Rev. Martin Luther King – Spiritual Activist

In the modern secular world, it takes courage to cross the boundary from watching the events of the world, to becoming an activist in bringing about change and transformation of the direction of society. Likewise, even for those immersed in a religious tradition, there is a boundary to becoming a truly spiritual being. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. crossed both of those boundaries and changed our world. I was honored to be asked to write a piece about him for the Fellowship of Reconciliation which I’ve linked to here.

Rev. Martin Luther King – Spiritual Activist

                                                                                    –Alan Levin

“Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hate never yet dispelled hateOnly love dispels hate.” – Buddha (from the Dhammapada)

 

With an iconic figure such as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose brief life shook this nation forever, people pick and choose what they want to see of his multi-faceted legacy.

Currently we have the literal whitewashing of his very radical message as politicians who want to discredit affirmative action and impose voter I.D. laws use quotes from Martin Luther King to justify their supposed “color-blind” objectives.

On the other hand, activists of the Left often overlook the fact that Reverend King was a truly religious, spiritual man. He was a Christian. But more so, he was a holy man in the prophetic tradition that transcends any one religion.

I have no knowledge of King’s inner life, but from what I do know of his life and statements, he regularly sought counsel from the divine within for guidance and tried to walk and talk in alignment with that.

 

I do not know if he ever studied formal meditation from Eastern teachers, but he found deep friendship, mutual respect and admiration with Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. It was after his talks with Nhat Hanh that Dr. King came out publicly against the Vietnam War. In 1967 Dr. King nominated Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In any case, King found from his inner sojourns, his reflections and prayers, his own unique understanding and expression of many of the deepest teachings of spirituality, East and West.

Everything is interconnected. Everything affects
everything else. Everything that is,
is because other things are.
–Basic Buddhist teaching of Dependent Origination

“All I’m saying is simply this: that all mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be – this is the interrelated structure of reality … And by believing this, by living out this fact, we will be able to remain awake through a great revolution.”

–Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
(Commencement Address at Oberlin College, 1965)

 

His call to, “remain awake” as a primary goal testifies to the importance King placed on consciousness, not just our behavior as humans, as activists. He wanted us to be awake not just to the suffering, or even the systemic causes of suffering, but awake to the nature of reality. In this, he is in alignment with His Holiness the Dalai Lama: “What the world needs is a spiritual revolution.”

I believe Dr. King understood from his own experience the need to take time to cultivate that spiritual consciousness, to cultivate a heart filled with compassion and love in the face of injustice, hatred, and violence. This cultivation is the very heart of meditation.

King’s good friend Thomas Merton, the Roman Catholic monk, deeply involved himself in Eastern philosophy and spirituality. He counseled us to “withdraw into the healing silence of the wilderness … not in order to preach to others but to heal in (ourselves) the wounds of the entire world.” And yet, King did preach once he felt his voice was a channel for that greater whole.

Somehow, through his inner searching and his confrontation with the realities of the world, King realized for himself that freedom from the fear of death is the promised land of spiritual work, the realization of the greater awareness that lies beyond the phenomenal world. What else could he have experienced that brought him to say:

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land.”

As I was writing this, a good friend, Sister Dorothy Maxwell, sent me a profound article, “The Ecology of Prayer” by Fred Bahnson in Orion Magazine. In it, Bahnson quotes the seventh century Saint Isaac of Syria, “An elder was once asked, ‘What is a compassionate heart?’ He replied: ‘It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons and for all that exists.’”

Surely, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was actively engaged in transforming his heart towards that fuller compassion through his meditations, his prayers, and his activism. Surely, it is our task to carry on that work.

Alan Levin is cofounder of Sacred River Healing. A member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Alan is involved in a range of initiatives in New York’s lower Hudson Valley that engage the intersections of racial justice, peacemaking, ecological sustainability, mind-body healing, and spiritual awakening.

Photos: (1) Rev. King with Thich Nhat Hanh in June 1966, courtesy of FOR Archives & Plum Village Monastery; (2) Photo by Bob Fitch, used with permission, FOR Archives.

I’m Sorry, Thich Nhat Hanh

Some events trigger memories revealing what a really long strange trip this has been. Beliefs that I once held to steadfastly have fallen away like the leaves of Autumn and are no longer held by the branches of my mind.

Recently I hosted a screening of the film, “Walk With Me” about renowned Zen meditation master Thich Nhat Hanh.  Thay (teacher), as he is called by his students, is the Vietnamese monk who was at the center of “the third force” during the Vietnam War, a non-violent Buddhist movement for peace. He founded the Order of Inter-Being and  developed what is known as “socially engaged Buddhism.” I have the deepest respect for him and appreciate how many lives he has helped awaken to the teachings of the dharma (the wisdom teachings of Buddha), and how to apply these teachings to one’s personal life and the social change movements for a better world. I am indebted to him for his ongoing stream of shared insights and his transmission of the great peace that is at the heart of what we all seek, the true nature of being.

But my first encounter with Thay in 1966 was not an experience of respect, peace or even civility. At that time, I was a student at the University of Florida and spent much of my time traveling throughout the state visiting with groups on and off college campuses. I was involved with organizing farmworkers, people living in poverty, support for civil rights and the growing Black Power movement, and for student rights on campus. But the most primary focus of my attention was resistance to the Vietnam war and the draft.

Vietnam occupied my mind daily and I was actively engaged in debating the issues in front of the University library, passing out leaflets, and organizing peace demonstrations. My views, along with much of the student new left, were that the U.S. was fighting an imperialist war of aggression against the people of Vietnam who were seeking to be liberated from foreign control; the only solution was immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. I was 22 years old, and I tended to think that what I believed was the truth.

So when I learned that the University was going to host a speaker from Vietnam, a Buddhist monk involved in an alternative peace initiative, I planned to attend. I knew nothing about Buddhism, but was suspicious of all religions. I also was skeptical of any “alternative” to the idea that U.S. troops needed to withdraw immediately. At his talk, I felt annoyed that there was a very large audience, much larger than anything our anti-war movement could ever bring out. I didn’t really listen to what he said, but was focused in my mind, preparing to challenge his views with my more radical (true) position.

