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Essential Shifts Interview: Brother David Steindl-Rast

Essential Shifts Interview: Brother David Steindl-Rast

Visionary: Brother David Steindl-Rast

Network for Grateful Living founder Brother David Steindl Rast has walked in many worlds, from contemplative Christian monasteries to Naval academies to new paradigm workshops at Esalen. Out of his broad experience has emerged a deep wisdom that lights the path forward from traditional theistic religion and its reliance on doctrine and belief to panentheism, which focuses on direct experience and seeing God as fully present in the world. As part of this shift, he believes we need to heal our uprooted relationship with the Earth through spiritual practice. The practice of gratefulness, he has found, helps express the emerging worldview, open our hearts, and find places of unity that can diffuse sectarian conflict. While simple on the surface, this practice is also radical in its implications since it involves seeing each event as a divine gift and an opportunity for growth.

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Institute of Noetic Sciences: So I want to welcome everyone to the Shift in Action program! We are delighted to be interviewing Brother David Steindl-Rast today. He is a Benedictine monk and he has also been involved in a lot of inter-religious dialogue, from Buddhist-Christian dialogue to working with Zen teachers, and is steeped in the Orthodox tradition but also has bridged into new paradigm circles through places like Esalen, and recently he has launched a worldwide Network for Grateful Living which you can find at Gratefulness.org. So, Brother David, I have always felt so touched when I have heard you speak and I really feel honored that you are sharing this interview with us today.

Brother David Steindl-Rast: I am very thankful to speak with you, Stephen. It's a joy.

IONS: Great! So the first question that we have been asking everyone, just to start with, is a big picture context to help us understand how we can best participate in creating positive shifts in the world right now. And so, starting with the big picture, how do you see our current global situation right now?

BDSR: I suppose that most of your respondents will say the same: it is a time of tremendous transitions, with all of its problems, with all of its challenges, and with all of its opportunities. I think we are facing terrible difficulties, and I have a feeling that it might well get worse before it gets better. But we also have the opportunity—and that is a great gift!—to be able work to for the transition to new and positive approach to what we are needed for in the world, what our whole role is in the world.

IONS: In particular you have done a lot of work in the Christian contemplative tradition and bridging that to other traditions, and so perhaps share a bit about how you see religion right now in this critical time?

BDSR: Well, the great problems that we are facing are not, in a narrow sense, religious problems. I think the biggest problem is our relationship to the Earth and to our environment and all the other aspects are related to that. But the religions, all the different religions, have failed very seriously in even recognizing this as a major problem, let alone raising the consciousness of their various adherents to the problem. This is true of my own Christian tradition, and this is true of others. This is a much deeper problem, is more deep seated, then the difficulties between traditions, the fundamentalism that is rampant in many different religious traditions, and therefore the religious difficulties with the divisions between different religions, difficulties in getting along, and so forth. But our deepest problem, as I see it…and I hope that you have interviewed Thomas Berry, he would be very eloquent on it, or Brian Swimme, or Matthew Fox…is our relationship to the environment, and our wrong stance towards it, our exploiting of it, and our loss of connection. This loss of connection with the environment pervades then everything else: it's our loss of our roots, it's our uprootedness from our deepest values, from the Divine Ground, and from one another. That is connected, in a very direct way, with our uprootedness from the environment. At least, that stands in the foreground for me right now in my thinking.

IONS: It is interesting that you said that is hasn't been perceived traditionally as a religious issue, but I think that a lot of what we are hearing from people like Thomas Berry or Brian Swimme that it is primarily a spiritual relationship that is having to shift, so that we are viewing the planet with a different kind of eyes. I have been hearing about certain Christian Evangelical traditions now talking about "creation care" as a new tenet of religion. I wonder if you can comment on that?

BDSR: That is very promising, and I am thrilled by it. I find this a very promising aspect.

IONS: How do you think that some of the new perspectives on religion and spirituality really can help us heal that and renew that connection with the Earth that is foundational?

