When a mystic's vision meets an activist's fire, transformation seems possible, as Margaret Evans discovers.
As we near the end of the first tumultuous decade of the 21st century, it's timely to take stock and look ahead to what beckons us in 2011 and beyond.
Surely, few would argue that these are challenging days, perhaps the most since the end of the Cold War. And while many people are succumbing to this reality in any number of mind numbing ways, from addiction to banal TV "reality" programs or social media or various "substances", all the way to full blown depression and all the chaos it wreaks, there are others who welcome this cosmic upheaval for the healing grace it offers us.
One such person I've met recently is mystic Caroline Myss (as you'll have read in last month's NOVA) and another is poet and mystical scholar and, most recently, sacred activist, Andrew Harvey. As it happens, they are neighbours and close friends in Oak Park Illinois, it seems, a cradle of enlightened thought close to America's heart.
In Perth to deliver a talk entitled, "The Fire of Sacred Activism: Bringing Hope to a World in Crisis", Harvey conveyed the clarity of his vision coupled with his deep seated passion to birth a force he calls a "sacred fire".
There was no doubting the sincerity of his calling and even if we laconic Aussies are generally uncomfortable with overt displays of emotion - and yes, we women too - this urbane Englishman, an Oxford Fellow at the precocious age of 21, stirred us deeply.
Harvey began his talk, appropriately set in a public school chapel with the audience arrayed on uncomfortable wooden pews, by sharing his belief in three overarching truths of life at this time in history: firstly, that we are going through a global "dark night" of the species, secondly, that this is part of a massive and extreme evolutionary event that is already underway - "a massive mystical Renaissance" - and finally, a force that unites a mystic's fire for God and an activist's hunger for justice is being forged in the middle of this storm. It's the force he and others call Sacred Activism.
He also openly shares with us that his own awakening to these truths occurred after traumatic events in his own life - a "massive crisis" which led to him leaving both Oxford and England for his homeland of India at the age of 25, later the death of his much loved father, the life threatening illness of his lover - and, to counterbalance all the grief of those periods - illuminating meetings with two deeply spiritual beings, the Dalai Lama and Father Bede Griffiths.
The true significance of both of these meetings becomes clearer in Andrew Harvey's most recent book called The Hope. As he tells us in Christ Church Grammar Chapel and describes in detail in the book, he was enormously privileged to interview the Dalai Lama on the actual day he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. On such a highly charged occasion, Harvey dared to pose a question he may have avoided at any other time: "What is the meaning of life?" His Holiness's immediate and characteristic response was to fling back his head and roar with laughter. But he then grew intensely concentrated and, leaning forward to touch his forehead against Harvey's, he answered quietly, "The meaning of life is to embody compassion. Anyone can discover this. When you discover this and live it, you discover your truest nature and share its joy." It was a defining moment in Harvey's life which he recalls with deep feeling even as he speaks about it: "And then His Holiness led me across the room with infinite tenderness."
The Dalai Lama's enormous capacity to heal through this same tenderness and love is revealed in another wonderful story recounted in The Hope. Harvey tells of meeting an elderly and grizzled elevator attendant in a hotel in Arizona. The man told him he had once been stuck in the elevator for 20 minutes with "an extraordinary person in red robes who changed his life". Instead of directing any irritation or anger towards him for the lengthy delay, the red robed figure treated him with such patience and consideration that the attendant lost all shame at his underperforming elevator and opened up about his family and his life. Of course, when the lift finally reached the lobby and a large crowd surged forward, the penny dropped. On his way out, the Dalai Lama stopped to give the attendant a warm hug. "I never felt so loved in my life," the old man told Harvey.
The other figure who has instilled in Harvey the realisation that evolutionary transformation is the great - almost certainly the only - hope for humanity was Father Bede Griffiths, a mystic and teacher Harvey met in South India, 80kms from his own birthplace. When they met, Griffiths was 85 and Harvey 41, but despite the great difference in age the younger man was in awe of both his elder's intellect and innate divinity: he tells us he had "the mind of a mystical Mozart".
His conversation with Griffiths over several days during the filming of a documentary awoke in Harvey the awareness that our world is poised on the edge of darkness, what he calls with customary fervour, "a cauldron of chaos", but it is only through this "dark night" that the Divine can be realised in our lives.
Already suffering the effects of a massive stroke, Father Bede Griffiths was to be struck down yet again only a week after their last meeting and lingered on to die five months later. And if ever you doubt the existence of an eternal soul, The Hope recounts an extraordinary story involving this visionary that left the hairs on my neck standing on end - just as it stunned Harvey when he heard it.
Griffiths' death was all the more poignant for Harvey as it preceded his own descent into a long dark night of the soul. Emerging from this prolonged experience, he became aware that it was also "profoundly beautiful and transforming." As he tells his Perth audience, "the greatest gift of this experience was that it transformed me from being an inner mystic into an outward activist." The Sacred Activist was born.
Obviously, the thrust and intensity of Andrew Harvey's message is something of the deepest concern to any thinking person. It's certainly not the general fodder of what he memorably calls the "Coca-Coma" generation we seem to have spawned everywhere we look these days.