After his talk, a group of students gathered around him in the lobby asking questions. I moved into the crowd, took a breath and spoke critically, confronting him on why he wasn’t condemning the U.S. more, why he wasn’t joining the liberation forces in Vietnam fighting against the invading U.S. military. That was it, my first encounter with Thich Nhat Hanh. I don’t know what he said in response. I wasn’t listening. I walked away feeling a mix of pride and uneasiness. I didn’t even bother to learn his strange name.

A number of years later, I had embarked on a spiritual quest myself and started questioning everything I thought was “real” about myself and the way I saw the world. At some point in the 1980s I became aware of the Vietnamese teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, and his work with engaged Buddhism. I learned that during the war he had been under attack by the South Vietnamamese government (U.S. allies). Yet, after the victory of the National Liberation Front (Vietcong) he was forced to leave his homeland. The “liberation” forces were too threatened by his teachings of non-violence and compassion and instituted repressive measures against the Buddhist schools and monasteries.

 

The more I learned from his writings and talks about engaged Buddhism the more resonance I felt. Though I was not a member of a Buddhist lineage, I was open to the basic teachings. I was also developing my own sense that any true spiritual practice ought not separate us from the struggles for peace and justice, but rather guide us to be involved in ways that are authentic and effective. Though I had great admiration for Thich Nhat Hanh, I still didn’t remember our first encounter. The truth is, I can’t remember when I made the connection. I do remember that it was a jaw dropping kind of moment. I got in Thich Nhat Hanh’s face and dissed him? WTF!

Part of me wanted to rationalize or minimize the event. I told myself that “the person I was in 1966 was not who I am now.” That person even went by a different name, “Nik,” (my nom de guerre of my radical days). Yet, I felt weird, embarrassed. I knew quite well that while the sense of “I” can change, even radically transform, the I that I am now still has to take responsibility for my past deeds. This man had sacrificed so much while witnessing the devastation of his people and terrible violence by both sides. He came to this country on a mission hoping to appeal to the people of the U.S. to stop their military campaign and instead provide genuine assistance to the people. I, the I that I was then, treated him disrespectfully, rudely and arrogantly. Though I doubt I harmed him in any lasting way, I feel that for my own peace of mind I need to apologize. I’m sorry, Thich Nhat Hanh.

Perhaps, in making amends, I can also share a lesson for others. We are all too easily captivated by beliefs, especially when they give us a sense of identity and tribal connection with strong emotional bonds. Out beliefs, after all, are only thoughts, bubbles of mental energy. When we identify who we are with our thoughts, we tend to have separative feelings towards those with different beliefs. Watching or listening to the news today, I feel the waves of anger, fear, blame, and the win/lose judgements of zero-sum thinking. I choose to withdraw power from the part of me that reacts in that way. I choose to open my heart/mind to the teachings that come from all spiritual traditions, spoken thusly by Guatama Buddha, ““Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal rule.” Crossing the boundary from ideological fixation to love is a great liberation. This is the teaching of the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, to whom I deeply bow.

An historical note:

After first remembering my encounter of 1966, I went to the library and internet and searched around for articles about Thich Nhat Hanh and his visits to this country. I think I partly hoped It was a “false memory.” I found out that in 1966, Thich Nhat Hanh did indeed come to the U.S. on a speaking tour promoting his message of peace through non-violence and negotiations. He spent time with Thomas Merton and also Dr. Martin Luther King. He urged Dr. King to speak out against the war, and shortly afterwards, Dr. King gave his famous Riverside Church address publicly making the case against the war. (You can hear it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OC1Ru2p8OfU; one of his greatest and most historic speeches.)

On his ’66 visit to the U.S., Thay attended conferences and peace rallies and spoke at a number of universities. Though my specific experience at the UF in Gainesville was not mentioned, I found at least two references with accounts like this:

“At a huge anti-war rally in 1966 a young man suddenly yelled, ‘Why are you here? You should be in Vietnam fighting the American imperialists!’ In other words, Nhat Hanh said, the man wanted him to fight, to kill Americans. He answered, ‘Well, I thought the root of the war was here—in Washington—and that’s why I have come.’”*

and,

“During this tour when an angry young American stood up at a meeting and told him that he should be at home where the war was, he responded that he was speaking in the U.S. because the roots of the war were there, and it was these roots that needed attention.** 

From the context of those quotations I am pretty sure they weren’t referring to my experience in Gainesville, Florida. Likely, these were my comrades of the time, like-minded angry young “radicals” certain their thoughts were true.

Since that time, Thich Nhat Hanh has travelled the world helping to bring awareness of the roots of violence and injustice, beyond Vietnam. He has devoted his life to helping each of us confront the inner tendency that comes from greed, hatred or ignorance and to instead choose to cultivate compassion. I smile in recognition of his forgiveness of all transgressions.

You can see more about his work and learn how to support it here: http://thichnhathanhfoundation.org/blog/2017/11/6/anger-work-is-peace-work

*”The Buddhists Had the Answer to the American War in Vietnam” by Larry Calloway http://larrycalloway.com/hanoi/

**from “Return to Vietnam of Exiled Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh by John Chapman, Modernity and Re-enchantment: Religion in Post-revolutionary Vietnam, edited by Philip Taylor. p.303

Through the Wall of White Supremacy

The United States was founded as a white nationalist country, and that legacy remains today. Things have improved from the radical promotion of white people at the expense of all others, which has persisted for most of our history, yet most of us have not accepted the extent to which white identity guides so much of what we still do. Sometimes it seems that the white nationalists are most honest about the very real foundation of white supremacy upon which our nation was built.”

                                               –R. Derek Black (godson of David Duke)

It is up to each of us to question the worldview of our parents and whatever sense of  tribal identification they pass on to us. We must find within ourselves what truths to hold and what to toss out. Some adopt without question their parents’ ideas or conversely reject them through unconscious rebellion. Others take a more balanced approach, and through a rational process of evaluation or through a process of spiritual discovery, discern for themselves what is valuable from what is destructive, sort the good from the bad, (which can sometimes be very bad).

