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"The Essential Shifts" Interview Series Audio Set

Essential Shifts Interview: Arisika Razak

"The Essential Shifts" Interview Series

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Essential Shifts Interview: Arisika Razak

Visionary: Arisika Razak, RN, CNM, MPH

In this interview, professor, dancer, and midwife Arisika Razak shares her unique angle on the essential shifts our world now requires. She explores how we can each activate our "lineage of the heart," thereby linking us into the larger vision of what we are creating. She sees that we each have a unique and highly personal contribution to make to the creation of a sustainable future. To manifest that potential, she feels it is most essential to connect deeply with people who are different than us in terms of race, class, or any other form of difference. A truly sustainable world, she feels, is one in which the threads of caring and community have been rewoven so that all members of a society feel treasured and honored.

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Institute of Noetic Sciences: I want to welcome everyone to the show today. We're fortunate to have Arisika Razak with us, who is a professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies, a very versatile woman with a background in women's spirituality, spiritual dance, nurse midwifery, and various books. It's really extraordinary to read your bio, Arisika. You have covered a lot of terrain in your time on the planet so far. It seems like with all of your background, you'd probably have interesting angles on the big questions we're asking each of the folks we're inviting into this show. We start with the biggest question: How do you see our current global situation? Where are we at right now on this planet?

Arisika Razak: You know, I'm really glad to have this question asked. Part of my background, as you mentioned, is in midwifery. I worked for over 25 years with women from eighty countries giving birth here in the US, particularly here in Oakland. One of the things it taught me is how interconnected we are as a world. Also because many of the people coming into the US come from wars. So, from my perspective, one of the really big challenges is how do we create a sustainable world that would hold everyone?

That has implications both for the warfares that are going on in every continent whether they're small civil strifes, whether they're larger. Vandana Shiva says that many of the wars that we see are really wars about water. They look like they're wars over territory, but they are really wars about sustainable factors of life. So that issue, the way war is a threat to peace, because in every war the innocents are killed and maimed and live with that for generations. So too is the issue of the biosphere and how we're caring for it or not caring for it. It's how we're using up very precious resources.

One of the big, big questions for me is how do we create a sustainable future that holds not just people in the United States or Europe, but people on every continent. How do we transform the hearts of humans so that, really, we turn away from our desire for war, for our greed and turn toward a world in which we honor the earth, the air, the fire and water, as the sacred foundation of all human life. How do we manifest our brotherhood and sisterhood with all sentient life on the planet? These to me are the big questions because if we don't answer them, we in the industrialized world are really using up the world's resources and disproportionately contributing to the change in the ozone layer and harm to the planet are not really going to have a sustainable future. In fact, all life as we know it is threatened. Clearly, the planet can survive without humans. The earth has done so for millennia and will do so again. But as a human being who really cares about this beautiful web of life that we are vetted in, I am concerned that we make a world that holds us, not just for this generation, but for generations to come.

IONS: Beautiful. So what are some of your answers about how do we create that world? How do we create the essential shifts to move to a more sustainable and whole and integrated, loving world?

AR: I think the issue of how do we build a life, how do we both recognize difference and honor it. And also join together in what is common for us as human beings, as animal life. How do we bring our interest together? I would say that we all have roles to play. We can start wherever we are.

One of the things that I know is that it is popular to say is that we are one world, that it's a global economy, that it's a global world. But how do we make common cause with each other, say in the United States, for example, those of us who are middle class live very well away from centers of poverty. In our neighborhoods there are not pollutants. We don't have toxic chemical factories in the neighborhoods of the middle class. Disproportionately they are in communities of color or poor communities. It's really important for us to know that what happens to one part of the human fabric really affects us. I think one of the most important things to do is to reach out and make alliances with people working for change in poor communities with people working for indigenous rights issues. The list of causes is endless.

One of the ways we begin to develop a sustainable future is to have a vision that is informed by more than just our point of view. I think the work that was done in Redwood Summer by Judi Bari who is interested in bringing together the voice of people who log the forest, because that's the only way they know how to make a living, and the people who want to see the forest continue to be a habitat for the Standing People, the woods themselves, and for the animal life that is sheltered there. Those people need to come together and develop a vision that sustains all of us. We don't want to simply put the interest of one group against the other, but to have a vision in which we come together, stating our needs and desires. All of us desire to have a world in which we and our children and grand children can flourish.

I think the first step is to reach across lines of class, lines of race, lines of difference and begin to build strong alliances that inform each of us of the others' visions; to work out plans that serve different groups.

