The New, Emerging Holistic China: A Personal Report
By Ralph White
Recently I returned from a month in China. It was one of the most fascinating journeys I have taken in many years and opened up new worlds to me. I was meeting the holistic pioneers of China, thanks to my colleague, Yan Chen, founder of Stage Ai, an initiative to build a holistic bridge between China and the West.
What were my predominant impressions? China is on the move, efficient and focused with its high speed trains, massive infrastructure, beautiful airports, quick car services, taxi drivers all on GPS, fashionably dressed women in western clothes, phrases in English on multiple t-shirts, and of course its unmistakable and appalling smog and pollution in the big cities.
But I was there to try to grasp what is happening now in China in terms of a shift toward something beyond the materialism of communism, and the consumerism of the last quarter century of relentless economic growth.
Decades ago, when I was last in China, I saw a world of bicycles, run down ugly buildings, people dressed in dull, asexual green and blue Mao-style clothing, and no cars. It was dingy, down at the heel, and largely impoverished. Today one barely even sees a single old car. I was driven around in brand new SUVs, people laugh frequently, fancy restaurants serve multi course meals, and the country constantly produces the new super rich with fresh billionaires every month. The cities are clean, the harbors, airports and train stations are marvels of new, attractive infrastructure, people seem willing to help each other, and you don’t feel anger or frustration on the streets. People appear to be hard working and focused.
At the same time, China is reconnecting with its ancient spiritual and cultural past. My first morning in Beijing I wandered into a Taoist temple with a full scale ceremony complete with priests in brightly colored robes, a live Chinese orchestra, gongs, drums, bells, sacred texts, and a seemingly devoted congregation. It could have been 16th Century China and there appears to be no effort by the government to suppress this revival of spirituality. In fact, it seems there is a measure of official support for the Confucian, Taoist and sometimes Buddhist renewal. There appear to be no penalties for religious worship, unless in some way the power structure feels threatened.
Holistic Pioneers and Some Glimpses of China’s Psyche
In the case of less religiously inclined people, many are awakening to the need for personal growth and inner development. “One Psychology”, the biggest psychology website in China, has a stunning 30 million visitors. I was fortunate to have dinner with the founder, who explained that psychology is relatively new in China. Major psychological issues need to be addressed especially in the realm of relationships as women become more empowered and independent after enduring millennia of Confucian-influenced subservience to men that is deeply ingrained in the culture. An enormous amount of inter-generational trauma resides in the psyches of millions after the suffering of the Cultural Revolution when families were ripped apart. And people everywhere are searching for meaning, for a higher purpose, for more emotional freedom, for solutions to their psychological problems.
Yan Chen (R) and Yang Guang, Stage Ai, Beijing
Here are some of the individuals who impressed me: First, Yan Chen, the dynamic founder of Stage Ai, and my host. Her intimate knowledge of both East and West, her bold and innovative vision of a bridge of holistic consciousness from China to America, and her intuition that an immersion in contemporary China would greatly benefit my own understanding of the changes afoot there, were all vital for the success of my intensely memorable experience. Then her colleague Yang, the first Chinese philosophy graduate from the California Institute of Integral Studies, who had returned to Beijing to work with Stage Ai, and was my companion for much of the journey. He has deep cosmological interests, the temperament of a budding sage, and a calm, steady, scholarly and helpful demeanor. Another Stage Ai staff member, Gloria, moved me with the story of the depth, intensity and commitment of her spiritual search. She left a good job and lived for four years on less than a dollar a day to be able to read Krishnamurti initially and then many other spiritual texts. I think also of the translator and traveler, Nan, with her purple streaked hair, independent and adventurous spirit who had hitchhiked alone to Tibet from Yunnan in her early twenties and studied with a Taoist master in the mountains above Dali; and Xao-mei, the owner of an eco-resort near Pu’er in Yunnan province, who wishes to make it into one of China’s first holistic centers, offering yoga, mindfulness, hakomi and other practices. Her enthusiasm, openness, and hospitality were deeply encouraging. Her Little Panda center may, in fact, become the site of the first Open Center/Stage Ai conference in China next year.
In Shandong province, the heart of traditional China, I experienced the world of contemporary Chinese religion in its Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist forms. I also journeyed south near to the borderlands with Laos and Vietnam and vividly recall the jovial Buddhist priest in the city of Xishuangbanna in Southern Yunnan close to Myanmar/Burma. Further North in Yunnan, I was strongly reminded of my visit to the Nechung monastery in Dharamsala many years ago as I listened to a wizened, ancient Tibetan lama performing a pre-Buddhist ritual outside a Bon temple near the shores of beautiful Lugu Lake at 8,000 feet. Then there was the Taoist master at the temple complex at the summit of the holy mountain, Tai Shan, with his black hat, robes, dignity and dedication to the spiritual work. I will write about this more in a following article.