I am always heartened by the courage of those who find themselves in a world in which they no longer want to live, and choose to step out, cross what often feels like a great psychological boundary. I tend to listen closely to their observations of the minds and hearts contained in the world they left. This is essentially the theme of this blog and my book Crossing the Boundary. A few days ago, I saw a piece in the New York Times that gave me that feeling of deep appreciation and drew my close attention. Among the many articles and opinion pieces on the White Supremacist/Neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, and the remarks by our Madman in Chief, there was one by R. Derek Black, the son of one of the leaders of the White Nationalist movement and a godson of David Duke.

In his piece, “What White Nationalism Gets Right About American History,” he makes clear his rejection of his White Supremacist roots. But he also shares deep insights into the thinking of those in that group and the truth they do hold. The truth is that their core belief in white supremacy has indeed dominated the history of this country until very, very recent time and is still very present throughout our society.

The bold statement above, from a man immersed in White Supremacist culture since childhood, is to me a cautionary message for all of us who feel we are immune to the feelings and thinking of this truly disgusting ideology. It was the explicit and/or implicit view of the culture in which our own consciousness was nurtured and developed. This insidious infection of the mind has almost certainly entered into our hearts and we will only begin to be free of it through acknowledging its present existence.

I am curious to know the process that Mr. Black went through to liberate himself from his racist conditioning, insofar as he has. It would help shed light on how we can all question our most firmly held beliefs. Humanity appears to many observers, to be going through a major shift in consciousness. Certainly, we are liberating ourselves, albeit fitfully, from old notions of tribal, racial and gender superiority, I would suggest we also need to question the notion of human superiority over the rest of nature with whom we share this world. To do this, we need to cultivate awareness of our own mind and sense of identity and learn the methods of transformation that are the gifts of our spiritual ancestors.

I strongly recommend reading R. Derek Black’s piece here:https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/19/opinion/sunday/white-nationalism-american-history-statues.html and which I’ve copied below.

                                                                 –Alan Levin


My dad often gave me the advice that white nationalists are not looking to recruit people on the fringes of American culture, but rather the people who start a sentence by saying, “I’m not racist, but …”

The most effective tactics for white nationalists are to associate American history with themselves and to suggest that the collective efforts to turn away from our white supremacist past are the same as abandoning American culture. My father, the founder of the white nationalist website Stormfront, knew this well. It’s a message that erases people of color and their essential role in American life, but one that also appeals to large numbers of white people who would agree with the statement, “I’m not racist, but I don’t want American history dishonored, and this statue of Robert E. Lee shouldn’t be removed.”

I was raised by the leaders of the white nationalist movement with a model of American history that described a vigorous white supremacist past and once again I find myself observing events in which I once might have participated before I rejected the white nationalist cause several years ago. After the dramatic, horrible and rightly unnerving events in Charlottesville, Va., this past weekend, I had to make separate calls: one to make sure no one in my family who might have attended the rally got hurt, and a second to see if any friends at the University of Virginia had been injured in the crowd of counterprotesters.

On Tuesday afternoon the president defended the actions of those at the rally, stating, “You also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” His words marked possibly the most important moment in the history of the modern white nationalist movement. These statements described the marchers as they see themselves — nobly driven by a good cause, even if they are plagued by a few bad apples. He said: “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally. But you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists.”

But this protest, contrary to his defense, was advertised unambiguously as a white nationalist rally. The marchers chanted, “Jews will not replace us”; in the days leading up to the event, its organizers called it “a pro-white demonstration”; my godfather, David Duke, attended and said it was meant to “fulfill the promises of Donald Trump”; and many attendees flew swastika flags. Whatever else you might say about the rally, they were not trying to deceive anyone.

Almost by definition, the white nationalist movement over the past 40 years has worked against the political establishment. It was too easy for politicians to condemn the movement — even when there was overlap on policy issues — because it was a liability without enough political force to make the huge cost of associating with it worthwhile. Until Tuesday, I didn’t believe that had changed.

We have all observed the administration’s decisions over the past several months that aligned with the white nationalist agenda, such as limiting or completely cutting off legal and illegal immigration, especially of Hispanics and Muslims; denigrating black communities as criminal and poor, threatening to unleash an even greater police force on them; and going after affirmative action as antiwhite discrimination. But I had never believed Trump’s administration would have trouble distancing itself from the actual white nationalist movement.

Yet President Trump stepped in to salvage the message that the rally organizers had originally hoped to project: “George Washington was a slave owner,” he said, and asked, “So will George Washington now lose his status?” Then: “How about Thomas Jefferson?” he asked. “Because he was a major slave owner. Now are we going to take down his statue?” He added: “You’re changing history. You’re changing culture.”

Until Trump’s comments, few critics seemed to identify the larger relationship the alt-right sees between its beliefs and the ideals of the American founders. Charlottesville is synonymous with Jefferson. The city lies at the foot of Monticello and is the home of the University of Virginia, the school he founded. Over the years I’ve made several pilgrimages to Charlottesville, both when I was a white nationalist and since I renounced the ideology. While we all know that Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence, which declared that “all men are created equal,” his writings also offer room for explicitly white nationalist interpretation.

My father observed many times that the quotation from Jefferson’s autobiography embedded on the Jefferson Memorial is deceptive because it reads, “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these [the Negro] people are to be free.” It does not include the second half of the sentence: “Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them.”

Jefferson’s writings partly inspired the American colonization movement, which encouraged the return of free black people to Africa — a goal that was pursued even by Abraham Lincoln during the first years of the Civil War.

The most fundamental legislative goal of the white nationalist movement is to limit nonwhite immigration. It is important to remember that such limits were in place during the lifetimes of many current white nationalists; it was the default status until the 1960s. In the 1790s, the first naturalization laws of the United States Congress limited citizenship to a “free white person.”

Legislation in the 1920s created quotas for immigration based on national origin, which placed severe restrictions on the total number of immigrants and favored northern and western European immigration. It was only with the civil rights movement of the 1960s that the national origin quota system was abolished and Congress fully removed the restriction favoring white immigrants.

