The Indomitable Healing Spirit Of James O'dea
--Bela Shah
18 minute read
Jan 25, 2012


“Service is not a form of moral obligation.  It’s more about feeling the potential of the universe, the latent energy within the universe that is waiting to be released and expressed through you and your own unique qualities.  There is no single paradigm of service.  How do we truly release ourselves into the field of action?” 

With that introduction, James O’dea, formerly Director of Amnesty International’s Washington, DC office, Executive Director of the Seva Foundation and President of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, opened up a whole new universe for the weekly forest call audience.  For the past two years, James has found himself synthesizing his remarkable life experience into what he calls “social healing”. What does it take for an individual, community and a nation to heal itself?  Our enriching conversation with James explored the roots of this tangled question, and unearthed deeply held truths that were enlightening for each of us in different ways.  By the end of the call, I felt as if a guardian of light had just taken a two hour break in his day in order to gently guide us through an inner journey of peace and reconciliation with our own beings.  The queue for questions was lit up and although there wasn’t enough time to get to everyone, the recap below captures much to ponder over (and hopefully practice =) 

In the Midst of Rubble and Despair: Experiencing an Awakening
James is quite the force to be reckoned with =).  So it’s not hard to believe that he began fighting against injustice when he was just a teenager in England.  Feeling deeply oppressed by some of the poverty and social problems that he witnessed in southeast London, he decided to organize people in order to conduct a survey of the treatment of senior citizens and followed up with a public report.  This not only resulted in an award for “Teenager of the Year” but also an invitation from the UK government’s Welfare Authority to engage in a conversation about solutions.  In retrospect, James is shocked by the arrogance of his response.  He wrote back to say, “You know what you have to do and when you do it we can meet.” (!) 
The arrogance that James believed he demonstrated in his teens met the challenge of its life when he moved to Turkey, and later Lebanon.  In Turkey, while serving as the Vice President of a school during the civil conflict, James’ home had been machine gunned and he had been knifed several times. People were dying all around him.  It was the first time in his life where he could have had a legitimate reason to not continue in this line of work. 

“The first birth of real commitment came to me.  We get tested along the path and we are asked, are you in this for the ride or are you in this to go as deeply as you can into the path of service and into the expression of who you could be?” 

After the 1982 war in Beirut, and the subsequent massacres and communal fighting, James felt like he had hit the lowest point in his own path of service.  He experienced conflicting and negative thoughts about humanity and wondered how it could be so sick and depraved.  The problems are too great and how could there be so much violence?  And in the midst of this turmoil, something magical happened.

“A Palestinian man served me coffee in the midst of the rubble of disease and death and wounding.  And I had an epiphany; the spiritual dimension of the human came through to me and I became deeply aware of the indomitable spirit of the human being.  Our spirit cannot be mutilated away or bombed away.  It stands there to remind us that we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” 

These profound realizations are what led James to continue working for human rights with Amnesty International and later, in the field of international development as the Executive Director of the Seva Foundation.  After Seva, he plunged one step deeper into the spiritual realm by leading the Institute of Noetic Sciences.  There, James applied science to spiritual truths, and this is where he started to explore the realm of social healing.

He began to ask himself, “What is the root cause of these violations?”  Instead of addressing deeply rooted problems through protests and prosecutions, James took the scenario of right and wrong and turned it inside out. Where does the wound begin and how can we create systems and approaches that are healing not only of individuals but of societies?
Suffering as a Form of Grace: Moving Out of the Wound
In a recent Tweet about a Ram Dass article, James described suffering as grace.  While this is a beautiful way to interpret suffering in one’s life, Nipun wondered if this was also an intellectual response.  What about those that are suffering from dire poverty, abuse, or war?  James, who has seen incredible first hand atrocities all over the world, seemed most qualified to answer this question and he explained that there are two dimensions to suffering.  When viewing it through the external lens, we have a profound responsibility to change horrific practices like torture.  But when we try to interpret suffering through an internal lens, we are able to see that we can move out of and through our wounds. And by moving out of our own wounds, we will be able to begin the collective healing process.  James has seen this even in cases of the most massive levels of wounding that a human can experience, where their children have been tortured and murdered. 

“I see the heart like a phoenix and out of the ashes of terrible suffering something can arise and it is there that the most luminous force on the planet exists for me.” 

