In Search of Wisdom Societies by Jane Hughes (Noetic USA)


“When I was twelve or thirteen my father and I were galloping up this hill. We shared a love for horseback riding. When we reached the top, this beautiful scenery spread before our eyes. I gasped, ‘How beautiful!! And to think that it is ours!’ My father turned his head full in my direction, looked at me intently with a half smile, half frown, as he replied, ‘Well, I hope you don’t believe that. I mean, you can’t believe anyone OWNS a piece of the planet, eh? It even sounds funny!! We don’t own anything. We must look after the land—it is our privilege to be its keepers—and grow food, which is a noble job. And pay attention that the people who work with us always feel respected, and may they progress in life.’”

Several members of the IONS Stewardship Council were in the middle of the vast Argentinean pampas, standing on the crest of a little hill with our hostess, Juana Pereyra Iraola. She had been showing us some of her favorite spots, where she and her siblings had loved to play as children, when spontaneously she burst out with this story. Weeks later, Juana confessed, “I realized, after sharing it, how much that incident has marked me.” Eleven of us had come to Juana’s family ranch, “Tinamu” (a partridge-like bird), for the first of our semi-annual three-day mid-week Retreats outside the USA—nine from various parts of the US, one from Canada, and one from Buenos Aires.

That night at dinner, Juana told us, “The first Pereyra came from Spain in 1787 and married a creole woman in Buenos Aires. This land was bought by my great, great grandfather, Simon Pereyra in 1854. In those years they gathered and domesticated wild cattle. His son, Leonardo, was an educated man who had traveled in Europe and he imported the first Herefords to Argentina. He was a pioneer in cattle breeding. He also planted the first eucalyptus, brought from the States by our great president: Sarmiento. The ‘estancia’—property—was called ‘San Simon’ and had 25,000 hectares (61,750 acres). From 1912 to 1930 my grandfather, also Leonardo, planted thousands of trees, especially on the hills, imagining that his sons would build their houses there. In 1958 San Simon was divided up among my father's 10 brothers, and tinamu was my father’s share of 1500 hectares (3705 acres). my parents build this house in 1961 meaning it to be their permanent home. when our mother died in 1995, we decided to keep the land together as a whole and to cherish and enjoy it as the treasure that it is. the property produces beef, wheat, soy beans and corn.”

so here we were, in the very heart of argentina, not merely geographically but culturally and historically as well. i think it is safe to say that we north americans all felt enormously privileged and grateful to be so situated.

for three days we sat in tinamu’s comfortable living room discussing topics such as how best to be of service at the ions/agnt 2003 conference and how we might strengthen the ions network of 260+ learning communities thereby helping to fulfill the ions vision—a global wisdom society in which consciousness, spirituality, and love are at the center of life. while all around us was evidence that this vision has been operative in this part of the world for at least three generations. i think we each sensed that we were being powerfully upheld and supported. what, i wondered, was the source of this palpable feeling of connection?

once again, juana gave an insight into that question when she described her preparation for our visit. “as i planned menus, bought supplies, etc., i felt all the time that this is all part of it. every time i bought something i told the story, ‘some americans are coming to get together for a few days.’ ‘what for?’ ‘well, they are talking of a world wisdom society, and it has to do with all of us.’ and they were all interested and wanted to be a part of it. ‘tell your friends that this bread you are taking, we made with our hands and the light from our hearts.’”

juana continued, “finally i visited a group of women who organized themselves as a cooperative and scrape together a living weaving and knitting raw wool. i asked them to give me a few cardigans, and vests, because ‘the americans’ would surely be delighted to buy some. they said, ‘we will consider your offer when we meet in circle. come next week’. and so i did. the answer was, ‘you can choose and take anything you want, but must leave a check for the whole amount.’ i found this very sensible and agreed. ‘i will give you a check dated may 1st. if i’m not back by then, with the money or the garments, you can cash my check.’ when they saw i was really committed, they asked, ‘why do you do this?’ i told them, ‘because these people have all the theory for what you have been doing for a long time with no theory at all! and i feel i should connect you to them.’”

