By Ralph White
A visit to China today for someone with an interest in holistic matters is a heartening experience. Our image of this country for decades has been that of relentless economic growth, and before that the horrors of the Cultural Revolution in the Sixties with its focus on the destruction of so much of China’s ancient heritage both culturally and architecturally.
But today presents a visitor with a completely different experience. If we recall the wise dictum that humanity does not live by bread alone, we have a clue to the current transformation. I am currently here to speak at China’s first major holistic conference at a huge hotel and conference center outside Beijing, and it is abundantly clear from the 700 participants that a significant section of the population is engaged in a search for something deeper and more fulfilling than simple consumerism.
The prosperity here is striking to anyone who was last here in the Eighties. Shiny new cars fill the roads, the airports and train stations sparkle, and the ubiquity of mobile digital technology makes the United States seem very Twentieth Century. But this massive increase in wealth over the last twenty-five years has left a significant portion of the country spiritually adrift and suffering from an existential malaise. As we have known in the West for many years, material comfort and an abundance of consumer goods do not bring happiness. Today China is ranked low in in the World Index of Well-Being despite the dynamism of its economy, and depression is widespread and suicide far from uncommon.
That is why I am here at the first Holistic Wellness International Forum, co-hosted by HCN and Bene Wellness Institute, a new center in the heart of Beijing, along with representatives from many other holistic centers in the West like Esalen and Omega Institutes. Many Chinese people are searching for deeper values and a more meaningful life. Some are returning for inspiration to the Taoism and Buddhism that were foundational to Chinese culture for millennia, while others look to the West, to the many holistic and transformational programs and centers that now exist all over North America and Europe. And, judging by the warmth and enthusiasm of the participants at this forum, they are hungry to learn as much as possible about soulful and sustainable ways of living and being in the world.
In his remarkable book, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion after Mao, the Pulitzer prize winning journalist Ian Johnson makes clear this is a society experiencing a resurgence of interest in spirituality. Taoist temples dot the land, unopposed by the government. Buddhist monasteries have many visitors. In fact, a tourist in Beijing is reminded of how central Tibetan Buddhism is to Chinese culture by the huge and beautiful Lama Temple in the middle of the city built by an Eighteenth Century emperor who embraced this spiritual path.
This is not, of course, to say that things are perfect here. Discussions of politics remain taboo, the topic of Tibet is better avoided, and this visitor felt more comfortable speaking publicly in the language of personal growth and inner development rather than mystical spirituality. But after three days at this first Holistic Wellness International Forum, in which many Chinese speakers have spoken directly about their own attunement to Buddhism and Taoism and their interest in higher states of consciousness, I feel more comfortable using the language I would normally use in the West.
I have to admit that any speaking engagement at a conference in the United States is now likely to feel a little banal, primarily because of the stunning theatre that accompanies presentations here. When I walked into the vast auditorium, the ambience reminded me of nothing so much as a Pink Floyd concert at Madison Square Garden. The multi-colored sweeping lights, the swelling sound tracks, the ubiquitous cameras, (and the glamorous hostesses in traditional dress who accompany each presenter to the stage) were, to state it mildly, mind-blowing.
But what has been truly moving is the rapt attention from the audience of 700, the warmth and open heartedness with which we Western presenters have been welcomed, and most of all the profound interest in everything holistic, psychological and spiritual that we have shared. I had the good fortune to spend a month in China last year meeting some of the holistic pioneers, and my experience at this Forum has only deepened the impression with which I returned from that memorable journey. There appears to be a genuine awakening taking place here. People are hungry for a deeper sense of meaning and fulfillment in lives, and they see the holistic learning centers of the West as a genuine source of inspiration, along with their own Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian traditions.
Does this apply to most Chinese citizens? Clearly not. The attendees at this event must represent some kind of leading edge. But when the Open Center began 35 years ago, many thought it was a quixotic venture likely to fail. After all, New York was the ‘real world’ unlike California, and realists weren’t supposed to be interested in alternative worldviews and spiritual values. We now know how wrong that was, and perhaps our experience can be applied to China today. One has the sense of something important beginning here and, without sugar coating the ongoing problems with human rights and the difficulties in Tibet and Xinjiang, I am experiencing real optimism. After all, the best solution to excessive competitive rivalry between China and America, with all its attendant dangers, is to appreciate, respect and learn from each other’s cultures and peoples. Here at
the first International Holistic Wellness Forum we’re making a good start.