Life at the Center: Big Ideas – July 2020
Letter from the Director, by Renée Tillotson
As a kid, I always loved big ideas. Maybe all kids do. Did you? I recall coming across our rambunctious 5-year-old son sitting still, alone in the middle of a play day, on top of his bunk bed. “Whatja thinkin’ about, Shankar?” I asked. “Infinity,’ he startlingly replied. For me, Still & Moving Center is becoming a place, more and more, where large-hearted, deep thinking takes place, as well as fabulous physical activities..
Imagine ideas giving the mind a workout, just as play, calisthenics, dance, etc. exercise the body. Little Renée also adored her time on the playground. Pumping back and forth on a swing, to the very top of each arc, is akin to viewing the world from a broad sweep of perspectives, from the top extreme to the opposite extreme. Hopscotch requires a light-footed agility, similar to mental agility in the face of new facts. Swinging from ring to ring on the monkey bars involves a shoulder motion called brachiation, suggesting the looseness with which we can release fixed points of view and move onward. Jumping rope strengthens our base – feet, ankles, knees, legs and hips – requiring steadiness, timing, and repeated grounding. The see-saw challenges our sense of balance. The metal push merry-go-round teaches us that going to the center gives us the still point, while going to the edge whirls us wildly through space. Down the slide requires letting go, enjoying the ride!
So, to me, exercising the mind goes hand in hand with exercising the body for whole health as a human being. I’ve been on a quest to find both.
As a bird longs to be on the wing in the open sky, I crave to live in the wide world of thought. From my earliest times, I’d quietly hang on the outskirts of adult conversations, listening for ideas that would carry my mind to broader perspectives. And I read a lot. I mean, I ate up books. One of my favorites was a big book on World Religions. That fascinated me with many ways of explaining how the world began and why we were here.
Of course every child loves stories. A story drew me in like a spider wrapping up a fly. Why is that? I think stories help us make sense of the world. We can see how the causes people set into motion play out into logical – even if surprising – results. Look how Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol comes to see how his life so far has damaged others, and finally chooses to utterly redeem himself from his tight, mean, miserly life to one of full-hearted generosity. Such stories teach that transformation is possible!
Watching sad news on black and white television made me deeply wonder how such terrible things could happen, and how we could make the world a more livable place for everyone. Surely you had events in your childhood that led you to similar questions. Remember?
My parents were part of the World Federalist movement, and I especially liked listening to their discussions with those friends. I’m just learning now that famous advocates of World Federalism include Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Camus and Winston Churchill. Wow! No wonder I was interested in THOSE conversations! World Federalism started during and after World War II, as a way a way to avoid future wars.
I devoured fantasy and science fiction books that envisioned worlds that COULD BE. “A Wrinkle in Time” captivated my imagination: three youngsters “on a journey through space and time, from universe to universe, as they endeavor to save [their] father and the world…. The novel wrestles with questions of spirituality and purpose, as the characters are often thrown into conflicts of love, divinity, and goodness,” per Wikipedia. Yep, that’s my kind of book!
One day, probably when I was home buried in a book and all the other kids on the block were outside playing – my mom suggested that I might want to make some more friends. I responded, “My books are my friends, and when I want more people friends, I’ll go out and make some.”
By 7th grade I left my bookworm habits behind, but you know, I didn’t really know who I was looking for. I could not have put into words, “I’m looking for friends with big ideas for the world.” By the time I got to college, I was finally able to find people like that, including my now husband Cliff.
At UC Santa Barbara. I heard about a Professor Raghavan Iyer, as an amazing speaker who always wore a red or orange or gold colored shirt to class. I recall sitting in the big lecture hall next to Cliff, waiting for the professor, when suddenly a small-statured Indian man, wearing – yes – a deep orange shirt under his dark jacket, came striding down the aisle. As he began speaking, I was transfixed.
The ideas that streamed non-stop out of Professor Iyer’s mouth for the next hour filled every nook and cranny of my mind… and then kept pushing it out farther and farther. The topic was something about politics, religions and literature… I can no longer recall the subject matter – only that these were stupendous ideas about the human race, its problems and its possibilities. My note-taking hand cramped trying to keep up with his full flood of remarkable notions from East and West, ancient times and modern headlines. But my hand cramp was nothing compared to the panting satisfaction that my mind and heart felt bathing in his colossal vision of a possible world that we – those of us sitting there in that very hall – could bring into being.