Returning to the more secular world in Shanghai I met two remarkably intelligent men in an upscale section of the city built to resemble London who are deeply engaged with creating therapy centers for families, children and the elderly. It was a pleasure on my first morning in the city to meet such welcoming and dedicated individuals committed to the common good. Leaving matters of personal growth aside for a minute, I can’t recall Shanghai without a reference to the sophisticated and elegant seventh floor bar in the French section of The Bund with its pricey cocktails and views of the city’s spectacular waterfront, a vision of Shanghai during its elegant and corrupt phase in the early 20th Century when opium and prostitution permeated the economy and the city was a global watchword for all things decadent. Personally, I can write with some fervor of my relief at finding a wine bar after weeks of nothing but beer.
Overall, Shanghai impresses a visitor with its elegant clothing stores and chic bars that sit right next to poor, run down sections of the city. I couldn’t miss the fascination of Chinese men with Victoria’s Secret’s models and their provocative cat walk show. I left Shanghai with a sense of its waterways and canals, and of course the phenomenal view from the Bund of the illuminated skyscrapers, giant high rises serving as movie screens, with numerous boats and ships churning through the broad river. This is China at its most commercial and energetic, claiming its status as a leading world trading power.
Southern Yunnan Province
Further South in Yunnan, I experienced the celebrated plantations of Pu’er tea with their green terraced slopes and industrious leaf cultivators and pickers. My companions and I enjoyed a wonderful night with the indigenous peoples of the region, the sexy dancing and group singing, the beautiful women, the multiple toasts, the black hat of the headman with its long feather that I wound up wearing, a girl pouring the local wine down my throat while sitting on my knee. I vaguely recall my inebriated speech near the end of the night in favor of indigenous values and culture and global harmony. It was an outrageous evening, fully consistent with my constant experience in China of being treated as an honored guest.
Buddhist temple, Xishuangbanna, Southern Yunnan
Nearby in the city of Pu’er I saw the massive constructions of a new neighborhood in the city. Who does infrastructure more impressively than the Chinese? Their capacity to envision, and then build whole new cities and neighborhoods is some kind of extraordinary phenomenon. And these are not ugly, cramped inner city boroughs. They are elegant with parks and fountains. Of course, everything in China is business, business, business with multiple shameless appeals to status and conspicuous consumption. But after decades of poverty and chaos, it’s not hard to understand the appeal.
China contains a massive variety of experiences and climates. In Xishuangbanna, it felt more like South East Asia with its Buddhist temples and architecture that appeared more Burmese or Thai than Chinese. The Mekong River rolled lazily by, the tropical heat pervaded everything, and the traditional streets of the old city charmed with their natural grace and urban forest. I had the chance to experience an indigenous village of the Dai people, where a very old man, one of the few who could still write the Dai language, composed a message of blessing and good health for me on a strand of bamboo in the traditional style.
Of course, there are many reminders that China is still an authoritarian state. The paramilitary police manning the check point on the border of the Golden Triangle, their sub-machine guns prominent, are a vivid illustration of the power of the security state. They apparently thought I looked like a Colombian drug dealer and held us up for quite a while. Everywhere at airports and even the subway one encounters the efficiency of China’s security services with their no- nonsense pat downs and undeviating focus.
Lijiang and Lugu Lake
Further North in Yunnan we visited the city of Lijiang at the foot of the Tibetan snow range, perhaps the most beautiful of Chinese cities with its exquisite wooden houses and shops, its rivulets and streams coursing through the old town, its willow trees and shade, its traditional crafts and relaxed charm. You can feel the influence of the Naxi culture where people smile easily amidst the tranquility of the mornings. We stayed in a delightful hotel with its private courtyard and carved gate, and its sweet young staff who were learning English and dreaming of a larger life abroad.
Old City, Lijiang
Our Taxi driver, who calmly navigated the narrow, hair-raising road to Lugu Lake with its vast gorges and precipitous drops, was possessed of such a sweet disposition. He drove us through remote mountain villages where we could see the extremely dangerous process of road building on steep, vast mountain slopes. Everywhere, even in the most difficult terrain imaginable, cell phone towers had somehow been placed near mountain tops, a testament to the government’s commitment to phone service in even the most obscure places. You certainly wouldn’t see anything like that in the West.