When James met an Israeli family whose daughter was blown up, they told him that they later read in her diary that she dreamed of peace with the Palestinians.  Realizing their daughter’s deepest wish inspired them to dedicate their lives to reaching out to Palestinians.  Similar atrocities were suffered all over the world, in Rwanda and in Northern Ireland, but it’s when you look for that healing and ask for it from people that the so called average person can transcend the wound. 

“One of the most viscous elements in the story is when we get attached to our wound.  When we define ourselves by the wound, we stop serving, we stop moving with the deepest intention of the planet, which is to show us that we can transcend any of these deep wounds.” 

Everywhere is the Face of Your Teacher: Link between Individual and Collective Healing
In his book, Creative Stress, James described stress as “being wounded” and as an opportunity for an evolutionary leap to take place.  In the book, we learn through science that our body has an alert system for truth, but we sometimes bury it. We try to numb it down or even push it back in other peoples’ faces.  We do anything but face the truth.  When we do this, we start a circuitry of energy and activity because the body is being listened to; the body is an antenna of universal consciousness. 

“It’s not trivial thing when we tap into our own truth and stand in it.  So in relationship to the individual, I say that the obstacle becomes your teacher. That which obstructs you, if you look at your relationship to it truthfully, it’s going to be your teacher.  Everywhere you turn is the face of your teacher.”

In the field of social healing, we must look at problems through both the individual and collective lens and this is possible by changing our relationship to truth.  Different truths can exist simultaneously, and this is what allows for both individual and collective healing.  Even if you had really different experiences, if you tune in with honor and respect and deep and compassionate listening to the truth of the others experiences, the circuitry of the two (not the circuitry of the one) is ignited, the relational field is ignited.
“We have a primal need to be heard and listened to and when we are, something opens up within us, that emphatic field of connectivity.  Social healing is so much about bearing witness to the others experience and allowing that to be true. You don’t have to agree or disagree, but it’s bearing witness to the core, to the essence, to the truth of that person’s experience. When you’re in that relational field, the opening begins, the possibility for reconciliation begins, the possibility for movement beyond our fixed beliefs occurs.” 

On the forest call, Nidika, who is a social worker, asked James to explain more about our attachment to the wounds.  She has seen that within herself and also in the community work that she does, that our attachment to the wound is the largest stumbling block.  How do we create that safe space where we are able to free ourselves of this attachment?

It’s amazing to understand how science has a real answer to this complex question. In James' recently completed book, “Cultivating Peace”, there is a whole section on communication and listening. 

“We know now from science that if I am not listening to you, but instead I am listening to my judgments of you, we will create a different electromagnetic field and a different biochemistry in our blood, which directly impacts our communication with the other person.” 

If we switch into our hearts and say, “However different I think you may be, I’m really going to stay committed to listening deeply to your experience,” the biochemistry in our blood will alter.  This shift from judgmental listening to compassionate listening is directly linked with the lessening of cortisol and adrenaline in our brains and the increasing of neuro-peptide happy hormones, which affect the alarm system and alter the biochemistry in the other person’s brain.  There has been research on this.  So you achieve this by deep, conscious, non-judgmental, compassionate listening.  When the other person’s amygdala is less aroused, they feel safe to tell their story to you to you.

James wants to dedicate his life to the authentic refinement process of his own self, to polishing the mirrors of his heart.  He asks himself, “Where do I get wounded and get attached to my wounds?  Where do my judgments get very subtle?  Where am I making subtle judgments about others and making distinctions and preferences about others?  He elaborated that if everywhere we turn, we see the face of our teacher, we experience the power of a different “we”; not the collapsed identity of the “we” or the reductionist exclusivist identity of the “we”. This is how we’re going to evolve, and the old leadership and hierarchical models have nothing to do with this emergent “we”.

“The Sufis say that we have to keep polishing that mirror when we see those resentments growing and superior attitude growing.  Polish them away and release them.”
Michelle, in Santa Fe, is currently engaging in a project where she is collecting individual insights on the question, “What do you think is the most important thing that human beings need to learn to be responsible global citizens. And what do we need to learn as society to be able to support responsible global citizenship?”  James’ responded that we first have to recognize that there is no lesser being on the face of the earth, there is nothing lesser in the entire field of creation including you.  This means that you are called into being yourself. 