IONS: How do you see midwifery and the arts play into this larger shift here?

AR: One of the things that I try to do as an artist, whether it is in terms of spoken word and talking in conferences, whether it is in terms of spiritual dance, which I do, I think is to bring forward a spiritual vision that holds all of us. A spiritual vision, a feminist vision, a vision that draws on indigenous wisdom traditions, a vision that draws on liberation struggles of peoples all over the world. One of the things I really like to do is to bring the words and the thinking of different groups to other groups. So that if I'm giving a talk for example, I may want to have the words of Joy Harjo, a Native-Amercian poet to bring to midwifery--perhaps her vision in which she talks about a Navajo woman whose birthing is connected to the land--her granddaughter is birthing in the hospital , but that the connection to the land is still there. We talk across the lines to what it is to be in a world that is very spiritual, very earth connected, and at the same time to recognize that for people living in the city while the connection to the earth is muted, it is still there, the spiritual connection is still there. I like to bring forward the fact that wherever people have been in servitude or bondage and are involved in the desire for freedom and liberation is innate. When we were talking about women, people of color, earth-based people in the holistic health movement who are also marginalized.

Those of us fighting, struggling to bring to birth a new world; struggle against great odds. In my work as an artist, part of what I'm doing is bringing hope, encouragement, a sense of history that we have changed the face of the world.

As difficult as it seems, this isn't simply my idea, there was a group working to bring to an end the use of nuclear weapons for war. One of the things they said was that people thought that slavery would exist forever, but that is not true. Even today while there are still countries where there is hereditary slavery, no country wants to boast about the fact that it has slaves; that there are some people without rights. In the minds of humanity, things are beginning to change to a world without war, to a world that honors the rights of women; a world that is sustainable at one level both a new and a very ancient vision. I like to bring those ancient visions, the words of Chief Seattle are incorporated into some of my dance pieces for example.

I like to bring this vision of liberation to various groups and to think of myself as someone who brings hope and wholeness and a sense of all the people to the fore.

IONS: You were speaking of a vision of bees mate with many flowers. It sounds like you're bringing pollen from one network to another in the form of hope and artistic expression. I was really struck by you have a vision or dream in mind, and to some extent it's only a far-off possibility when you can see somebody embody that in the form of dance and physical expression which brings it one step closer to reality. That's a lot of what you're doing.

AR: I think this is very important because I think as a woman now in middle and late middle age--I'm 57 right now, I feel that I'm blessed because I do have a sense of my life purpose and what I came here to do. I think that that is something that many of us have. Some of us are afraid of taking the step of moving forward on that. I think if all of us could honor our deepest dreams and our broadest vision, that the world really would be changed. I do want to inspire people that that is possible. Even if the first step is small in terms of starting with a small piece of your vision, that is so, so much worth while to do. To bring that forward, when I dance and occasionally teach dance workshops, I'm not interested in teaching a particular style of dance. I'm interested in working with people to help them express their vision in movement; to help them bring forth a movement that is deeply satisfying to them. Because some of us have bodies with disabilities or limitations, some of us are naturally attuned to different rhythms. I recently discovered when I took a Qigong class that a lot of my dance forms really carry some of the rhythms of Qigong. All of us have a vibration that we can move to. I'm really into helping people find and manifest into a vibration of their heart and lineage. That's something that is different for every individual.

IONS: That's really important that you're emphasizing that uniqueness that is calling to each of our authenticity that helps us to become a leader or who is helping to catalyze these larger shifts in our culture.

AR: I think this is so important. Ram Dass, in Grist for the Mill, talks about the lineage of the heart, and for some of us, that lineage is in our thinking. For some of us it's in how we work with compassion, how we form organizations and groups that do service work. For some of us our lineage is more embodied. It shows up in movement or dance or being a musician. Each of us has a lineage of the heart that ties us to our deepest or our largest spiritual aspirations and ties us to a sense of fulfillment that links us to a sense of peace and satisfaction, and is serving of the gifts that are naturally ours. I think that as we find that lineage and then bring it to birth in a way in the world, our lives become not only more authentic, but deeply, deeply satisfying. We leave a lineage of generativity.

Whether we have children or not, all of us at some level are in service to the future. We want to create, manifest, leave something that future generations enjoy. We want to be seen for the birthing of what it is we want to see manifested in the world. If we can tap into our lineage of the heart, whatever that is and link that to the vision we want to manifest, then I think that however short or long our lives are, we serve in this life in a way that we are satisfied and we leave, knowing we have left in the world a mark that is deeply meaningful for future generations. As someone said in the '60s, we can be either part of the problem or part of the solution. I think all of us want to be part of the solution.

