Integral in Iran is a blog I kept about my visit to Iran in March 2007. Why did I go to Iran? What did I hope to accomplish and learn? Why go precisely at this time of smoldering and potentially disastrous conflict? My background is not in political science or international diplomacy, but I felt called to make a connection with the people of Iran, to foster a deeper level of dialogue and, hopefully, mutual understanding. I think you’ll see that I’m not just an idealistic peacenik or cultural tourist—I’m interested in real solutions, based on real insight.
The posts on this blog reflect an unfolding of my perspectives on the relationship between Iran (and the Middle East in general) and the U.S. (and the modern West in general), including my own deepening questions about where this all might (and could) be going. My perspectives are not mainly political in nature—they’re more often cultural and frequently religious or spiritual in focus. But most of all they’re Integral, assuming the interconnected, holistic relationship between politics, culture, religion, spirituality, and every other essential dimension of human life. I’ve arranged the posts chronologically from earlier to later (instead of the traditional reverse order of blogs). On this home page, I present an overview of my experiences.
How I Got to Iran and What I Began to Learn
In late 2006, I found myself unable to read the daily news without wanting to do something to make a direct connection with people in the Islamic world. I wasn’t clear that I could make an immediate difference, but at least I wanted to get some first-hand experience that might inform me as I imagine ways to bridge the cultural gulf between the Islamic world and the West. My first post was written to give a little background on myself and my intentions for this trip.
Via The Fellowship of Reconciliation I was able to arrange a 2-week visit to Iran. In preparation, I arranged for a series of short Integral documents to be translated into Farsi, and brought them with me and distributed them to government officials, conservative clerics in Qom, intellectuals, and students at Tehran University.
In March 2007 I visited Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan, and Qom. Our independently organized, non-governmental delegation had pre-scheduled appointments to meet with former President Mohammed Khatami, Grand Ayatollah Sana’i, Islamic Republic revolutionary and peace activist Emmadin Baghi, and Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. We also planned to visit Khatami’s NGO devoted to generating a Dialog Among Civilizations, the Iranian Center for the Victims of Chemical Weapons, the Great Library of Qom, the tomb of Hafiz, and to meet with President Ahmadinejad’s lifelong ally, Vice President Mashaee.
The day after we arrived, all our appointments were abruptly canceled by the secret police. What remained were tourist stops (like Hafiz’s and Sa’adi’s tombs and Persepolis), along with activities that looked good in the frame of Iran’s local politics (like visiting the disabled Victims of Chemical Weapons, the home of Imam Khomeini, or his tomb). We were also allowed a few meetings that were controlled directly by the arch-conservative faction in charge—like our meeting with Vice President Mashaee, or our meeting with senior faculty from the Ayatollah Khomeini Seminary at Quom (which is headed by President Ahmadinejad’s “spiritual advisor,” Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi) or our meeting with the conservative students enrolled in Tehran University’s department of North American and European studies.
In the process, I found out that the profound differences between Western and Iranian structures of understanding tended to make dialog very tricky. I found what I encountered summarized with remarkable insight and passion by the Iranian-French intellectual, Daryush Shayegan:
This ‘mental migration’ from metaphysics to [modern rationality] and the alienation caused by the progress of economic and social relations, are precisely what distinguishes the West from the [Islamic] civilizations of the planet. We can say simply that the distance covered by the course of this mental house-moving causes a reversal, an inversion of all categories, in the same way that the appearance of the constellations would be altered by a journey over some vast astronomical distance…. The situation is rendered even more intractable by the fact that the [traditional Islamic] state of things does not stay intact, but is contaminated by the planetary diffusion of new modes of thought whose operational efficiency enables them to erode the ancient edifices of the world from the inside….
Tradition, if it exists at all, cannot get back ontologically to its starting point in the pre-modern period: it is stuck forever in post-modernity…. Religious delirium, revolutionary obsessions, womens’ empancipation, regression into increasingly fraudulent utopias, Star Wars and the revival of obsolete beliefs, jostle in a kaleidoscope of opinions, faiths, and visions in which nobody knows what he himself is talking about… the conceptual structures through which [hopes] are now articulated are the backward and monstrous spawn of an ill-digested modernity…. People remain unaware of the historical breaks which turned the West into the stronghold of modernity, and the other civilizations of the world into enormous ancient monuments.” (Shayegan, Daryush, Cultural Schizophrenia: Islamic Societies Confronting the West (Modern Intellectual and Political History of the Middle East) (1992) Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.)
Our canceled meetings were a cloud with a silver lining, because they forced me to focus my attention on connecting with arch-conservatives. I noticed that the seemingly-insuperable gulf does offer some openings. Naturally, these openings require mutual respect, with an intention towards negotiating peaceful coexistence. But a key lies in an area the West has neglected completely: the sharing of high (meditative) states, via meetings among serious practitioners in prayer and spiritual communion.
I’m well aware that on its surface "praying together" looks like green accommodationist kumbaya idealism. That’s not what I’m talking about here. True spiritual practice and realization is not about wishful thinking. Rather, it involves coming into greater intimacy with Reality itself—with Spirit, God, Allah, Emptiness (or however it might be called) within a context of human relatedness. My proposition is that this kind of communion (especially among true spiritual realizers) could generate the beginning of a multi-stage process that opens up a space for a trustable dialog—even if it is no more than a first baby step.