And finally the incomparable Lugu Lake itself, at the junction of Szechuan, Yunnan and the autonomous Tibetan province of Muli, the home of the ‘Mysterious Land of Women of the East,’ one of the world’s last surviving matriarchies. I had been there almost thirty years earlier when it had been untouched by tourist development. On arrival I experienced the shock and disappointment of the almost ubiquitous tourist development along the Szechuan side of the lake, the crassness of it, the deterioration of silence and the sacred and the pursuit of money. To a foreigner, this is the sad side of China’s development, with its commercial focus and its lack of awareness of sacred landscape. Let’s hope that changes in the years ahead.
But when I awoke the next day, the peace and beauty of the lake, the supreme sense of being above the cares and stupidities of the world, the gentle sunlight, the mists on the water, the tiny island near the center of the lake with its Tibetan temple where Joseph Rock, the pioneering Austrian/American explorer and botanist whose travels in the Twenties inspired the myth of Shangri-la, had lived for eight years. Then there was the wonderful museum of the Mosuo people and culture that beautifully conveys the richness of this ancient women-centered culture, complete with its Joseph Rock room, dedicated to the man who did more than any other Westerner to bring Naxi culture to the world.
It’s wonderful to feel oneself on the edge of Tibet with its spiritual rituals, its lamas drumming to an ancient shamanic beat, blowing the conch and the human bone trumpet, as they prayed for blessings for the village. We met the simple, warm woman who paid for the ceremony. And who can not find delight in spinning the prayer wheels at the temple – Om Mani Padme Hum – as they send out blessings to the world. And if anyone has any doubts about the vitality of the matriarchal culture around the lake, they should find themselves in a small row boat making its way through choppy waters to a sacred island in the heart of the lake with an attractive and physically strong Mosuo woman wielding her oar in her shiny blouse and sweater, with the same vigor and endurance as her brother with his broad face, and rough, cheerful demeanor.
Looking back on that month in China, a phrase stays strongly with me. I first heard it uttered by a very intelligent psychology professor at Fudan University, one of the top universities in Shanghai, who said that ‘Spring is coming’ in China. He was referring to the awakening now occurring in the country. He was very knowledgeable about the holistic impulse in the West and its significant figures. From his words, and others, it seems that the first buds of spring are starting to burst open in China and a new season is about to take place. The same metaphor was used by the founder of One Psychology. Within the next five years, they both felt deeply that there will be a massive outpouring of interest in matters of psychology, consciousness, meaning and finding a deeper purpose to life than economic growth and materialism. It seems that enough people have now ascended Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, enough citizens now have shelter, food, clothing, work etc. that they are ready to engage with the prospect of self-actualization and finding deeper purpose in their lives.
Ralph at Lugu Lake
Many parts of China remain dingy and poor, and millions still struggle for for the basics of a decent existence, especially in the countryside. And of course the country remains dominated by a powerful government which does not tolerate any perceived threats to its power. It is never helpful to have too Pollyannaish a take on a place where political freedom remains a distant prospect, and the people of Tibet continue to suffer profoundly.
But the impression I took from a packed and diverse month across the country, is that it no longer works to see China through the prism of the crisis of 28 years ago. The human reality of the Chinese people – most of them friendly, welcoming, and gracious with little if any propaganda induced hostility to the West – lies in the simple thumbs up signs from elderly men who greeted me shyly in the Olympic park in Beijing, or the eager handshakes from simple working people I encountered along the way.
Despite the decades of communism,, the people of China remain curious about the West and ripe for a dialogue. A powerful impulse seems to be awakening in the country that harks back to the beauty and wisdom of ancient China with its emphasis on harmony and attunement to nature. Spirituality is deeply ingrained in a civilization where there is a recognition that the I Ching is the foundational document of Chinese culture. The Communist Party has officially embraced the creation of ‘An Ecological Civilization” as one of its core objectives, hard though that may be to believe. The Book of Changes tells us that all things are in flux, that water inevitably finds its level, and that even a difficult and dark journey lasting decades can gradually transform into a path toward wisdom. China is a long way from reaching that goal, but I returned to New York with a sense of optimism and possibility. Much can be done to create a cultural dialogue, to build that holistic bridge between China and the West that is at the core of Stage Ai’s mission, and I returned feeling energized and happy to be part of this innovative and important work.
Ralph White is co-founder of the New York Open Center and the author of the memoir, The Jeweled Highway: On the Quest for a Life of Meaning. He directs the Esoteric Quest series of conferences. www.ralphwhite.net, www.esotericquest.org.
Stage Ai can be reached at www.stageai.com.
This is the first of three articles about contemporary China.
The Grail Quest of Ralph White by Craig Chalquist, PhD
The Jeweled Highway: On the Quest for a Life of Meaning
Divine Arts, 2015 (Purchase it at: http://www.amazon.com/gp/
Every now and then arrives a man who contains within his life the momentum of an entire movement. Hermann Hesse comes to mind for the spirit- and soul-starved generations of the late 1800s and early to mid-1900s.
