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Known as both a provocative religious leader and a respected spiritual iconoclast, Irwin Kula has inspired thousands nationwide using Jewish wisdom in ways that speak to modern life.  He is[…]

Toward evidence-based spirituality.

Transcript: I think it’s . . . I use the ecological model in understanding how wisdom traditions ought to work in the world today. And the ecological model, we need every single species. We don’t know which species that’s gonna be extinct was actually gonna be central in figuring out something that would enhance our lives on this planet. Well I consider ancient religious wisdom traditions much like species. We don’t know which ones are contributing exactly what to the unfolding of and the development of human beings on this planet. And the greatness of this moment . . . The greatness for America, the unbelievable freedom, and openness and permeability of at least intellectual and spiritual boundaries, the greatness of the technology that now allows us to speak across every institutional, and dogmatic, and theological barrier – every single one if we want – the greatness is people can bring their wares . . . you know their wisdom to the marketplace. And not only marketplace on the low level, but into the intellectual and spiritual tables that everyone can dine at. And we need them all ‘cause you don’t know which resource and which tool you’ll need when in your life. And I understand the danger in that. The danger is everybody will become a tourist. And being a tourist is different than living somewhere; and that’s different from being a pilgrim; and that’s different than being a pioneer; but each of us have our psychological and spiritual pre-dispositions towards being in the world in different ways. And the opportunity of this moment is to bring our wisdoms – everyone. I don’t care if you’re an imam, or a priest, or a minister, or . . . to bring your spiritual wares, practices and wisdom to the marketplace, to the public culture, to the public arena and offer it. And what’s great about this kind of freedom is it’s a phenomenal test to see if your wisdom works. For most of human history religious wisdom was offered in very parochial, monopolistic, and controlling ways. In other words, if I had a Jewish practice of, let’s say being kosher, and some member of the community didn’t do that, you can ostracize that member. It was amazing how fast that person became kosher. So ______ clear that’s the best way to use a religious practice. It’s true in Judaism and it’s true in every other religion. Now actually the practices, and the methods, and the stories, and the narratives, they have to work. And “work” is very simple. After you try this practice for 30 days; after you study this story – whether it’s a biblical story, or a Talmudic story, or if I’m a Christian a New Testament story or a church-bound story – after you study the story, after you try this practice, tell me. You witness yourself. Are you a little more self-aware? Any of the distortions, any of the ways in which we fool ourselves, any of the illusions, any of them kind of loosen a little bit? And are you any more compassionate, and loving, and empathetic? If yes, you found a practice that may work for now. And if not, either retool the practice, play with it a little bit because that’s the authority we have in this world right now as individuals, or go find another practice. And that’s an incredible moment of . . . It’s scary for all religions, and that’s why some religions are freaking out right now; but it’s an unbelievable cleansing moment, because now we’re gonna have evidence-based spirituality. You know like evidence-based medicine. Now we’re gonna have evidence-based spirituality. Here’s the practice. Here’s the wisdom. Try it. Meditate on it. Reflect on it. Contemplate it. Use it. Does it work? Fine. If not, then you know what? It’s not gonna make it.

Question: How can individuals be a force of change?

