Friday, March 31, 2006

Honoring the Sacred Core of Islam

Honoring the Sacred Core of Islam
Sacred America series #12
by Stephen Dinan

Americans have a singular challenge in relating to Islam, a challenge that long predates 9/11 and Al Queda. People across the political spectrum assume that Islam is more likely to goad its followers into religious violence than other religions. Others, who are more cautious, differentiate radical extremism from the peace-loving core. The more reactive factions in the West go so far as to make slurs about the religion as a whole and assume the only solution is war. Across the full spectrum of politics, there is an uneasy feeling that the modern West and Islam are like oil and water. Healing this split may be the single most essential act in creating a true global community.

The eruption of controversy around the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed serves as a Rorschach for where this relationship is blocked. Westerners tend to see the reaction to the cartoons as out of proportion to the insult. Muslims see the cartoons as a deep dishonoring of their revered founder, yet another example of the West’s disdain.

Our tendency in situations like this is to point fingers at the other: it is something intrinsic in “them” that makes the relationship unworkable. However, the truth in all relationships is that we play a role in the breakdown. Our Western way of relating influences the world of Islam, which then feeds back to us in a cycle of mutual exchange. Breaking a negative cycle on either side can lead to an opening of the relationship – change in the other is often much easier if we first change ourselves.

What is missing in virtually every opinion I read, even those that offer cogent political or cultural analyses, is a heartfelt honoring of the sacred core of Islam and especially the Prophet Mohammed. The modern West simply does not authentically honor one of the most important spiritual leaders of history. The Danish cartoons spoke to the truth of how the West relates to Mohammed.

Why is this important?

Whatever someone holds as sacred is their bridge to a better world. For a scientist, the truth is sacred and the scientific method is seen as a path to obtain that truth. For a Christian, Jesus is considered sacred and therefore a relationship with him is a path to redemption. For many environmentalists, the planet itself is seen as sacred; living more sustainability is an act of worship.

A sacred relationship is a love relationship, one in which we see the intrinsic value, truth, beauty, and transformative power in something or someone. A sacred sensibility leads towards a feeling of awe and reverence, as well as guiding us beyond less evolved patterns of expression towards something more whole.

When we cannot bless what someone else holds as sacred, we create a rift between us at the root level of our consciousness, which will inevitably undermine the relationship. Without this honoring of what another holds as holy, we cannot truly connect with their heart, since their heart is intimately engaged in that sacred relationship.

I believe that the lack of a deep honoring of the Prophet Mohammed by both the secular and Christian West has helped fuel the nuclear core of hatred, division, and reactivity we see today. If we were better able to celebrate the great blessing, illumination, and transformation that his words and life have brought to people around the world, we would come back into resonance with the hearts of Muslims. And that, in turn, would soften the political divides, culture clashes, and historical animosities, or at least create stable common ground upon which solutions could be built.

We thus need to be willing to stop pointing the finger at Islam and start seeing where we worsen the situation with our own lack of honoring and disrespect. I can certainly see this absence of honoring in myself. Although I’ve explored sacred works from almost every religion, I find myself mostly in the dark about the Prophet Mohammed’s life and teachings. I have never sat down to read the Koran or study the history of Islam or attend a service in a mosque. I do revel in the mystic poetry of Rumi or Hafiz, but mainstream Islam is, in many respects, a mysterious land for me.

Why have we in the West been so blind to the beauties of the Muslim world?

It has to do with a tendency to see what we hold as sacred as the only thing that is truly sacred. Our devotion then turns to disdain for what others hold as sacred. The scientist’s devotion to free inquiry turns to disgust for religious beliefs. The Christian’s devotion to Jesus turns to disdain for Jews. And so on.

These behaviors assume an exclusivity of sacredness – that there are certain things or people that are sacred and others that are not. Rather, the truth of mystics from traditions the world over is that everything is kissed by the spirit of holiness, and everyone carries the spark of God. We are right to be deeply grateful for the particular people or things that have opened the door to sacred relationship for us. But we need to resist the tendency to then denigrate the people or things that are sacred to others. Instead, if we can truly see the world through their eyes, we can begin to expand our relationship with the sacred dimension of life, eventually seeing it in all people, cultures, religions, and even the entire planet.