“Yes there are forces that have knocked you about and that have repressed you, but the core message and invitation is a responsibility to face that knowledge that you are not lesser in any form and than any other being.  In fact, it’s like an evolutionary puzzle.  It’s you’re qualities that are essential for peace, it’s the expression of your unique qualities that are essential to this evolutionary process.” 

And in the immersioned “we” that I spoke of earlier, we recognize that there is no inferior being, no lesser being.  We recognize that “everywhere I turn is the face of my teacher”.  How do we practice that in the social body?  Once we eliminate the first, “I am not inadequate in any way, I am not lesser”, and recognize that “my qualities are called into being by the universe itself”, then we recognize that in ourselves and also in others.  Then we have a new game plan for humanity. It becomes a new evolutionary story.

Taking a Quantum Leap into Spiritual Maturity
Mo wondered if the time today is ripe for the world to take a quantum leap in spiritual maturity.  Our world history is stained with the blood of deep suffering for many thousands of years.  Is there any indication that there is something different today that didn’t exist before that can help us to achieve that spiritual maturity? Is this the time for a quantum leap to take place?

Subjectively, James believes that the ocean of consciousness is rising and the so called average person is growing and deepening in consciousness.  That’s why we are seeing these tidal movements of democracy around the planet and the effect is that the whole ocean of consciousness is lifted. What do we mean by “ocean of consciousness”? 

“There is a Sufi expression that says, “Your heart must face its test.  Until some sweet turned bitter in the end, your heart will not answer yes.”  

In the journey of the individual in consciousness, there must be a testing of the heart where we move away from the aversion to the bitter and attraction to the sweet, and we move towards the non-dual state, where the bitter and sweet become one, where we’re not choosing and separating and we’re not guided by those kinds of locked in preferences.  When this happens, there is a movement in consciousness.  This is our collective destiny and we’re shifting towards that.  Maybe for some this is slow and painful but inevitably, humanity is evolving into a deeper consciousness that will ultimately take us all through an authentic process into that non-dual awareness.

While James has been influenced by Sufi teachers, underneath that there is always the teacher of essence.  Sufism is referred to as the science of essence, dissolving the “I” into the essence. Hindu and Christian teachers that he has met that were in that place of the essence have also been his teachers. 

“It’s a path that has been around the knowing of the heart as fully fledged intelligent and the surrender to the higher will.  But surrender is not just letting anything happen.  That would be anarchic.  It is surrender to the dharmic will to create the highest good possible in any moment.”

When he was recently asked to write a book about how he prays, James shared a poignant story.  He prays by sitting in a circle with people from around the world that have been tortured and that have experienced extreme human rights abuses.  A Rwandan woman was so overwhelmed while trying to tell her story that she started gasping, then she moved to her knees, and then she lay down on the floor.  Another person was so moved that she lay down beside her, and then a third woman.  James explained that this is really how he prays, to be totally present for someone in the expression of their suffering and to wait.  Once you’ve been in that presence and you wait, then the fall, the flow, the healing begins.

Training Peace Ambassadors Around the World
Currently James is trying to build peacemakers across the world and he is leading a program called “Heal and Lead” in Ireland.  As Nipun described, James is planting a lot of seeds and creating love warriors all over the world.  He has trained 400 peacemakers and he is looking to start the Peace Ambassadors’ third training in March to train another 200 peacemakers.  

“My image of peace these days is that we’re no longer shouting at the gates and raising our protest placards and opposing something.  We’ve scaled the walls and we’re inside the educational system and inside movements like yours that are so much about peace making and the image that comes is building a culture of peace.” 

In reference to the question on global responsibility that was asked earlier, there is a beautifully expressed Earth Charter PDF on James’ website, which talks about universal responsibility.  We have claimed universal rights and they’re sometimes violated but we also must acknowledge that each one of us has responsibility for the whole...what a shift this is!  That is the nature of the work at the moment, building arteries of peace and connecting many elements.  In the Peace Ambassador Training, there are five pillars.

  • The first is inner peace and doing work around meditation to cultivate this inner peace.
  • The second pillar is moving out of the ideology of right and wrong and into wounding and healing. 
  • The third is to look at nonviolent communication and dialogic strategies for peacebuilding.
  • The fourth pillar is the systems approach; there is a connection between inner and outer ecology and we’re beginning to see how systems are interdependent and interrelated. 
  • The fifth pillar is to take it into the world and organize for peace work. 