Transcript: Well first I think that everybody has to figure out . . . You always have to figure out what your role in the system is. It’s very easy to be completely overwhelmed by a large, big, macro question like, “How do we affect what seems to be the world falling apart?” Most people can’t affect the question at that level of influence. And the worst thing to do is then to actually be paralyzed by one’s own powerlessness. So I would say the first thing everyone has to do is to understand they are not as powerful as they fantasize. Everybody from a person in the street all the way to whoever is the most powerful person on the planet today. You are not as powerful as you fantasize about, and you are not as powerlessness as your nightmares. Now what that helps do . . . everybody has to think about that; but what that helps a person understand is, “Oh, what is the real power I have to affect within my radar screen, within my environment, the world becoming a little better?” Not a lot better ‘cause that’s hubris. Not transforming the world, because people who try to transform the world wind up killing a lot of people even if they’re trying to transform the world in good ways. So it’s figuring out where you . . . we each can make a contribution. And that’s actually not small because, at least what my wisdom tradition teaches – but I think it’s true of all wisdom traditions – is each of us is a microcosm of the entire world; that one person is of infinite value. And that means that if you’re of infinite value . . . if you’re of infinite value, you are worth everything. And another person is worth infinite value. So when you affect, and upgrade, and enhance, and care for in a compassionate _________ one person, it does have a profound ripple effect. Now that’s not an excuse to escape from using our influence to maybe help two people, or 10 people, or affect, if we can, our businesses or our communities. It’s knowing your space; what you actually can affect; and then really being . . . It’s very, very . . . It’s very traditional being the very best person you can be in that space. And that’s hard, because that’s from when you come home in the evening after working a long day, and you walk into the house, and you wanna go see the mail first; but actually you maybe should say hello to your kids first; or maybe you should kiss your spouse or kiss your lover hello first before you do that; because if you don’t you create a kind of distortion and hurt which then, you know, carries over for the next 50 years. So it’s every single act. Sometimes I think of it this way. Imagine your life as a giant scale . . . you know one’s own life as a giant scale. And every single act from the smallest to the grandest tips the scale either towards life and compassion or a little bit away. Now I know murdering someone really takes it way; and being able to feed a million people really moves it towards life; but every single act tips the scale. And I think we all need to, in our own lives first, become a little bit more evolved and conscious about the power of individual acts.

Question: What impact does your work have on the world?

Transcript:Oh you know, I don’t know. What impact does my life have in the world . . . what my work has in the world? I try not to ask that question too often because, you know, the world’s a really big place. You know I don’t know. Yesterday I got a letter. It was just yesterday. I got a letter from a 23 year old in prison. The prison is in Colorado somewhere. He writes: “Dear Rabbi . . .” And it’s a seven page handwritten letter, because I guess they don’t have computers in prison. “Dear Rabbi . . .” And he describes how he grew up in Colorado and you know, whatever, problem home. He became a drug dealer and drug addict, and he got arrested. And he got two and a half to 10 years. And about a year ago . . . he’s been in jail about two years . . . about eight months ago, a year ago, he says he began to realize that he had allowed his life to get out of control. And somehow he got a copy of my book in prison. And he read the book, and he begins quoting pieces of the book and how they’ve helped him out in his life in the last eight months. And he’s writing me knowing there’s no way I’m gonna respond because I’m gonna think he’s crazy. And anyway, “Why should I respond to him? He’s just a kid in prison.” But he wanted to me to know that what he was doing was he was recovering his Jewish roots; but then he quotes a passage from the book about being open to other people’s spiritual insights, intuitions and wisdom because spirituality is not a zero sum game. And if I borrow someone else’s practice or learn from someone else, I don’t become less of who I am. I become more of who I am. And he quotes that passage and says he’s become this kind of spiritual guy in prison because he’s willing to take the partial truths from everybody, and he just wanted me to know that. Now I get letters like that all the time, you know? I mean that one’s a particularly intense letter because imagine this kid in prison. And I think the impact . . . the real impact you have you never know. The impact that you can judge immediately is usually not such an important impact. It’s short term impact. I know we like bottom lines in this country. We like quarterly, you know, profit statements. But actually if you do it quarter by quarter, it’s amazing how the company very often goes under in the long term. I think the real changes we want in our own selves are to become a little bit better and a little bit more self aware, and then use that. Whatever our talents are. We can do it as a teacher. We can do it as a . . . as a sanitation man, as a teacher, as a mother, as a father, as a brother. You can do it anywhere to use the talents to simply try to be . . . to help people. You become a little bit more secure and a little bit better, and then you don’t know the implications. Changing one person and helping one person could a decade later, 20 years, it could be the person who actually cures cancer. And we have to begin to have a . . . at least in the spiritual dimension . . . I understand corporate profits; but in the spiritual dimension we ought to be talking in much longer terms. Recorded on: 8/15/07

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