Connecting with the Earth

by Benjamin Leslie

When we talk about taking care of the earth, we often refer to our connection to the basic elements and to basic natural processes, including the seasons and the natural cycles of life and death. The ways that this connection often looks in our society are familiar to us: We strive to be ‘in touch’ with nature by way of spending more minutes outdoors, planting more trees, or composting the kitchen scraps. Or we may have a more wholesale approach, that involves giving up certain comforts, learning how to camp, or hiking the Appalachian Trail. We find value in these activities, but at times they don’t seem to do the trick. They leave us wondering how to connect more – how to recycle more or to spend more time camping in isolation. The ‘Survivor’ method of giving up our comforts can end up being quite aggressive, yet the contrary – racking up points for being ‘green’ – somehow doesn’t go far enough.

In the Buddhist tradition, taking care of the earth starts with ourselves – our own persons and bodies. The ways we handle our waste as a society and the ways we connect (or don’t) to the elements are a direct result of our very personal and intimate habitual patterns. And our habitual patterns are based on, what we call in the Buddhist tradition, ‘mind.’

Working with one’s mind is one of the most direct ways to take responsibility for caring for the earth. Our ideas about how to care for the earth may be grounded in good logic or good morals, but if we don’t work with them personally, they might become a hollow crusade. Consider the common example of committing to a special diet. Many become vegan or vegetarian due to legitimate environmental concerns. Yet often those who have attempted a special diet will express that success is based far more on working with everyday habitual patterns than on moral, ethical, or logical consideration of the environment.

In Buddhism, the sitting practice of meditation is used to work with our minds. Rather than being a technique for contemplating a certain concept or improving one’s concentration, the unique approach of sitting meditation involves acknowledging our thoughts simply and precisely. The meditator identifies with the outbreath and has their eyes open so that gentleness and awareness are cultivated toward themselves and their situations. The gentleness that can develop from consistently and precisely touching-in with our thoughts without manipulation is often referred to as ‘making friends with oneself.’ Gradually, the practice, including that gentleness, is extended toward our everyday situations – our habitual patterns, our relationships, our households, and maybe even our compost piles.

Relating to our world with gentleness can be vulnerable. Courage is the result of our willingness to remain soft and gentle in the midst of this vulnerability. When we apply this type of courage and awareness to our situations directly, it becomes possible to see them more directly. There is no need to turn away from the intensity of challenging everyday situations, or hotspots. When our garden fails, we might not see it as a reflection of ourselves, but as fertile ground. When we decide to compost or raise chickens, we can commit to working directly with our habitual patterns in a gentler way. When we are confronted by the natural processes of life and death, of the seasons, and of the elements, we may recognize the opportunity to connect with that situation and through that gentleness, to care for the earth.

Benjamin Leslie is currently on staff at Center for Interfaith Cooperation as Program Director for the Immigrant and Refugee Service Corps.

STEM and the Humanities – a look at Quantum Leap

As Spirit & Place examines the subject of Power in 2017, one of the things we can explore is the force that helps us turn on lights or heat our homes. That scientific aspect of power touches our lives daily, and our partner Indiana Humanities is helping bridge the gap between science and the humanities through its Quantum Leap initiative.

Quantum Leap explores the spirit of possibility and problem-solving when we bridge the humanities with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). One piece of the initiative is Sound Bites, a weekly series of five-minute-long audio stories that share moments of scientific discovery, creation and innovation in Indiana’s past and present. The episodes are professionally produced by Sandra Bertin and will run on select Indiana radio stations. Listeners can download episodes through iTunes and Android podcast software or through SoundCloud.

New episodes of Sound Bites will be available every Tuesday. The first episodes have covered engaging stories about how Hoosiers have contributed to science. They explore topics like the beginning of molecular biology in Bloomington, Ind., and the first African-American doctor in Indianapolis. Upcoming episodes will tell stories of the world’s first electrically-lighted city, lunar vehicles and how jails can be more humane, among others.

Spirit & Place believes in the impact the humanities can have in bringing people together. It’s part of why we do what we do. Through telling stories like those included in Sound Bites, we can learn how science and technology have informed Indiana’s past and how it will continue to shape our state in the future.

