Neil Douglas-Klotz, PhD, directs the Edinburgh Institute for Advanced Learning and co-founded the Edinburgh International Festival of Middle Eastern Spirituality and Peace in 2004. He is the former chair of the Mysticism Group of the American Academy of Religion and has published several books on an Aramaic approach to the words of Jesus, native Middle Eastern spirituality, and Sufism over the past 18 years, including Prayers of the Cosmos and Desert Wisdom (HarperCollins), The Hidden Gospel andThe Genesis Meditations (Quest Books), The Sufi Book of Life(Penguin), The Tent of Abraham ( Beacon Press, with Sister Joan Chittister and Rabbi Arthur Waskow) and Blessings of the Cosmos (Sounds True). In 2005 he was awarded the Kessler-Keener Foundation Peacemaker of the Year award for his work in Middle Eastern peacemaking. Full information about his books, music and recordings can be found at the website of the Abwoon Resource Center, www.abwoon.com
I grew up in a multicultural family. My grandparents on both sides were refugees from Europe with German, Jewish, Russian and Polish blood in their veins. They followed their track to the ethnic neighbourhoods of Chicago, where my parents met and married.
I was raised by Christian parents who were both devout and freethinking. They brought into my early life the impulse to worship and praise, as well as to question everything that constricted and opposed the injunction “love your neighbour as yourself.” My father was a chiropractor, my mother a student of the health education of Edgar Cayce. They raised me with a respect for the body and the wonders of nature found therein, as well as a disdain for the superficial innovations of humanity that polluted both body and nature.
Hearing from childhood German, Yiddish and Polish in our home, raised on the stories and miracles of Jesus, taught the practical truth of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, I formed an interest in language, spirituality, the body and ecological justice early in life. In many ways, I have been pursuing these interests ever since.
After graduation from college in 1973, I pursued a career as a journalist in the fields of social justice, environmentalism and consumer protection for several years before turning to the following questions: Why do people change? What causes me to change? Is there a more powerful level of motivating change than that of ideas? In pursuing these questions, I returned to interests I developed in college that centered on: the body and changes of attitude and behaviour, mystical and “expanded” states of consciousness, and the early pre-religious roots of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
I pursued some of this study academically through the University of California, Berkeley. But most of it found me seeking out teachers from the native traditions of the Middle East, Pakistan and India who introduced me to the other modes and methods of learning as well as the body-oriented spiritual practices that accompanied this study. Beginning in 1976, I was very privileged to study with the early students of the American Hebrew/Sufi mystic Samuel L. Lewis, who introduced me to the body prayer meditations called the Dances of Universal Peace. One phase of this intense period of study led me on a three-month pilgrimage in 1979 to sacred sites and teachers in Turkey, Pakistan and India.
In 1982, I founded the International Network for the Dances of Universal Peace (now based in Seattle, WA), a multicultural resource center for those who chose this form of peacemaking through the arts as their forum for both peace “demonstration” as well as spiritual practice. Over the past 15 years, I have been actively involved in leading educational exchanges and citizen diplomacy trips with the Dances to Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and to the Middle East.
From 1986 until 1996, I served as a faculty member of the Institute in Culture and Creation Spirituality and a member of the Core Faculty since 1990. During its “golden age,” the ICCS was a gathering place for scientists, artists, educators and learners from many different cultural and racial backgrounds. Many of our students were non-US citizens and I enjoyed the opportunity to teach and learn across the differences and within a rich field of diversity. This diversity, at its best, provided a sort of “quantum field” of uncertainty in which real inquiry and learning occurred for us all.
In September 1993, I co-led a group of students from Europe, Australia, the U.S. and Canada on a citizen diplomacy/educational trip to Jordan, Israel and Syria. Serendipitously, this occurred exactly during the signing of the Israel-PLO accords. We were greeted warmly and were able to share discussions and artistic and cultural exchanges with many different people from all the varied sides of the confrontation. I continue work in this area, both individually, and collaboratively through the International Association of Sufism.
During my sabbatical to finish my doctorate, I moved to Europe. It both allowed me to be nearer to my Middle Eastern connections and seemed more welcoming to the type of multicultural work I was doing. I enjoyed the change from a bustling Northern California urban environment to the rolling farm fields of Thomas Hardy country in Dorset.
Since March 1999 I’ve lived in Edinburgh, Scotland, another multicultural arts and music center where I started the Edinburgh Institute for Advanced Learning (www.eial.org). My fluency in German and some other European languages also enables me to continue educational exchanges and lectures throughout Europe. In 2004, I co-founded, with Neill Walker, the Edinbrugh International Festival of Middle Eastern Spirituality and Peace (www.mesp.org.uk), which annually in March draws thousands of visitors to events across the city. It is supported by the Scottish Government and the City of Edinburgh. Since 2006, I’ve been married to Natalia Lapteva, a Russian therapist and coach.