That doesn’t mean that a Christian will become a Muslim. We each have our own unique way of unfolding and growing. We will always have a more intimate and personal connection with our teachers, beliefs, and practices. But that doesn’t exclude a deeply respectful and honoring relationship with the teachers, beliefs, and practices of others.

The Islamic tradition does honor Jesus as one of the most important spiritual teachers in history. The secular and Christianized West, by contrast, has largely denigrated the importance of Mohammed and therefore Islam. That is true even though none of us who might make that judgment have had the profound effect on history that Mohammed has had. None of us have touched as many hearts, soothed as many souls, or guided as many beings. Even if Jesus has become the primary spiritual exemplar for much of the West, we should also be able to honor a man who brought great gifts to the 1.3 billion people who follow his life and words.

If we are able to truly celebrate the sacred power in the life of the Prophet Mohammed and the religion that has flowered from him, healing the roots of our relationship with the Islamic world will begin to become possible, which in turn can allow the softening of positions required for political bridges to rebuild. Until we are able to do so, the modern West will be out of resonance with the world of Islam and thus prone to unnecessary friction.

Originally published at

Sacred America Series #12
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Friday, March 24, 2006

Rising and Declining Cultures

In thinking about the epochal shifts now underway on our planet and how they relate to the evolution of America, I see two primary cultures, one in the ascendancy and one just starting to decline. These two cultures are not defined by skin color, language, ethnic group, or religion. They represent ways of thinking that have unique national expressions while transcending the borders between nation-states.

The declining culture is one in which the boundary of community, identification, and concern is drawn at the national level. For those on the inside of this boundary, we are mostly empathetic, wanting the best for our fellow countrymen and women. With this group, we tend to economically align our interests. For those on the outside of this boundary, we are willing to engage in exchanges but retain a certain sense of suspiciousness, a protective looking out for “our” interests versus theirs,

This boundary is evident in the distribution of military forces – virtually no forces are focused on boundaries between states in America, for example, while massive resources are allocated to potential disputes with other countries. When most citizens of the United States are asked who they are, they are likely to say “American” before they say, “I’m a Minnesotan,” or “I’m a global citizen.” When we watch the Olympics, the coverage focuses our emotions on “our” team. The medal count becomes a surrogate measure of our national worth in competition with other nations. Similarly, when reporting on armed conflicts or natural disasters, the primary number of concern is how many of “our” people were injured or killed. The total body count, if even reported, is largely secondary.

Although it remains dominant, this nation-centered culture is declining in power. On the Internet, language is important but national boundaries are almost non-existent. In commerce, we are increasingly an interconnected world, with trans-national corporations producing and operating globally. Our environmental challenges no longer respect national boundaries. Science is a global endeavor. Even our entertainment, food, and travel are all increasingly global.

So, while nation-centered culture wields much of the real political power in the world, the underpinning psychology and infrastructure are starting to shift in dramatic ways, which will ultimately require a shift towards a global sense of culture and consciousness. Eventually, we’ll be more concerned with how many people died in an earthquake than how many Americans. We’ll be more likely to celebrate the best athlete’s achievements than the best American’s. We’ll gravitate towards global accords when addressing environmental challenges rather than focusing on our national interests. The ascending culture is thus global in its sense of identity and concern, although it does not yet wield power over the nation-centered culture.

As this interweaving of nations occurs, it will eventually make large militaries unnecessary, replaced by police forces to maintain internal order. En route to that endpoint, though, we face many challenges, the primary one for America being the balance between the tenuous security that our dominance can provide in the short-term and the relinquishment of nation-centered power that is required for the long-term for the health of the planet.