Persian culture is a revelation—rich, nuanced, spiritually advanced, and deeply soulful. Truly, this is one of the world’s great cultures. And, framed by the unique qualities of Persian sensibility, I encountered some of the esoteric depth of Islamic culture, both as it is fused with Persian culture among the Shia and in the Islamic Republic, and as it exists among the Arab faithful. I found profound beauty in spiritual men who hold their embodied traditions very strictly, preserving them as a trusted bridge that connects them to the high spiritual states (and certainties) which in turn feed their souls and energize their spirits. Surely, this deep spirituality—even if its deep values and surface structures are totally different than our own—could be a fruitful meeting place between our cultures?
What Can Be Done to Soften the Clash of Civilizations?
Because the U.S. is threatening to attack Iran militarily, and has already invaded Iraq unleashing terrible killing and suffering, we have limited our creative options for cultural engagement. Many Iranians’ fight or flight reflexes are already in play, making it hard for them to hear our legitimate needs and demands except as bullying. The question I pose is, how can we circumvent the deadlock that’s been created by this militaristic and confrontational approach? That’s why I’m interested in constructive gestures and creative forms of contact.
I focus on positive dialog in this blog, and thus may seem to some readers reflexively conciliatory. Not so. There are dangerous forces at work in Iran that do need to be countered, and in certain circumstances this might need to happen militarily and forcefully. But there are many innovative moves we can make before that “last resort,” and this blog focuses on them.
What can make a positive difference? Many things. And one of the most high-leverage, and least imagined is this: Citizen diplomacy by Westerners with actual spiritual realization—meeting with Islamic mystics, and sharing profound contact with spiritual realities—commonly known as “praying together.”
Don’t get me wrong. I realize and respect the fact that both conservatives and progressives in America are holding essential bottom-line values that need to be honored. So are the arch-conservatives, pragmatists, and reformists in Iran.
In fact, all human structures of values and consciousness need to be safe enough to thrive and evolve. Westerners are acutely aware that modernity needs to be valued and defended; traditional Muslims are extremely concerned that their native world be protected against modernity’s excesses. Many Muslims are acutely aware that their tradition needs to be valued and defended; we are most concerned that our freedoms and prosperity must be protected against the excesses of traditional and warrior consciousness. The same equation (“defense of and defense from”) applies equally to the postmodern and Integral values and structures of consciousness that evolve beyond modernity.
Some Iranians (including Iran’s ex-President Khatami) advocate for the evolution of new non-Western (specifically Persian, and Islamic) versions of modernity. This is an interesting concept when you consider the non-Western world’s divisive resistance to modernity, which originally evolved, we must realize, exclusively in the cultures of Christian Europe. He has for years called loudly for “a dialog of civilizations,” part of his work to serve the emergence of this possibility.
Although I traveled together with a delegation devoted to advocating for peace, I held some independent integral perspectives. What I saw on my trip only underlined my clarity that the resolution between Iran and America cannot arrive through pluralistic, multiculturally sensitive peacemaking alone.
The many tensions that divide our cultures and nations can only be cleared via a demanding process of dialog over time, involving repeated sincere efforts to see how the world looks from the other’s perspective. And this is only real if it coexists with strength, including both sides’ military, economic, and diplomatic commitment to their own security, safety, and health.
I believe current global trends are gradually eroding American hegemony. That’s why the key issue in our foreign policy is how we are shaping and influencing a coming era in which our power will come from our ability to persuade, negotiate, and cooperate rather than to dictate or dominate.
What Can an Integral Perspective Offer?
Emerging Integral consciousness is capable of seeing radical Oneness, the indivisible nature of all human beings, and it can appreciate the rainbow of perspectives through which people view and understand themselves and each other. It can see and speak to the physics of the internal universe. No other consciousness can do this as fully.
Integral consciousness transcends and includes all the polarities that otherwise define human political, cultural, and spiritual dialog. I’m talking about such divides as left-right, progressive-conservative, modern-traditional, Christian-Islamic, East-West, etc. It is the most profoundly unifying perspective in our world today.
Integral spiritual culture inherits the great spiritual cultures of the past—the richness of Persian spiritual culture as well as the great Christian and rational legacies of Western civilization. For example, the Integral Spiritual Center includes Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and others. Integral spiritual culture transcends and includes all perspectives, making Integral practitioners sincere students of them all, and sincere servants and teachers where they can make an offering. I do this through my coaching, training, and speaking work.
Most importantly, Integral spiritual culture offers a trans-rational spirituality, a rigorous, reasonable spiritual consciousness that is indigenous to modern and postmodern sensibilities. This spirituality is the basis for an Integral Heart of care, a consciousness with both the vision and the commitment necessary to make a radical tangible difference in the affairs of human beings.
My work is devoted to serving people who are waking up into this new Integral consciousness and spirituality. Integral Life Practice offers a streamlined and contemporary post-metaphysical system for ordinary people to engage a serious life of practice.
Such Integral practitioners are capable of reaching out across boundaries in new ways. Through my trip to Iran, I became inspired by the potential and importance of ongoing citizen diplomacy between Integral citizen-practitioners and conservative Muslim citizen-practitioners. Please let me know if you would like to be informed about future Integral citizen-diplomacy delegations.