Every Wednesday since mid-April, people from around the world have gathered for a 30-minute online meditation session, sponsored by the University of Redlands Office of Alumni and Community Relations in collaboration with the Meditation Room, which I steward in addition to teaching religious studies at the University.
When the campus closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March, Alumni and Community Relations team members Shelli Stockton and Tracy Telliard wanted to create an online space for community and wellbeing. They reached out to me, and I was delighted to offer guided “loving kindness meditation,” a Buddhist practice that opens the heart to oneself, others, and the world.
Doing this practice in a group setting has a beneficial impact not only for the individual but also for the world at large. It recognizes the interconnectedness of all of life. Whatever we do to others, in a sense, we are doing to ourselves. In this simple practice, we offer heartfelt goodwill toward specific people, groups, animals, plant life, and we share our loving kindness with those who are suffering.
The importance of our weekly meditation gathering took on a deeper dimension in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, which riveted attention on the unrelenting cruelty of systemic racism. I asked my friend and collaborator Belvie Rooks to lead the meeting that week. Belvie is an internationally recognized leader in human rights, a former president of the board for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, serves on the board of Bioneers, and is a prolific author on African American spirituality, women’s history, and art. She teaches in my course for the Certificate Program in Mental Health and Spirituality. I met Belvie in 2009, and we collaborated on the book The Power of Love: A Transformed Heart Changes the World, which includes spiritual teachings on compassion from diverse continents, races, religions, and walks of life.
In the meditation gathering, Belvie openly shared her heartbreaking experience in Elmina Slave Dungeon in Ghana, where her anger and despair over the violence done to her African ancestors was transformed into a vision of hope as she worked with the question from her husband Dedan Gills, “What would healing look like?” They eventually founded Growing a Global Heart, a vision that inspires the ceremonial planting of memorial trees to honor the millions of forgotten souls of our past: victims of violence, the Underground Railroad, and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Route.
Belvie read passages and poems from her recent book, I Give You the Springtime of My Blushing Heart: A Poetic Love Song. She conveyed to the group that reading poetry is a mindfulness practice, and so is open-hearted listening and witnessing. She told us, “Whatever we give our attention and energy to, that's where the power is! We need to focus on solutions and the vital importance of hope, unity, and loving kindness for all.”
Belvie’s session relates to the mission of the Meditation Room program, which is “changing the world from the inside-out.” She told us what all great spiritual teachers tell us: the most important contribution we make to social change is our own inner change.
It’s no accident that the great leaders of social change give daily attention to their inner life, because they know that the source of their wisdom and compassion is within. The 14th Dalai Lama, for example, spends five hours a day in meditation. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. grounded his daily life in prayer and soulful music. Mohandas K. Gandhi carried out his daily practices of spinning, silence, prayer, and walking meditation without fail. How can we help the world to heal its painful divides if our own inner self is divided? Belvie’s husband, Dedan, told me once: “A person at war with themselves cannot bring peace to a warring world.”
Other guest leaders of the meditation have included Denise Spencer ’12, ’14, who carried Belvie’s message forward by reading selections from her book. At the University of Redlands, Spencer is the department coordinator for Race and Ethnic Studies; Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies; and the Meditation Room Program; she is committed to life-long learning, social justice, and creating inclusive communities. Spencer reminded us that although we are apart in isolation, we are all still bound in a transcendent kind of togetherness, in community near and far in the Meditation Room.
Leading the meditation session on June 24 was one of my former students, Nina Newman ’17. Newman graduated from the Johnston Center of Integrated Studies, with an emphasis in Embodying Non-Duality: Buddhism, Sustainability and Creative Expression, and is now based out of the Bay Area as a healing artist and transformation facilitator.
Wendy Farley, the Rice Family Chair of Christian Spirituality and Director of the Programs in Spiritual Direction and Formation at the University of Redlands Graduate School of Theology (home of San Francisco Theological Seminary), will lead the session for July 1. The author of six books, Farley is interested in connections between social justice and spiritual practice and the role of contemplative practices in supporting resilience and radical compassion in dark times.
For July 8, my former student, Sophia Ohanian ’15, ’19, will contribute meditative piano music at the beginning and end of the meditation session. Ohanian graduated from the University with a degree in piano performance and a master's degree in learning and teaching. She works at Citrus Valley High School as a credentialed class piano teacher and musical accompanist, and is on the music staff at the Redlands United Church of Christ.
These weekly sessions give the “medicine” of kindness and calm to people, which are good for health and wellbeing. Beyond this, the gatherings show us our potential for societal healing. When we experience small groups that are inclusive, intergenerational, and multi-dimensioned, touching all of our senses and modes of expressing, allowing us to hold both heartbreak and hope, then we become capable of embodying that reality for humanity as a whole. The history of social change suggests that transformation occurs first within individuals, then in small groups, and then in larger society.
The weekly meditation sessions take place on Wednesdays from 4:30 to 5 p.m., and will commence again in the fall after a short hiatus in August. Learn more or register by visiting the Meditation with Dr. Fran Grace web page.