That’s why the task of honoring (and seeing clearly) what has gone before us is so important. If the transition to the ascending global culture is too abrupt, in the sense of rejecting the America-centered past that has allowed us to grow into a world power, we might actually undermine the emergence of a truly global culture by rejecting the economic and military force that is helping provide the stabilizing matrix out of which global culture is emerging. The ascending culture needs time to mature and grow structures of support and collaboration. Different countries are at different stages in this development. Psychologically and spiritually, millions of people need to evolve their worldview. Organizationally, the ascending culture needs media, institutions, and political platforms that embody and reinforce its sense of global focus.

America is thus in a pivotal position. To the extent that we cling to the alpha-dominant nation status for too long, we become the problem that the rest of the world needs to halt – and they will, one way or another. If we relinquish our alpha-dominant status too early, the festering ethnic, religious, and tribal rivalries may spiral the world order backwards, which could be increasingly dangerous as we hit Peak Oil and mounting environmental crises.

That’s why we need to deeply honor what has made our country successful while also gently peeling our fingers from the staff of power and gradually handing it over to forces that are globally-centric. At the root, America needs to wield its power with wisdom, recognizing that it is not intrinsically ours but has been entrusted with us temporarily as a transition to a still more conscious, sustainable, and peaceful planetary culture.

Our deep sense of patriotism can then be seen as a necessary stepping-stone. Our many victories for the advancement of democracy must likewise be honored. On the other side, our abuses of power must be illuminated and dealt with humbly. Our tendency towards arrogance must be softened so that we can take in the negative feedback that all good leaders require. We thus walk a tightrope between shirking our responsibilities through abdicating our power too quickly versus clinging to our power for too long for selfish motives.

If America wants to be an evolutionary leader for the next stage of our planet’s development, as I believe was coded in the founding DNA of our country, we must see ourselves as champions of the ascending global culture while also respecting the American-centered culture in which we’ve played an important role in growing a healthier planet. If we don’t do both, the European Union might emerge as the next global superpower since they will be aligning more effectively with the needs of the emerging sociopolitical reality than we are.

As the ascending culture gains in prominence over the coming decades, there will be a natural relaxation of the tension that characterizes the boundary between countries. From a spiritual perspective, that boundary in collective consciousness is artificial and creates an uncomfortable tension – a sort of spiritual friction that erupts as war and conflict. This friction wastes money, time, and resources. Evolving a truly global perspective will eliminate large amounts of waste in the system, opening the door to a more abundant world.

Originally published at

Sacred America Series #11
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Friday, March 17, 2006

The Next American Operating System

The question can be raised of whether excursions into the deeper history of America are worthwhile. Why not simply focus on the many problems of the present? Why are things like the genocide of Native peoples or the esoteric links of our founding fathers relevant when we’ve got more pressing concerns like the Iraq war?

The reason I believe this exploration is now important is that we are called to another level of consciousness as a country, an evolution of our governing assumptions, our political structures and our national psychology. We can envision this as an upgrade to a new operating system -- new software for our country that builds upon the old code but adds improved capacities, abilities, and powers.

Unlike a computer program, however, the previous operating system of our national consciousness cannot simply be overwritten. It must be outgrown in an integrated fashion, which means completing the unfinished parts of the last stage of our growth, as well as understanding what is no longer working and why. Our maturation as a country requires coming face to face with what is no longer adaptive about our beliefs, thoughts, and habits as well as what we’ve hidden in our shadows.

The presidency of George W. Bush causes many who are drawn to this new operating system angst. In many ways, he is an exaggeration of the consciousness that we are outgrowing. We can choose to fixate on what we don’t like about him, vilify him and his allies, and build political support against him, thinking that alone will generate the progress we need. However, there is also a subtler process that is likely more important, which is to look at him and his administration as a Rorschach of where our national psyche is fixated and then to create a vision of ourselves that is more whole. Part of this requires embracing what is virtuous, valuable, and beautiful about Bush and his allies rather than simply pointing towards the problems and inadequacies.

Growth rarely happens through self-hatred or judgment. It usually begins with the recognition that what we don’t like about ourselves – our arrogance, weakness, meanness, or fear, for example – is often a mask for something that is unfinished or incomplete. Undesired qualities are signposts for something that is developmentally frozen. Shifting the pattern first requires softening our judgment and resistance and then finding a place of love and respect for the defenses or perceived “problems.”

