Our friend Bill Espinosa considered Abdul Aziz Said to be his spiritual teacher for many years. In honor of his recent passing, Bill has shared his remembrance, “Peace and Unity” in the Community Forum. This article, written by Said twenty years ago in the aftermath 9/11, is a beautiful example of his life and work, and so we offer it here. As Bill says, “May the Peace and Unity of his Being remain and inspire us in the difficult months ahead.”
A Time for New Syntheses and New Narratives
September 11, 2001 is more than a tragic event of death and destruction. It is an advent of transformation into a new consciousness. We are at the conjunction of two perspectives. One is the emotional perspective, the perspective that all was peaceful and well. Why did this tragedy happen? Our peace has been shattered. The other perspective is born of resentment, pain, and suffering that have been building for a long period of time, particularly among those who did not experience the period before September 11 as peaceful. In order to draw lessons from this tragedy, we cannot limit ourselves to the first perspective. We have to take into account the second perspective as well.
We need to experience ourselves in relationship, not out of relationship. We need to experience our commonality. We need to do that, so that the suffering that Americans have undergone has a counterpoint in the suffering of those who have inflicted the pain.
In other words, our movement has to be from isolation to unity. To do so, we need to stimulate reflection and find meaning in our common tragedy. The activities we undertake should move towards such reflection and the search to find meaning and commonality. To move towards reconciliation, we should invite ourselves to identify common responses to our common tragedy.
Now that the ashes of the World Trade Center have settled we find that we need to face a new world. America and the planet after September 11, 2001 are different from the day before. This is a truly transformative period in our human experience. New syntheses and new narratives are emerging, affecting all of us. We need new thinking.
A Shift from a Religious Perceptual Framework to a Spiritual One
Outward transformations of our world-collapsing borders, compressed time and space-reflect a parallel transformation taking place in human consciousness as our ways of thinking begin to adapt, and make the space necessary to include and incorporate the proliferating multiplicity of life, culture and being. This transformation of consciousness, with its increasing recognition of our deep interconnectedness and interdependency, suggests a shift from a religious perceptual framework to a spiritual one. The difficulty this transition poses for us, and the responsibility that facilitating this change entails, cannot be understated. We appear to be most divided by multiple, and purportedly religious, fault lines, which are most apparent in proclamations that you are either with us or against us.
Materially and ideologically, our world has never appeared more divided. Globalization and privatization have acutely intensified inequalities to an unprecedented degree. Yet it is precisely the possibility of a transformation of consciousness which allows us to cope with the rapid changes taking place. To the extent that we are aware of the possibility of transformation, we can work in this formative, early period to nurture and direct expressions of an emerging consciousness wherever we find them.
The emphasis on transcendence, the spirit’s quest for ultimate reality, is one of the purest, oldest, and most mysterious aspects of human spirituality, and has been the source of strength for humanity for achieving grace under adversity, for balancing power with humility, and for connecting with a larger meaning and purpose. Moving from a religious to a spiritual framework allows us to relocate our most basic, inherited assumptions in ways which can free us to untangle ourselves from our present circumstances and move with grace toward our shared, collective destiny.
The Abundance of the Human Spirit
A spiritual framework involves understanding that we come from a place of abundance, not scarcity. We are not speaking about material resources (although in our society today we have the means to meet the basic human needs of our entire population), we are talking about the human spirit: here, your win is not my loss; your greatness is cause for my celebration and marvel. When we engage with one another on a spiritual basis, our dialogues are not characterized by one party speaking with arrogance and insensitivity, leaving the other side defensive and insecure.
An Emerging Global Spiritual Ethic
Moving from a religious to a spiritual framework breaks down us versus them dichotomies and allows us to see that the neat conceptualizations of old systems of power no longer fit. These ways of thinking were fictions that could only be upheld through physical separation and deep existential anxieties that arose from entrenched perceptions of scarcity. It is precisely this either – or dichotomy which empowers fundamentalist opportunism, and undermines the discrimination required for individuals to create and direct their own community. An emerging globalized ethic of spirituality embraces the unity we see in diversity, which finally gives us permission to celebrate both. In celebrating we find comfort in our individuality as one unique expression of a larger sameness. Only from this
position do we possess the freedom to recognize that the parts reflect the whole.
In this way, our emerging spiritual ethic frees us from our commitments to metaphors and symbols, while focusing our attention instead on the power animating them. Spirituality finds its own reflection by transcending metaphors and crossing borders, to discover the value of human life and a deeper awareness of a larger, living reality in which one finds oneself. In older paradigms, mutual understanding and dialogue often could not surmount the differences inherent in choices or preferences for metaphor. Our new framework
unhooks us from these linguistic and cultural constraints. This opens up room for mutual understanding and dialogue when we focus on the spirit and encourages its expression through creativity, imagination, and experimentation.