IONS: Amen to that! Are there other aspects of what you are doing, either teaching or specific pieces that are finding resonance right now and bringing context to your current work? What has the most juice at the moment?

AR: One of the things I'm doing right now is that I am the program director if an integrated health studies program at the California Institute of Integral Studies. One of the things is that it links it to a wisdom and healing tradition of complimentary and alternative modalities, some of which in traditional modalities go back thousands and thousands of years, with western biomedicine. I'm linking it both to put it into service to mainstream and to under served communities. I'm very committed to having intern sites for students that both serve marginalized populations, like the homeless, or that are also in HMO's and large medical centers like the Osher Center and UC San Francisco, or the Institute for Health and Healing, and California Pacific Medical Center. We've been able to draw in a wonderful diverse group of students and I'm very excited about their work and their interests and how they're bringing new eyes and new ways toward integration.

For me, I think it's very important that we understand that out of communities that have been disenfranchised, those communities that are still seen as marginalized, there's genius. The next person who could contribute to a cure for cancer, who could bring in a wisdom tradition that could help link mainstream and other religious traditions could very well be coming out of a community in which people are struggling to live and survive, like Hunters Point, San Francisco.

I'm really interested in making these bridges into communities that have been marginalized and communities that are still not served. The middle class lifestyle really doesn't serve anybody, we're people of great privilege, but we're expected to work in corporate settings that don't serve our bodies or our spirits. We're expected to be greedy and to focus on the materialistic. There are ways both for the middle class and for the poor the kind of vision, the kind of embedding in a community that serves the greater good. It's myth for all of us. I'm really interested in putting together collaborations that bring this vision to the forefront. That gives me a lot of excitement right now.

IONS: I would suspect that if we saw the collective as a body and the area that has had the most trouble, that which has been disenfranchised--that's the key to this system as a whole. So, we're really looking at an integrative view of our society. From a health perspective, its doubly important that we attend to those areas that have been neglected or marginalized.

AR: I think that is really true. I think in public health, one of the indices we use for the health of the societies we see, what is going on with women and children? The maternal fertility and the infant mortality rate have for decades been considered critical measures of how well a society is doing. In some way, I would say if we want to know what's really going on in a society, how are the most marginalized, what is the health of the poorest citizen. What is it like if you're trying to get health care. Marginalized can be simply elderly people.

My husband who is living with cancer has private insurance and Medicare. Just recently, trying to walk through the bureaucracy and get coverage for some of his medications has been just incredible!! As a middle class savvy individual, it's taken him a week after broken assurances to try to manifest the coverage that he has. For people who don't have that sophistication, who don't have that patience, who don't know to go through a list of ten different supervisors to finally find the right one. It's just so much more difficult.

I think that you're right, that how we treat marginalized community, where we put our nuclear waste how we're shipping it out--all of those say something really important about the health of the society. Every spiritual tradition that I know of says that we are to treat the stranger well; that we are supposed to help the widows, the children, those who have less. When a society isn't doing that something is deeply wrong.

IONS: It's definitely a wake-up call for the United States which has the highest income and not the highest rate of taking care of the marginalized.

AR: We used to talk about India as a place where people stepped over the dead or the dying lying in the streets; and in the last ten to fifteen years as homelessness has proliferated in America, many middle class people walk by homeless on the street. What they perceive as a man lying on the street could be a man in a diabetic coma or an alcoholic stupor. But we don't stop. We too are fast becoming an uncaring society where we would step over the dead and dying in the streets--in the richest country in the world.

IONS: It's very sobering. That brings us to the final question we've been asking folks which is what is the thing we can each do personally. Put it down in the personal recommendations level. What helps us step into that positive new world today?

AR: One of the most important things I think we can do is to step across a line of race and spiritual tradition and really attempt to make a friend. When I ask many middle class communities that are sometimes in my classes, both at CIS and --, I teach a class on multicultural perspectives and health care. I often ask people to talk to a person of a different race. People say to me, "But I don't know anybody; or "I don't have a close friend."