Collectively, our frustration with current leadership is like a window on places where America’s emergent culture and operating system are not yet whole. If they were, there would not be the level of reactivity and hopelessness that we witness. The supposedly undesirable qualities would be honored in a larger, deeper context while we simultaneously work to make sure that the outdated OS is not running the show much longer.

In the case of President Bush, for example, we see an exaggerated version of strong masculine qualities that some would prefer to jettison from the new operating system. However, for the new OS to be a true upgrade, we cannot jettison the old but must build upon it and extend it. If not, we compromise the efficacy of the new platform. In America’s next operating system, for example, we need the valiant warrior who is willing to fight for what is right. But that warrior impulse will find a more noble and clear expression. We thus need to embrace the many virtues that Bush demonstrates in his warriorship –singularity of focus, a commitment to see things through to the end, decisiveness, a willingness to sacrifice for what he believes is right, an ability to galvanize people to take hard steps, and a respect for the military.

Simply rejecting the warrior won’t work. It’s tantamount to deleting essential lines of code from the next operating system. What we really need is to upgrade the functionality and integrate it better with the emerging consciousness. It’s not the warrior qualities in Bush that are the problem; it’s the use of those qualities in situations for which they do not constitute skillful means.

Integration is what differentiates an upgrade to a new operating system for America from a counter-cultural rebellion. Counter-cultural values tend to be created as polar opposites to the dominant culture. If that remains the case, we are simply locked in a tug-of-war for dominance; either the old operating system or its antithesis. We cannot upgrade until we integrate both polarities. At that point, the warring factions can recognize that their most important virtues and values have been honored and infused into a new viewpoint that is more whole. Such a recognition will eventually lead to a natural assumption of political power by those who advance an emerging operating system, which could emerge in either dominant party or perhaps through a third-party vehicle.

All of this relates to why exploring our country’s shadow with as much open-hearted curiosity and truthtelling rigor as we can muster is a requirement to activate a new system. We need to build the best of everything that has been previously created into what is emerging. And we also need to see where we have been unconscious, blind, or lying to ourselves so as to help arrested parts of our national character to find their next higher expression.

Originally published at

Sacred America Series #10
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Sunday, March 12, 2006

Coming to Terms with Genocide

Last week I set the context for why America needs to delve deeper into our history to clear patterns that are contributing to our current self-centeredness. Many of these patterns have historical roots in the misuse of power, which leads towards inflationary compensation. Our founding philosophy aspires towards universal rights, which are linked to a deep respect for the potential in each of us. However, the way in which we have wielded power often does not reflect that deep respect. To understand this gap between our ideals and our embodiment of those ideals, we need to start very early in our history.

The first historical fact that has never been adequately faced, understood, and integrated is the fact that we are a country founded on genocide. We celebrate the history of our founding fathers and their noble strivings and forget that we are living on land taken from decimated peoples. The continent Europeans “discovered” had a long history of settlement, with a great diversity of societies. In1492, there were at least 10-25 million indigenous people north of Mexico (some estimates run much higher). Many of these peoples had sophisticated civilizations, mature philosophies, and advanced systems of government. Some met the European invaders with generosity, which was typically then exploited. Others fought back, which often merely hastened their demise. Within a few hundred years of conquest and disease, less than 1 million Native Americans remained.

We need to let that fact sink in: America was founded on a Native American genocide more extensive than that of Hitler’s genocide of the Jews (6 million killed). This historical fact, when soberly faced, explains a great deal about why our country’s heart is not truly open, why we are prone to compensatory arrogance, and why we struggle to live in harmonious ways. It is a massive wound that has never truly been healed. We have not confessed the damage, humbly worked towards reconciliation, and learned the deeper lessons about power this experience could teach us. The avoidance of that process keeps us in a rosy, idealized vision of ourselves that perpetuates naivete and gives license to arrogance.