The man for our time is Ralph White, a native of Wales who started out as a shy boy dreaming on the coast of the Irish Sea. From there he traveled around the world in search of depth and wisdom, met and spoke with virtually every significant representative of the Human Potential Movement, and co-founded New York Open Center on an aspiration that came to him in his twenties: to create oases of meaning, in urban settings particularly. In many ways his life has been one extended pilgrimage to rediscover the lost sources of Western esotericism.
The Jeweled Highway is the story of White’s post-World War II search for meaning and wisdom as the collective relief of beating Hitler and Hirohito succumbed to materialism, mechanization, and disillusionment of the kind White saw close up when his family moved to a grimy, smokestack-riddled English town at the clanking core of the Industrial Revolution. If the God he had heard about in church permitted global slaughter and Holocaust, he wondered, what mattered? What endured? At age 21 he stuck out his hitchhiker’s thumb and went to find out.
White’s memoir takes us to many places along that journey, including Chicago, where he found his street smarts; Vancouver, at that time a scenic site of counter-cultural resistance to massification; Machu Picchu, where mountain and lake awakened his sense of the immanence of spiritual knowing; London, New York City, and many other places not only cities or landscapes but, in a higher view, shrines and sacred sites along the Quest, each described in vivid and even gritty detail.
While reading this memoir I kept seeing parallels to Sir Percival’s quest. The wasteland, for example: “Two hundred years of hard grind and subsistence for the world’s oldest working class; centuries of small lives, poor diet, and grim labor conditions had left a pall of depression hanging over the place.” The questions: “What murmurs in the soul prompt the search for the elusive and mysterious chalice? What longing still stirs for some deeper stream of reality beyond the gray, dreary world of so much contemporary life, with its shopping malls and work for faceless corporations?” The search, so often in the guiding presence of insightful young women, Grail Maidens as traveling companions; and the mentoring, not only by spiritual masters past and present, East and West, but by drifters, stoners, depressives, and bums, each bearing his bit of light.
Steinbeck would have understood. So would the young knight in red armor (one root of the name “Ralph” is “red wolf”) trying to make his way in the world.
And then the fulfilment, “The Work”: “I have been fortunate to find a path to an independent spirituality and to help create centers, vehicles for cultural change that serve as focal points for a new awareness now rising to meet the need for a sustainable future where soul and well-being return to their rightful place.”
That is an understatement. Having been program director of Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, White designed and taught the first accredited course in holistic studies at New York University. He has organized and directed conference-quests such as Prague, Alchemy and the Hermetic Tradition; The Italian Renaissance and the Esoteric Traditions; Psyche, Spirit and Addiction; Voluntary Simplicity; The Grail and Arthurian Traditions; The Golden Age of Andalusia: Sufis, Kabbalists and Christian Philosophers in Medieval Spain; The Mysteries and Philosophy of Greek Antiquity; The Art of Dying; and A Quest for Ancient Alexandria: Greco-Egyptian Cradle of Western Esotericism.
Who would have thought that the Grail Castle could reappear in the heart of Manhattan? Yet it has. New York Open Center sees sixty thousand visitors a year searching for the life and health, purpose and magic that wait below the everyday surface of things and beyond the daily round and rush. I realized this while helping Ralph assemble a new and experimental Certificate in Holistic Psychology: every illustrious name I could think of as a possible instructor he had previously hosted there. Furthermore, through Ralph the Center linked to Findhorn, Esalen, and other holistic centers all over the world: the Jeweled Highway spread and thickened into the sparkling Jeweled Net of Indra.
Among the many revelations contained in the book, this one came with “an experience that has remained with me my whole life”:
Listening to a record of Crosby, Stills & Nash singing, “Guinnevere had green eyes / Like yours, milady / Like yours,” the awareness suddenly flooded me that I was here, on this earth, for one primary purpose— simply to be myself.
From that insight followed White’s version of what Sir Percival asked the Fisher King at the end of the Grail Quest, a question with which to face our own troubled time: How might I be of service?
Of late it has become trendy, especially in business circles plagued by outdated thinking, to sneer at Joseph Campbell’s call to “Follow Your Bliss” as hopelessly impractical, a recipe for fiscal disaster. Far better, advise the contemptuous, to land a reliable income–as though there were such a thing anymore as global economies oscillate and fabulous amounts of wealth continue to funnel upward to the super-rich.
The Jeweled Highway demonstrates exactly the opposite: that those who are called to depart the Wasteland of empty careerism and faddish frippery will find, perhaps after many trials and turns in the trail, the long-sought nourishment of meaning and greater awareness that will keep them going, fill their souls, and reveal to them the beauty of the world.
