By Margaret Rodman
As an anthropologist writing a book about holistic centers, one of my contributions to this year’s Centers Gathering is to facilitate an online conversation about the meaning and purpose of the Centers Gatherings, to help put the story into words.
For more than two decades, Centers Gatherings have attracted US and international holistic learning centers to reflect on the inner and outer changes to which they are dedicated. This year, representatives of holistic centers from New York City to San Francisco, and from as far north as Gabriola Island in British Columbia met at Naropa University in Boulder Colorado, May 17-21, 2007. Joe Cassidy (Naropa’s Assistant Vice President for Extended Studies) organized the annual Gathering, offering a variety of group sessions, opportunities for informal socializing, and for spiritual practice.
Sessions held in the Lincoln Building, a classic red brick schoolhouse at the heart of the Naropa campus, resonated with what one participant called co-productive playù — hiking Flagstaff Mountain, a field trip to Gold Lake resort, two gracious receptions, opportunities to hear lectures in the concurrent Naropa conference on “Integrating Spirit and Care-giving, and the chance to participate in a Sufi Zikr, as well as lessons in meditation and aikido.
Last year a similar Gathering took place at the Haven in Canada. Next year, Breitenbush in rural Oregon has been invited to host the Gathering. Earlier Gatherings have been held on the US East Coast, and in Europe, as well as in California and Canada. At one level it is easy to describe what the Centers Gatherings are about. Take a small group (about 20 people), a beautiful setting, and provide a diversity of structured and unstructured activities. Result? Rich opportunities to reflect on shared purposes, discuss best practices, and plan for the future.
Yet it is hard to put into words what makes the Centers Gatherings so special. And it is this essence that participants want to communicate to staff back at their home centers as well as to other centers that might join future Gatherings.
Perhaps Ralph White said it best: the Gatherings affirm that there really is a spontaneous, worldwide movement towards holistic and spiritual awakening. It really is happening. In this posting and in the book I am writing about the Centers, I explore how nodes in a network of holistic centers approach that awakening. My job is to witness, to reflect my understanding — incomplete as it is — back to all of you, and to start a conversation amongst us about the purpose of the Centers Gatherings, about relationships amongst the centers, and about where we go from here.
To open the conversation, here are some highlights of what I heard at the 2006 and 2007 Gatherings:
– Discovering similarity through difference is a key theme of the Gathering. There is a feeling of community and of being on the same wavelength at a Gathering, in spite of the apparent differences among centers that are Buddhist, Hindu, or a worker co-op dedicated to stewardship of the land. This is one aspect of holism of how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts when centers come together and of how spirit is present in a collective commitment to raising human consciousness, no matter how diverse our paths.
– Similarity amidst difference is also apparent at the level of the everyday. There is a commonality of issues. Comparing how each center handles staffing, fund-raising, or programming issues can make one feel less alone in dealing with day-to-day issues and with the larger challenges that the histories and futures of a center can pose. Learning how another center has adapted the software that gives your staff headaches can make a journey to the Gathering worthwhile in itself!
– No one needs to reinvent the wheel. There is a commonality of solutions. If you share the problems your center is facing, you can receive the benefit of others’ experiences. If you have innovations that work at your center, you can make other lives easier. What does your center use for seating? What are you doing to make your center more sustainable? Who is hot as a presenter this year? Who is not? How do you market your center? What is the shadow sideù of your experience at your center? The centers’ best practices and mistakes, visions and histories are food for thought at the Gatherings and the foundation for an ongoing resource network.
– A heart-opening sense of connection embraces participants at the Gathering. In one participant’s words, “friends of my soul” are here. This sense of connected relationship is also what the centers offer to their guests and residents back at home. Connecting at the Gathering reaffirms the importance of open, truthful connections in operating one’s own center. Moreover, contacts made at the Gathering are one-on-one, but they ramify like the branches of the beautiful sycamores at Naropa. Those who attend a Gathering can connect their staff later on, helping people expand networks amongst centers.