When Professor Iyer’s soaring lecture finally touched down and came to a close, a breathless pause ensued, then every person in the hall sprang to their feet and burst into a long, standing ovation. And for the next three years that I took Professor Iyer’s classes, I experienced all of our eyes brighten, our hearts swell, and our minds sail on the winds of his ideas for a more intelligent, compassionate world.
Soon Cliff found out that Professor Iyer, with a number of his students, were restoring an old Victorian house in downtown Santa Barbara to create something called the Institute of World Culture. Danson from Kenya, Ingrid from Germany, Carl from Quaker country in Pennsylvania, and all manner of other idealistic people worked through the weeknights and over their weekends to restore the house to the stately beauty the Institute deserved.
On July 4, 1976, the Institute of World Culture opened with the Declaration of INTERdependence! I include that Declaration below in Word to the Wise. From then on, Cliff and I feasted on endless programs devoted to lifelong learning, from Mozart’s music, to Ramunagen’s mathematics, to Vandanava Shiva’s seed banking, to Shakespeare’s play the Tempest, to how saving the wolves transformed Yellowstone National Park. And most of the programs were put on by the members themselves, learning about and presenting the subject matter. We also received remarkable visiting presenters, such as His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama.
Moving to the islands in 2002, I missed the Institute’s programs and conversations – my life of the mind. However, Cliff and I found so much richness in the Hawaiian culture, it hugely helped the transition. Cliff dove into paddling Hawaiian canoes, encountering the legendary Hawaiian kupuna (elder) Nappy Napoleon. And thank my lucky stars, I met kumu Mālia Helelā, who so graciously shares her tradition through hula, ōlelo (language), history, love of the ‘aina (land), and the generous heart of aloha.
Fortunately, too, I became better acquainted with a vast range of movement practices from around the world through Still & Moving Center. In addition to hula from the islands, we had Bharata Natyam dancing, Bollywood and yoga all from India. Tai Chi came from China and Qigong came from Korea. Israel gave us Feldenkrais, and we got belly dance from both Egypt and Turkey… and the list just keeps growing – like the new ELDOA from France. We are essentially creating a world university of mindful movement. And we have always kept conversation going through our weekly Satsang centered on our Still & Moving Center Almanac of inspirational quotes from around the globe.
I still keenly missed our wide-ranging programs and conversations at the Institute of World Culture.
With the pandemic came a pause, a pivotal turning point, and something shifted. Suddenly, at the time of our 9th birthday, Still & Moving Center went online, and went global. Overnight, our friends from across the map could join our classes without flying to Hawaii. I realized, “This is our chance at Still & Moving Center to cultivate the life of the mind!”
Our banquet table for the mind grew more plentiful. All our meditative offerings are free of charge and online. We now provide two seated meditation sessions a week. Our Sunday Satsang gathering is now frequented by off-island participants for a fuller diversity of viewpoints. On Fathers Day, for example, we talked about how the living practice of fatherhood has evolved over the generations in Japan, the Philippines and the U.S.
Our ‘Gems from the Wisdom Tradition – a Conversation Circle’, an online weekly gathering, launched in April with 14 participants from various islands, states and countries, all talking about fascinating, make-a-difference ideas. Some of our friends from the Institute of World Culture attended, too! Yay! Last week at Gems, kumu Maliā approached the Buddhist topic of Right Speech by addressing the Hawaiian proverb:“I ka ʻŌlelo no ke Ola” – In the Language there is Life, complete with chanting in Hawaiian. And I loved hearing the ancient Greek story of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods on Mount Olympus for humanity – hearing that fire in fact represents the light of the mind, which, like a candle, can be shared over and over, illuminating the darkness, without ever being diminished itself. Wonderful stuff. My body and mind are now both satisfied now!
Ironically, I spent a quarter century after college pursuing the life of the mind without much physical exercise at all, until I started practicing Nia and moved to Hawaii in 2002. Through Nia and the moving practices at Still & Moving Center, I had learned an important lesson. So I had slated myself in 2020 to go to San Diego, Brazil and the Ukraine to give talks on the Joy of movement, I wanted to convince some rather sedentary, philosophical groups to get up and move their bodies if they really wanted to have healthy minds.
And instead I’m finding myself bringing more of the life of the mind to a place where people love to move. Don’t you just love it?!?
And there’s more to come! AHHHHHH…………