Craig Chalquist, Ph.D. Department Chair, East-West Psychology, California Institute of Integral Studies – http://www.ciis.edu/academics/graduate-programs/east-west-psychology President, Depth Psychology Alliance – http://www.depthpsychologyalliance.com/
My New Memoir – The Jeweled Highway: On the Quest for a Life of Meaning
Well, it’s finally happening – my memoir will be published on September 15th. It’s been a labor of love, to
say the least, and I’m deeply pleased that this chronicle is about to be published. It covers my early life
in the Celtic world, my youthful spiritual search in South America and in the counterculture, and my
experience of alternative community in the Seventies. It also deals with the many ways I have found to
express meaning through the worldwide network of holistic centers, the sequence of Esoteric Quests
conferences, and the ongoing work with the NY Open Center – still the world’s leading urban center of
I wrote it to be fun and engaging. This is not a ponderous tome readers will have a hard time finishing.
The first two people to whom I gave the completed manuscript told me they literally couldn’t put it
down. In fact, one of them told me he has had that experience with only four or five books in his whole
life. So I couldn’t be more pleased – a writer can’t receive a much better complement than that.
Let me include here a few endorsements for the book:
“Written with a poet’s eye and a seeker’s urgency, Ralph White’s hunger for truth leads him down many
alleyways. He rewards the reader with hard-won wisdom.” — Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way
“If you want to know where we’ve been and where we’re headed in these times of great danger and
opportunity, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.” — Robert Thurman, author of Inner
Revolution; president, Tibet House
I’ll be writing more about the book in the near future. For the time being I would like to include the link
to Amazon if any readers would like to purchase it.
Below you can find a series of endorsements from some of my favorite people:
Praise for The Jeweled Highway
“Written with a poet’s eye and a seeker’s urgency, Ralph White traces his spiritual journey. His hunger for truth leads him down many alleyways. He rewards the reader with hard-won wisdom.”
— Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way
“A riveting, deeply joyful spiritual adventure demonstrating how a sustained wish for truth can attract a life strewn with inner meaning.”
— Jacob Needleman, author of An Unknown World: Notes on the Meaning of the Earth
“As a leading figure at the New York Open Center for three decades, Ralph White has introduced thousands of speakers, none more interesting than himself. In this gorgeously written memoir, the evocative images of his wide and deep life journey inspire us to do likewise — seek and find, again and again.”
— Robert McDermott, president emeritus, California Institute of Integral
Studies, author of Steiner and Kindred Spirits “Ralph White is talented, original, and uninterested in convention, and his life has been an adventure of the Joseph Campbell kind — a quest to find the secrets of life and then give them to his fellow citizens. He is one of those rare men who has said yes to life far more than he has retreated into safety.”
— Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul
“This Jeweled Highway of Ralph’s is really cool. I greatly enjoyed traveling on it through his vivid account of the challenging adventures, and the internal discoveries they spurred, which resulted in the no-nonsense, good-humored, and spiritually activated person he is today. He has served all of us — who insist against all odds upon a better world — so creatively as the sophisticated spiritual impresario of the historic, catalytic New York Open Center, a place where so many have opened their minds and hearts to see deeper and dream greater. In this highly readable memoir, he colorfully describes his ups and downs and brave wanderings through far-off landscapes of the earth and of the mind and spirit. If you’re one who wants to know where we’ve been and where we’re headed in these times of great danger and opportunity, I cannot recommend it highly enough.”
— Robert Thurman, Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies, Columbia
University, author of Inner Revolution and Infinite Life “What an extraordinary memoir. Ranks among the best books I’ve read in years! What a privilege to be so intimately invited into the inner life and breathtaking adventures of such a great seeker and person of action as Ralph White. He is a living ‘Center of Consciousness’ for the whole world.”
— Robert Sardello, co-director, The School of Spiritual Psychology, author of Silence: The Mystery of Wholeness
“What splendid adventures-in-life await within this book! What a true jewel that avoids all dogma and instead seduces us with outrageous explorations of the soul. What a timely literary miracle in this era of spirit-questing and esoteric regeneration.”
— David Yeadon, author of The Way of the Wanderer: Discover Your True Self
Through Travel “This is a brilliantly written autobiography of self-discovery from one of the foremost cultural creatives of our time. Like a contemporary Odysseus, Ralph White invites us to join him on his spiritual journey and absorb along with him the distilled wisdom of the human race that he encounters along the way.”
