Live from ISE: Marc Gafni’s Fireside Chat.

Via Angela Raines
on Dec 29, 2010
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Photograph courtesy of the multi-talented Jason Digges.

Strength, Service, Love.

Last night I arrived in beautiful Monterey, California for a unique 5-day retreat, the Integral Spiritual Experience (Year 2). At this rare assembly, dozens of spiritual teachers of the highest caliber have gathered to practice, celebrate, and foster community. (Read about the event and why I’m so excited here.) The nearly 500 participants have started trickling in today, and the grounds are beginning to stir happily. I’ve smuggled myself into a small respite from the excitement, nested in the balcony overlooking the main hall. The stage is lit and the empty chairs are charged with the possibilities of what’s to begin with the first keynote this evening.

Today’s extroverted bustle is a striking contrast from the intimacy of last night. After dinner, a small group of volunteers gathered around a fireplace to discuss roles and logistics. Before we delved into the minutia of walkie-talkies, meal tickets and the like, Rabbi Marc Gafni took a few moments to set the tone—not just for the meeting, but for our entire time together here over the next few days. In those few moments around the fireplace, Marc’s words brought my heart to its knees, as deeply as any sermon or dharma talk I’ve ever been privileged to attend. In the spirit of service they inspired, I’m compelled to share them with you now.

Gafni began by acknowledging the trajectory so many of us have followed in terms of our relationship to service. As open-minded, spiritual-seeker-types, many of us challenged and deconstructed the roles and obligations we were brought up to take for granted, whether they came from a parent, a church, or a school. Self-discovery, to even begin, requires a razing of our presumed identities and a re-evaluating of our inherited worldviews. With increasing awareness of what feel like former shackles, we disentangle ourselves from institutions that ask us to serve a greater cause we’re now uncertain about. What’s beautiful about this process is the increased awareness inherent in the movement. Yet the painful companion of this extrapolation is the loss of a sense of meaning and purpose.

There’s something beautiful about serving something greater than ourselves—much as our modern and postmodern emphasis on the autonomous individual is crucial to self-development, our thirst for something greater than our small self-sense seems absolutely hardwired in the human condition. And while we cannot revert to that unconscious type of serving, such a comforting platitude before its deconstruction, we crave a new invitation to serve, hopefully in a more illumined way.

As excited as we all are by how we can personally grow from the teaching and community here, everyone on the staff and volunteer team also has a deep commitment to serving this transitory community. Gafni skillfully addressed our hushed, uneasy desire to serve from a new, self-actualized place. “In Hebrew, ‘love’ and ‘obligation’ are the same word,” he explained. To truly serve in a powerful sense is to open ourselves fully to the divine, intelligent love pulsating through our very core and the fabric of the universe, itself. And once we become aware of the depth of love we’re capable of, it’s no longer a facile option whether we show up, but a grave responsibility.

The difference between this new, higher level of responsibility and the former, preconscious role we worked so hard to slough off is the integration of our unique self into the equation. Obligation, Gafni asserts, occurs when we recognize a need that we’re not only capable of meeting but uniquely capable of meeting. No one, he explained, can condemn or congratulate us on whether we’re loving as fully and deeply as possible. This expression of love through us is as unique as a fingerprint, and it’s up to each one of us to check for integrity. I find that when we question with a sincere and humble heart whether we’re living fully, if we answer from a place of great love and clear, deep awareness, the answer is unmistakable and resounding.

As he spoke of this great, humbling love, I was transported back to that afternoon, when I stood on Monterey’s pale beach, paying homage to the ocean. There’s something about the expanse of that deep blue that touches me with the world’s grandeur in a way even Boulder’s majestic mountains remain mute to. I felt with a rush of longing an old, cherished humility. Our busy modern lives seduce us so skillfully into a worship of the self, it’s easy to forget how small we truly are. It often takes something as awe-inspiring as nature, art, or love take our breath away and relax that clenched solipsism; once we do, though, it’s often with surprising relief.

Paradoxically, this surrender to love is simultaneously our ego’s fullest destruction and its greatest expansion. In my experience, the tension between these two poles is illuminated and dissolved in the light of ever deepening awareness.

Last night, his talk punctuated by popping embers, Gafni closed with a rousing injunction to all of us to show up and love in precisely that way which only we can. By blinding, blending, blanding our individuation, we disserve not only ourselves, but Divinity, itself, as it shines through us. And yet by clinging too tightly to that small self which only serves itself, we do exactly the same thing.