Yet, in its totality his message is one of radiant hope, hence the title of his book. The central chapter of the book is called "The Death and the Birth", a reversal of everything we have learned to accept on a daily basis but, as we come to realise the more we absorb his message, the natural order of things.
Once again, Harvey turns to Bede Griffiths for an illuminating guidance. He called it the Hour of God. Despite the potential for catastrophe - the litany of environmental degradation, overpopulation, the growing chasm between rich and poor in all lands including those that used to be poor, the rise of fundamentalism and religion-inspired terrorism, nuclear proliferation which has never gone away, and corporate greed and its mania for ever-greater control of media - Harvey is unsparing in his criticism and in my view it is all deserved - he comes down the side of Birth, of hope.
And it's the intensity of his awareness, his vision of the "dark night", that has forged in him the fire of the activist: "The greatest gift of the Dark Night I was living through was that it radicalised me," he writes in The Hope. It is easy to see the influence of the Dalai Lama and Mahatma Gandhi also comes to my mind when he acknowledges that he has "turned from believing that spirituality is a private process to knowing that love means nothing unless it is put into action for compassion and justice."
In both his talk and his book, Harvey lives up to his own dictum and we are offered tangible, credible examples of how Birth is already taking place all around us.
We see it, says Harvey, first and foremost, in the awareness of the crisis itself and the growing intensity of our global response to it. It's all too easy to overlook much of that conscious response as we go about our daily lives, but author Paul Hawken set out to find how many progressive activist movements and organisations there are in the world - and the answer is between one and two million, actively working towards ecological sustainability and social justice. As he writes in his own book Blessed Unrest, the discovery has filled him with hope. It's my humble belief that NOVA Magazine, with its readership of 300,000 plus conscious people, is just one of those organisations and our own country has many, many more.
As Harvey suggests, we have never before seen such a movement on such a huge scale. The emergence of creative technologies, everything from miniature electric cars to tidal power to stem cell research; the explosion of the Internet and mobile phone technology and its capacity to break down the most intransigent of political and corporate barriers (I still remember the "Twitter Revolution" of 2009 in Iran which mobilised the people against an oppressive regime); the emergence of what Harvey calls a "mystical Renaissance" where sacred texts and practices that were once inaccessible are now freely available (just in the last month we've heard that the Dead Sea Scrolls will now be posted online in their entirety ending years of frustrating obstruction); and the return of the Divine Feminine in the form of a greater understanding of interconnectedness and the healing power of cooperation rather than the masculine model of cut throat competitiveness which has defined our business dealings for too long, are all beacons of hope.
Ever the activist, Andrew Harvey is keen to impress upon his Perth audience how we can "birth" the fire of Sacred Activism to ensure these beacons, and many others, flare ever more brightly.
A practice he recommends, one of several forms of service he espouses, is to set your alarm for 3am one morning and while you're lying there in the calm and silence when all the world around you is asleep, ask yourself "What of all the causes in the world breaks my heart the most? What really, really hurts me?"
It's a time when truth reveals itself with absolute clarity. In his own case, the answer has been to actively work to improve the lot of animals, an issue that visibly moves him. It's easy to dismiss his view that our world is a "living concentration camp for animals", but the fact is we are killing 120 species a day and here in Australia our extinction rate of our own native animals is appalling. Yet we do so little to stop it.
One strategy he and others have adopted is to form "Networks of Grace", incongruously, given their aim of saving life, based on the cell structure of Al Qaeda!
His own Network of Grace in his home in Illinois consists of eight people who meet every two weeks to actively promote the cause of animal rights. Its focus is absolutely practical so that real targets are set to raise money for shelters, a visiting schedule is established and each member is held accountable for performing their task. Given his own travel schedule, his duty is to promote the idea in every way he can, including talks such as this in Perth. We sense his commitment is deep and real and that this is no mere "feel good" exercise.
Beyond the local, Andrew Harvey urges us to become serious in our intent to "walk our talk". If we really believe our world needs to become more conscious, more congruent, more responsible to achieve the glorious transformation that beckons us and that will be the salvation of our humanity, then we must act now in our own lives. The phrase "Think globally, but act locally" is perfect. The Dalai Lama calls it taking "universal responsibility"; Mahatma Gandhi urged us to "be the change we want to see in the world."
Perhaps being an activist doesn't sit easily with you. But do we have a choice? You may have seen the Stephen Fry program recently "Last Chance to See" where the diver entered the pristine blue waters of the Sea of Cortes off the coast of Mexico wearing the modern equivalent of a chainmail diving suit. The reason? A plague of squid known as "red devils" has invaded the waters since their natural predator, the shark, has been hunted to extinction in the area. One unwitting diver received more the 300 bites and looked like he'd been severely burnt.
The truly horrifying prospect is that these ferocious and cannibalistic Humboldt squid will very soon extend their reach up and down the west coast of all the Americas. It's what Andrew Harvey calls "a perfect storm".
"If you feel these words are too extreme, in a year you would feel they weren't extreme enough."