshaking for the exiled Tibetan leader. But this was no ordinary audience. As world-renowned Thai social activist Sulak Sivaraksa stepped forward from the crowd and bent to touch the smiling monk's feet, His Holiness reciprocated the gesture, making it clear that in his own eyes, he was among peers.

It was the kind of gathering that most new-paradigm pundits would die for. Forty luminaries called together from the corners of the globe for a week of dialogues on "The Courage of Evolutionary Leadership." On hand were renowned social activists like South Africa's Ela Gandhi (yes, his granddaughter) and Sri Lanka's A.T. Ariyaratne, founder of the Sarvodhya movement (widely hailed as the most successful grassroots social change effort in the world); religious luminaries like Brother David Steindl-Rast, Rabbi Marc Gafni, and Dhyani Ywahoo; a handful of scholars, scientists, thought leaders, and philanthropists; and at the helm, a cadre of progressive ministers who make up the Association for Global New Thought (AGNT) leadership council.

The brainchild of conversations between the Dalai Lama, his longtime friend Brother Wayne Teasdale, and AGNT executive director Barbara Bernstein, the gathering, known as "The Synthesis Dialogues," was first convened in 1999 as an attempt to cultivate a group of "visionary-activists" who "can help restore global sanity by reuniting the inner and outer, heaven and earth, in an earnest endeavor toward synthesis." Aiming far beyond conventional modes of discourse, the Dialogues' stated goal is nothing less than the establishment of a "meta-mind," or group intelligence, from which to tackle the challenges facing our planet. In a time when more and more people are recognizing the need to harness our collective wisdom for the sake of the future, this super-powered spiritual/social think tank—now in its third incarnation—seem to be just what the doctor ordered.

We had begun our adventure a few days before His Holiness's arrival with an entire day of formal introductory speeches—a daunting prospect in any other circumstance, but in this company it was riveting. Jawdat Said, a Syrian Sufi activist, gripped the room with his passionate declaration that only a commitment to truth can transform the world. Ela Gandhi spoke about her desperation over her inability to impact the declining state of the poor in her country. Investment banker Azim Khamisa told of the crisis he faced when his nineteen-year-old son was killed by a gang member, and the redemption he found in enlisting the murderer's grandfather in a nationwide campaign against gang violence—a campaign that will soon be joined by his son's killer himself, upon his release from prison. By the end of the first day, after listening to one impassioned heart after another give voice to their deepest concerns and highest ideals, there was a tangible sense that we were indeed becoming one body, unified in a field of respect and admiration for each other and for the universal aspiration that had called us together.

On this foundation, we would proceed over the coming days to grapple with a series of questions on our designated topic, under the facilitation of the AGNT leadership team. Each session was carefully orchestrated, beginning with a serenade or singalong led by New Thought Gospel diva Rickie Byars Beckwith, a period of prayer or meditation, and a seed question or dialogical exercise to guide our inquiry. Cutting a swath between the theoretical and the practical, the personal and the political, the dialogues were at times lively, at times sober, and at times even poignant—like when the Dalai Lama spoke of a conversation with one of his monks who, upon recounting harrowing tales of oppression under the Chinese, confessed that his greatest fear was that he would lose his compassion for his oppressors.

As anyone who has attempted interreligious dialogue knows, however, it can be a tricky business—particularly when those in the circle are leaders whose participation in groups usually takes the form of inspiring and guiding others. And as the microphone passed from one set of hands to the next, we soon realized we were by no means the exception to the rule. At times, we had trouble following a thread of conversation. Nearly all of us found it easier to make passionate speeches than to respond simply and directly to what another had said. And when the Dalai Lama joined us midway, almost everyone had a hard time knowing how to meet him on the level ground he offered. (With perhaps a few notable exceptions—such as when Sulak Sivaraksa boldly, if lightheartedly, suggested that perhaps the next Dalai Lama should be a woman.) But I think it was our collective response to these difficulties that, more than anything, produced the magic that would leave such a deep impression on all of us. Seeing the humility and generosity of spirit expressed by all in the face of these simple human challenges, and the genuine desire to be together that kept shining through, had the effect of fusing us at the level of the heart, however difficult it seemed to attain the "meta-mind."

In the midst of all this, I don't know whether we managed to get any clearer about "The Courage of Evolutionary Leadership," but Synthesis director Barbara Bernstein had explained to me at the beginning of the week that her own goals for the Dialogues were ultimately more relational than topical. She felt that if we could get such a high-level group of people to connect in a meaningful way, what would come out of that would be its own kind of success. And beyond simply creating this cohesive group, Bernstein also wanted to foster a commitment to working together over the months and years ahead. So it was no surprise when, at her prompting, a host of ideas for potential ongoing collaborative projects began to emerge in our closing sessions—among them an internationally publicized interfaith Middle-East pilgrimage, uniting thousands of Muslims, Christians, and Jews in retracing "The Footsteps of Abraham." In the midst of this brainstorm, the recognition dawned in the group that if we were all to unite behind a single cause, with our combined spheres of influence we could reach tens if not hundreds of millions of people worldwide with one message. And in this light, the true significance of the bond that had formed between us began to reveal itself.

After breakfast on our last morning, amid the sea of warm good-byes, I went for a last walk with my newfound friend Rabbi Marc Gafni in the retreat center's well-groomed gardens. "How did this measure up to other interfaith meetings you've attended?" I asked as we traversed the stone paths. "I don't usually come to these sorts of gatherings," replied the Rabbi, who presides over a large spiritual community in Israel. "I went to one in my early twenties, but it was a kind of superficial love-fest in which there was no real engagement with ideas. The message was, 'We're all the same. We all love each other.' But that sameness actually isn't real love. Real love comes from differentiation, profound engagement with ideas, even conflict, and then the transcending of conflict to realize our deep, common, profound oneness. I think here we were closer to that. At the beginning I think we were in sameness, which was very sweet, very nice. But by the last day, we got to a real level of oneness. And that was good. I'm really glad I came."

As I boarded my bus for the airport, I wondered to myself when I would possibly have a chance to spend time with such an extraordinary group of people again. As fate would have it, I didn't have to wait long. Returning to the office, I learned that plans were already underway for our journey to the next interfaith gathering, the Parliament of the World's Religions, where, as it turned out, in just three weeks' time I'd have an opportunity to see many of my new friends again.


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This article is from...


October–December 2004


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Spiritual and Social Activism