For this last pillar, we bring together individuals like Mahatma Gandhi's grandson, Arun Gandhi, and Louis Diamond to help bring their expertise to this 16 week training.  It’s a global classroom and in each of the courses there are 20 to 24 nations represented.  In this upcoming course, we have 2 people from Qatar, people from Pakistan, Nepal, and Nigeria and everyone is Skyping in from all of these countries in order to participate in a global classroom about peacemaking!  “In great contrast to many current leaders in public office that are emotionally immature and over critical and judgmental, I truly believe that if we could have a generation of leaders who have been deeply healed and immerse themselves in societal healing, they are the ones to lead us.”
Change Begins with Changing Yourself
Nipun recalled a Wednesday meditation guest speaker from St. Quentin, one of the toughest prisons. With him was Rusty, who had spent 30 years there for committing a murder.  Rusty opened his talked with, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for all the hurt and anger and negativity that I rippled out into the world through my actions of ignorance.”  Nipun felt that it was one of the most heartfelt talks that you could have heard and he thought it was so easy to forgive someone like him, assuming everybody would be in the same boat.  So what was surprising was when people came up afterward and said that they weren’t able to forgive him.  One or two people told him he didn’t belong in that space.  Why is forgiveness so hard?  How can we create a culture of greater forgiveness because that would really help us?

James acknowledged that we all want to change the world in some way but the problem is that we think we can accomplish this by changing others.  But there is now a chemical teaching that says if you want to change anything, you have to change yourself.  These are very precise instructions for activism.  This is what is so radically significant about forgiveness work.  We must change and when we do, the whole thing changes in relationship to us….we are naturally able to forgive others by connecting with their essence, at a level that delves beyond superficial truths. 

In the opening quote of this recap, James spoke of a need to release the latent energy of the universe.  What freezes that energy? 

“Unforgiveness freezes up this vital energy and the universe wants it to be liberated.  It wants to restore love and harmony and connectivity. What is ironic is that people that have been victimized become the victim of being held in that energy instead of releasing it.  Even to those they have been injured, the universe is saying that now you can open the story and release others as well as yourself.  The root of that issue is that forgiveness is the opener.”

What forgiveness does is that it takes something that is frozen in the universe and ecstatically releases it, allowing you to be you and offer your connection to others.  I was asked by a woman whose uncle was a Catholic priest and violently murdered when she was a child. Now, years later, she wanted to know how to approach this man who had murdered her uncle.  I said to her, “Make it real.  Don’t make forgiveness this obligation business.  Write to him and ask, “How does he feel?  What does he feel at this point?  Does he know how much you suffered?  Open up the possibility for the real movement of energy to occur.”  There isn’t a formula for this. If it’s to be real, you have to go into it with all your clear emotions and with the desire to open and to heal.

While conducting a social healing workshop in London, in an area that is quite divided, during a break James asked a woman from Northern Ireland why she seemed so clear on this theme of social healing.  She explained how she had been shot and taken to the hospital and when she came to consciousness, the doctors told her that a bullet was lodged next to her aorta and that they couldn’t remove it. They made her comfortable to die.  But she didn’t die.  Something triggered very profoundly in her psyche.   The universe said, “It may look that you are destined to die but you are not going to die.”  Six weeks later the doctors said to her that she was going to have live with the bullet literally lodged near her heart and that she was just going to have to get on with her life.  At first, she wondered what she would do with her life but now she is a healer, a reconciler. She literally has a bullet and yet she does peace work!
“I feel the reality of the bullet in the heart of planet Earth.  It’s an extraordinarily painful moment for planet Earth.  The bullet is in but that is not the end of the story because we have the will to create something that is so much greater.  Even when the bullet is in, this is not the end of the story.”

James’ life experiences serve as a beautiful example of the power of forgiveness and healing.  Nipun revealed how James changed his own outcome and relationship with the world by the remarkable way that he framed terrible events in his own life.  When he was teaching in Turkey and knifed several times, he was left lying on the streets and had lost a lot of blood.  He was severely wounded but the way he remembers the story is that someone came and put him in a car and took him to the hospital and saved his life and he will never know who this person was.  Nipun expressed, “It’s amazing to look at this injury that these five kids inflicted on you and hold it with this remarkable anonymous act of kindness and you tried to pay it forward your whole life.  I just want to acknowledge that and thank you.” 
To learn more about James and his work, visit his web site.              

Posted by Bela Shah on Jan 25, 2012

4 Past Reflections