Archive for July, 2010

                                         We are not human beings having a spiritual experience.                        We are spiritual beings having a human experience.          — Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Carla Goldstein

The Omega Point. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin imagined such a critical threshold, where humankind would reach its highest point of socialization and consciousness, breaking through time and space to a new level of enlightenment. The organization’s name reflecting this idea, Omega Institute for Holistic Studies is dedicated to fostering movement toward that pivotal point of integration, encouraging both individual growth and social change.

Sitting in her office located amidst Omega’s sprawling, nearly two hundred acre campus in Rhinebeck, NY, Carla Goldstein, Director of External Affairs as well as Director of the Women’s Institute, describes how she discovered Omega and how that meeting transformed her life.

“I consider myself an advocate,” Carla relates. “That’s really been the bulk of my professional life. I’m a lawyer by training and spent many years on the public policy front. I worked in the New York State legislature as well as in the City Council. It was while I was working for Planned Parenthood that I discovered Omega. I found out about the Women & Power conference and it looked really interesting, so I decided to attend. I heard Jane Fonda speak that weekend. Eve Ensler and other great women were there as well. It was such a powerful event, the best conference I’d ever been to, bar none.”

Elizabeth Lesser, Eve Ensler, Jane Fonda, and Sally Field

Carla found herself thinking it was a shame that those amazing women were not being heard more beyond the conference environment. “This was all happening pre-digital download and the internet had not become what it is now. That’s when it occurred to me that since Planned Parenthood was a global organization, we might partner with Omega to figure out how to get that content distributed in some way, so I approached Omega with the idea. This was all happening just when the organization first began its Service Week program, opening its campus to nonprofits to do their own retreats. Through Planned Parenthood, I went on a retreat along with a team of thirty leaders, and we all fell in love with the place. After that, I brought my family to Omega during Family Week. It was a very transformative time for us. That’s when I realized Omega really had something going on that was special.”

Carla expresses that Omega’s and her own desire seemed to be synchronizing. In the universe of her policy work, while people were talking about heartfulness, caring, community and childcare, Carla reveals her personal experience was that “there was something missing underneath the rhetoric—a depth of spirit and community. And as far as Omega was concerned, the organization was at a time in its development when it was feeling its ‘grownupness’. The mission to bring hope and healing to individuals and society had been expressed really one person at a time through various educational programs. Omega was now interested in figuring out how it could deepen its impact on the social/cultural questions. So meeting up with the organization at that time was perfect. I was looking for spiritual depth, and Omega was looking for political/social action.”

Since joining Omega, Carla has seen the organization realizing its goal. The Women’s Institute . . . The Omega Center for Sustainable Living. . . The Scholarship Program . . . building a program around Mindfulness for Educators . . . the development of a Veteran’s Week. “The road has led to really figuring out how to serve the greater good at a social level in addition to the individual level,” Carla states. “The way I see it is that coming on the heels of the 60’s and the 70’s there were really two paths to social change. One path advocated changing the social structures—the laws, the policies. The other was the Ghandi path, the eastern path. ‘We’re going to be the change.’ What Omega was coming to understand, as well as what I and many of our teachers have come to understand is that it’s not an either or situation. It’s a both and more situation. So the question is how do we really bring these different prongs together in an endless cycle.”

Seeing two sides of the coin, Omega recognized that a deeper balance within the world at large needed to be attained for successful social changes to take place—a new paradigm where feminine wisdom is valued. Supporting a balanced power paradigm that is neither feminine nor masculine, but a healthy blend of both, will help create a more peaceful and just world that honors our interdependence with each other and the Earth itself. Thus, the formation of the Women’s Institute, a dynamic and innovative part of Omega’s mission to attain that objective.

Empowering women around the world, the Institute supports them in developing their visions and their voice, recognizing that feminine wisdom is an essential element in any effort toward sustainability and global peace.

