‘Only life as you live it now, emulating no one, following no technique or teacher, is the tao, the way.’ Fatal Inayat-Khan
Some years ago I was having an in depth conversation with a friend. His name was Umberto. Sadly he passed on since that time, he suffered from depression brought by a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder. Umberto was an artist who had a way of seeing things and speaking his truth that some people found challenging. For me he was an example of a living artist. During our conversation I spoke passionately about my interest in social ecology. From then on he called me a social ecologist.
Why I tell this story here is that when I tell people I’m a social ecologist, which is one of the ways I identify in recent years, the usual question is ‘what’s that?’ For Umberto a Buddhist and committed environmentalist, there was no question for he immediately understood that the social and the ecological are inseparable. Both ecology and society are based on relationships between parts of nature. They are based on what the Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh calls interbeing. Joanna Macy, a deep ecologist, speaks of interconnectedness. In social ecology we call this systems theory.
For me social ecology is the study of life in all its rich ways of being. My own path to social ecology is a very twisted convoluted one. It involved working in film, theatre and bookshops and then going back to study the arts, majoring in drama and French at the University of NSW (UNSW) and then becoming a teacher of drama and ESL. Followed by a masters in Theatre Studies that included Theatre Anthropology also at UNSW and finally a PhD in Social Ecology, researching the use of drama education for anti-racism at the University of Western Sydney (UWS). As a social ecologist I teach mainly pre-service teachers at UWS.
Actually, I studied chemical engineering as my first university degree, however I was pretty disillusioned with the chemical industry in the late 60s when I started work as a chemical engineer. I found that for all my love of science and learning it was not being practiced in a way that I felt was very ethical and I found that disturbing. However a potentially serious industrial accident had to happen to me before I made a definite decision to seek another career.
I have also gone through a long spiritual journey, which was linked to my change of career in my 20s. Having grown up in a Jewish household and practiced till my teens I then came to reject the religion as anachronistic and archaic and irrelevant to my life as an applied scientist in 20th century Australia. However, at that stage of my life I chose to pursue a career in film and theatre and that changed everything. I later began to practice yoga, which I was first introduced to in my actor training and then Zen meditation came into my life.
This adventure into mysticism ultimately led me to the Universal Sufism of Hazrat Inayat Khan, an Indian Sufi Murshid (Master) and classical Indian musician who went to the west in 1910 and began to introduce Sufism in a universal form. This led one of his disciples, the Murshid Samuel Lewis to create the Dances of Universal Peace, which is how I connected with this Sufi movement. As a child of Holocaust survivors, born in Romania after WWII, I was very conscious of the importance of peace. Especially after the invention of nuclear weapons and their devastating use in Japan.
Also when I was in my late teens Australia was involved, along with the US, in the war in Vietnam and I was part of the anti-war movement in Sydney and determined not to go there and fight in what I considered an unjust war. As a Jewish person, with many relatives living in Israel, I was also concerned about the wars there and I was wanting to contribute to peace in the Middles East. In Sydney in the 60s and 70s there was an active folk music scene that was linked to the anti-war movement and as a guitarist and a singer I also became involved in that.
It was peace that attracted me to Buddhism, which seemed a much more peaceful religion than how I saw the Abrahamic religions at the time and I became involved with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and sponsored Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen master and peace activist to come to Australia in 1986, the International Year of Peace. The previous year I’d been involved in the work of Joanna Macy in Australia and later became part of her peace work as well through a group called Interhelp.
It was all these influences that led me to the Dances of Universal Peace and the study and practice of Universal Sufism and the Sufi poetry of Rumi and Hafiz. What is interesting is that the Chistya Sufi lineage that Hazrat Inayat Khan represented was also originally from the same region of what today is Afghanistan, as was Rumi’s family. It seems they both fled around the time that Gengis Khan was coming across from the east, with one going to Persia and then to, what today, is Turkey and the other going to India.
When I was once researching the link between Rumi and Hazrat Inayat Khan for a talk I was giving at the Theosophical Society in Sydney, it was then that I found that they are from the same source lineage of Sufism. Both lineages have always been universal and inclusive. This is particularly well expressed in a volume of the Hazrat Inayat Khan’s teachings called ‘The Unity of Religious Ideals’, where Murshid argues that all religious traditions have the same underlying source of Unity and have simply manifested in different forms for different parts of humanity during different periods of history. This all made sense to me especially having explored the mystical forms of Kabbalah, Zen, Yoga, Shamanism and Sufism. What’s more through the meditation practices and the art forms produced by these mystical practices this Unity can be experienced.
This blog will then cover all these topics as they arise in my day to day life, as well as photos that are part of my ongoing relationship with the world around me in an ecology of culture.