here, surely, was the source of what we were experiencing: we had landed smack in the midst of a wisdom society, not as an intellectual concept, but rather as it is lived out daily through the hearts and hands of caring people.

one of the questions that has been posed during the ions regional gatherings has been, “how can i be the change i want to see in the world?” now our south american sisters and brothers were showing us the way. for me, this realization had started the previous week in brazil and would continue to be reinforced again and again throughout my stay in argentina.

when i first encountered him, edmundo put me in mind of a greek god—zeus, perhaps, lord of the heavens. his larger-than-life imposing and handsome presence suggested that he might have recently arrived from mount olympus. even his giant shaggy canine companion, senior xango, gave off vibrations of an all-knowing wisdom as he strolled about the property keeping his own counsel. and i soon noticed that, like the ancient greek deities, edmundo also possessed very human qualities—in his case, kindness, passion, a vulnerability, and a playful sense of humor.

almost forty stalwart souls had made a five hour trip into the hilly rain forest roughly northwest of sao paulo in the province of são francisco xavier to edmundo’s vision for a 21st century brazilian mount olympus—the gaia institute.

my inspiration to buy gaia came from an old heart-full dream to create an ecological growth center in brazil. i wanted to gather people from different ages and places in a place where nature could be the host and the teacher. develop in this ground psychological, spiritual, and creative works, seminars, lectures, treatments to the mind, the heart and the soul. resulting in a broad consciousness-raising process to bring more balance and harmony to the human being and his environment.
—edmundo barbosa

this two thousand acre property (formerly a private estate used to raise horses, which were slowly destroying the rain forest.) was to be our home for the weekend while we explored topics (in portuguese, spanish, and english, with the help of two charming professional simultaneous translators) such as: “what is wisdom?”, “how can i be the change i want to see in the world?” and “what excites my passion?”

the many complex arrangements to make this gathering happen had been managed by the cheerful and efficient staff of willis harmon house, the brilliant brainchild of ions trustee, tamas makray. willis harmon house, is just that, a small house in the heart of sao paulo with an enchanting interior courtyard filled with tropical plants and a huge tree, offices, a conference room, and kitchen, housing the brazilian headquarters of ions, the world business academy, and the club of budapest. when we users encountered it, we all agreed that every city in the world should have such a facility!

now, in the middle of the rain forest, i wondered, who are these people,? i knew that we were brazilians, argentineans, and users, but how is it that our separate paths have brought us—seekers all—to this lush and welcoming hillside? what connections and hidden awarenesses, i mused, will come to light in the course of our dialogues?

on saturday, i admitted something that i had never shared with anyone before. i was sitting with three young brazilians, all in their twenties, during a round of world café dialogue. without any conscious forethought i found myself confessing that for most of my life i had been fearful of venturing to south america. as a child i had heard reports on my father’s radio of violence in faraway south american countries—rebels attacking, governments being overthrown. growing up i had such an abhorrence of violence of any kind that i could not even tolerate western movies with cowboys and indians fighting one another. i remember once when i was about ten, feeling mortified for my cowardice but nevertheless having to leave a movie theatre one afternoon and wait in the lobby while my cousins laughed hilariously at the sight of indians attacking a moving train, and people being thrown off as bullets and arrows whizzed in all directions. i am no longer ashamed of those long ago feelings and have trained myself to cope with scenes of violence when absolutely necessary, though sometimes i question the desirability of this learned behavior.

but my prejudicial fear of traveling to south america did not diminish. then gradually i began to ask myself, “so when are you going to south america?” the answer would come back, “not yet.” i kept asking and eventually the answer changed to, “you’ll know when the time comes.” then in october of 2002, during the stewardship council meeting in petaluma, someone proposed that we should take ourselves to argentina the following april. immediately i knew that at last the “time had come.”

i had been involved with the ions weekend gatherings since their inception and attended the first one on the ions campus in march of 2002. subsequently i coordinated two others, one in the northeast of the us and one in washington, dc. each time, i found that bringing people together for two days to engage in “conversations that matter,” proved to be both stimulating and surprising. in a relatively short time people managed to peel away the surface layers and engage with one another on a level that often revealed unexpected, passions, longings and wisdom.

