On the way to the On Being Gathering, I saw a small line of people standing on the sidewalk in the sun outside the San Jose Airport. No one knew each other. Some leaned on the flimsy, extended arms of their rolling suitcases. A couple of people sat on the cement, backs against the wall. Most were on their phones. Most were looking down.
This was the last time I would see people looking down at their feet and their phones for the next four days.The On Being Gathering was a benevolent free-for-all, a spiritual smorgasbord. People couldn’t help but keep their heads up, their eyes and hearts open. I have never feasted on spiritual conversation so rich, so welcoming, so warm and well-tended, and all of it packed into a tiny little package of a single weekend.
More than 500 people who listen to the same podcast, On Being, attended a four day event in a California patch of redwood forest at a retreat center so new you could smell the wet paint in the main hall when we arrived. This was the first time in it’s history the On Being team had gathered together such a crowd of it’s community into one place.
I have attended conferences. I have attended spiritual retreats. I have walked into many crowds of strangers trying to make friends. This was different.
Every person I met wanted to talk to me. That is not hyperbole. I thought at some point, I would meet someone at their limit, but I didn’t. Everyone leaned in. One was a pastor at a Unitarian Universalist Church. Another was an astrologer who lived through the Vietnam War protests of the 60s. Another was a post-agoraphobia internet healer. Another was a Christian and a brand lead for one of the biggest corporations on the planet. And then there was the essayist who’s family had just come out of alcoholism into a new quiet world of questions. Another who leapt from nationalist white America into soldiering through the Iraq war into pacifism into American peacemaking. I met these six people in the space of one afternoon. I was there for four days. Such people were everywhere.
Each person I met had something so incredibly special to give. Four days of non-stop spiritual gift-giving. It was like everyone I met walked up with a package, placed it in my arms, and walked on. Imagine the pile of gifts. Imagine the weight of all of those insights and stories and lives lived up to that moment.
I slumped over in front of my new friend Sherrill and said, “I’m exhausted. I’m so exhausted… but these people… are… irresistible!”
I haven’t even mentioned yet the incredible voices we all tuned into on stage every two hours or so from 9am to 9pm each day. There were the dedicated seekers who write for the On Being website. Then there was a Hollywood activist and a scientist searching with her NASA colleagues for life on other planets (while still seeking answers to the cosmic questions of home). There were many amazing peacemakers. There were many amazing poets (I swear some part of me died and rose again every time David Whyte read a poem). The stage was full of incredibly accomplished spiritual seekers and doers. And then… and then you could just turn to the person in the seat next to you and discover someone just as incredible as anyone we saw on stage.
Krista Tippet, a reluctant but convicted leader of this eager and compassionate On Being crowd said, “There are people with questions alongside their convictions. We can build relationships there.” I am still spinning around that star of a truth, maybe more Mercury than Mars right now. Questions – Convictions – Relationships.
I have not been so spiritually lifted since that transformational Christian summer before I started 9th grade. The transcendence of this weekend wasn’t one that swept all our worries away. Instead it felt like a spiritual Olympics – here in one physical place together were hundreds of people, people training with others, some training alone, each lifting massive burdens, doing the long triple jump of faith, sliding downhill at speeds unthinkable, then soaring into the air of shared spiritual destiny face first, trusting their own ability to stick the landing and do it again tomorrow.
This weekend was a gift. Now, sitting alone in my office at home, it feels like I dreamed it – I walked around a forest for four days and kept meeting person after person who blew my little spiritual-seeker mind.
So, what will I do now?
“There are people with questions alongside their convictions.”
I’ve got some serious convictions. I’ve got some really big questions. I’ve got some work to do.
“We can build relationships there.”
What’s your conviction? What’s your question? Let’s talk.