Another Kind of Spiritual Practice


It’s easy to think of spiritual practice as something separate from ordinary life: the time one spends on a meditation cushion or chanting prayers or sending praise songs into the world. But for me these days, the most powerful spiritual practices are things I seldom put in that category. Is facilitating a discussion a spiritual practice?
Last weekend I was the lead presenter in a series for public artists working in community offered by the city of Calgary in the Canadian province of Alberta. I gave a talk and led a couple of workshops for an engaged group of artists, students, administrators, and educators. I like the way Dawn Ford, the Public Art Program Coordinator, has gone about helping local artists become more engaged in public practice.
At day’s end, a number of participants came forward to thank me, which always feels good. Several of them paid me a compliment I am often privileged to hear: “I learned something,” one woman told me, “from the way you called on people and responded to their comments during the discussions. Your face stayed the same no matter what they said.”
I discovered I had a knack for this a few centuries ago as a young arts activist in San Francisco. Things would get contentious, people would take polar positions, and somehow it fell to me to try to create the container that could hold opposing sides and find some resolution that respected them all. It was an epiphany festival. I could see that I liked some people and disliked others, agreed with some assertions and rejected others. I had just as many personal preferences as everyone else in the room. Inside my head and body, the jostle of winners and losers kept right on making a commotion, but a different inner voice rang louder and truer.
Now I think of that voice as godlike.You know what I mean: not omnipotent and patriarchal, but regarding every person as beloved, the way a good parent loves her children. I could hear what each person was saying – the specific content of each message, including the edges that invited conflict. But I could also sense something of the joy or pain, the yearning or striving that colored each attempt to communicate, regardless of message. That voice told me to hold each person’s words in the same light, as part of a brave and beautiful persistence to care and connect despite all the rejections we may have experienced, all that may have been done to us. At first I thought of it as a game I played with myself: could I root myself in a position of fairness and enabling, of respect and mutuality?
But then something magical happened. I fell in love with that voice. I started genuinely wanting each person to speak his or her truth and the love infused my gaze and my capacity to listen. Now, so many years later, I’m not consciously doing anything when I facilitate a meeting. It reminds me of many years ago, when painting rather than writing was my medium as an artist. I painted a great many portraits, and when someone sat for me, my former feelings about that person fell away. Spending hour after hour sitting close, gazing at another’s face, breathing the same air, letting the stories flow: the word for the feeling generated by that experience was the same: love.
No matter what the context, this unbidden love – this grace – is a form of spiritual practice. I only have one endorsement, but I think it’s pretty compelling: if it works for someone as full of opinions and preferences as I am, it can work for anyone.
Of course, there are some positions that cannot be reconciled. If I think you deserve a death-sentence for exercising your right to free speech, or if I believe that your race or religion makes you less human than me, real dialogue takes a miracle. There have been a few times I had to walk right up to someone in my circle, to put my face a couple of inches from his, and to say, “You can’t talk like that. You need to stop and apologize or leave.” No one was armed: what I’ve experienced can’t be compared with the conditions of so many who face death daily. Some apologized and stayed, blinking as if they’d just awakened from a long nap. Some stormed out. But the vast majority in every such gathering I’ve attended were doing their best to be understood (and almost as many were striving to understand others) despite their brokenness, the brokenness to which the human race is prey.

If you’ve been reading here, you may have heard about the People’s State of the Union, the national action currently unfolding from the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, which I have the privilege and pleasure of serving as Chief Policy Wonk. (Here’s a good article on the USDAC by Veena Vasista on People across the U.S. have been holding story circles and sharing their stories online to create a composite portrait of the state of our union. You can share your story,¬†read others, and read commentary from some of the USDAC National Cabinet.

People's State of the Union logo

Credit: People's State of the Union

This will culminate in a collaborative Poetic Address to the Nation led by Bob Holman, Minister of Poetry and Language Protection in the USDAC. It will be livestreamed from Bowery Poetry in New York on Sunday, 1 February at 6 pm Eastern Time, and a couple of weeks later, there will be a film about the project. If you’re in New York, you can still get tickets to The 2015 People’s State of the Union, Poetic Address to the Nation.

An amazing group of poets is contributing: live in New York will be Patricia Smith, Eileen Myles, Bob Holman, Reg E Gaines, Paolo Javier, Jason Blasso, David Acevedo, Nikhil Melnechuk, Stephen Motika, Tahani Salah, Mahogany Browne, and Judith Santpietro. Plus these amazing poets have each contributed a sonnet: Cabinet member E Ethebert Miller, Ed Sanders, Marilyn Nelson, Margaret Randall, Luis Rodriguez, Tanaya Winder, Jennifer Bartlett, Joy Harjo, Yolanda Wisher, and Jessica Hagedorn.
I wish I could be there! But I will be watching the livestream on Sunday instead. I expect to be amazed. What I know I will be feeling is that this, too, is a form of spiritual practice: our State of the Union is a poem!
I adore just about all versions of “Please Send Me Someone to Love.”
Heaven please send/to all mankind/understanding and peace of mind…
This one by Jimmy Witherspoon and Groove Holmes is a recent re-release from 1965.
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A zillion people have recorded it. To me, Esther Phillips’ and Dinah Washington’s versions kind of top the charts, but check out this minimalist Fred Neil. Go to YouTube and input the song title and you can spend a pleasurable hour on themes and variations.

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