Nearly 240 participants, for the most part from Canada and the USA, gathered at the Cité Collégiale in Ottawa to take part in the weeklong Encountering our Humanity conference, which was held from August 7th to 14th, 2016. The impressive array of activities was designed to bring together into an organic threefold whole all the major fields of anthroposophical endeavour: lectures, artistic workshops and conversation groups. And all this was carefully scrutinized by the impish eye of a clown who started us off in a good mood every morning.
Each lecture given by a speaker from North America was coupled with a lecture by one of the five members of the Executive Committee from the Goetheanum who had come to attend the full week’s activities: Paul Mackay, Constanza Kaliks, Bodo von Plato, Joan Sleigh and Seija Zimmermann. This conference had been in the planning stages for over two and a half years and was the initiative of both Arie van Ameringen, the Anthroposophical Society in Canada’s General Secretary, and of the members of the organizing committee*.
Arie pointed out in his keynote address how scientists, from René Descartes on, are powerless to shed any light on the true nature of the human being other than by comparing man to an advanced animal or even a machine. By considering the human being as first and foremost a spiritual being, anthroposophy lays a solid groundwork for inner work (meditation) which allows human beings to remain human while facing the challenges of technology and the descent into sub-nature so characteristic of our times. In this light, spiritual work can be seen as a means of fostering the evolution of mankind, society and the world.
Confronted with the daunting, well nigh impossible, task of summarizing the wealth of initiatives presented by the various artists, farmers, educators, doctors, and scientists, I called upon some of the younger participants to help me in this task. From out of this broad canvas that unfurled during 7 days like a magnificent work of social art, they focussed on three moving accounts given during the conference – three experiences which, according to them, made one’s heart beat.
- Michael Schmidt, a biodynamic farmer, has been campaigning for over 22 years for the right to distribute raw milk. He has been fighting for the right for the consumer to make his or her own choice, in a country where it is easier to obtain cocaine than raw milk. He had his farm seized by the authorities and has even chosen to spend time in prison. Michael told us how the courtroom became for him a theatre stage for human encounters in which adversaries are not necessarily enemies. The only thing that truly matters is remaining true to one’s cause and respecting human dignity throughout the conflict, whatever the outcome may be.
- Douglas Cardinal, the renowned architect, has rediscovered his indigenous roots and has been greatly influenced by the work of Rudolf Steiner. In North America he has created organically designed buildings for First Nations communities and has explored new avenues of urban architecture. For the Ojibwa nation, the North American continent is a gigantic turtle whose heart is located on Turtle Island (Victoria Island), located at the very place where the Ottawa, Rideau and Gatineau rivers converge. Douglas Cardinal presented his plans for creating an ideal village, in which a centre for healing would be included.
- Nigel Osborne, a British composer, created a programme of music therapy he used as a tool for the rehabilitation of children of refugees suffering from post-traumatic stress. One of his compositions, Dedication to Syria, cries out for us to learn to hear one another’s suffering and to somehow in this way begin to heal the wounds brought about by the barbarity of war.
Although it deals with universal ideas, anthroposophy’s quest to seek the essence of true humanness is also rooted in concrete daily existence, with the threefold nature of the emerging Canadian identity always lurking in the background. This element was explored in various workshops, bringing to light a truly Canadian imagination including the First Nations, French and British influences and the multi-cultural and ethnically diverse population of the present day.
Mention was made of the karmic debt incurred by Europeans in America regarding First Nations peoples. Under the auspices of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Ottawa has inaugurated a national inquiry into the fate of missing and murdered aboriginal women. The Commission has crossed the country from ocean to ocean trying to unearth the truth about the residential schools where aboriginal children were taken to be “civilized”. With the church’s blessing, native children were torn from their families and their culture and forced to attend the residential schools in an effort to assimilate them.