here in the brazilian rain forest the surprises came thick and fast. it seemed that so many of the brazilians had practices, and teachings that they were eager to contribute to the group. it was as though they were five chapters ahead of the usa ions folk and were showing us how a wisdom society actually works.

outstanding among several offerings was the morning practice led by edmundo. over the years i have been exposed to any number of “morning practices,” some of which i have incorporated into my daily routine. never before, however, have i experienced such an invigorating combination of complex physical movements, subtle mental constructs, and emotional involvement—all greatly assisted by awe-inspiring, pulsating music and the breathtaking views through the large open windows. when edmundo would urge us to reach with our arms, our hearts and our minds to the far hills, i could actually feel energy surge up through my feet towards my heart, where it intensified and expanded through my arms and fingers toward the horizon. and to be thus engaged with forty others was utterly thrilling. no wonder mt. olympus has such an august reputation if this is what goes on there!

people without a common language came together and very quickly established a bond around our mutual desire to create a world that works better for all. our hopes and dreams were very similar, and we recognized that changing the world and changing ourselves are profoundly intertwined—our work is both an inside and outside job! we also recognized that there are no enemies, or villains, but that we are all part of both the problems and the solutions. i believe that all of us left greatly inspired by our coming together. i certainly did.
wink franklin -
ions’ past president
sea ranch, california, usa

i was surprised to see how effective was the world café. one idea moved and expanded so fast, generating insights and possibilities of actions and transformations. the whole process taught and inspired me a great deal.
edmundo barbosa

dorothee von hase-moncayo had a very different experience at the gathering, one well worth noting. dorothee, a native of germany, living in buenos aires with her argentinean husband and three children since 1959, had been eleven when the americans had occupied her german village near the end of world war ii. the memory of that day unexpectedly came flooding back when ions staff member nancy young asked participants to raise their hands over their heads in a call for silence.

…we were standing in a line in front of the house, arms lifted as a sign of surrendering, staring at american soldiers with machine guns pointing at us. i knew we were going to die, because we had been told by the adults ( not our mothers) the end of war would be "victory or death". thanking god that he would let me die at the same time with my mother, brother and sister, i grasped my little sister's hand and was ready to die. When the soldiers told us to go back to the house I felt no relief. I stayed in bed for two weeks with high fever.

Dorothee continues,
This moment was suddenly so present in my mind and got mixed up with pictures of children surrendering in Iraq to American and British soldiers, that I felt rising anger and even hatred in my body. I just couldn't follow the pathfinding process, listening to an american speech and voice. i only felt something like "how dare they guide us on the path to a better world!"

so disoriented and traumatized was she, that at first dorothee could not share what had transpired. a bit later, however,

the three brazilians at my table received my encounter with my shadow (and maybe not only mine) with such loving attention that i was able to participate with renewed calm and interest in finding answers to the question "what is wisdom?"

my wisdom was purified and more solidly integrated by this experience: i look back with gratitude on my past and forward to cooperating in creating a better and more compassionate world. and i learn again and again that the greater vision must not dismiss respect for the small next steps; listening respectfully to others and ourselves is one of them.

listening respectfully to others and ourselves—i echo dorothee in my own appreciation for this pivotal feature of any wisdom society.

after the meeting i left extremely motivated to be a "bridge" of integration between some brazilian initiatives and world-wide groups that search to build a true "wisdom society". i have already taken some concrete steps in this direction, through the creation of a new group—born during the ions brazilian gathering—that has held meetings and acted towards the integration of several initiatives: society for organizational learning - sol-br; world business academy; elos - spirituality and leadership for healthy organizations; ef - writing the future, etc.
edwardo sarmento afonso
sao paulo, brazil
translated from portuguese

the weekend was fantastic! there was an enormous confidence in and between us all. i perceive a need and urgency of such meetings to happen more frequently because this “channel” does not open and remain open if there is not a critical number of participants.
elaine vieira
sao paulo, brazil
translated from portuguese

certainly a channel opened for me at gaia, allowing me to recognize the source of my long-held south american prejudice from childhood. like dorothee—though in far less traumatic circumstances—the fear was solely mine to own and release. my young brazilian companions served as my witnesses and i shall always be grateful for their gentle understanding acceptance of my confession. no doubt dorothee shares those feelings of gratitude. this kind of authentic sharing can only happen when people feel safe to be themselves—the bedrock of true community.