For more information on Indiana Humanities’ Quantum Leap initiative, visit their website. From listening to Sound Bites to joining the statewide read of Frankenstein or attending an event, there are plenty of ways for you to join the conversation.


2017 Theme: Power. November 3-12, 2017!

POWER can be disquieting, discomforting, and oppressive; it can also be illuminating, inspiring, and hopeful. How do our social, political, cultural, and spiritual perspectives shape notions of power? How do the arts, humanities, and religion fuel our inner life and empower communities? How has the use, misuse, and abuse of power shaped our individual and collective lives? What new sources of energy can power our lives together? How can we give voice to communities that have historically lacked power? How can we bring diverse groups together to examine power structures in our own communities?

How do you want to explore POWER in 2017?


Cultural, faith-based, educational, health and human service organizations, libraries, community centers, civic institutions, artists, musicians, and others are invited to create innovative events for upcoming festivals. Application guidelines are posted at the beginning of the year.

Contact Program Director Erin Kelley at 317-274-2462 or or click here to learn more.   

What Does the Festival Want?

By Erin Kelley


The question I hear the most when individuals and organizations begin planning their Spirit & Place Festival application is, “What does the festival want?”

We want unique events that engage as broad of a swath of the public as possible in reflection and discussion of the yearly theme. We want you to partner with others so that multiple perspectives inform the content of your event as well as its format and design. We want you to help bridge new understandings between people so that they might feel more connected to Central Indiana—our shared “place.” We want you to use the festival as an opportunity to stretch yourselves creatively, collaboratively, intellectually, and spiritually. We want your best.

And, yeah, we know that’s a lot!

After digesting all those festival “wants,” I think it is also useful for community partners to step back and ask themselves what they want.

  • What do you want to give?
  • What do you want to get?
  • Who do you want to reach through this event?
  • Why do you want to reach this audience?
  • What is THE MOST IMPORTANT thing you want to achieve by being in the Spirit & Place Festival?

Taking the time to think about and discuss these questions is an important first step in identifying how you and your partners might positively impact the community, as well as your own organizations or creative endeavors, through the festival.

As you begin your planning process, please make use of the partner resources we have available on the Spirit & Place website that can help you dig into these questions. And never hesitate to contact us for assistance at


Ask themselves what they want:

Partner Resources:

Farmers Pray, Too

pamBy Pam Blevins Hinkle

Have we considered how what we label a dream might be a nightmare to others? Have we been thoughtlessly indoctrinated into the dreams of the “teams” we join? What happens when our dreams compete with other people’s dreams? These are some of the provocative questions raised by Grammy-winning rapper/hip-hop artist Michael Render (aka “Killer Mike”) at Full Circle Dreaming during the festival.

“Do we spend proportional energy trying to understand the impact of our dreams upon others, especially those that don’t look, worship, spend, and live like us?”

Killer Mike illustrated some of these questions with a story. When he and his wife flew to Jamaica for a much needed vacation, they were disheartened to disembark in the pouring rain. When they complained to the cab driver, he simply said, “Farmers pray, too.”

That statement led Mike and his wife to rethink their dreams of a perfect weekend getaway. They turned their attention from outdoor activities to each other, to the people around them, and to a slower pace that led to a restful retreat … all because a cab driver reminded them that their dreams are in relationship to others.

In a time and culture that emphasizes independence/individuality over interdependence/community, it’s all too easy to overlook the critical significance of relationship and connection in building healthy societies.

Instead, we join opposing teams: Republicans vs. Democrats, women vs. men, race vs. race, sacred vs. secular, MBAs vs. MFAs, liberals vs. conservatives, and the list goes on. We spend energy, money, and time promoting our own values, agendas, and dreams to create the world we want. As we should.

But. Do we spend proportional energy trying to understand the impact of our dreams upon others, especially those that don’t look, worship, spend, and live like us? Probably not.

What to do? Here are three suggestions that can make a difference for you, for others, and for your community.

