The awards are an annual event inaugurated last year in the best spirit of Australian multi-culturalism. Swami Shankarananda, a Jewish New Yorker intellectual, met Muktananda, the then head of Siddha Yoga in his early days and is now teaching Hindu philosophy and practices to a wide audience in outer suburban Melbourne. Along with his wife Devi Ma, Swamiji runs a very vibrant centre in Mt Eliza with a strong emphasis on meditation, chanting and finding joy in the spiritual path.
The award night was a real delight, bringing together local leaders from all the major faith traditions. We had a Jewish cantor singing prayers, an operatic quality rendition of Ave Maria and Hindu chanting, along with silent meditation.
Where were you when you first heard of the twin tower attacks?
Ruth and I were coming home from a wonderful evening where Paul Kraus’ fabulous book ‘Surviving Cancer” had been launched by the Gawler Foundation. Along with a group of long term cancer survivors whose stories are featured in the book, Prof Chris O’Brien had spoken in glowing and eloquent terms of drawing on the Foundation's inspiration and knowledge to mobilise his own efforts; using meditation and other lifestyle factors in his efforts to recover from his own very difficult cancer.
That evening had been one of the most uplifting in the Gawler Foundation’s history, and then, on the radio, complete incredulity. Could this be real? Then on the TV. Was it an Orsen Wells like black-hearted trick to be playing these images? And then, the realisation the towers had really fallen, so many people had died, and all our lives were in the process of changing.
So 10yrs later, what has happened? According to The Age, Australia is estimated to have spent $30 billion fighting terrorism; the USA $4 trillion! Prof Mark Stewart, a Newcastle academic puts the risk for an Australian actually being killed by a terrorist attack at 1 in 7 million per year, about the same risk as being killed by lightning.
Of course, for anyone who was directly affected by 9/11, the Bali bombings or any other act of terrorism, the consequences have been severe and probably ongoing.
But for the population at large, do we need to keep spending such huge amounts on anti-terrorist activities, including fighting in countries not our own? Maybe it is time to give more time and resources to reducing fear and bringing people together in peace and understanding.
One of the challenges is to not sound clichéd in this arena. At the award night, a remarkable young Buddhist monk managed this very well. Thubten Gyaltsen was acknowledged and awarded for his Inter-faith work amongst young people. He recounted the day he heard Osama Bin-Laden was killed by US forces. The TV was replete with images of young Americans dancing and chanting in the streets, claiming to be young Christians and deliriously happy with the death of this man.
Then he went to an evening function in the Muslim community where the keynote speaker’s first name was also Osama. This man spoke with fervour and passion about the need to be of service throughout the local community, to make alliances with all the faiths, to bring understanding and peace to their own people and their new home country.
The challenge must be to go beyond stereotypes, to transform fear and to build cross-cultural and Inter-faith relationships. One simple way I have found to work on this is what I call:
Mindfulness of people
This is a simple exercise. You smile warmly at everyone you meet, whether on introduction from a trusted friend, whether at a business meeting or as you pass them casually in the street. The easy mindfulness bit is to give them your full attention for the few moments the smile takes; the tricky part is to notice your mind as you offer the smile. You aim to notice what response you have to smiling at everyone, regardless of their size, shape, age, gender, colour race, creed etc
When you can genuinely say the feeling that goes with smiling at everyone is the same, you have achieved something quite difficult I would suggest, but something incredibly worthwhile. The advanced practice is to remain unaffected by whatever judgements you get the impression the other person is making of you!
Like all exercises such as this one, it takes effort and practice; and any progress you make is valuable.
As for the award, it acknowledged the contribution Ruth and I have made through teaching and popularising meditation. In Swami Shankarananda’s words:
“We give awards each year for interfaith activity. It started when I decided to reverse the significance of September 11 by thinking of it as, instead of a dark day for interreligious relationships, a day for the celebration of interreligious dialogue.
“Last year we gave the "Sanatana Dharma Award" to Father John Dupuche in recognition of all his work in the field. This year we would like to give the award jointly to both of you.
“Sanatana Dharma is translated as "the eternal religion". It refers to the kernel of oneness that is behind all the different religions. In my mind, meditation is the highest expression of Sanatana Dharma because it comes under no trademark, is the private property of no single religion and is equally beneficial, like sleep, to Hindus, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, and even atheists.”
1. Weekend workshop in Melbourne: 17 & 18 September
Bookings through the Gawler Foundation
2. Healing Meditation Retreat and Training for health professionals – with monks from Thich Nhat Hahn’s tradition
Bookings through the Gawler Foundation
1. Meditation – An In-depth Guide: Ian Gawler and Paul Bedson
2. The Miracle of Mindfulness: Thich Nhat Hahn
1. Deepening your meditation (for mindfulness exercises): Ian Gawler
2. A Woman’s Voice: Ruth Gawler leading mindfulness and meditation exercises
1. Go with the flow or intervene
2. The brain, the mind and relationships