both the climate and the setting for the buenos aires gathering the following weekend were notably different. having left the tropical rain forest, in argentina we were in the temperate zone experiencing pleasant “fall” weather with sunny days and cool evenings. we came together at a handsome estancia reminiscent of the many grand european and english country properties that dot those landscapes. “la concepcion,” with its main house and other buildings (including a family chapel) accommodated forty of us, this time from four countries. (several of our brazilian friends flew south to attend this gathering and we were joined by two canadians.) la concepcion is owned by a prominent buenos aires family. the nine children who have inherited it, take turns managing it and rent it to groups such as ions for meetings, as well as for social gatherings.

in contrast to gaia, where the natural flora and fauna burst forth in all their untidy, tropical abundance, here we enjoyed what i would say is one of the finest examples of nineteenth century landscape architectural perfection. the park surrounding la concepcion, with its handsome great trees and shrubs, afforded stunning views in all directions—a painter’s paradise. the proportions, the textures, the colors—each tree and shrub had been carefully placed so as to provide the ultimate pleasing affect on the viewer.

not only was this physical environment reminiscent of a gorgeous gainsborough or constable landscape painting, but also the interior environment—what the french call ambiance—created by our young host and his staff sent a message that to me clearly said, “we are here to serve you in the very best way we know how. and it is our greatest pleasure to have you with us.” this attitude was in no way subservient, it felt truly and deeply welcoming.

and what of the buenos aires ions team that had labored so diligently to organize and plan this gathering? ann frost, our canadian stewardship council member from vancouver expresses it far better than i could.

“they greeted us with open arms and open hearts when we arrived. it was like we were dear relatives who had always lived abroad and had finally come home!”

the person who coordinated that effort, ana lia alvarez, a three year veteran of the stewardship council, has this to contribute.

there is something here that i could call flesh and blood in action, presence, passion. the power to see, hear, feel and touch someone is not the same as reading or hearing about them. people in general around the world are quite ignorant of the ways of other cultures—who others truly are and how they actually live. there is a cultural fragmentation and people tend to see other groups as quite different from themselves. this ignorance can be dispelled by getting to know, accept, and validate others. and this “getting to know” process comes with the experience of sharing time together, finding similarities and acknowledging differences, sharing customs, seeing and touching each other, eating and savoring the same food together. it comes through all the senses, not just through our intellect.

there is no question the food we savored was outstanding throughout our trip. at gaia, brazilian dishes were deftly prepared by a cheery team in an outdoor kitchen using fresh produce from the garden. juana and her helper at tinamu spoiled us with argentinean treats, much of it from her land. and at la concepcion we continued to enjoy excellent local fare, caringly prepared and presented.

still another important aspect of this entire adventure was the music. and what music! after dinner on saturday evening at gaia, from out of the night appeared marcus santurys, the popular brazilian performer, to sing some of his best beloved songs as we sat mesmerized in the dark. marcus is known for creating “a brand new kind of sound, a meeting between east and west, where past and present become one, setting the basis for a new age. the result is a blend of european, arabian, mediterranean and indian sounds, which, added to his brazilian essence, helps create the mood of a world celebration."

at tinamu, even though we were five hours from downtown buenos aires, juana produced a local tango singer, who, assisted by a keyboard player, and drummer, set up equipment and transformed the living room into a smart night club. (while her husband helped wash the dishes!) while we listened with delighted awe, she proceeded to belt out some of the hottest tangos i’ve ever heard. if you can imagine the talent and artistry of edith piaf and ethel merman rolled into one, you’ve got it. then two evenings later, at la concepcion, we were treated to a few of the best known argentinean ballads gently and lyrically performed by a young man and his guitar. ana is right. these highly sensual—and very different—experiences are another way to break down barriers.