Churches are still segregated. Not as segregated as they were in the fifties, but one of the things I think that is really important for us to do is to understand the perspective of people who are different and to make alliances. The first step is to try to enlarge our circle of acquaintances so that we talk to someone who has a vested interest in things changing for some group of people, and hear their stories. One of our student interns is working interim with IONS with a population of homeless. They were being taught Qigong and also being taught to work with the homeless. In both of these was an intervention to release stress in the homeless population. One of the things she said that like everyone, she had some of the same issues that all people who are homeless or poor. You're usually poor first, then you're homeless. You might have a mental illness, might have drug or alcohol addiction. We essentially blame the poor for being poor. We think of them as statistics, we think of them not quite as people like ourselves. What our intern told us is how rewarding it was to get to know some of the homeless in this project and to know their stories. To see how that but for an accident of grace we too could fall.

One of the quickest routes to being homeless is to be middle class and have a life-threatening illness that over time causes you to lose your job and then your health insurance, then your little bit of savings which goes to pay for your health. Then suddenly, you have nothing. More and more there is a part of the homeless population that's made up of middle class individuals who had a catastrophic stroke of bad luck in some way--that is not alcohol or drug related.

I think that making these connections heart to heart and using them as a nucleus, making sure when we call people to the table, when we're forming a group to organize, whether its working on saving the whales, whether its on the logging forests, whatever it is that we're doing that we really have alliances that stretch beyond the usual communities that we're talking with. I think that if everybody working in an organization reached out across lines of race and class that it would be the beginning of a marvelous change.

The other thing is that I was sitting in council with Alice Walker; and one of the things she is doing is she is challenging some of the women with whom she is working in political solidarity with; people who are maybe involved with Code Pink and other activism; she called them to a meeting and she said, I don't know you; I don't know your children.

One woman she said, "I've donated to your causes, but I don't even know your last name." It's important that we begin to know the stories of the people we work with; to make authentic community. It's been said in the women's movement for the last 30 years, the personal is political. The political also has to be personal. Something about how we can begin to make communities.

Certainly those of us who are getting older, I think this is critical. About a year ago, a letter circulated about Ram Dass asking that people give money. He'd had a stroke, couldn't support himself as he used to, and is living in Hawaii. They were moved to buy the house and to give him that security for all the good work he has done; work that has not been done primarily to possess wealth for himself.

On the one hand, I thought this was wonderful, but on the other hand, I thought after 40 years of the human potential movement, of all the political circles we've had, that we're coming up with a house for one man. What are we doing to ensure we're coming together in community as we age. How are we looking at the issue of chronic illness? I think that the other steps we need to be doing individually is beginning to look at creative solutions that embody our social and political beliefs to deal with the issues of living and dying.

How are we going to live, age, move through chronic illness, and die in community? Ram Dass in Fierce Grace thinks that he has been sent back to let the baby boomers know that in fact, things like strokes and other chronic illnesses are in their future. That may or may not be true, but statistically it's certainly likely.

Living a good life does not exempt us from change and loss as we grow older. One of the things I would like to challenge people to do is to begin to look at the issues of age and dying and how are we moving to do that in more socially responsible, spiritually enhancing and communitarian ways? That's something every one of us has to deal individually with.

Reach across racial lines, and make a goal of making a friend that is truly different. Because race is such an issue in America, do that along race and class lines. I'm not saying pick the person most different from you, but pick someone who can tell you stories, who maybe grew up in a ghetto, who made those transitions, who will tell you the truth--hard truth.

To begin to make really personal connections in one's life, in one's politics so one can begin to plan for issues on age and change. With our large group we have a lot of economic clout in the middle class and can be demanding that the social structure change so that we can live in a better way. I'm not simply talking about gated communities for the elderly. That's not enough; not a truly a holistic community feeling.

That's something I would ask people to do. Take the first step of manifesting the vision. Everyone has one, has something they are called to do, and taking the first step toward manifesting that, in spite of all the fear. Doing it with your day job as a start of manifesting what you came here to do; take the risk of manifesting what you came here to do.

IONS: Thank you so much for your heartfulness. I can feel my heart opening and encouraging us to weave the fabric of society in a new way. Thank you for that.

AR: Thank you so much for including me, Stephen. It's a delight to work with IONS.

IONS: It's a pleasure. If we want more information about you or your studies, where is the best place to get that?

AR: Either at the CISS website,, or Google "California Institute of Integral Studies" and go to the home page. I'm listed both as a faculty of the integrated health studies program and there's a whole web page on that; there's a whole page in teaching women's spirituality--that's probably the best way.

IONS: Thank you so much and keep up the great work. We'll look forward to collaborating with you in different ways in the future.

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