“The goal of the Women’s Institute is primarily to cultivate women’s leadership and empowerment so that women can be change agents,” Carla notes. “We’re interested in helping women who want to transform the power paradigm from being one of dominance and exploitation to one of cooperation and collaboration. We’re interested in not mimicking the kinds of leadership that we have grown up watching but inventing our own authentic leadership using our whole selves—mind, body, spirit, and heart—and doing it in the global context. The way that I understand it, where we are as women in the west today stems right from WWII. Since that time, when 6,000,000 women went to work and then left their jobs when the men came back from war, we have been in a largely adaptive relationship to power—conforming to the existing structures in relation to questions like ‘How do we get what we want? How do we hold it? How do we find our way? How do we navigate the power structures that exist that were created without us?’ But that’s changing. We’re now moving into a period where women are very interested in having power redefined to reflect our own unique values and visions. This is not to say that women are monolithic. We are as different as we are many, but nonetheless all of the social constructs were created primarily without any input from women, so we’ve been functioning in them in this adaptive mode and now it’s like ‘Well, wait a minute.’ Not to discard it all, but how can we infuse the power structure with our own visions? How do we challenge some of the assumptions upon which the system was based—a lot  of those assumptions having to do with the exploitation of women? So that’s really what the Women’s Institute is interested in helping women do.”

But it’s not only women’s empowerment that the Institute is promoting, it’s feminine wisdom.

By healing and promoting feminine wisdom in women and girls as well as in men and boys, all of society benefits.

“The terminology is all problematic,” Carla explains. “When we use the term ‘the feminine’ which we mean in the Jungian psychological sense, people think we’re talking about feminine hygiene products or a hyper-genderized sense of the feminine so there’s all these challenges around stereotypes due to the language. That makes it tough, especially for men. In reality, we’re trying to convey the word feminine in the sphere of nurturing, as well as in reflective and relational qualities. Gloria Steinem once said at one of the conferences that every human being possesses all of the qualities that are available—360° around the wheel—but we grow into them at different stages of our lives. So the best aspiration would be to help all humans experience all aspects of themselves. With regard to women’s empowerment work, it’s about helping women find their own authentic voice and visions. It’s also about helping them become more comfortable in their masculine traits. It works the other way around with men. Many men can be extraordinarily nurturing. So none of this is simply biologically predestined. The real question is how can we bring balance for everyone? Of course, from a resource point of view, the Women’s Institute is interested in empowering women, but helping to awaken, enliven and support the feminine in men will definitely be a part of our agenda.”

Emphasizing female leadership in the world is essential at all levels. Carla makes reference to Nicholas D. Kristof’s book, Half the Sky, which describes the brutal inequality that women and girls face in the world today as well as the powerful resilience of those who have been harmed, who literally changed their oppression into opportunity. “Allowing women to play key roles is one of the answers to many of the development questions that we have,” Carla asserts. “It makes sense. Actually, it’s kind of a no brainer. If you have all these human problems and half of the humans are not at the table to help solve them, then you’re really not utilizing the full of human potential. It’s very simple. We need more women in leadership positions. At the same time, it’s an oversimplification to say it’s just about the biology. A lot of the reasons why have to do with patriarchy and what the overarching system is valuing. So although we need more women leaders, it’s not just more women in the biological sense, but specifically, more women who are interested in bringing in the values of the feminine.”

Omega’s Women & Power conferences, cultivating those values, are dynamic events, inspiring and affirming women’s leadership and empowerment. “Of course there’s only so much one can do in a weekend,” Carla remarks, “but it’s definitely an inspirational event and acts as a confirmation for those of us who think Hey, I want to wake up and strengthen this part of myself. Also, the conference offers a sense of community. Even though technologically the web connects us more than ever, we’re very isolated from one another. We live in a hyper-specialized society and culture so you could spend your entire life just staring at a computer screen. That’s why one of the main goals of the conference is to bring people into community with each other and to build a movement — a social movement.”

And that movement seems to be emerging around the globe. An amazing number of women’s organizations are bringing women together to explore the power paradigm as well as to create some changes in the blueprint. Carla points out that “everywhere you look, even on the internet, if you google women and power conferences, you will find events all over the world now. The Women’s Institute is not unique in the sense that we are part of a growing movement. That’s another one of our goals—to share that information, to help people feel connected to something larger than themselves. It’s important for us to know that we’re a part of an emerging global network of women trying to change the path of history, trying to bring a different set of values and experience to the table as well as forging new pathways and new vocabulary for what is developing.”