— Kyriacos Markides, author of The Mountain of Silence and Inner River
“The Jeweled Highway is a rare beast, a compelling book of spiritual vision and inspiration that is also an exciting adventure story — a ‘ripping great yarn’ — and a testament to human courage and the willingness to push into the farthest frontiers in search of wisdom and spirit. In offering this memoir of a life very well lived, Ralph White also takes us on the most important quest of our time: the journey into the heart and soul — and magic — of a world in transformation.
I enthusiastically recommend it!”
— David Spangler, author of Journey Into Fire and Apprenticed to Spirit
“The Jeweled Highway is not about one man’s personal quest into the mysteries of the unknown. It is about the innate human longing for the existential truth that originated with the first prehistoric utterance, was amplified through cavernous netherlands, and was embodied for centuries in forbidden books and secret societies the world over.”
— Alnoor Ladha, executive director of The Rules and board member for Greenpeace International, USA
“Like a skilled caravan driver, Ralph White leads us into the heart of the esoteric Western traditions — a luminous landscape forgotten by the spiritual tourists of Eastern wisdom ways — and reveals the jewels hidden there. His own inner and outer adventures uniquely qualify him as our insightful and big-hearted guide.”
— Mirabai Starr, translator of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, author of God of Love: A Guide to the Heart of Judaism, Christianity and Islam
“Ralph beautifully and vividly chronicles his journey of a meaningful life. For anyone on this path, his recollections are both inspirational and motivational as he helps the reader understand that life’s meaning can be searched for both through mystical experiences of intuitive guidance and through conscious, thoughtful choices. I am often asked about the history of the human-potential movement, and Ralph has adeptly captured the nuggets of what was taking place in the ’60s and early ’70s. It is a unique read — a story captured through the eyes of one of the successful founders of the holistic-center movement.”
— Cheryl Fraenzl, director of programs, Esalen Institute
I will also be doing a book launch at the Open Center on Tuesday, September 15th.
Obviously this is an exciting moment for me. I’ve edited a magazine, and introduced and edited books,
but this is the first time I’ve written my own book from cover to cover. As it’s a memoir, it is of course
I would be delighted if you bought a copy. People tell me it’s an ideal gift!
Here is a sampling of articles and reviews I have written and interviews I have conducted.
Various articles also appear in the Blog section of the site.
ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT: City of the imagination
Published in Huffington Post
Alexandria, Egypt is a city that appeals powerfully to imagination. It was here that the Egyptian Revolution was ignited by the brutal murder of blogger Khaled Said, and the city continues to be a major focal center of political activism. But Alexandria is also the city of Cleopatra, and of the ancient Library, reborn today as the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. It was the home of the philosopher and mathematician Hypatia, beautifully brought to life by Rachel Weisz in the recent film Agora. And Lawrence Durrell immortalized the sensuous, mid-20th century incarnation of the city in his classic evocation of the city’s exotic and sensuous ambience, The Alexandria Quartet.
Yet for many its place in the world remains indistinct. Most visitors to Egypt tend not to venture north of Cairo to the shores of the Mediterranean where Alexandria is found. Instead they head up the Nile to the pharaonic monuments of Luxor and Aswan, or East to the beaches and diving resorts of Sharm El Sheik. But in Alexandria we have a cultural jewel, one of the most brilliant cities in the history of the world, its Corniche stretched along the blue bay shore, awaiting rediscovery by lovers of history and ancient spirituality.
A casual visitor today might not see beyond the hectic traffic, the dingy buildings, and the absence of pyramids. And it’s true that not much remains from ancient times to offer an easy appeal at first glance. But look deeper and a mysterious realm begins to appear, the place where the Western mind first began to take shape, the cultural capital of antiquity. Founded by Alexander the Great, the city was the birthplace of the first great library containing all the knowledge of the ancient world. Without the Library of Alexandria we would probably not have preserved the work of Homer, Plato, Aristotle or Euclid, to name just a few of the figures without whom civilization would be immeasurably poorer.
It was here in about 250 BCE that Eratosthenes first calculated the circumference of the Earth using nothing more than a stick, a string, and a shadow, and got it right within 500 miles. It was also here that the first lecture halls and laboratories were built in the Museion, named after the Greek muses. And for those with more philosophical interests, it was in Alexandria that a syncretic fusion of Greek and Egyptian wisdom gave birth to new spiritual streams that would alter the thinking of the world, and deeply influence both the West and Islam for many centuries.
Alexandria was the world’s first cosmopolis — a place where all the cultures of the known world flowed together. Greek philosophers rubbed shoulders with Egyptian priests and Indian gymnosophists, African influence flowed down the Nile, and the lands of the Mediterranean and Black Sea both fed and were nourished by its brilliance. Multiculturally, it was the New York of its day, where devotees honored the divine spiritual teacher Hermes Trismegistus, a blend of the Egyptian Thoth and the Greek Hermes. His legacy, the Hermetica, was to have a profound influence on the Renaissance. Alexandria was also the home of alchemists, Gnostics, and lovers of esoteric wisdom; and later whole schools that developed worldviews in which Greek philosophy was beautifully integrated with Christian and Jewish belief.