As I sit in stillness, imagining the next few days, I’m sure they’ll be brimming with both spiritual expansion and humbling grounding. I’m deeply grateful to embark with this injunction to step out of the way of who I assume I am, in humble service to a greater cause—in the way that only I can.

BONUS: Check out the marvelously lovely Marcy Baruch, who’s enchanting us with her soundcheck as I write this.


About Angela Raines

Angela Raines hails from "America's most dangerous city," St. Louis, MO. She recently moved to Boulder, CO (as one does) to write, do yoga, and sit. So far, this has worked out beyond her wildest dreams. She completed an editorial internship at Elephant Journal and still writes for them when Waylon reminds her. She landed a job at the company of her dreams, Integral Life, and is currently putting her third-person writing skills to work in her own online writing business, Conscious Copywriting. Her main teachers are Jun Po Roshi and Ken Wilber. She is an enthusiast of all things yogic, contemplative, and chocolate.


23 Responses to “Live from ISE: Marc Gafni’s Fireside Chat.”

  1. Very deep, yes we do crave to serve, beyond all the buzz and movement and loudness of life, we do, although sometimes we also forget. Sounds like you are having some profound experiences already, what a great feeling to be in community like that, if only for a few days, enjoyed reading this, thanks for sharing!

  2. […] in “Live from ISE: Marc Gafni’s Fireside Chat,” Angela checks in regarding pre-event conversations and teachings: There’s something […]

  3. Joe Perez says:

    Beautiful! Reading it, I wish I were there. Wait… I AM! 😉

    Looking forward to blogging the event together this week.

  4. AngelaRaines says:

    Thanks, Joe! I'm looking forward to reading your perspectives!

  5. AngelaRaines says:

    Thanks, Claudia! A high compliment from a writer I have much respect for.

  6. Sioux says:

    I feel like I'm there with you! Reading your comments it's clear the impression that has already been made on you. Wonderful! Thanks for sharing with us.

  7. I prefer a more dispassionate spirituality grounded in basic sanity and personal responsibility. The fancy language of integrally-inspired religion all too often justifies bad behavior by it's teachers.

  8. nathan says:

    Maybe this is a wonderful retreat, but I have zero faith in teachers who abuse power.

  9. beej says:

    It is interesting to me that, to find this mountaintop, you had to descend to sea level. Locating self in a (by definition) selfless act might make Buridan's Ass of us all towards service were it not for the experience of randomness. So, to quote one much wiser than I,

    "One love, one heart
    Let's get together and feel alright."

  10. Alan says:

    Nice blog and sounds like a nice event, but makes me wonder how Marc Gafni is such a key teacher. For one curious, read…. It includes many comments from people who have experienced Gafni's shenanigans from a long time ago, so a pattern is established (he likes to make it seem that the 2006 scandal was a one-time thing).

  11. […] artist we’re listening to as I write this! For more of my reflections from ISE2, check out Marc Gafni’s fireside chat to the volunteers and Deepak Chopra’s talk on love and consciousness. You can catch up on […]

  12. AngelaRaines says:

    Look for more soon! 🙂

  13. AngelaRaines says:

    Thanks, Bob!

  14. This issue is of great interesting to me, and certainly difficult to write about. I hope you will continue to find ways to talk about it. I recommend Stripping the Gurus for the full extent of the problem, although some feel the author has gone overboard in sensationalizing guru abuse.

    I'm not saying I endorse every conclusion of the book. It's still a good chronicle of the scope of the problem And one is still left with the question you raised above: To what extent can we embrace the teachings of teachers who have clearly not lived up to their own teachings.

    Bob W.
    Elephant Journal

  15. My experience comes from being a part of the former Integral Institute pre-Integral Life. Many dirty deeds were justified with pretty spiritual rhetoric, including from Mr. Gafni. A lot of the passion in the community seems to me to orient around a number of narcissists who stir the hearts of their followers with heady highs, but in the end there is little to show for it.

  16. Keith says:

    Thanks, Angela. The comments here are fascinating. I wonder if these same people who are so critical of Marc have the same level of integrity when it comes to Shambhala and Naropa University. After all, their founder was a notorious womanizer and alcoholic, who married a 15 year old girl and drank himself to death at the age of 47. Andrew Cohen, Eido Roshi, Pattabhi Jois, Osho, Adi Da, and legions of other teachers have had accusations of sexual misconduct against them.

