Do you have a favorite quote, prayer, practice or credo that gives you strength or inspiration?
Mary Oliver, a poet who focuses much of her writing on the natural world, has been a wellspring of strength and inspiration over the years. Her words speak to me as a Buddhist and an environmentalist, and they have brought solace in times of great loss. My favorite poem of hers is “The Summer Day,” [which ends}: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”
What current project are you most passionate about?
I’m most passionate about the GreenFaith Certification Program (www.greenfaith.org/programs/certification), which has grown from an idea to a fully-fledged and successful effort under my leadership. This is a program for houses of worship where they ‘green’ their communityfrom top to bottom, and I mentor them throughout that process. The Program is unique—it’s rigorous, so it achieves really outstanding environmental results, and it’s interfaith, which is unlike any other program out there. When you add up the results of what has been achieved at participating houses of worship, it’s astounding: over $100,000 in cost savings, creative environmental programming, and first-ever interfaith collaborations. From solar, to gardens, to local food, to green cleaning, sites are reducing their environmental footprint substantially, and they’re inspiring members through eco-themed worship services and hands-on environmental classes. They’re also leveraging their voices on a bigger scale, by doing letter writing and meeting with representatives on environmental justice issues. In a world of many environmental challenges, and strife between people of different cultures and religions, the Certification Program is an inspiring and important example.
What motivates you to do the work you do?
Motivation for the work I do is a book with many chapters, and the first chapter starts young. In a favorite picture of mine from when I was little, I’m smiling at the camera while holding a yogurt cup filled with caterpillars and leaves. I was always that kid—the one who took care of animals, collected money and donations for different causes, and, by high school and college, took part in activist student groups. Writer and life coach Martha Beck has said that some people are born with the natural tendencies of shamans, inclined to be healers and transformers of the world. Perhaps this explains my inclinations that came at such an early age.
As I’ve moved into my adult life, my love of the natural world has fueled me. From the birds in my backyard, to the sea turtles I once worked with in Costa Rica, to the mountains I’ve climbed east and west, the natural world has always been a place of refuge. I want to protect it, and allow my children and all future generations to experience the same beauty and wonder.However, there are inevitably days when this natural inclination only goes so far, and the weight of the world is heavy. On those days, my motivation comes from any number of great teachers, who remind me of the importance of contributing to the world outside of myself. There is the Jewish teaching that “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it” (Mishna Pirkei Avot 2:21), and the beautiful words of singer Leonard Cohen, “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” It is not up to me to solve the world’s problems, but it is up to me to do my part, even if I may not see the results in my lifetime.
What do you consider your spiritual roots?
My spiritual path has been long and winding, and is still evolving. I grew up in a Catholic household, and was quite devout at a young age. I attended mass week by week, prayed in the chapel on weeknights, and believed I might one day be a nun. Then, as I like to say, “life happened,” forcing me to grow up quickly and tackle some big questions. My youth was marked by one trauma after another—I experienced the loss of my father at age 12, the sudden death of my sister by age 26, my mother’s paralyzing stroke by age 30, and the effects of growing up in a household with rampant alcoholism and mental illness. These experiences left me reeling and uncertain, but also deeply introspective and spiritually seeking. By an act that can only be described as grace, I was introduced to backpacking and camping (an activity that was off limits in my childhood) in college, and I stumbled upon meditation several years later. Both practices, in a similar way, provided a calm, grounded space, and allowed me to feel at home in my body and mind for the first time. Each experience outdoors or on the cushion reconnected the pieces of my emotional self that had come undone from many years of trauma. In that connectedness, spirituality took root. I have since completed backpacking trips from coast to coast, 3 silent weeklong meditation retreats, an 8 month meditation course, and a meditation kayaking retreat in Alaska (www.insidepassages.com)! This past year I deepened my commitment to meditation by beginning an intensive Zen training program at Pine Wind Zen Center (www.pinewind.org), a Zen Buddhist community in the beautiful Pinelands region of southern New Jersey. Last December, as I witnessed an ordination ceremony at the Center, I had the full-body recognition that I wish to go that path. And so things come full circle, and the spiritual exploration that started two decades ago continues.
Don't miss the interviews with our other Top Ten Spiritual Heroes of 2013. http://www.pinterest.com/spirithealthmag/