BDSR: Well, the problem is uprootedness, as I have said—the problem is our separation from our roots. One way of understanding the term "religion", etymologically, is as a reestablishing of ties, retying bonds that have been broken. The bonds to the environment is the most obvious, and, in a sense, the most promising area of concern, because sooner or later it must become clear to everyone—regardless of their political conviction, of their economic status, of their religious associations, or many other aspects—it must become clear to all of the people in the world that what is at stake is our home, is the Earth. And therefore we have here not only a problem area, but also an area that could connect us with one another, a concern that is our shared concern. It is something objective, not just an ideal like pacifism—it is a common area of concrete activity and concern. To put the emphasis on that would seem very important to me. And, as you rightly say, this is a religious concern for many people today who are quite disenchanted with organized religion in all of its different forms. Concern for the environment is their religion. I would think most people—at any rate there is a very high percentage of people—have their deepest religious experiences, by their own testimony, in contact with nature, rather then in religious services. There is a significant number, and to cultivate that religious aspect is cultivating an aspect that, again, unites us, while the established religions, divide us...and must divide us. This is also something that we should be quite alert to: They are institutions, and institutions by definition are self-perpetuating, and if one institution is self-perpetuating, it must separate itself and act against other institutions as an institution. What we need is something that unites us rather than sets us apart.

IONS: And so if we tie this to the second question, which is, what are some of the most essential shifts required for us evolve to the next level? It seems like you are pointing to some shifts that need to happen in how we approach religious life as a whole.

BDSR: You are right. And that, from my particular perspective and from the perspective of the Western traditions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—will have to do with our notion of God, and with our worldview, and that is our God view. And that is what impacts me at the present moment, particularly, and that is that we have traditionally emphasized a notion of God, a theistic notion of God, which conceives of God as ultimately separate from us. We are over here; God is over there. The very word "holy" means originally, in Hebrew, "separated", separated from us. And what we need to survive as a human race is the notion of ultimate reality—call it God if you want—that includes us, and in which we are completely embedded. So the switch, in technical terms, that we have to accomplish is from deism to panentheism. Not pantheism, which simply means that everything is God (and I don't want to go into this unless you ask me more specifically about it, but that is not particularly religiously viable), but panentheism in the sense that all is in God and and God is in all, and that is a concept of a living reality which includes all of the positive aspects of pantheism, but goes beyond. And put in simple terms, this is something that every human being can experience. And this is again my emphasis, that a great shift is taking place from beliefs to experience in the realm of religion. The beliefs are, for most people nowadays, only valid insofar as we can experience their content. I think this is a step forward from even what's the norm in my youth. People want religious experience, not religious teachings.

IONS: So the beliefs are a natural product of theism, because someone has to interpret how we relate to this God that is in some other realm that we don't have contact with?

BDSR: Right, in theism the emphasis is very strongly on the doctrine, while in panentheisms, or in the religiosity that is emerging today, the emphasis is on the experience. And when we experience the ultimate…this is something that if you have the time and the right setting you can discuss with any human beings, and find very positive response. We experience this ultimate reality, on the one hand, as the great mystery from which we come and to which to we go and in which we are totally imbedded, the mystery, the no-thing beyond all forms and things is the formless, the no-thing that is a greater reality to us then all things. Meaning could be a word for it, the formless, the void, the great mystery that surrounds us. This is a basic human experience. But we also experience the ultimate as closer to each one of us then we are to ourselves. As Augustine says, "God is closer to me then I am to myself." The innermost reality of my own being is unfathomable to me, a Divine within me, and that is an aspect of the Divine that is coming forward very strongly in the experience of many people today, and I see this as a very positive aspect. And we also see a third aspect of this ultimate or divine or the more. "More and evermore" is another good way of thinking about it, to avoid the word "God." "More and evermore", not just ever more of the same, but in every dimension—more and evermore, not only the mystery that surrounds us and into which we are imbedded, not only the innermost reality of our own self, but life and the dynamic aspects of life, love, knowing, experience, all the dynamic aspects of aliveness—that is also in itself more and evermore, and this in itself is divine. You mentioned, in the beginning, our website: the emphasis there is on grateful living, Network for Grateful Living. And now, if I use a terminology that again is very easily accessible to all human beings for this ultimate reality, you can say: We experience the ultimate as the Source, that formless source from which all forms pour forth, the Source, the Giver, the great motherly womb out of which every form is born. We experience it also as the Gift, and we ourselves are part of this gift, and all that surrounds us, all the world of form, the whole Universe is Gift. It obviously is a given, it's a given reality, so it's gift, we are a gift to ourselves, received from that source of giving. And then we experience this dynamic up welling of thanksgiving, of gratitude that expresses itself not only, and not even primarily, in saying, "Thank you," or in worship (although one does that too), but in living, loving, knowing, exploring, and all the great activities of the human mind. And through our life of thanksgiving, our life of gratitude, the Gift flows back to the Source, and so we have this tremendous dance of the Divine in which we are totally embedded and of which we are a concrete part, and all that we see around us is an aspect of it, is a manifestation of it, and this is understanding of the Divine reality. I am quite convinced it's the emerging one, and one that is accessible to all different religions also, because it does not contradict any of the religions. Every religion will say, "Gratefulness?, yes!, that's at the heart of our very teaching, that is at the heart of our life." Of course it is, because, as I have described, this is the ultimate relationship of every human being to the Ultimate.