the cynic might say, “that’s all very well, but what was accomplished at these gatherings? what good are they in the real world?” let some of those who were there answer.

the spirit and communication in the south american gatherings were so profound that i'm beginning to think there is nothing more important than being “ambassadors” to each other around the world—sitting on the floor, knee to knee with whoever wants to be there. I'm not sure there are any short cuts to building global wisdom societies.
tahdi blackstone
loa angeles, usa

the fact that we were really all together in argentina—i felt it was some sort of a miracle. something long hoped for and wished had happened: ions had started on its second “leg” of the journey to a world community of beings with a compassionate heart and outlook of life.

i would like to transmit the knowledge that “it can be done”, that getting together is probably the only way to “get through” to the other side, to survive this paradigm and move on into the one awaiting us, of a society of wisdom.
cristina castro cranwell
buenos aires, argentina

being in argentina is being immersed in the drama of history unfolding. i found this to be both perplexing and inspiring. i was impressed by the people i met, for they are testimony that, no matter how difficult the situation, the human spirit always prevails.
linda naiman
vancouver, british columbia,

our every need was filled in advance. i felt very much at home with these people and considered spending months at a time in buenos aires in the future. this may seem strange since i was so far from my own culture and in an environment in which our languages were not the same. yet the strangeness was superseded by the character and loving nature of the people and their genuine interest in us. that brought down any possible barriers. these people showed themselves to be our global family.
linda hasler
memphis, tennessee,

i was completely blind about the sensitivity of the people north of rio grande, i was so gratefully surprised that i really can’t explain (even in spanish)! it meant so much that i am still recovering from such an intense encounter, and feeling inside, processing its meaning. you surprised me in the last moment, i couldn’t reach you , i couldn’t see you, but the last day, at the last moment, the flower opened upon my eyes, and there you were, expressing all your being… thank you, and the universe, for all the gifts.
martin dazzi
buenos aires, argentina

at la concepcion i experienced the dissolution of frontiers, beliefs and boundaries. other people’s surprise was also constantly mine. i was shaken by finding a world willing to listen, share and cooperate. the unexpected discovery of so much light, such open hearts still surprises me.
maria elena grunwaldt
buenos aires, argentina

people everywhere love to share their knowing, we all feel valued and accepted by doing it. you can’t love a person if you don t know him, and accept him deeply with all the differences, and you don t feel loved if your differences are not accepted or viewed as awkward. this experience of acceptance brings us nearer to love.

argentineans and brazilians were against the war with iraq, in some cases against americans for going to war. they forget that some americans can also be as deeply opposed to the war as they are, but the prejudice is so big that it obscures this fact. i had heard that some people were not going to the gathering because there were going to be americans present, and for me, this is an example of ignorance.

what happened on friday evening of that gathering shows why this work is so important. witnessing edgar mitchell’s strong emotional feelings of pain because his beloved country had gone to war was inspiring. for non-users, ed’s emotional outburst was transformative, we needed that experience. still another example: words like “american.” not knowing that all south americans and north americans call themselves and feel american is pure ignorance. so the prejudices are everywhere.

we are all one but we don’t always realize it. spending time together helps make this reality clear. well, i think we did just this—we got to know each other more deeply. now the challenge is, what do we do with this new awareness, if the old ways of thinking about each other are to truly change?

at least with me it is happening. i have done what i set out to do—bringing ions to argentina—and while i don t yet know my future role, i can recognize that something is bubbling up, although i cannot yet see it clearly. i find that by being myself, and by my fellow stewardship council members being their authentic selves, it makes other people express themselves in an authentic way as well, even if they are not used to this level of dialogue. this attitude calls forth from others their authentic responses.

i ask myself, what is it that everybody is looking for, what am i looking for? i realize that i am looking for authenticity and when i find it, it is both meaningful and powerful. authentic relationships are powerful.
ana lia alvarez

i think it’s safe to say that virtually all of us who have been part of the dozen or more ions regional gatherings since march of 2002, held around the usa, in canada, brazil and argentina, (or other similar experiences of community) might echo ana lia’s statement: authentic relationships are powerful.