I’m not offering these historical anecdotes to defame the history of the country. I’m not calling for Jefferson’s statue to be removed along with the Confederate memorials. I do, however, think it is essential that we recognize that the white nationalist history embedded in American culture lends itself to white nationalist rallies like the one in Charlottesville. If you want to preserve Confederate memorials, but you don’t work to build monuments to historical black leaders, you share the same cause as the marchers.

Until Tuesday I believed the organizers of the rally had failed in their goal to make their movement more appealing to average white Americans. The rally superimposed Jefferson’s image on that of a pseudo K.K.K. rally and brought the overlap between Jefferson and white nationalist ideas to mind for anyone looking to find them. But the horrific violence that followed seemed to hurt their cause.

And then President Trump intervened. His comments supporting the rally gave new purpose to the white nationalist movement, unlike any endorsement it has ever received. Among its followers, being at that rally will become something to brag about, and some people who didn’t want to be associated with extremism will now see the cause as more mainstream. When the president doesn’t provide condemnation that he has been pressed to give, what message does that send but encouragement?

The United States was founded as a white nationalist country, and that legacy remains today. Things have improved from the radical promotion of white people at the expense of all others, which has persisted for most of our history, yet most of us have not accepted the extent to which white identity guides so much of what we still do. Sometimes it seems that the white nationalists are most honest about the very real foundation of white supremacy upon which our nation was built.

The president’s words legitimized the worst of our country, and now the white nationalist movement could be poised to grow. To challenge these messages, we need to acknowledge the continuity of white nationalist thought in American history, and the appeal it still holds.

It is a fringe movement not because its ideas are completely alien to our culture, but because we work constantly to argue against it, expose its inconsistencies and persuade our citizens to counter it. We can no longer count on the country’s leader to do this, so it’s now incumbent upon all of us.

Crossing the Blood/Brain Barrier – Psychedelics and Spirituality

THIS IS A REQUEST FOR HELP: If you already know the value of my book, Crossing the Boundary: Stories of Jewish Leaders of Other Spiritual Paths, please help me spread the message to more people. If you have already read it, you know that it offers, through the lens of Jewish boundary-crossers, universal wisdom teachings that move us towards a more compassionate sense of who we are and what we are doing here. At this time of intensifying fear-based tribalism, I am hopeful this book is good medicine. 

       I would greatly appreciate it if you would please forward this message to two or three friends with a word about the value of the book. If you’d like to buy a copy for yourself or a gift for a friend, that would be wonderful. Please note the discount rate through the end of the year. Signed copies of the book can be purchased at www.CrossingTheBoundary.org. Great gift for Christmas, Chanukah, Solstice or just for a plain gift of love. 

        I continue to expand on the theme of crossing boundaries through this blog and I hope you enjoy and find value in the post below.

Special offer through the end of the year –
$20 plus shipping.

Purchase Book here: www.CrossingTheBoundary.org

Peace and blessings,

Alan Levin

www.CrossingTheBoundary.org

alchemy-man-bw

It came as a surprise to some, (but certainly not all) readers of Crossing the Boundary to find that most of the fourteen spiritual teachers in the book (plus myself) had significant experiences with psychedelics that began or enhanced their spiritual journey. Several speak of their ongoing use of such substances in sacramental ways as part of their spiritual practice. 

Nothing in this message is meant to encourage anyone to take psychedelics. They are, after all, illegal. I write this only to open the discussion to what stands out so strongly to many readers of Crossing the Boundary and yet is something I chose not to emphasize in previous publicity descriptions of the book.  I confess this may have been due to my own shyness with the controversial nature of the subject. But, it seems the cat is coming out of the bag, or a better way to say it is: the mushroom is popping up out of its hidden underground mycelial web.

So many books and articles have been written about psychedelics that it amazes me that most Americans are still unaware of them as serious tools for consciousness expansion and spiritual development. Recent articles in the New York Times  and Scientific American  are reporting on the very promising research being done with psychedelic substances for treatments of PTSD, depression, addiction, and quality of life for people with cancer. Often overlooked, though hiding in plain sight, is the fact that accompanying the positive therapeutic results of any of these treatments, there is the frequent, (if not close to universal) report of spiritual, religious or mystical experiences in the treatment sessions. Many report that it is that experience that provided the force of the therapy. 

Indeed, while many people continue to take psychedelics for recreational purposes, enjoying the many sensory and emotional pleasures of the experience, a strong subset have continued the deeper, psychologically mind-expanding and spiritual explorations that psychedelics can enhance. Folks involved in this work now generally refer to the substances themselves as “medicines” and use the term entheogen (bringing forth the divine from within) rather than the often demonized or trivialized term, psychedelic (suggesting for many people that you see groovy patterns of color moving around). It’s quite clear from some of the accounts of those I interviewed for Crossing the Boundary, that entheogens often provide, in the right setting, the deepest of openings to whatever it is we call higher consciousness, Oneness, Spirit, the Divine, or God. 

Some will still argue that the experience people have with psychedelics/entheogens is not a “valid” spiritual experience because it is induced by a drug. This notion runs counter to the statements of the many spiritual teachers and students who have had experiences of transcendant and mystical states with both entheogens and long periods of meditation or prayer and testify to their being essentially equivalent. 

There is also the very interesting study that followed up on what is known as the Harvard “Good Friday Experiment” of 1962. For his PhD in Religion, Walter Pahnke led a controlled experiment to determine whether psilocybin generated genuine mystical experiences. Briefly, Pahnke administered both psilocybin and a placebo to a group of 20 divinity students and recorded their reports. The findings were that most of those who took the psilocybin reported religious or mystical experiences whereas there were none in the control group. The follow-up study, headed by Rick Doblin of MAPS, (The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) was done 40 years later. Doblin was able to find many of the original “Good Friday” participants (many having become religious leaders) who all reported the 1962 experience was their first true religious experience and was as “valid” as any later experience. For a fascinating detailed account of this study, see: here.