IONS: As you are speaking I am making connections that I hadn't made before. Really, when you talk about gratefulness, you are turning the focus on personal experience, and a sort of reverential relationship. So it is a very nice, easy way for people to experience panentheism. It sort of sounds like an academic term that most people might not understand, but that worldview where we really live in a very reverential way with our environment and other people and there isn't a need to be separative around doctrine. It is a pretty radical shift that you are proposing in a way that seems really small and benign, like, "Oh, living gratefully," but also it is a pretty radical theological shift, too.

BDSR: Correct, you are right, you picked it up very correctly and expressed it very well. Only I am not thinking of myself as proposing it, I think of myself only as diagnosing something that is happening in the world all around us, and this is also the reason why thousands and ten-thousands of people discovered that in and through our website, and respond to it on the website. We never expected, with a title like Gratefulness.org, to have such a success—we absolutely didn't expect it, we were just opening a website—and we were swept off our feet by the response of people. Some of them see what I expressed quite clearly, other just sensed it, but this is the direction in which we are going with the emerging Godview (as I would call it, in parallel to our worldview). There is a new Godview emerging in our world today, and fortunately it is one that will carry us through, because it is a peaceful one—it is a basis for peace, it is the basis for cooperation, and you could also say that it is what our historic situation suggests to us. Tom Berry again presents that so beautifully: how, from the very beginning, from the big bang on, everything has been guided—not in the sense of an outside guidance, but it has evolved and unfolded in a sense that in retrospect you can understand. So why shouldn't we, at this present moment, not also have this guidance? And if we open ourselves, open our hearts and our minds to this cosmic intelligence, it will guide us forward, and the direction in which it is guiding us forward is to a new understanding of the Divine, or the Ultimate, in this aspect of the Giver, Gift, and thanksgiving—accessible to all, and very life giving to each individual.

IONS: Truly wonderful, because it really brings people into their hearts and that is so much of where people can actually connect with each other.

BDSR: Yes, it has very tremendous possibilities, and that is why also on the website people connect with one another, and find it so exciting that someone from Australia will write to someone in Brazil, and someone from Germany will answer, and it's not just a chat room, but it is rather a praise and celebration of our deepest realities of this grateful living.

IONS: Beautiful. I am wondering if you have extrapolated from some of the principles in this emerging panentheism. How would you apply that to situations like now, where we have a real polarity between the West and the Islamic world, for instance, and that is sourced a lot in this differing theistic kind of stance. How would you approach a situation like that, from your prospective?

BDSR: Through experience. I have been fortunate recently to meet Islamic students who came to the United States to experience this, and through experience these barriers are overcome. The students said before they came and they had serious prejudices against the American people, and now they see it more clearly that their view of our government and of our media was justified, but they have a totally different attitude toward the American people—they are just brothers and sisters that are in the same boat that they are. And that seemed very significant to me: by experience, by exchange, by meeting people, as human beings, that seems to me the most promising way of overcoming our prejudices. Because even if you meet people with whom you do not agree with intellectually and in your convictions, you can still experience them as human beings and have compassion for them and so forth.

IONS: Are there particular practices that, in bringing together two cultures that might be polarized, that helps them find that common unity and different things in terms of gratefulness that you have developed?

BDSR: On a large scale right now, the only thing that we can do is through the Internet, and use the resources of the Internet to connect people as people, and that is important but it is still very small. On a larger scale it would mean something like student exchange on a large scale, and just mixing people, but I have no access to that. However, the one most important ingredient for that precondition is to be fearless, because all the divisions come about through fear—and, unfortunately, if you look around yourself and you are alert to the fact, you see that those who foster the divisions and also take advantage of the divisions, be they religious or economic or any other way, are fostering fear. The fear-mongering that's going in our society and all over the world is extremely dangerous, and so we can overcome that only by being fearless, and that means quite concretely something that we can actually do, each one of us can do. We can not repeat things that cause fear. If I am told something that is frightening to me, I will not repeat it to others. When we hear someone who is fearful, try to help them overcome their fear. Anything that we can do to eliminate fear in our world will contribute a great deal to a more peaceful world. And there again is where gratefulness comes in, because if you are grateful, for instance, for the variety of cultures, then you will not fear another culture—it will just be a delightful addition to your culture. But when you are fearful, everything that is foreign is frightening to you. That is one pretty clear example.