In her performance entitled Reconstructing our Humanity, Wendy Charbonneau, an elder of the Squamish Nation, sounded with voice and drum a call for peace in her song Women are Gone. No longer having access to the language of her ancestors, she rediscovered, through her own research, fragments of her native language. Eurythmists surrounded her on stage with a protective veil as she made her cry heard. “Art frees us. This performance is a gesture of reconciliation and of healing for our collective memory,” said Elizabeth Carmack, founder of the Cambridge Music Conference and the person responsible for organizing the evening performance.
Aboriginal inmates make up an inordinate percentage of the population of our Canadian penitentiaries. The Canadian Correctional Service has now been encouraging meetings of inmates with members of the community, either in groups or on a one to one basis. We must work together to repair what has been broken through criminal acts. The circle of healing empowers victims, giving them the means to take charge of their own lives by offering their offenders the chance to relate to the consequences of the acts they have committed. True healing through justice must be experienced in total freedom by both parties even as the criminal process runs its course in the legal system. By meeting face to face, both parties have the chance to break free from their inner prisons.
Even the rocks evolve…
Building a healthy community requires looking problems in the face and taking them on by calling upon on the specific strengths of each individual. But it is also necessary to be able to identify the opposing forces, in order best to overcome them – these opposing forces which keep human beings from truly meeting one another. Bert chase, architect and lecturer, calls these opposing forces “beings of fragmentation” (language, race, religion, gender, profession, etc.) And even as in our current times this hardening process is beginning to gain control over our culture, the rocks themselves are evolving. This is the main thrust of the talks given by Duncan Keppie, a geologist who explained how he adds the prefix evo, for evolution, to describe the archetypes found in the mineral world. He introduced the audience to several of his “friends” that make up the Canadian Shield – 4 billion years old! – mineral configurations that could be observed on the conference site itself.
Three performances of the Foundation Stone Meditation in eurythmy by the troupe from Spring Valley, as well as concerts and theatre performances all helped to enhance the week’s exchanges. These included A Confession, by Leon Tolstoy and excerpts from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. To this was added an art exposition featuring works by various North American artists who derive their inspiration from anthroposophy. There were also several musical compositions evoking the Grail, this lonely path along which one meets at the right time the person who can light one’s way forward. This quest is linked to the great questions that often do not find an answer but that arise within us to give us direction. Broadening our inner being allows us to sense the invisible, that which is not yet manifest, in the way we can sense how a seed contains all the potential of the fully developed plant.
Christ and Karma
The week was designed to explore day by day the great themes central to anthroposophy itself: biography and karma, education, medicine, science and biodynamic agriculture, the arts, community building and the social art, and, finally, religion, meditation and spirituality.
What does it mean to live in the 21st century with an underlying, insidious sense that we are crushed, powerless? This was the question put by Paul Mackay in his lecture. First of all, our personal karma is woven into the karma of the times, and vice versa. He then went on to explain how we think we are living in a time continuum, whereas in reality a break has occurred. One level of complexity can no longer be predicted by observing the previous level; therefore the following stage is no longer simply the result of the former one. This is the concept of emergence. This means that everything is open: by taking initiative, we are able to bring a certain amount of order into the chaos so apparent in these times of ours where thinking, feeling and willing are threatening to go their separate ways.
It is truly an act of healing when we create out of our own free will something that is not connected to the past and would not come into existence without our own activity. This is the challenge of our times, the very same one facing the artist, the farmer or even the schoolteacher who must carry a conscious concern both for his class and for the future of his school. In this searching for a new order of things, each one can gauge the abyss that separates the individual’s actual experience from his ideal aspiration.
Several questions came up concerning meditation (mindfulness), which can be distinguished from ordinary consciousness and is often confused with a nostalgic longing for oneness and a desire to dissolve into the great All. Anthroposophical meditation is on the other hand a tool for self-knowledge and, according to Constanza Kaliks, requires reuniting with the spiritual world through conscious effort. Bodo von Plato adds that this is because the spiritual world has a pressing desire to be known by human beings, and can therefore be counted on to offer its help.
The new laws of karma, made available by Christ, give greater leeway to the community and to the individual. Everything has been shaken to the core. An individual’s evolution no longer ends at age 63, says art therapist Regine Kurek. There is at every stage the possibility of creating new karma and of taking one’s own life trajectory in hand. The human “I,” which is still young, longs to unfold, and all our efforts are but a preparation for its development.