Today, the ancient city has begun to live more vividly in our imaginations. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the new Library of Alexandria, was built in the last decade on the approximate site of its legendary predecessor, and is intended to serve as the world’s window into Egypt. Books on Cleopatra, Like Stacy Schiff’s recent best-seller, continue to fascinate and reveal a brilliant and diplomatically skilful woman fluent in multiple languages.
The movie Agora used spectacular computer graphics to recreate the sheer grandeur and beauty of Romano-Egyptian Alexandria, marred tragically by the murder of the noble philosopher Hypatia by an incensed Christian mob. More subtly, Leonard Cohen’s poignant song, Alexandra Leaving, echoes the work of the 20th century Greek-Alexandrian poet, Constantin Cavafy, a friend of E.M. Forster, whose poems often evoke moving scenes from antiquity.
Alexandria today may bear little resemblance to the world city that amazed antiquity. Nor does it possess the sophisticated, multicultural ambience of Lawrence Durrell’s evocative Quartet. But after decades of neglect and stagnation under military rule, admirers of this city of genius and mystery have reason to hope that post-revolutionary Egypt will build on the Library’s resurgence and enable Alexandria to retake its rightful place as one of the greatest cultural and spiritual gems ever created.
The International Holistic Centers’ Gathering
Over the last quarter century or more, many of us have clung to the notion that there is some kind of awakening of consciousness happening throughout the planet. Countless spiritual visionaries have spoken of a global paradigm shift, but in Bush=s retrograde America can we really see any evidence that this is happening? Skeptics might do well to examine a little known event that has passed unnoticed by most observers – the annual International Gathering of Holistic Centers that took place recently at Hollyhock, Canada=s beautiful island retreat in British Columbia.
The Seeker Chronicles
Interview with me in the online travel magazine, Brave New Traveler.
Interview with Frederick Franck on his Art, his Life and his Work
Frederick Franck who was a much loved friend and honored member of the New York Open Center faculty died in June at the age of 97. In the over 20 years that we were blessed to have him in our lives, he inspired thousands of people through his books, his workshops on the Zen of Seeing and his magical presence. He was a renaissance man, a painter, sculptor, author of over 20 books and creator, with his wife Claske, of Pacem in Terris, a public oasis of peace and beauty filled with his inspired works of art. He inspired us throughout with his boundless creativity, his irrepressible humor, his indomitable spirit and his generosity of heart. He will be greatly missed.
Ralph: Frederick, I would like to ask you about your early life. I know you were born in Maastricht in the Netherlands, and in many ways your life has spanned this whole century.
Franck: For me, the century began on the 4th of August, 1914 when I was five years old. On that day, I remember walking with my grandfather and seeing a proclamation pasted on a wall by the Dutch army. I also remember the first bombardment of Visey, which is a little town 16 kilometers south of Maastricht. I saw a zeppelin fly over–sometimes I think I imagined it, but I remember my father saying, “Look at that!” Then, almost at once, endless files of refugees started to trek over the border past our house. It is as clear to me as if it happened yesterday. I remember an old man in this endless file of people. He was carrying a little cage with a canary in it. I was standing there eating grapes, which I started to throw. It was a kind of impudent gesture of compassion.
Interview with Rene Querido on Waldorf Education and the Path of Anthroposophy
In the first quarter of this century, the Austrian philosopher and educator Rudolf Steiner articulated one of the most extraordinary worldviews in modern times: Anthroposophy. Filled with profound insights that are simultaneously practical and spiritual, it has given birth to numerous successful and enduring initiatives in such fields as Waldorf education, biodynamic agriculture, the Camphill communities for those with mental disabilities in need of special care, and many creative developments in architecture, medicine, and even banking. In fact, the Waldorf schools now constitute the largest grouping in the world in the field of private education. Yet Anthroposophy remains in general, poorly understood and little recognized outside Europe, despite its many achievements.
Given the exploding interest today in alternative forms of education, Lapis felt it was time to talk to one of the major influences in the development of Waldorf schools in America, Rene Querido. Born in Holland and brought up in a family with no religious orientation, he escaped the invading Nazis and came to Britain as a child in the midst of the Blitz. He was introduced to the work of Rudolf Steiner by an enigmatic Cockney workman while working in an art store, and went on to teach in one of England’s early Waldorf schools. He first came to the States in the early Sixties and returned in the Seventies to establish Rudolf Steiner College in Fair Oaks, California, the West Coast’s leading center for Waldorf education. Now retired, he discusses here the nature of his life’s work and the deeper spiritual insights about the world to be found within Anthroposophy.
