This article was originally published by the Interfaith Observer and reprinted with permission. It is available here.
For fifteen years I have worked closely with more than 50 meditation teachers from Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Native American traditions. This began for me by participating in Father Thomas Keating’s groundbreaking interreligious retreats held at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado. Inspired by Keating, I founded the Spiritual Paths Foundation in 2000, a context to explore InterSpirituality. In both settings, I had an opportunity to explore common themes in world religion from the perspectives of seasoned spiritual practitioners who shared the depths of their own meditative techniques, processes, and experiences.
What I learned was surprising. Though my PhD and personal practice were within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, my understanding of Buddhism and Buddhist meditation was deepened by experiencing the teachings and meditations of different spiritual traditions. It became clear that there are shared processes found in nearly all of the traditions which make their meditations more effective and affective. Thus, I began to see that these shared meditative processes might be distilled in what I call InterSpiritual practice, gathering people from different traditions to meditate together, sharing one process, while keeping what is unique in each of their own traditions intact.
The book which grew out of this journey offers a seven-part meditation process that can be practiced alone, with people from the same tradition, or from various traditions, including the ‘spiritual but not religious.’ It is designed to help people develop a foundation for health, inner peace, wisdom and compassion; and its purpose is to foster these sacred qualities in group practice, bringing about a shared experience of the sacred which may be an inner foundation for harmony in our divided world.
I call it InterSpiritual Meditation because it draws together key components of meditative processes found in many of the world’s religions. What I am proposing is not a new religion or a new synthesis of religions, but a process through which we can celebrate the unique contributions of each spiritual tradition, being a way for us to better embrace the marvelous spiritual diversity that has been given to us.
Religion, Spirituality, and InterSpirituality
What is InterSpirituality? And how does it differ from our understanding of religion and spirituality? First we need to define ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality.’ For me, and I think many others, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s definitions make sense:
Religion I take to be concerned with faith in the claims to salvation of one faith tradition or another, an aspect of which is acceptance of some form of metaphysical or supernatural reality, including perhaps an idea of heaven or nirvana. Connected with this are religious teachings or dogma, ritual, prayer, and so on.
Spirituality I take to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit – such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony—which bring happiness to both self and others.
– Dalai Lama, Ethics for the New Millennium (1999), p. 22.
InterSpirituality, for me then, is a term that applies to the intentions, processes, and experiences shared by the contemplative traditions that are nested within the world’s major religions. It connotes a more nuanced approach than conventional interfaith or interreligious dialogues offer based on tolerance, rapprochement, and respect. InterSpirituality goes deeper, into the heart of the spiritual experiences that give rise to religion. It holds the promise of a genuine sharing of our respective spiritual experiences, and a conscious joining at the deepest levels of our being. InterSpirituality represents the next phase of understanding between people of different spiritual traditions.
A Seven-Part Process
InterSpiritual Meditation can be done alone for one’s own spiritual development, as well as for group practice as a means of InterSpiritual sharing. It helps each participant to deepen their own personal spiritual path and to support the spiritual awakening of each other.
Joining in stillness, we are free from imposing our beliefs and the names of our truths on one another. Thus we are able to honor and celebrate the practices of every spiritual tradition in silent assent and acceptance. We can experience a unifying InterSpiritual consciousness emerging from the integrity of each tradition, and we can discover a profound unity within our diversity. We are free to bask in the love and compassion, abundance and strength of our shared wisdom, being of one heart.
Together, we engage silently in a seven-part process of meditation in which each individual participant applies his or her own spiritual understanding and practice to each step.
1. Step One – Motivation
“May I Be Healthy and Happy” – Physical, mental and spiritual health are intertwined, and meditation nurtures sustainable health and happiness. We begin meditating with determination and confidence that it will help us heal the innermost causes of illness and suffering. We rest into the sublime porosity of InterSpiritual consciousness for personal and universal healing.
2. Step Two – Gratitude
“May I Be Grateful for Life’s Many Gifts” – With gratitude we remember the blessings of friends, family, and the environment that nurtures and sustains us. We are grateful for life’s easy and not so easy things. We invoke and honor our teachers, mentors and great role models. We invite them to remain present and pray that their examples will guide us.
3. Step Three – Transformation
“May I Be Transformed Into My Highest Ideal” – Focusing on the highest ideals for our life, we acknowledge and confess our shortcomings and promise to patiently persevere in our personal transformation. We vow to remove our inner obstacles and negativities. Without guilt, we forgive others and ourselves as we offer our lives in service to our highest goals.
4. Step Four – Compassion
“May I Be Loving and Compassionate” – We set our intention on love and compassion – the transforming energy for the health and happiness of all. We vow to help all beings be free from the causes of their suffering.
5. Step Five – Mindfulness
“May I Be Focused and Mindful through Breathing” – Meditation and contemplation are taught in many ways by many traditions. With sincere respect and appreciation for them and dedication to our own practice, we silently engage in our own meditation. Alone or in community we deepen our own wisdom as well as our InterSpiritual communion with other diverse experiences of the “sacred.”
6. Step Six – Meditation
“May I Become Wise through Meditation” – Meditation and contemplation are taught in many ways by many traditions. With sincere respect and appreciation for them and dedication to our own practice, we silently engage in our own meditation. Alone or in community we deepen our own wisdom as well as our InterSpiritual Communion with other diverse experiences of the “sacred.”
7. Step Seven – Dedication
“May I Serve All Beings” – Visualizing our family, friends, colleagues, antagonists, and all beings throughout the world we rededicate ourselves to becoming servants of peace, justice and environmental health. May this meditation help us to engage together in the world with passion, patience, kindness and wisdom.
The proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the taste. My first taste of InterSpiritual consciousness came during opening evening with Father Thomas Keating’s group of meditators from many traditions. That night, we silently meditated in a circle with each other and then began a deep contemplative dialog.
Like intersecting ripples
from many pebbles
dropped into a still pond,
overlapped and merged.
Emptied of egoistic projections,
our identities became porous.
Immersed in our own meditations,
we emptied our conceptions
of the beyond the beyond.
Emptied of the bliss of self-absorption,
we shared the sacred through the
ineffable language of silence.
After I shared the details of my experience to the group, the Eastern Orthodox priest sitting across from me replied: “Ed, your meditation sounds just like my experience from our Hesychast tradition.” The Vedanta Hindu Swami to my left followed by saying: “I would use these same words to describe my experience from our tradition.” And, the Hassidic Rabbi to my right added: “Yes, this sounds very much like the experience of my Jewish meditation.” It was then I knew that I had found my spiritual family and vocation.
My hope is that InterSpiritual Meditation will help others to taste the fruits of universal meditative silence, whether alone or in the company of contemplatives of many traditions.