IONS: Beautiful. I was wondering, as we come to the close of the time here, if you can just give some other specific recommendations about things that people can personally do to create positive change, whether that is through gratefulness or other kinds of practices that help foster the kind of understanding that you are conveying?

BDSR: Well not to fear and to overcome fear seems to me to be definitely the most important thing, and if we practice that we will, through daily experience, come to see ways in which this can be applied. But it all depends on our own circumstances of life, and on the people with whom we associate, and so forth, how this will practically express itself. Gratefulness will typically be and always be an example for that. To live in the present moment: that is another is a very, very important aspect, because much of what divides us comes from this fear of the past, and fear of the future, and desires for the future, and hatred that is built up in the past—and, if we live in the present moment, all this past and future will fall away. Eckhart Tolle is a very great teacher, a really great prophet for our times in my mind, and his emphasis on the Now, and living in the present moment, that seems also to me to be a most important aspect of what we can do. And, again, gratefulness is the simplest and most direct way to be in the present moment, because if you are grateful you are here! You are grateful for the given moment, for that which is given in this present moment, so you are no longer in the past and not yet in the future, so you are just here. So, gratefulness is one of the mechanisms, one of the practices. It is a real practice, just like yoga and Zen and other spiritual practices—gratefulness is a real practice. If you practice that, we are in the present moment—and to be in the present moment, for both of us individually, is really a saving grace in the fullest sense. It makes us permeable for that cosmic intelligence, which is only blocked by all of our thinking, and all our thoughts that are concerned with the past and the future. If we get rid of all these blocking thoughts, then the cosmic intelligence, that knows where it wants to guide us, will flow through us. That would be, in my mind, the really great hope for the future.

IONS: That is a beautiful vision. I am just wondering: What do you tell people if they are in a situation where they are not feeling gratitude, they are feeling angry, distressed, upset—what is the quickest way to turn it around?

BDSR: This is very important! There are situations and things for which, as such, you cannot be grateful. But that is not the moment to start. You start practicing gratefulness in everyday living, and you will discover that 99.9% of the day's moments give you the opportunity to enjoy, which is an opportunity we often miss, and therefore we are so miserable. That is why gratefulness practice is so enjoyable! We discover that every moment gives up the opportunity to enjoy something, and then when we get into practice we notice that the gift within every gift is opportunity—that is the decisive gift. And it's mostly, as I say, opportunity to enjoy. Then we come across something for we cannot, as such, be grateful. But when you are in practice, immediately your mind jumps to the question, "What is this opportunity for?" And then—this is why gratefulness is so creative—you will find what this is the opportunity for. Often it is the opportunity to initiate change, in one way or another, for things that need to be changed. Say you have a fatal sickness, or something like that. You cannot be grateful for that, but you can ask yourself, "This given fact, this gift, what does it give me the opportunity for?" Thousands of people in this situation have discovered that it suddenly gave them an opportunity for growth in a completely new way, because it confronted them for the first time with something that they couldn't deny or reject. It was just a given. And when we face the given in the given moment we find what it offers us as an opportunity, because life always offers us opportunity. So the answer to your question is, do not look at the surface of the gift, look at the gift within the gift, which is always opportunity.

IONS: That is just a beautiful way to close. I just so honor you for walking your talk, and it has really been helping me to reformulate my own relationship with the world. When we had you speak on campus several weeks back I was so moved and touched, and talking to you today I feel again like how much that spirit of gratefulness really shifts things in the moment. Thank you.

BDSR: Thank you. It is always a great joy and privilege to be in touch with IONS, and I greatly admire your work there, all of you. So please give my love to everybody there.

IONS: Wonderful and for folks who want to connect more with Brother Davidt's work, it is Gratefulness.org.

BDSR: Thank you and good bye.

IONS: Goodbye.

Related Sets
"The Essential Shifts" Interview Series

Download as mp3
Publication Date:
2006-11-02
Length:
00:34:27
Keywords:
earth, God, gratefulness
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