An even more significant validation of the link between spirituality and entheogenic plants and substances is the testimony of the many spiritual teachers who acknowledge with deep respect the positive effects such experiences had on their journey. Among these are Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, Huston Smith, Ram Dass, Stanislav Grof, Ralph Metzner, Jack Kornfield, Bill Wilson (founder of A.A.), and a very long list could follow. See Zig Zag Zen  for some excellent discussion about this from a wide range of teachers as well as art by Alex and Allyson Grey  (Allyson is featured in Crossing the Boundary). As mentioned above, almost every one of the well respected teachers in Crossing the Boundary attribute entheogenic experiences as a primary key to their opening to deep spiritual practice.

The depiction in the alchemical drawing used as a basis for the cover of my book can easily be seen as the dissolving or peaking through the boundary of one’s cultural conditioning to a larger universe, the expansion of consciousness. (The original is above and the one adapted by artist, Michael Green, for the “Jewish” version is below.) We all may ask, what lies beyond the current boundaries of our belief systems and mind-habits and how can we open our hearts and minds to a larger sense of ourselves.

It certainly seems clear that we are at a critical time in the evolution of human consciousness. If, as so much evidence indicates, people are moved to greater states of compassion, unity, joy and transcendence through ingestion of these substances in carefully prepared settings, then shouldn’t getting them out of the locked vaults of government prohibition be a primary goal for us. It behooves us to support research into the appropriate uses and potential dangers and learn from the indigenous societies that have incorporated their use into their sacred ceremonies. 

I offer the links below to offer just a few of the many significant books and resources for understanding the subject of psycho-spiritual growth, healing and entheogens: 

Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals by Huston Smith .

10 minute video of Stan Grof describing his first LSD experience  Dr. Grof, it is safe to say, is the most respected researcher of psychedelics and consciousness studies.

Green Earth Foundation: Here you can find Ralph Metzner’s many books on the subject which are a treasure trove of information about the different substances used for psycho-spiritual growth and include his razor sharp insights into these experiences and their meaning. 


Psychedelic Gospels
(research on the use of psychedelics in early Christianity).

The Ketamine Papers (accounts of the use of ketamine for healing and transformation). 

 cover-final

Through the Buckskin Curtain – Embracing Indigenous Spirituality

b270cec1dc134cceb98f25795c1da365 The intense struggle to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, led by Native Americans, highlights the original and continuing “sin” of the United States of America, the genocidal treatment of the indigenous inhabitants of this land and the centuries of betrayal of agreements. But it also offers us a possible pathway for the rectification of many of our present dilemmas, moving us to be guided by the wisdom of indigenous spirituality, respecting and honoring the sacredness and intelligence of the natural world.

 

The encampments at Standing Rock alongside the Cannonball River that feeds the Missouri have brought together a multi-cultural movement that recognizes the leadership of Native American tribal elders and activists from over 300 Indian Nations. They have come together in a non-violent and spiritually centered movement for protecting the water and land. They have specifically defined their actions as protective rather than as protest. From their spiritual perspective, the true function of the Warrior is to protect, whether in reference to the body, the community, the nation, or the planet.

 

Stepping back from the particulars of this struggle to protect the land and water sacred to the Lakota Sioux and stop the continued expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, it is important to recognize the significant inclusion of the indigenous spiritual attitude with social justice and environmental activism. This wider and deeper view of the human relationship with Spirit and Nature, e.g., calling attention to the sacred fire, sacred water, sacred sky, sacred Mother Earth, not just in words, but in the way we feel and the way we move about, is transformative and infectious. It holds keys to the healing power needed to shift humanity from the destructive trajectory we seem locked into.

 

How we as individuals and as groups of social justice and environmental activists learn from these ancient ways that are connected to Mother Earth herself, needs to be made very conscious. It will not be helpful (in fact it is disrespectful) to mimic the practices of Native Americans. But we can learn to re-awaken what is indigenous (innate) in all humans, the mutual and respectful sense of holiness in Creation and Creator, whether we currently experience them as distinct or as One. This sensibility has been covered over by a radical over-emphasis on the rational, logical, thinking-mind devoted to technological control of our environment and ourselves. What is being called forth is a heart-centered and holistic way of being and relating, one of communion-with rather than control-over.

 

Through the centuries of subjugation, native peoples have passed along the practices, stories and songs that sustain this consciousness in each region and on each continent. We immigrants have the opportunity to listen to them and hear the resonant tones of our own indigenous ancestors calling from within, finding our own pathways towards a balance of the elements of the web of life. Along the way, it’s important that we not confuse embracing “indigenous spirituality” with exploiting or coopting the objects, rituals and ceremonies of specific tribes or peoples. Native Americans are understandably very sensitive to this abuse. In “Native American wannabes: Beware the Weasel Spirit,” Lou Bendrick points out that, “Members of the Lakota tribe have declared war on exploiters of their ancient spirituality. Their declaration states that they have ‘suffered the unspeakable indignity of having our most precious Lakota ceremonies and spiritual practices desecrated, mocked and abused by non-Indian ‘wannabes,’ hucksters, cultists, commercial profiteers and self-styled ‘New Age’ retail stores and … pseudo religious corporations have been formed to charge people money for admission into phony ‘sweatlodges’ and ‘vision quest’ programs …’”

 

On the other hand, I personally know a number of White, Black and Latino women and men who have submitted themselves to decades of rigorous, disciplined education under the guidance of Native American elders and have been sanctioned to practice and teach certain aspects of those traditions. In my interview with Tom Pinkson, (see Crossing the Boundary – Stories of Jewish Leaders of Other Spiritual Paths), he describes his initial passing through the buckskin curtain when he began studying and being tested by a Native American teacher which led up to his decade-long apprenticeship with Huichol shamans in Mexico. Ken Cohen, also interviewed in Crossing the Boundary, studied intensively for many years with his teachers, Keetoowah, Rolling Thunder and Grandmother Twylah Nitsch, and was initiated and adopted by a tribal clan. These two, and quite a few other White (in this case, Jewish) men and women, respectfully entered into a relationship with indigenous spiritual teachers and tribes and only practice and teach what they have been given permission to share.