    My response is: so what? Our teachers are human, and they live as human beings. Perhaps too many teachers, including Marc, are loathe to admit to their human failings, believing they need to justify their behaviors in spiritual double-speak and excuse-making. And this speaks to their characters, yes. It would be nice to hear a simple, "I fucked up," as I heard Jun Po Roshi say when describing an incident in his own past. But regardless, the teachers I cited above have powerful and insightful teachings that have collectively served hundreds of thousands, perhaps more.

    I think it was Jonathan Swift who said, "Be careful to trust or admire the teachers of morality; they speak like angels, but they live like men." So trust the teachings if they speak to you, and let our human teachers be human. Deal with your own shadow, and your own integrity, and see what happens in your own life.

  17. Keith says:

    My experience at Integral Institute certainly mirrors some of what Duff says, but it's also true that there were many experiences there that transcended that view. Teachers like Diane Hamilton and Father Keating always blew me away with their integrity, heart, and emotional maturity.

    Every spiritual community, from Shambhala to Zen to Catholicism, has narcissism and shadow, for the simple reason it is made up of men and women. I don't really see how integral is much different, except that it does seems to be more and more realizing that. Robb Smith's keynote at ISE 1 last year, and the humility and modesty it demonstrated, were remarkable and telling about how and where Integral Life is itself evolving. Robert MacNaughton's very transparent marketing efforts are another example of where and how the organization is evolving to deal with its own shadow.

    When I first moved here in 2006 and worked for them, it was a much more narcissistic community. But to continue to lob the criticisms of "narcissism" and "lack of personal responsibility", without taking the time to see how the organization has changed seems to me not entirely honest, or fair.

  18. Diane Hamilton and Father Keating are notable exceptions. This article was specifically about Gafni however., whom I am highly skeptical of.

    I admit I haven't kept up with the org after being laid off and have had little interest in doing so.

  19. Let me back up and clarify–I may have assumed to much.

    Is the author familiar with the allegations of sexual abuse of children against Marc Gafni? If so, how have you reconciled these with Gafni's teachings on the erotic?

  20. So what? Really? Abuse of power and unethical conduct matters because human beings and their treatment matters. And yes, this applies equally to Chogyam Trungpa, Adi Da, Osho, Pattabhi Jois, Eido Roshi, and Andrew Cohen who all have or have had major ethical lapses. This matters precisely because teachers are human and thus subject to the same ethical, moral, and legal considerations as everybody else.

  21. Sioux says:

    There are other examples of messages being lost because of the messenger. For example, we've seen a Democrat suggest the very same thing a Republican would, but is rejected by the Republican because he's a Democrat. Muslim-Christian, straight-gay, academic-uneducated, poor-wealthy . . . there are so many opportunities for us to stop looking at who's talking and just listen.

  22. I'm suggesting that Gafni may not be fit to teach but he and the community continues to shelter him rather than deal with the issues directly. This is not only the case with Gafni but with Cohen and several other prominent teachers in the Integral community. Certainly many a false guru in the past has had a quick tongue and can spout spiritual platitudes, but these ring empty in the light of their actions and do in fact impact one's perspective if we wish to have a realistic spirituality.

    "Although there is a superficial similarity between saints
    and psychopaths, we can in time distinguish between them
    by objectively observing their behavior. We all have some
    psychopathic tendencies, as well as tendencies to be saints,
    but when these tendencies predominate, we use the label
    psychopath or saint. When we encounter some extraordinarily
    impressive personality, we would be wise to ask ourselves
    if this is the personality of a psychopath. Observe their
    behavior carefully to determine if they say what they mean
    and do what they say and mean."
    ~from Saints and Psychopaths by Bill Hamilton

  23. Sioux says:

    borrowed from (the Buddhist Wisdom page is a compendium of quotations from the Buddha and other well-known teachers):
    The Four Reliances
    First, rely on the spirit and meaning of the teachings,
    not on the words;
    Second, rely on the teachings,
    not on the personality of the teacher;
    Third, rely on real wisdom,
    not superficial interpretation;
    And fourth, rely on the essence of your pure Wisdom Mind,
    not on judgmental perceptions.

    –Traditional Buddhist teaching