Interview with David Spangler on the State of the American Soul 2005
David Spangler is one of the most remarkable spiritual seers of our time. For many years he has demonstrated a profound attunement to the higher levels of reality beyond the material world. Yet he is a spiritual researcher with a difference — he has always had an intense engagement with current affairs and the significance of world events in the larger context of the evolution of consciousness. Who better, then, to discuss with Lapis’ editor Ralph White the state of America’s soul?
David Spangler has been writing, lecturing, and teaching since the early seventies, when he was codirector of the spiritual community of Findhorn in Northern Scotland. He is the author of Revelation: The Birth of a New Age; Emergence: The Rebirth of the Sacred; Everyday Miracles; A Pilgrim in Aquarius; The Call; and most recently Parent as Mystic, Mystic as Parent.
An Interview with Andrew Harvey on Sacred Activism
Andrew Harvey discusses with Lapis editor Ralph White his experience of the Divine Mother and his views on the dangers of gurus. He also argues that an authentic spirituality can never be mired in narcissism but must instead take service to the world as its primary ethic. We need a mystic activism that fuses a contemplative awareness of the divine with an impassioned devotion to justice, the environment, and the alleviation of suffering.
Born to British parents in India in 1952, Andrew Harvey at nine was sent to England to begin his education. At twenty-one, he was elected the youngest Fellow in the history of All Soul’s College, Oxford. But academic life began to feel hollow to Harvey. Sick at heart, he abandoned what he had come to see as “the concentration camp of reason”, and returned to India to look for a spiritual path.
There, he studied Hindu mysticism at the ashram of Sri Aurobindo and with Tibetan Buddhist master Thuksey Rinpoche, drawing on the latter experience for his 1983 book A Journey in Ladakh. He returned briefly to Europe, but a lingering dissatisfaction haunted him.
An Interview with Russell Hemenway on American Political Culture
Russell Hemenway has for fifty years been a true warrior spirit in American politics, combating the power of the radical right from the days of Joe McCarthy to the contemporary influence of the Christian Coalition. As National Director of the National Committee for an Effective Congress, he has been on the inside of countless political campaigns and has witnessed up close the changes wrought in our political culture by the rising influence of big money, television advertising, and attacks based on a candidate’s personal life. In this presidential election year, Ralph talked to him about his rich life experience at the heart of American political culture and the insights it has brought him.
Consuming Desires: Culture, Consumption and the Pursuit of Happiness edited by Roger Rosenblatt
At a time when the power of consumerism drives not only the American but also the global economy, this is a timely and valuable book. Roger Rosenblatt, best known for his commentary for The Newshour on PBS, has compiled a stimulating and varied series of essays by mostly well-known writers like William Greider and Bill McKibben who ponder questions of serious contemporary relevance. From where does this rapacious appetite for more spring? And what is the predicament it leaves us in today when the environmental consequences of our unrelenting obsessions with buying and having are increasingly apparent?
The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple
For anyone interested in the world of mid-Nineteenth-Century India, this is a wonderful book. William Dalrymple has established himself as one of the most original and compelling authors writing today about the Indian sub-continent and the Middle East. His capacity to paint graphic word pictures of lost worlds, his masterly storytelling abilities and scholarship, and his clear sympathy for the Sufi culture of the late Mughal Dynasty all make his work compulsively readable. This book tells the poignant tale of the last Mughal emperor of India in the days leading up to the Indian Mutiny (or First War of Independence, as the Indians call it).
Looking Deeper Into Palin’s Beliefs
Published in Huffington Post
As the world awaits Obama’s accession to power with unlimited hope and enthusiasm, this is certainly a time to celebrate the success of American democracy. Optimism and idealism reign supreme and it’s about time after far too many years of deep disappointment. But a dark shadow mars the American political landscape. What will happen to the extreme right wing embodied in Sarah Palin’s ascendancy to the national stage? Will it slide into well deserved obscurity or will it continue to plague the American body politic? It seems to me that this is a crucial question as we look ahead.
As the Republican Party attempts to regroup and begins to splinter between the moderate and far right wings, progressive thinkers will have to be conscious of any tendency to smugness. No need to worry, some say. If Palin’s crowd comes out on top of the power struggle they will be so extreme and irrelevant that they will attract insufficient numbers to ever pose a significant threat again. They can be gleefully consigned to history there to be viewed occasionally as a bizarre relic of a disturbed and wacky time in the country’s political journey.