 

Though few will feel called to cross that boundary so deeply, by embracing an indigenous spiritual outlook the environmental and social justice movement is shifting the very mindset in which it has viewed the problems and solutions it addresses. We are finding ourselves gazing up at the sky, sitting by the sacred fire, getting down on our knees and kissing Mother Earth as we face those of our brothers and sisters who have forgotten what they have lost, forgotten what they’ve forgotten.

 

For more information see the Standing Rock Sioux Nation website: http://standwithstandingrock.net/

 

A personal observer’s account of the activity at the encampments: Mark Johnson’s, “Standing Rock #NoDAPL. It’s not so complicated, But it is complex.” http://clbsj.org/news/2016/11/23/standing-rock/

 

A deep mythological/archetypal/political view, “History in the Making at Standing Rock.” By Paul Levy: http://www.awakeninthedream.com/standing-rock/ 

 

A look at the growth of the indigenous spiritual focus in the environmental movement: “The growing indigenous spiritual movement that could save the planet.”https://thinkprogress.org/indigenous-spiritual-movement-8f873348a2f5#.u1q1rzood

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Seeing Wolves or Crying Wolf: Anti-Semitism and Jewish Identity

I begin with an apology to wolves and wolf lovers (like myself) for using their name as a symbol of vicious, hateful creatures. Wolves have been mischaracterized in this way in a long line of fairy tales, literature and folklore as symbols of what is dangerous and threatening to us. So I ask forgiveness from the noble Wolf Spirit for the use of this old image and suggest you see this link to help undo how humans have made wolves an endangered speciesWhat I’m talking about here are anti-Semites, racists, Muslim-bashers, etc. They are vicious and dangerous, and they evoke great fear in the communities they threaten who have to wrestle with knowing real threats from imagined ones.

For centuries, especially in Europe, the extremely negative stereotyping and hatred projected at Jews was mirrored by a basic sense within the Jewish community: “Don’t trust the Gentiles.”  This dynamic boxed Jewish people into literal and psychological ghettos; feelings of being separate and fearful of others were a major aspect of Jewish identity. My baby-boomer generation witnessed a radical reduction of anti-Jewish prejudice as the anti-Semitism some of us experienced in childhood now seems rare.

When I interviewed fourteen spiritual teachers for Crossing the Boundary: Stories of Jewish Leaders of Other Spiritual Paths, they shared varying accounts of confronting anti-Semitism in their youth. But they mostly observed that it was far worse for their parent’s generation and they believed it was becoming a thing of the past.  Jews in the U.S., except for the ultra-Orthodox (Haredim), have enjoyed assimilation into the “White” majority mainstream of Americans. This is true whether or not they maintain Jewish religious practices and whether or not they maintain a strong Jewish cultural identity.

But now, coming from two different directions, this feeling of safety for Jews in the (White) American world is being shaken. First: recent news accounts, especially frequent in Jewish publications, have noted an alarming increase in the overt expression of Jew-hatred along with threats of violence. This very old form of anti-Semitism has come up through the gates of hell where it has festered in the darker pockets of America. It’s been liberated and emboldened by the campaign of Donald Trump. Though Trump certainly didn’t create it, his rhetoric and style sent signals to those who lived in the shadows of their own bigoted belief systems, freeing them to emerge onto the public stage, especially on social media. In just the past few days, numerous journalists and radio commentators have shared accounts of the vitriolic anti-Semitic messages and threats they are receiving. (See links below). This is scary stuff and it won’t simply go away after the election.

The second concern about anti-Semitism has been strongly fueled by alarms sounded by many Jewish “leaders” and publications. From their lens, critics of Israel are, in fact, critics of the Jewish people; anger at Israel equals anger at Jews. The more strongly the expressed criticism of Israel, the more they are seen as anti-Jewish. The debate over this, especially within the Jewish community, is ongoing and fierce (more links below). Young Jews especially are playing an increasingly significant role in the fight for Palestinian rights, against the Occupation, and challenging the morality of calling Israel a “Jewish State” as opposed to a “State of all its people.” The fact that these young people are Jews might seem to contradict the argument that Israel-critics are anti-Semites. But instead it heightens the anxiety and reaction in much of the Jewish community. From the point of view of Jews who identify Israel with the Jewish people, young Jews criticizing Israel is evidence that the wolves have kidnapped their children and turned them against their own people.  With loyalty to Israel so bonded with the sense of Jewish identity, the rising tide of world-wide condemnation of Israeli policy is felt by many Jews as wolves at the door.

In my opinion, the fears and charges of anti-Semitism regarding critics of Israel are a largely disingenuous attempt to defend the indefensible behavior of the Israeli government towards its Palestinian citizens and those it holds under military occupation. Legitimate protests, calls for non-violent boycott, attempts to call attention to the daily violence and humiliation of a captive people, (which violates the most fundamental values of Judaism and the long history of Jewish humanist thought) cannot with any integrity be called anti-Semitic.

None of that is meant to minimize the reality of anti-Semitism which continues within a vocal segment of the U.S. and may reveal feelings hidden in the larger population. This may be as good a time as any for us all to look deeply at what remains of the centuries-long conditioned misperception through which especially Europeans and their descendants have regarded the Jewish people. Cultural programming is multi-generational and embodied in ways that defy easy undoing. The most overt forms of prejudice may be reduced through a liberal education. But, to use the example of racism: the more subtle forms of it arise out of the visceral and unconscious feelings of “well-meaning” White people and don’t go away without deeper processing. “Undoing White-liberal-racism” workshops and trainings have helped me in this regard to face and deal with my own prejudices.

It seems true that racism, which imprisons us in the belief that people of color are inferior in fundamental ways, infects the minds of everyone, Black and White, until it is made conscious and transformed. It is likewise pretty much impossible to escape the long history of hostile beliefs about Jews. Opinions vary, but in my view, the primary integrating feature of the Jewish stereotype is that they/we are morally corrupt (if not downright evil). It is not that difficult to imagine the next stage of this idea, seeing it as necessary to protect the larger population from contamination with that evil. The fear of this, understandably, runs deep in the identity of Jewish people and for some it is the primary emotional bond of that identification.

