“I’m interested in what we can learn from other spiritual traditions, and how it applies to our culture,” is how the anthropologist/musicologist/museum curator/self-described humanist prefers to describe his life’s work.
Gold, whose career has spanned working with pioneering anthropologist Margaret Mead to living for more than three decades among the Tibetans, the Inuit and the American Indians of the Southwest to writing the landmark book, Navajo and Tibetan Sacred Wisdom: The Circle of the Spirit, further defines his vocation as “anthropology as it is applied to the human condition,” with an eye to exploring how we can “become enriched by what we study.”
To that end, Gold is the Friday night keynote speaker at this weekend’s Telluride Institute Ideas Festival: Compassion for a World in Crisis, focusing on cultural and spiritual aspects shared by the Tibetan and Navajo peoples, with speakers from both realms joined by speakers from the relatively new academic field of neuroscience, discussing its investigations into the effects on these two indigenous cultures’ deeply rooted spiritual practices on the human brain.
First, Some Caveats
“Some people think, when they come to one of my lectures,” says New York City native Gold, who today lives in Santa Fe, NM, a few hours from the heart of the Navajo Nation, “that I am going to try to prove the historic connections between the Navajos and the Tibetans.” This is not his goal, although, he allows, “It is possible that there are connections, but that is irrelevant.”
What is relevant, says Gold, is “to show how two peoples on two opposite sides of the earth, although they have many similarities” in terms of lifestyle, “have managed to preserve the essentials leading to a completely harmonious spiritual existence in both of their worlds, and how, as a result, the outer manifestations of that, in their art and philosophies, even, are similar.”
These manifestations could not be more relevant to life in our world today, he adds.
“Here you have the Tibetans and the Navajo, the American Indians, who both are doing everything they can possibly do to maintain their unique spiritual and cultural traditions in the face of being under the thumbs of the two most unbalanced and dangerous nations on earth.”
Of both China and America, Gold says: “We make materialism and progress central” to our lives.
Of Tibetans and the Navajo, on the other hand, “They make spiritual integration [of] their self and their world central.
“The whole ideal is you never go to one extreme or the other,” he says, of both cultures’ spiritual practices, but rather incorporate opposites – male and female; earth and sky – “in your being part of the balancing act.
“It’s as if you are standing atop a sacred mountain with your head in the sky and your feet in the earth,” he says of that ideal. “You need both.”
On the surface, the similarities between Tibetans and the Navajo are remarkable, starting with the fact that both are indigenous peoples with extant belief systems, each with a powerful voice in our world today.
The two cultures occupy two of the world’s highest inhabited plateaus; use the mandala sand painting as a map for spiritual growth; have the “monistic,” everything-is-in-everything spiritual worldview (grounded in a pantheism common to indigenous spiritual traditions) as opposed to the “dualistic” belief system of the West; and emphasize the need for balance in what the Taoists might call the yinyang of life, working to preserve their traditions and their spiritual composure, by striving, “in the words of the Navajo, to walk the Beauty Way, or, in the words of the Tibetans, the Middle Way.”
In both cultures, the mandala has four quadrants, each one with “a meaning or a teaching or an energy or an ideal,” often featuring deity figures, or buddhas, “or what the Navajo call holy people,” each representing a “quality of action, thought or expression” encoding “idealized qualities of being.”
The mandala’s quartered circle is broken down into depictions of such events as spring, summer, autumn and winter; or dawn, noon, dusk and night; or childhood, young adulthood, mature adulthood and old age, but each one depicting “universal teachings” at once associated “with these qualities of being and [with] ideal qualities that you aspire to,” and with such “counterproductive” sides of those qualities as illness and neurosis, as well.
The mandala, Gold explains, expresses those “qualities of a full individual,” including “the inner circle, which is the person, and the outer circle, which is the universe,” to comprise “a complete system, which is considered to be in motion.”
He further describes the mandala as an “analog encoding,” which “information scientists who study Tibetan and Navajo mandalas” have dubbed “one of the most effective ways of encoding sacred knowledge” that exists.