Transnational Consciousness: A Cry for Human Dignity
A spiritual framework which no longer frames rightness or wrongness based on “us” or “them” frees us to grasp the real meaning of interdependency and mutuality. When we see anger and outrage we hear human dignity’s response to fear, and we must be secure enough physically and mature enough spiritually to hear it. The real, embedded meaning of our interconnectedness is mutual responsibility, and the implicit trust that your safety and well-being is directly related to my own, whether you are a believer in my particular faith tradition or not. Our sense of accountability must be expanded in tandem with our influence and reach.
In the old way of thinking, a “just cause” depends largely on who you are, distorting and undermining our essential sense of responsibility to one another. A spiritual perspective frees us from our preconceived identity commitments, and our rigid adherence to metaphors and symbols that are all too easily appropriated in ways entirely different from their original intentions. Where concern for human dignity and social responsibility are manifest as global values, the exclusivism of religious extremists is defused.
A new perspective gives us permission to listen to and abide by our consciousness, and to cultivate an ever-emerging transnational consciousness, which is a meeting of the best of East and West, North and South. The transnational consciousness is not molded by the media, nor is it the creation of the elites and intellectuals: it is the cry for human dignity. It is an innate human expression. This transnational conscience has the power to generate new metaphors, symbols, practices, models and resources that represent new values and goals beyond outdated, arbitrary, artificial boundaries.
Moving from the old framework toward a spiritual one frees us to move beyond the immediate gratification of short-term approaches designed to secure “us.” We begin to cultivate networks of support with each other, networks that are intended for our longue duree here together. As Martin Buber said in 1962, we must replace the way of tactics, which is the short- term approach, with the way of strategy, which is thinking for the long- term. Real defense consists of seeing far ahead, of taking the long view. We must work for long-term results, the decisive word must be dictated not by political tactics but by political strategy.
Cultural and Human Diversity: A Source of Strength
We no longer have the choice of holding on to our habituated ways of thinking. Our metaphors and older ways of thinking and believing do not encompass the traditions, history, and experiences of the rest of the world on their own terms. Recasting the world in one image would prove a bloody, violent and vain enterprise. Instead, we have experienced a shift from separateness to connectedness which is manifest in all the world’s social movements. There is also a shift in the location of authority from the external to the internal. We are relying more on our own inner wisdom and conscience while simultaneously discovering the humanity and interdependence of all communities. We are witness to the affirmation of brotherhood and sisterhood as well as a passion for social justice and political participation. We are discovering in this process that cultural and human diversity is our source of strength and our greatest resource, as living expressions of the ultimate creativity.
What other choices do we have? Our reason and conscience tell us that the old ways continue to threaten our survival, and that our vision and reality can no longer live so painfully apart. And so our consciousness begins to direct us as we begin to view ourselves and our relationship to one another in a new context befitting our rapidly changing environment. Moving toward a spiritual framework opens our perceptual and affective capacity for embracing our unfolding reality.
Retreating from the challenges of active engagement only serves to strengthen the position of fundamentalists in all of our communities. Retreat from one another is itself a symptom of fundamentalism, which is a pathology of culture that arises when a group takes a subset of basic tenets of a tradition, and either under pressure of insecurity or in the pursuit of hegemony and total security, uses them either to seal off others or to maintain dominance. A retreat is not only a denial of the rich diversity of the modern cultural experience, but also a rejection of responsibility for future generations.
Historically, we humans have relied overmuch on the self-evident testimonies of our beliefs and accomplishments, at the expense of genuine interpersonal or inter-civilizational dialogue and bridge-building. A new and mutually rewarding relationship must now emerge, in which accumulated wisdom and insights may be shared to avoid stagnation and to allow authentic human progress to be achieved. Such a relationship will have to be premised not on ideas of cultural superiority, but on mutual respect and openness to cultural eclecticism. We can learn from one another and cooperate in the pursuit of humane values. We are not destined to meet as rivals. Each one of us can give the best we have in exchange for the best from others.
The text of this commentary was published in the fall issue of Kosmos Journal, 2001:
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Images from the top: Portrait of Abdul Aziz Said by 20th century German-American photographer, Lotte Jacobi, courtesy of Bill Espinosa; Light on, image courtesy of author Elia Mazzaro, Unsplash; Image courtesy of author christian buehner, Unsplash; Yuriria, Mexico, image courtesy of author Cristian Newman, Unsplash; Two Feet, One Heart, image courtesy of author Lisa Cope, Unsplash.