However, the reckoning with anti-Semitism is made complicated and more difficult when accusations of anti-Semitism continue to be leveled at people who are expressing their opinions and taking action regarding the behavior of the nation-state of Israel. We all need to distinguish between these two perceived threats to the Jewish community and understand the distorted view of one and the real danger of the other. We also must recognize that the chorus of hatred is rarely only about Jews, but rather (as with the Nazis) may include Catholics, Gypsies, Gays, the disabled. In the current American context it is much more about Muslims, Blacks, Latinos, LGBT people, and yes, women, than it is about Jews.

The mentality of the alt-right wing of the “support Trump” movement is the same Nazi, neo-Nazi, White-supremacist network that has been around for a very long time, most likely with roots in the earliest humans. It’s the fear of the “other” focused into hatred and violence. With some honest introspection, we can see that It is a meme existing in us all, requiring our direct attention if we hope to be part of building a just and free society. We are, after all, one human family, including our most truculent brothers and sisters.

Please read some of these hair-raising accounts documenting the recent rise in anti-Semitism associated with Trump supporters:

“Twitters Anti-Semitism Problem” by Ryan Lizza  from the New Yorker

The Tide of Hate Directed Against Jewish Journalists by Emma Green  from The Atlantic

Anti-Semitic Posts, Many From Trump Supporters, Surge on Twitter By Jonathan Mahler from the New York Times   

Passing as a Non-Jew Has Been Easy for Me — Until Now, by March Daalder  from The Forward  

For more on the debate within the Jewish community regarding anti-Semitism as it relates to condemnations of Israeli policy, see:

Crying Wolf on Campus anti-Semitism: The Vassar College Talk Was No Blood Libel by  Mira Sucharov in Haaretz

US Jews adopted ‘deferential’ relationship to Israel, and tabooed dissent so as to preserve US gov’t support by Phillip Weiss

Occupation denial is pushing me out of my Jewish community by Jenn Pollan

The Truth About Anti-Semitism on Campus — It’s Not All About Israel by Sam Kestenbaum in The Forward

For an Israeli peace activist view of the Jewish identification with Israel, see:

It Can Happen Here by Uri Avnery  

Compassion Behind Prison Bars – Human Kindness Foundation

 

Please watch this short (4 minute) video: https://youtu.be/kkn1dccbJtU.

At the political and societal level, I am very much aligned with those who seek to radically change the prison-industrial complex which involves the mass incarceration of Black, Latino and poor white people. It is an injustice wreaking havoc, especially in communities of color, but truly to our whole society. Yet, while this system is in place, there are those who seek to bring compassion and human contact to those behind bars. At the deepest level of this work, those doing the service experience their work as part of their own journey to be free. 

My good friend, Sita Lozoff, along with her late husband Bo, started the Prison Ashram Project in 1973 and then the Human Kindness Foundation in 1987. Bo’s first book, We’re All Doing Time, now in its 19th printing, is available in several languages. In this book, Bo makes the point that we are all, in or outside prison, “doing time” and ultimately have the freedom to choose our state of mind and how we relate to others. It was hailed by the Village Voice as “one of the ten books everyone in the world should read,” and has been lauded by prison staff and prisoners alike as one of the most helpful books ever written for true self-improvement and rehabilitation. When I worked in a drug treatment clinic and met many who had been in prison, they remembered seeing the book, some having read it, and knowing of it’s great power to change lives. 

A number of years ago, I went with Bo and Sita to several prisons in the Bay Area of California. It was a very moving experience for me, going behind the razor wire, massive concrete walls, gun towers and steel doors to meet with men and women with whom Bo shared the basic wisdom of the great spiritual masters and gave practical advice for applying these principles in extremely difficult situations.

Bo and Sita are two who fit the description of those in my book, Crossing the Boundary – Stories of Jewish Leaders of Other Spiritual Paths. Both were born into Jewish families and through their spiritual seeking met Ram Dass and became disciples of Ram Dass’s guru, Neem Karoli Baba. They chose for their path of service teaching meditation and yoga to prisoners and corresponding with them. Many of these letters make up the most fascinating parts of Bo’s books.

One of the most difficult challenges is when prisoners are released sometimes after many years of incarceration. Here again they receive support and encouragement from HKF. The Human Kindness Foundation does all of its work at no charge. Like all non-profits, it needs support. I’m hoping that some receiving this message will find it worthy of sending a contribution of any amount. It will be of great benefit.

(See short video at https://youtu.be/kkn1dccbJtU)

in peace,

Alan Levin

“Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”  (attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in Matthew 25:40)

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A Good Jewish Boy

A good Jewish boy. It’s an expression I grew up with, sometimes applied to me, often to Jewish men who made it big on the world stage of science, entertainment or sports. It evoked special feelings when we spoke about those who weren’t obviously Jewish, (e.g.: Tony Curtis, Harrison Ford, Peter Coyote). I apply it here, with a taste of Jewish humor, in speaking of the truly good man, Krishna Das. I had the great pleasure to see Krishna Das, (or KD as he likes to be called) just last night as he led a beautiful kirtan, singing Hindu and Buddhist chants at a Tibetan Buddhist temple in Wappinger Falls, NY. And yes, Krishna Das, raised as Jeffrey Kagal, is (or was) Jewish.

 

I say “is or was” referring to a primary question in my book, Crossing the Boundary, for which I interviewed KD. Does a man or woman born to Jewish parents and raised with Jewish identity continue to be Jewish when they embrace and immerse themselves in an alternate spiritual path? Just where and when does Jewish identity cease to be relevant in describing someone (or oneself)? In writing the book I asked around for people who made that journey, crossed that boundary, knowing that I could not easily tell by names or looks. Starhawk, Sat Santokh Singh Khalsa, Krishna Das don’t sound like typical Jewish names. I wanted to know if these folks still considered themselves Jewish, that that identity still described who or what they are.