That initiative vocabulary will have the chance to be explored at the next Women & Power conference scheduled at the Rhinebeck campus in September. OUR TIME TO LEAD is a call-out to women of all ages and backgrounds to become the leaders we have been waiting for. There is no ambiguity in the program’s agenda—the recognition that sustainable change is truly dependent upon more female leadership.

“I think I heard a statistic recently that women have only been officially part of 3% of all global peace negotiations,” Carla asserts. “The percentage is very small. There’s a problem with that. I think women have an enormous potential contribution to make toward conflict resolution. I have met some extraordinary women who have been key in the reconciliation process in their countries. There’s Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela who was important in the reconciliation endeavor in South Africa. I have just come back from Rwanda where I met Aloisea Inyumba. She was instrumental in the peace process post-genocide. One of the women coming to our conference this September, Leymah Gbowee, organized Christian and Muslim women in Liberia.”

Leymah Gbowee, as documented in the film Pray the Devil Back to Hell, was one of the main organizers of a band of several thousand women, who helped bring peace to Liberia after a 14-year civil war.

“So once again,” Carla stresses, “it’s a no brainer—tapping  the potential of women to bring the fruits of our wisdom to bear on the peacemaking table is essential.”

And what qualities did these women posses that magnetized their ability to achieve peaceful resolutions? “A willingness to process grief,” Carla reflects, “to be open to the other even though they may be classified as an enemy, to see the common humanity and to be committed to finding nonviolent solutions.”

In fact, many women around the globe are committed to using those attributes to realize peace in their countries. At the International Forum on the Role of Leadership in Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment that convened in Rwanda in May, an alliance of women met to regard the issues of achieving greater gender equality, human rights, and security for all.

As Carla mentions, as well as relates in her article (also accessed through her column at Feminist.com, Spiritual Activism), the Conference in Rwanda was focused on sharing that the country has become a world leader in women’s empowerment and equality. It’s the first country in the world where the majority of legislators are women—56% in fact. Even the head of their supreme court is a woman.

A stunning achievement. The establishment of so many women as leaders seems an incredible landmark.

“I think it’s complicated,” Carla remarks. “I’m not an expert in Rwandan history or politics, but what I discerned from what President Paul Kagame said is that women had a key role in the liberation struggle to end the genocide. I met several women there who were part of that–one of them happened to be a major fundraiser for the liberation struggle and one was a general. So it seems that personally, the President is committed to women’s empowerment. He was the commander of the revolutionary struggle, the Rwandan Patriotic Front. I was told by the women I met at the conference that during the process of organizing the RPF, he asked women to play key roles. Then, when he ultimately became the president, he insisted that the constitution require that 30% of the legislators be women, which is the UN recommendation. As we know, it turned out they exceeded that figure. The women also mentioned that President Kagame and the leadership in general view women as key to development, and that is why the country has succeeded in turning around from the crisis. So Rwanda is definitely setting an example for the world. In a country where nearly a million people were killed in a hundred days, they are now utilizing female leadership to rebuild.”

On May 16, Carla witnessed the One Million Women and Girls’ March for a Better Future which convened women and men, girls and boys, from across Rwanda. “The most impressive thing about that March was that almost half of the people were men. I did not get the feeling that they were marching to patronize the women, but to support their leaders and to support the idea of women’s equality.” When Carla asked their male guide why the men were so supportive, he said that it was because of watching the women in leadership: They have helped save the country and pulled everything forward, and the men are grateful.

Awareness of impactful events like the One Million Women March seems to create its own momentum. “If something happens in one part of the world,” Carla contemplates, “it becomes easier for the rest of us to imagine it happening where we live. ‘Well if they did it there, then we can do it here.’ It’s inspirational. My sense of all of these women’s groups coming to the fore everywhere around the world is that there’s an emergence. The why of it, like why now, we don’t know. I think there’s an evolutionary quality to what is happening, probably something to do with  the evolutionary nature in which we have lived and seeing that what used to work for us in the past is no longer viable. There’s also the issues around distribution of resources and the other challenges we face. The analogy that comes to mind is rotating crops. We started with fertile soil. Patriarchy spread through that soil and we were ruled by it. But now that system is failing. It’s breaking down. It’s done. So the new bed of soil has to have the capacity to allow many more people to grow. An essential quality to cultivate to that end is love—being able to nurture and understand our interdependence. The ability to do that is something women have been honing all the more, specifically because they’ve been surviving in a patriarchal system. So feminine wisdom, if you will, is what needs to be planted.”