But we must avoid falling into the trap of activism or the desire to impose strict rules. It was exactly in order to counter these tendencies that Rudolf Steiner established the School for Spiritual Science, explains Bodo von Plato. As various initiatives were coming into being, Rudolf Steiner deplored the fact that his collaborators quoted his words but interpreted them in their own way, thus distancing them from their original meaning. These individuals were generally much too consumed by their own will forces, and their energy was quickly exhausted. Though less well known than the various initiatives, the School is the spiritual heart of living anthroposophy; according to Collegium member Monique Walsh, the School must be able to deal with the minutiae of daily life. And the individual’s search for spiritual autonomy certainly does not exclude the collaborative working together as a group that the Spirit of the Times requires. In a century in which everything has become specialized, there is clearly a place for the Section for General Anthroposophy.
Anthroposophy is not out to prove anything. It merely seeks to find expression in the world through the inner strength and sense of initiative of individuals. It lives in human encounters and research. And various researchers provided us with the results of their own work, as individuals or in collaboration with others. For example: how can anthroposophy inspire us to create our own exercises on the path to knowledge? Can we express an anthroposophical text in colours? Or again, how can we experience the transformative force which results from the exercise of seeing ourselves as a stranger, an effective tool for self-transformation, according to psychotherapist Robert MacKay? Yet others delved into the biography of Frank R. Scott, one of the great proponents of our modern day Canada, and still others gave the results of their research into the riddle of the place of Quebec in North America.
Jonah Evans, a priest of the Christian Community, spoke of how religion, spirituality and meditation are three means of connecting with something greater than oneself, something which strengthens one’s humanity. It is not a question of “copying and pasting” a set of given ideas, but rather of being constantly creative; burgeoning spirituality born of a rich inner life can lead to action in the outside world that includes other human beings. I must not allow another human being to become rigidly fixed in my heart and mind according to the feelings I experience towards him or her; but I must learn rather to refine the quality of attention I direct towards the other.
Let us strengthen the good in order to better fight evil. Seija Zimmermann points out how we must concentrate on what keeps human beings healthy and not just on what makes them sick. Taking control of one’s inner life is an important factor in maintaining health. It is worthy to note that the European branch of the World Health Organization has asked what anthroposophical medicine has to say about oncology, hypertension and infectious diseases in light of the fact that resistance to antibiotics has reached a critical point and people stricken with mild diseases are now in danger of dying. Dr. Kenneth McAlister showed how sickness concerns not only the karma of the individual but also the destiny of the whole community.
What does it mean to be human, and what is my own personal contribution to mankind? Does my ideal include my fellow man? Seija Zimmerman explained how tragic life situations can stimulate us to awaken, to develop new qualities. This is awakening to Raphael. In our times, it seems easier to relate to Michael, the time Spirit, than it does to find the path to Raphael, the Spirit of healing. This was indicated to Ernst Lehrs, one of the pioneers of the Waldorf movement, by Rudolf Steiner himself. Indeed, meeting Raphael requires a level of consciousness which is cultivated especially in healthy relationships between human beings and created in the space living between them. The being of Anthroposophia incarnates in the earthly sphere through the will of human beings who give form and strength to their personal initiatives.
In our present climate of insecurity, we must cultivate the courage of Michael to strengthen the consciousness soul; commitment is the best remedy against fear. And the more we connect with others, the less we are afraid.
The Ottawa gathering closed with our forming a great circle in the auditorium. In the centre, Wendy Charbonneau, the elder, blessed the participants so that each and every one would have a safe journey home. And indeed, many had already shared during their group discussions the fact that discovering anthroposophy had been their true homecoming.
*John Bach, Jean Balekian, Judith King, Hamo Hammond, Siobhan Hughes, Dorothy LeBaron, Claudette Leblanc, Robert McKay, Sylvie Richard, Arie van Ameringen and Douglas Wylie. These organizers were ably assisted by many devoted volunteers.