The ‘Circle of the Spirit’
In his book, Gold breaks down commonalities in the Tibetan and Navajo spiritual traditions, both with their constant quest for serenity, into a four-step system, whereby practitioners work to first “awaken” their consciousness, then to “balance” and “center” themselves within it and in the universe, and then, finally, to “become” as complete and actuated a human being as possible.
The first principle, which he calls Awakening and Connecting to the Nature of Things, is an initiatory exploration of “how did your universe come about? How did you come about? How are you connected to it? It’s what we call spiritual ecology,” and the study of “cosmology and creation teachings – that's all part of it.”
In the West, Gold says, “We make these separate categories” regarding our spiritual ecology. “But to “native people, it’s not separate,” and questions about “how we arose, how our ancestors lived, the challenges they met and overcame are very important teachings.”
The second principle, Balancing and Unifying Earth with Sky, he says, is an exploration of “what is the nature, the spiritual meaning,” of such seeming opposites as “gender, male and female,” which Tibetans and Navajos have expanded, by having “genderized the two main sides of existence,” to be “earth and sky, goddess and god.
“These are ideal extremes that you never go to solely, to one or to the other,” but that you rather try to walk a middle path between them. The whole ideal is that you never go to one extreme or the other, but you include both in your being, as part of the balancing act.”
Third comes Centering in the Mandala of Self and Cosmos, and has to do, according to Gold, with “finding one’s center in an ideal but terrifyingly real world of ever-shifting and changing actions, energies and thoughts,” in which the mandala maps out, or encodes, “the model of how to abide at the center of one’s world-reality.”
Finally comes Becoming: Sacred Rites of Transformation, for which, he writes, both “Tibetans and Navajos have developed elaborate, interlocking networks of traditions of transformative knowledge and practice, tailored to the spiritual needs of the individuals,” and which can range from “pacifying” the seeker to “dispelling obstacles, both external and self-generated, which, in the end, are one and the same,” and is, finally, “a rite of transformation [that] takes on a decidedly healing character.”
In the end, Gold says, one must engage as a transformed individual in the sacred way of life.
Both the Tibetan and the Navajo spiritual disciplines are centered in the “monistic” view that reality is one unified, organic whole, with no independent parts.
Western traditions too had a belief in the “monistic” universality of all things; that gave way, however, in the 18th century, to a dualistic view, says Gold, in which “spirit and matter were fully separated, between the church and science,” during the Age of Enlightenment.
“Prior to that, what we call ‘science’ was part of spiritual discipline,” Gold says, adding he calls that period “the Age of Endarkenment,” because it actually lost, he believes, “the first principles, the universal principles that we have in our spiritual background, [which] got all garbled and broken up.”
Lost too was a kind of merging, due to a separation of the individual, formerly heralded as “an expression of the universe,” so that “what happens in the universe happens in the individual.” This separation eroded and very likely destroyed our once-deep understanding of the fact that “the individual is also dependent on all the elements of the universe and dependent on all other individuals in life forms.
“The ideal of compassion,” in both Tibetan and Navajo culture, “is not a bleeding heart kind of empathy,” Gold emphasizes. It is “not a missionary zeal to change everything,” but rather, a “sense of kinship with all beings and a responsibility to maintain that kinship so that everyone is in a state of harmony, because if you don't maintain harmony with all of your relatives, all of your kin who are exactly like you, then you will be out of harmony.
“As a result, you have a sense of love and empathy for all beings, because they are exposed to the same challenges as you are. As they succeed, so you succeed. That is the sense of kinship, and what the Buddhists call compassion, that comes out of the recognition that we are all connected.” And so, Gold maintains, it is “in everyone’s interest to be empathetic and compassionate and to be available to help everyone reach their potential. “What we call compassion comes out of the sense of being connected, and the sense that we are not separate from everything else. “It is a practical compassion,” he says.
Peter Gold delivers the Friday night keynote speech at the Sheridan Opera House Friday, Oct. 8, at 8 p.m. For a full schedule of events, please visit tellurideinstitute.org