It still feels a bit strange talking about spirituality at all much less my own. “Strange” because I used to consider myself to be agnostic. It wasn’t that I believed or didn’t believe in God or a god; it was just that I didn’t think or care about such things. And I certainly didn’t wonder what the difference was between spirituality and religion or even God. It was all sort of the same. It just wasn’t part of my life.
We never talked of things spiritual or even religious in my family as I was growing up. We were Jewish, but I was never bar mitzvah-ed. My sister, brother, and I attended Sunday school regularly at the Burbank Jewish Community Center, which also doubled as the local synagogue, but we never went to Sabbath services, nor to any holiday observances, for that matter. On the High Holy Days (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), my folks felt it would be disrespectful to their parents and our cultural identity to not at least keep us kids home from school. We didn’t go to services or fast or observe in any other way except to just stay home from school. On Passover, we hosted the extended family in our home for what I would call a secular Seder, just as we did at Thanksgiving.
Chanukah was fun, especially making decorative paper chains, lighting the menorah candles, exchanging gifts, hanging stockings on the chimney with care, and waking up excitedly on Christmas morning to see what Santa had left for us. One year, we even decorated a Christmas tree in our living room, much to Baubbie's (my grandmother’s) horror.
At the age of 9, I even started Hebrew school and for two years did quite well at it (a harbinger of a lazy facility with language yet to come). Then, at the age of 11, we moved to Studio City and never reconnected with a synagogue in that area of the Valley. So, no more Hebrew school, nor any preparation for bar mitzvah. On my 13th birthday, the only rite of passage I was put through was that I had to give a speech, in English, to family and friends gathered at a bigger than usual birthday party in our backyard.
Also “strange” because my high school, college, and post-graduate studies were focused on math, science, and engineering, particularly systems engineering and analysis. In my 34-year technical career, I worked with data, statistics, differentiation, integration, and computerized mathematical simulation models. Pretty heady stuff, not much connected with things Heaven or Earth. This despite the fact that half of my career was spent simulating agricultural development and food systems, where the abstractions of mathematics and statistics were still the medium of work.
In that work, the only connections to real Earth were data gathering field trips to farms in Nigeria and Korea. In Korea, I even got my feet wet sloshing in a rice paddy, but when I awkwardly tried my hand at wielding a sickle to harvest a stalk of rice, my hand slipped and I nearly harvested my leg instead! I must admit, though, that I have always found a state of bliss being and hiking in nature, so maybe that’s a clue to my having some sense of something deeper. Nevertheless, I never enjoyed camping out, which I only tried a long time ago on only a very few occasions.
In retrospect, though, the fact that I chose “systems” as a way of seeing the world holistically, as a connected, integrated system, was a big clue to a side of me that might be seen as spiritual, particularly my intention to apply systems thinking to issues of people and planet. What led me to systems was a series of personal awakenings during the ‘60s:
- It was during my junior year abroad that President Kennedy was assassinated. Wandering the streets of Bordeaux that night, feeling alone and far from home, I suddenly realized that the same starry sky overhead also covered Dallas and that I was, after all, connected and not alone. In the days that followed, other students came to our UC study center just to be with us and express not only sympathy but solidarity. One North African student shared with great emotion how much he’d felt that JFK had been his president, too.
- Returning to UCLA the next year, I just couldn’t see myself wearing the mantle of a physicist the rest of my life, so in the middle of my senior year I changed my major to political science and, upon graduation (only a semester late), joined the Peace Corps.
- Two weeks before the end of my Peace Corps tour in Nigeria, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis – and I was asked to speak before the whole school and explain how such a thing could happen – and in the United States of America, of all places. I don’t remember what I said – only that I didn’t know what to say.
- That fall I started my doctoral program in systems science at Michigan State University.
The spiritual side of me came out of the closet and really took off in the ‘90s. First, Fritjof Kapra’s The Tao of Physics really blew my rational, reductionist, scientific mind in that here was a quantum physicist comparing modern quantum physics and ancient Eastern mysticism and showing how, from very different directions, they reach the same conclusions about the nature of reality. Einstein was right – quantum physics is spooky. And yet, spooky as it is, it has withstood the test of time and scientific observation and experimentation.
Then, in 1995 I found the Foundation for Global Community, right here in Palo Alto. FGC wove together, for the first time, four strands of my nature: it was a community with a spiritual basis and dedication to understanding science and that science and spirit could apply to resolving social issues. And FGC was dedicated to infusing the culture with the notion that we are all connected and, even more, that “all is one”. This is a notion of oneness that modern quantum physics is demonstrating as fact and that Eastern and Western mystics have known all along. The 16th century theologian John Donne recognized this truth in his “No man is an island…” poem.
It used to be, at least as far back as classical Greece, that the atom was “known” to be the smallest unit of matter. Soon after, by the time I was in school, atoms were “known” to be made up of electrons, protons, neutrons, and maybe a few other bits and pieces. Now, there is a myriad of subatomic particles and subparticles, which, the further down you go, exist for briefer and briefer instants of time and exhibit more the properties of energy waves than of solid particles. The quark, which not too long ago was “known” to be at the bottom of it all, all of a sudden is recognized as itself composed of even smaller puffs of energy. It’s as if things of no substance that exist for no amount of time leave their traces in this world. Where does it end? Fundamentally, is there anything there?
Indeed, there is something there, at least according to the conclusions some quantum physicists are facing up to, and that something is patterns of relationship. Which leads me to peace. For me, the word “peace” has a very spiritual underpinning, which became apparent when I ran across the definition of peace contained in the Earth Charter – a very “systems” kind of definition: “...peace is the wholeness created by right relationships with oneself, other persons, other cultures, other life, Earth, and the larger whole of which all are a part.”
So, over the next several years, I increasingly focused my bandwidth on volunteering at FGC while, by 2003, phasing out of my 34-year technical career and into an encore career in cultural change, peacebuilding, and the spiritual quest to integrate unitive consciousness with daily life. This encore career has manifested through, first, FGC itself, then the Peace Alliance and its campaign for a U.S. Department of Peace, the National Peace Academy, the Elders Action Network, and Nine Gates Mystery School.
With all that, I guess you could say that I have grown to be more agnostic (in the sense of “not knowing”) than ever, for we can’t pretend to really know anything, only ask questions and live in the mystery. Even science is always changing their story as they push back the veil and reveal more of what was formerly the realm of the mystical. And the questions I’m asking now are about how to bring unitive consciousness into the reality of every-day life in a dualistic world. And, as always, about what is the nature of nature.