Mature use of power requires an ability to see oneself clearly as both a potential perpetrator and a potential victim and then to transcend that dichotomy by consecrating power to the service of the whole. Power wielded for the sake of the few reinforces a separative psychology that is ultimately rooted in scarcity, fear, and greed. Such a psychology cannot lead to a peaceful and prosperous society.

To wield power in a healthy way, we need to go beyond the psychology of perpetrators and victims, winners and losers, oppressors and oppressed. The key to transcending that dichotomy is that we need to come to terms with BOTH the oppressors and oppressed in us. We need to see the power-mad Hitler in us as well as the Jew being sent to the gas chamber. If we cannot see ourselves in both, our identity becomes lopsided and thus potentially dangerous, especially as we wield increasing power.

Americans tend to sculpt a view of our history that concentrates on our liberation of the oppressed, such as liberation from England (“no taxation without representation”), liberation from Europe’s religious strictures, and liberation from state-controlled economies through capitalism. We see ourselves as the redeemer of the victim and the liberator of the downtrodden. We love underdogs that triumph. Our great rallying call of Freedom similarly speaks to the triumph of the oppressed. And it is undeniably true about America that in many cases we have acted as a great liberator.

Identifying ourselves primarily with this positive side, however, means that we have a much more challenging time seeing ourselves as oppressors. We have an almost allergic reaction to evidence that we are in the wrong. We are healers, innovators, and liberators not selfish rulers, exploiters, and neo-colonialists, right? The truth is that we are both.

I return to our Native American genocide. It is significant for the psychology of the entire country because it was our first and perhaps most egregious example of being the oppressors – the exterminators of a people through aggression. In refusing to really experience the horror of what our ancestors perpetrated on the native people’s of this land, we become blind to seeing ourselves as oppressors.

Facing America’s original genocide and doing the work of reconciliation is one of the important keys to opening the door to a mature relationship with power. First, doing so can lead us to recognize that we are also aggressors, an essential precondition to being able to wield power with wisdom as well as be truthful about current instances in which we are acting as oppressors. Second, it opens us to a deeper connection to the land on which we live. So long as we ignore the festering wound in our relationship with this land, we tend to live in unsustainable, ungrounded, and disrespectful ways. Third, the work of healing our original genocide can reconnect our culture as a whole with Native lineages, which offer essential wisdom for our present time and could have a much more prominent role in our country’s conscious sense of lineage.

All of these three things would help to curb our current arrogance. Arrogance is the ego’s way to compensate for a feeling of inadequacy through inflation. America’s arrogance reflects our intuition of a powerful destiny, followed by an attempt to inflate into that role before we’ve matured into it more organically. To wield power in a sacred way requires humility, which in turn requires facing all the ways we have misused power.

Facing genocide requires a humbling of the national ego, which is actually a very good thing. Germany, for instance, is now becoming a mature country in many ways – productive, democratic, socially conscious, and green. It has helped to advance a larger political alliance in Europe though it once sparked the bloodiest wars. It has matured by facing the shadow side of its impulse towards “greatness” – which manifested in the urge to dominate the world and create a master race, exterminating those who didn’t make the cut. Its initiation into adulthood as a country came through the devastation on all levels that resulted from WWII. They were rubbled, humbled, and humiliated as a country, which allowed something nobler, more mature, and more generous to emerge.

I hope that America does not need a dramatic humbling to overcome our arrogance and self-indulgence. I hope that we can face our collective shadows with an open heart, do what it takes to heal the past and establish right relationship with the peoples we have harmed. Then we can earn our greatness through humility rather than assuming it through domination.

Originally published at

Friday, March 03, 2006

Beginning to Face Our Shadow

After seven articles that discuss our deeper spiritual mission and paint a primarily positive picture of America, today I start facing our shadow side. Everything I wrote in those articles I believe to be true. We do have an important mission to create a new kind of society; it’s in our founding DNA and evident throughout our history. The other half of the truth, though, is that we are jeopardizing that destiny with our arrogance, blindness, corruption, and sense of entitlement. We have the potential for great nobility, but we more often resemble petulant princes than wise kings.