one gathering participant—not connected to any community group or even an ions member at the time—found his way to a remote hillside in western massachusetts for a gathering. after the weekend he confessed, “i felt as though i were among friends.” what does that mean? to me, it means feeling safe to be my authentic self. again, as ana lia would say, this experience of acceptance brings us nearer to love.

like edgar, i too weep over the manipulative excesses of our political leaders. they put me in mind of the more notorious ruling figures from the declining days of the roman empire. the usa may well be on a similar track, only time will tell. what is so deeply distressing about the current state of the world, however, is knowing that many, many people (paul ray would say there are 130 million in the usa and europe alone—cultural creatives), are quietly and steadfastly living non-manipulative lives of authenticity. juana’s bread makers and knitters are cases in point. but there are countless other similar communities everywhere on the globe. can we not celebrate and shine the light on these people rather than continuing our obsession with the toxic fumes emanating from fear-based centers where the word “love” is greeted with cynical sneers and “authentic” receives blank stares?

one of the lessons for me in brazil and argentina was being exposed to another part of the story, the part that the rest of the world isn’t told. i was well aware of the huge inequities that exist between the “haves” and “havenots in south america.” in sao paulo i saw some of the slums built on garbage heaps that previously i had seen only on film. in buenos aires i saw the effects of a crumbling system—a city coping with an ineffective government unable to deliver basic services: in residential areas, for instance, there were private guards posted every few blocks. by the same token, some of the brazilians and argentineans knew only what the media had fed them of usrs and were able to adjust their story as we sat, “knee to knee” as tahdi puts it in conversation.

the good news is, when the house of cards comes tumbling down—in argentina this has already happened—the many scattered wisdom societies already in place throughout the world can be models for others to either join or emulate. “how can i be the change i want to see in the world?” in south america, for me, that question took on a new urgency.

very recently in a first-time conversation with a long-standing ions member, he queried, “so what has all this ions research proven in the past 30 years? has it changed anything? what’s it good for?” i found myself immediately reconnected with the brazilian gathering at gaia. “all those years that ions supported frontier scientific research into the mind-body-spirit connection, for instance, has helped change the conversation. it is helping to change behavior. not everywhere, of course, but little by little, people realize there are new possibilities.”

while my awakening at gaia was mild to say the least, dorothee’s was profound. i suspect that neither of us would have been able to process these attachments to the past so easily and quickly and be supported by relative strangers had not scientists such as rachel naomi remen, rupert sheldrake, russell targ, charles tart, and many many others led the way by giving permission for the rest of us to operate with a different set of rules. the ions-supported research over the years, much of it recorded in its publications, has proclaimed that consciousness is causal. now all the great spiritual traditions have known and taught as much, yet the ruling “religion” of modern times—science—has not accepted that premise. it still continues to be suspect in many quarters. after all, it took a long time for humans to understand that earth was not at the center of the universe.

when you can begin to take scientific research out of the laboratory and into people’s lives, however, it takes on a life of its own. one place that i see this new life flourishing is in the ions regional gatherings. prejudices break down, barriers dissolve and we allow more of our undefended selves to appear. is this not how a wisdom culture is born?

as i have reflected on the three very different environments of this south american adventure—gaia so naturally lush and untamed, tinamu so vast, spare, yet warmly sensible, and la concepcion, so elegant and subtly controlled—i have come to realize that each helped me appreciate other important aspects of emerging global wisdom societies. it is fashionable these days to dismiss many eighteenth and nineteenth century philosophies and lifestyles as too manipulative and hopelessly romantic. this may be true, but i suspect there is more to be examined, much more. the carefully managed and caring environment so evident at la concepcion bespeaks two essential abiding qualities—vision and love. surely this is another expression of the same love that was ever-present at gaia through the power of edmundo’s “heart-full” vision. and i can hear juana’s father’s words ringing in my ears.

we don’t own anything. we must look after the land—it is our privilege to be its keepers—and grow food, which is a noble job. and pay attention that the people who work with us, always feel respected, and may they progress in life.

jane hughes gignoux
© july 2003

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