Relying on those qualities, women are amassing globally, highlighting the issue of gender equality and underscoring its importance regarding the establishment and continuance of peaceful resolution and justice. Organic and growing exponentially, this powerful movement, like others throughout history cannot easily be explained. Many have asserted it’s a spiritual revolution that is creating the tide.

Considering the idea, Carla weighs the concept. “It’s too complex to reduce this down only to the spiritual. I think that it’s also a question of leadership. Martin Luther King was a leader and Gandhi was a leader. I think that people become leaders for a lot of different reasons, some of which are definitely spiritual, and some of which have to do with grief. It reminds me of the women in Nigeria, in particular this one woman who lost her seven children. She didn’t have any reason to live, yet she was determined to march. Then there’s Pastor Esther Ibanga,” Carla adds, “the woman who led the march of 100,000 people. A minister, she was definitely coming from a place of being a spiritual warrior. So I guess it’s a vocabulary thing for me. I believe we need to be careful and clear about what we really think is happening. One can always say there’s a spiritual dimension to what’s going on. ‘It’s spirit at work.’ But it’s important to also ask what else is at play. What are the other forces involved?”

Whatever they may be, each an every social action—all of the women and men who are working toward gender equality, every march, including the 1,000,000 women march in Rwanda—all of it has made a difference.

                The story of Rwanda and the wisdom shared by the 400+ women who came to the conference from around the world gives real grit to the possibility that we are finding our way out of the endless cycles of retribution, war, and conquest. I come away from this event with a profound sense of having been completely rearranged. It will take me some time to process the genocide of Rwanda, which also has brought me closer to my own history as a Jew, and to knowing that the seeds for love and hate lie in all of us. Sitting shoulder to shoulder with wise, accomplished, daring women from many different countries and contexts, who have helped build and heal their communities and create bridges over seemingly impossible divides, radically affirms my belief that women’s leadership is helping to change the face of human relations all over the world.       — Carla Goldstein

And women’s leadership is needed now more than ever. So much of the work regarding peace negotiations and creating the reconciliatory atmosphere post-conflict appears to be contingent upon making sure more women are at the peace and security table.

Perhaps, as Carla suggests, a big part of accomplishing that aim is unlearning what we have been taught about our capabilities. “We need to become a bit more gutsy,” she advises. “The world could look differently. A lot of things are based on religious storytelling and explanations that basically regard the nature of existence as just being the way it is—that it would be a folly for us to try to change things, that relationships between men and women have a natural or God-ordained hierarchy to them, that violence itself is natural, that survival of the fittest is the mode or mechanism of human existence, and that it’s a pollyannish view, a naïve view, that anything could be different. I think that since half of the human beings haven’t really participated in designing the system, then to say that the way things are is the only way they can be is missing half the beat. I think that part of the Institute’s work will be to encourage and to give women the confidence and the strength to bring their visions forward and to affirm the possibility that the world can, in fact, look differently than it looks today because we have not been a substantial part of the creators, the philosophers, or the visionaries. All of the storytelling about what life is and all of the structuring about how we will organize ourselves at a societal, public, resource distribution level as well as how we will solve our conflicts—all of that has been created without our voice by and large. Of course, the story can be very different if our voices are a part of it. So it’s really about that. It’s about being strong enough and brave enough to bring our voices forward so we can change the story.”

Yet, to make that transformation, there must be a breakthrough. Unifying around the globe, women’s voices are being powerfully unleashed to that end. As Carla and Omega suggest, it’s certainly our time to lead—not instead of men but with them. Together, we can design a new matrix, connecting and nurturing, creating a new paradigm that honors the feminine in us all.

* * * * *
Our duty, as men and women, is to proceed as if limits to our ability did not exist.
We are collaborators in creation.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Intoductory photo of Carla Goldstein – Courtesy of Omega Institute for Holistic Studies. Photo of Carla Goldstein from Women & Power: Connecting Across the Generations (2009) – by Dan Goldman. Photo of Elizabeth Lesser, Eve Ensler, Jane Fonda, Sally Field from Women & Power (2004) – Courtesy of Omega Institute for Holistic Studies.


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