In looking at our shadow side, it’s important to bear in mind that it often contains the very same qualities that lead to greatness, but in undeveloped, immature, and self-centered forms. That doesn’t make these qualities intrinsically bad, just less conscious. However, given the level of power we wield in the world, these places of developmental arrest – where we’ve become psychologically frozen in an immature state – do have harmful effects on the rest of the world and ultimately, ourselves. Truthtelling that is both rigorous and compassionate helps our shadow qualities as a country evolve into their higher expression and thus alleviate some of the suffering we are now causing.

America has the capacity to be an exemplar for the world. And we also have the potential to stagger into decline as a power-drunk empire, another in a long lineage of countries that simply did not have the maturity to wield power with wisdom. Which trajectory we take depends a great deal on how we deal with our shadow side.

Right now, we resemble a society of adolescents, more concerned with building our own status, comfort, and power than leaving a legacy of planetary service. We binge on the riches of the world as the biggest consumers on the planet while the global environment deteriorates. We throw our weight around on the world stage, strutting our “self-interest” like Banana Republic dictators. We undermine the most significant global accords if they put even slight constraints on our already-bloated economy. We profess to be a generous country and yet we give a smaller percentage of our GNP to overseas development than any other major power. Our main “tithe” of service to the whole is through our military, often with dubious and mixed motives that align more with empire-building than taking the moral high ground. We act, in most ways, like the monarchs of old, exercising our supposedly divine right to rule, exploit, and indulge ourselves.

We are, in short, inflated. We are overly impressed with our virtues and unapologetic about our vices. The Ugly American reputation overseas is rooted in a sense of entitlement that others should learn our language and play by our rules – even in their own land. We intuit the greatness of our mission but overestimate the degree to which we’ve manifested it.

So the question becomes, why are we stuck in this way? Are we simply too young as a country to behave with greater maturity? Or is there something deeper going on, something that can be remedied?

A basic principle in psychology is that when we have an experience that we don’t want to fully feel, part of us becomes frozen. We hold our breath, contract away from the pain/sorrow/abuse, and stuff the negative memories into our unconscious. The rest of our being moves forward and adapts, but a part of us remains stuck in a time warp until we ultimately complete that experience. Often this takes the form of repetition compulsion: the abused little girl finds herself in one abusive relationship after another, the abandoned little boy is eventually left by his wife, etc. The deeper motive in this repetition is a sort of psychic dredging; we recreate the original experience enough in present time to bring the old patterns to the surface. If we are able to deal with this consciously, we can often heal the root wounds. If not, we usually face another round of repetition.

Let’s bring this back around to America. I believe a country’s psychology parallels an individual’s. We have an enduring memory – a collective field of awareness that is passed down culturally. The American “psyche” shapes us as individuals through entertainment, education, and collective belief systems. It is mirrored in the kind of leaders we choose and the collective decision-making we engage.

Looking at America’s adolescent arrogance with this lens shifts us away from simply judging it to trying to understand and alleviate its root cause. Where have we become stuck as a country? What experiences have we not wanted to fully feel? What is incomplete in our history that needs to be remedied?

These questions lead us into parts of our national history where we have not been truthful with ourselves and where we have not been willing to take full responsibility for the consequences of our actions. America has some heavy-duty history that has not been fully metabolized, which perpetuates the dark shadows of the present. Merely switching parties in power is less important than healing the deeper roots of the corruption, arrogance, and distortion. Then our politics becomes a more natural expression of our spiritual essence.

Next week, I’ll start exploring some of the unmetabolized history that I believe is leaving us in a repetitive cycle of less-than-great behavior. I see this as part of the real work that we need to undertake as a country to become more healthy and whole, as well as deliver on the extraordinary spiritual potential activated in our founding vision.

Footnote correction: Last week, I used the concept of spiritual feudalism which I should have rightfully attributed to Saniel Bonder from his unpublished manuscript 21st Century Common Sense. You can review his innovative work on a new vision of spiritual awakening at and

Originally published at

Sacred America Series #8
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