 

Last night, Krishna Das sat beneath a 50 foot golden Buddha statue with surrounding Buddhas and hundreds of Tibetan Tankhas depicting Buddha in his many forms around the temple. He sang chants, which are mostly repetitions of the names of Gods and Goddesses in

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the Hindu tradition, and told stories of his time with his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, the Indian saint who continues to be the source of divine guidance for him. The room filled with a sacred glow as people participated in the call and response chanting and sat in meditative stillness or danced to the rhythmic beat of the tabla and bells accompanying KD (who played a droning harmonium). At intervals, KD told stories of his time with his guru and offered teachings about awakening to our essential nature, opening our heart to God/Love, and honoring those great beings from many traditions who continue to guide us on our path.

 

KD didn’t mention Torah, Moses, Abraham, at least not last night. From what he shared with me in his interview for Crossing the Boundary, it’s not part of his repertoire and not really a significant aspect of his consciousness. Jewishness is the neighborhood he grew up in. He was turned off by the hypocrisy he saw in his own family and community, went through a difficult and rebellious period, and found grace and freedom in far off India, he found a different neighborhood in which to live; he found home. He told me that he has no animosity with his family or the Jewish people, they are a part of the larger human and spiritual family he embraces. He still loves Jewish humor and the Jewish way of talking or shticking, but it just does not define who he is.

 

As I watched him, I thought of our (his and my) Jewish ancestors. What came to me was the very ancient ones, the mythic wanderers and vision seekers in the wilderness. I felt their presence right there. The Divine One and her/his Angels (Gods and Goddesses) that appeared in fire, sustained the people in the desert, sent messages from the mountain for right conduct in this world, are right in there with Neem Karoli Baba and KD. What more do they ask of us than to wake up and spread the Light and Love of the Divine through the world?

 

Thank you, KD, kirtan wallah, mensch.

 

 

Reb Zalman, The Rabbi Akiva of Our Time

searchRabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi died on July 3rd two years ago. It is a Jewish practice to honor those who have died on the anniversary of their death, their yahrzeit.

The notes below are my own thoughts on the remarkable life of this modern day sage and his intersection with many of the people I interviewed for my book, Crossing the Boundary: Stories of Jewish Leaders of Other Spiritual Paths.

In an ancient Jewish tale told in the Talmud, four rabbis enter the mystical state of Paradise. One goes insane, one dies, one becomes a heretic and is excommunicated, and one returns in peace. The heretic is the focus of Crossing the Boundary. The fourth, Rabbi Akiva, became one of the most significant founders of the Jewish religion as it is known today. To my mind, Reb Zalman is no less significant and in many ways very similar.

According to most interpretations of the Talmudic tale, the heretic, Elisha ben Abuya, was banished from the Jewish people as he became an “unbeliever.” In my book, I suggest that perhaps after his experience in “paradise” he gravitated towards the Greek mystery schools such as the Eleusinian, in which participants drank plant mixtures that induced altered states of consciousness. I further conjectured that he, Aher, and Akiva remained good friends respecting each others different paths of spirituality. Respect and tolerance would come, I surmised, from their experience and understanding that the true nature of divinity, indeed reality, and how one lives a good life is beyond the trappings of any particular religious form. (There is a chapter in Crossing the Boundary devoted to this story and the nature of heresy).

In our time, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, like Akiva, entered the mystical state and  also brought a new vision of Judaism to his people. He was the primary founder and organizer of the Jewish Renewal movement. For the last fifty years of his life he focused on bringing direct spiritual experience to Jewish individuals and groups with an open-minded cultural mindset. Steeped in his early training in the ultra-orthodox Jewish world, he opened to learn from and integrate teachings from a wide range of other spiritual traditions, including Christianity, Sufism, Buddhism and more.

I had the privilege to attend a number of his retreats and teachings and experience first-hand his generous, joyous and wise spirit. Several of the folks I interviewed for Crossing the Boundary shared stories of their encounters with Reb Zalman and his profound openness to their alternate spiritual paths. Some wondered aloud about whether they would have chosen a Jewish path if they had met him in their formative years. He was an honorary Sufi Sheikh and participated with an open heart in ceremonies and rituals of other faiths. In the article in The Forward, he is pictured laughing with Ram Dass (Richard Alpert), well known as a spiritual teacher who chose Buddhist meditation and the Hindu guru, Neem Karoli Baba, rather than following his family’s Jewish religious path.

Reb Zalman spoke of Jewish identity and what he called Jewish PTSD, the inherited trauma in the Jewish collective psyche from centuries of abuse, pogroms and the Holocaust perpetrated primarily in the Christian world. He reflected that this imprinted trauma and fear was a contributor to the Jewish community’s fear-based relationship to the Israeli conflict with the Palestinian people. But he mostly withdrew from political involvement to focus on his spiritual teachings for healing the psyche and soul and advancing the development of the Jewish Renewal movement. He appears to have sensed his mission to be the transmission of the joy of renewed spirituality that bridged people of all faiths, a recognition that Paradise is not for one chosen people.

Reb Zalman embraced people of other faiths and Jews who chose other faiths even though he was deeply embedded in the practice of his own Jewish traditions. As with my understanding of Akiva and Elisha ben Abuya, the people in Crossing the Boundary, (Sufi, shaman, Buddhist, Hindu, pagan, etc.) walk side by side with him.search-1

For a most eloquent and factual tribute to Reb Zalman recently published in The Forward, please see:

http://forward.com/news/201430/reb-zalman-married-counter-culture-to-hasidic-juda/

Review of Crossing the Boundary and Upcoming Book Signing

I’m happy to say that Crossing the Boundary has received a very positive review in the independent book review journal Forward Reviews. You can see the full review here.

I continue to receive messages from folks reading the book about how much they enjoyed it and also how thought-provoking it is for them on their own spiritual journey. I recently had a wonderful time discussing the book with Alex and Allyson Grey at their Chapel of Sacred Mirrors (CoSM) center in Wappinger Falls, NY.  Allyson is featured in the book, and Buddhist teacher, Marty Lowenthal, who also has a chapter, was there for a very illuminating discussion.

My next talk and book signing will be at the Katonah Village Library in Westchester County, NY, for any of you who are in the area. Please see their listing here: http://www.katonahlibrary.org/author-alan-levin-presents-crossing-boundary/.

Blessings,

Alan

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