– Non-competitive sharing is a striking quality of the Gatherings — their commitment to an open spirit, conscious that the competitive, withholding attitudes of conventional business [are] not for them. Working together, sharing best practices, centers’ staff seeks at the Gatherings to find new ways to succeed as more than businesses. There is no sense of a limited good or a finite pie to share amongst the centers. Instead the sharing that goes on at the Gathering nurtures new centers in the hope that more people, and the world, will be the beneficiaries.
– Walking the talk is what it all comes down to. At the 2006 Gathering, one of the organizers observed that the time of the guru has passed; now is the “time of the sangha”. ù Presenters are important but the centers, and the Gathering, hold the space for presenters and guests. There is a growing sense that holding this space, holding the chalice, is crucial. Each center, whatever its spiritual base, is a sangha in the sense of trying to be an authentic, supportive community. There is an unspoken expectation at the Gatherings that participants practice what they preach, that they show up and be themselves, and that they offer their center to the world from the heart.
What about the centers themselves? There was a sense at the 2007 Gathering that this “time of the sangha” opens the centers to exciting, new possibilities. Should the centers increase their presence as a network? Offer sessions that circulate amongst various centers? What other possibilities arise?
Whatever the future holds for relationships amongst centers, it is clear that the centers themselves are needed in today’ world. A 2006 Gathering participant said it well: “The world is in a difficult, rugged place. Our centers are important repositories of wisdom, care, and spiritual practice for the world.” The people who run centers must be genuinely committed to being the kind of communities they want to see more of in the world. They recognize that we sustain community through kindness and integrity.
The centers make the Gatherings happen, but their stories, of course, are different to that of the Gathering, though often just as difficult to put into words. To me as an observer, the centers are a leading edge of what I call the “new enlightenment”. This is a holistic movement, seeing all beings, the planet, the universal energy as interconnected and interdependent, and as ineffably greater than its components.
This movement talks back on all levels to modernist approaches (i.e., those that separate mind and body, reason and intuition). It includes a wide range of vibrational medicine, diverse forms of spirituality, many variants of activist politics, as well as an emphasis on the importance of relocalization and community relationships (place based and e-based).
The centers, as their name implies, are central to this movement. Some are custodians of very special places whose energies nurture and transform people. Generally, centers enhance the natural energy of their location through built forms “meditation halls, temples, rock walls, pools, gardens. Some non-residential centers in urban areas cannot offer so much of a physical respite from the workaday world; instead they reach out through their programming to larger numbers of people from a greater variety of socio-economic backgrounds than is possible for the rural, residential centers. For all the centers, however, important the energies of their locations may be, the content of their programs is a key element that teaches and refreshes and so transforms participants.
Like historical, intentional communities holistic centers have a prismatic quality. They highlight what is happening in a more diffuse way in the larger society. Earlier I quoted Ralph White’s comment about the current, worldwide movement toward holistic and spiritual awakening. This evokes the Great Awakenings of the 1730s and 1820s, which empowered individuals to save themselves and American society through spiritual action. A third era of unrest and reform, the cultural politics and intentional communities of the 1960s and 70s, helped shape today’s holistic centers. Now the centers have new and important roles to play in personal, cultural, and planetary transformation. To me, each center is a contemporary version of the revolutionary City on a Hill, a beacon that shines out to enlighten, and create positive energy in our society.
These points of light, these centers, draw presenters and participants to places of new enlightenment in a world that seems increasingly stressful and stressed, dangerous and endangered. The Centers’ Gatherings focuses those points of light, draw attention to their unique colors, to the things that fan their flames and those that threaten to blow them out, and to their shared luminescence.
I offer these reflections to encourage discussion of what the Gatherings and the centers are all about. Please jump in with your thoughts! I look forward to your postings and I thank you all for the opportunity to work and play and simply BE with you.
Professor of Anthropology, York University