  • Make friends with people who don’t look like you. This was Killer Mike’s number one suggestion.
  • Support a new organization on #GivingTuesday that helps people who are not like you. I’ll let you decide what this means, but use this as an opportunity to get outside your comfort zone and stretch in a new direction.
  • Make a $20 gift to Spirit & Place on #GivingTuesday. In a world that is hungry for meaning and connection, Spirit & Place brings people together across boundaries of difference to listen, explore, share, and create … illuminating what is possible when we dream together.


Dreaming Brings Hope and Hope Enhances Life

By George Kelley

As I stood one day on the stones of the ruins of Urquhart castle on Loch Ness in Scotland, I remembered being a small boy reading a comic book about a ghost in those very ruins and dreaming about visiting this castle some day.

I always thought my dream was unlikely. I lived in rural Northern New York, and Scotland was as far away as the moon for me, and also because my family did not have the money to afford such kind of trip. However, I never stopped dreaming about the all places I would love to go, and as I aged my dreams took a backseat to more important things, but they were always there, and like in that moment on Loch Ness, coming rushing back to remind me of what it means to dream to have hope for the future.  It happened again with another dream, to straddle the equator, however this time, the feeling was different.

423265_10150684482091208_163197800_nNear the equator, in Western Kenya, a group of faith communities from Indianapolis joined the Kenyan faith groups and began supporting orphans and vulnerable children by providing school lunches and educational subsidies to combat the ravages of HIV/AIDS.  More than 3000 children receive much needed food and many receive tuition and other support for schooling through the Umoja project of the Global Interfaith Partnership.  This project helps the community, already trying to build scaffolding for those who lost parents to illness, make their work easier.  I was able to visit our project with a group of interfaith leaders from Indianapolis and in doing so had the opportunity to fulfill that dream of standing with one foot in each hemisphere.

Standing on the equator was moving experience but much more as I shared the moment with others, concerned for the wellbeing of children a world away from my home.  While at their age I dreamed of Loch Ness, but those kids dreamed of food and shelter.  This was humbling for sure, but it also reminded me that it is okay to dream, even if the dream is far away.  Some of the children in Kenya could have never imagined that someone would be concerned enough to help them finish school, but we came. It allows them to dream bigger dreams. It is those dreams that help enhance one’s life and strive for more.  Something we can all do.

About the Author

George Kelley is the Education Director of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck.  He is active in the interfaith community and serves on the Executive board of the Global Interfaith Partnership (GIP) among other community involvement.  He grew up one of eight children in rural New York state and has lived in many states over his 50 years.  He is a storyteller and loves to travel with his wife Dianne.

[2015 DREAM Essay] Perchance to Dream

We are pleased to partner with WFYI to present a series of powerful essays on Spirit & Place Festival’s 20th anniversary theme, DREAM.

Davidby David Bodenhamer, 

The year was 1957. I was a 10-year old Southern boy whose dream was to be like Roy Rogers— a courageous righter of wrongs, manly but gentle, respectful of old people, kind to animals. Roy also had a great horse and he played the guitar. (Even at 10, I understood that a guitar would help me attract girls.) If I wasn’t playing football in the side yard with my brothers, I was riding the range in my imagination, rescuing damsels in distress and fending off the bad guys.

We had just moved from a small farming community of 200 people to the cotton mill town of LaGrange, Georgia, where my father had begun a new pastorate.  The elementary school was right across the street from the parsonage, and I often used its large bushes as hideout and as welcome shade from the hot Georgia sun.  One late summer afternoon, shortly before school was to begin, I was in my customary spot, waiting for the outlaws, when Mrs. Lee, the fourth grade teacher, walked out of the building.  I had been assigned to her class but I knew only two things about her: she had square thumbs, surely the result of pushing all those thumbtacks into the blackboard in her room; and she was mean, by far the strictest teacher at Dunson Elementary School.

“Like you, I have had big dreams, some of them personal but others more centered on what we as a community can do to redeem the ideals we claim as Americans and as Hoosiers. Spirit & Place is one of those dreams.”

Her reputation—and my dread of the upcoming year with her—demanded action. Stepping out from behind the bushes, I yelled, “Hey, meanie.” Mrs. Lee paused, then resumed walking. I yelled again, this time louder, “Hey, meanie.” This time she turned slowly and stared at me. “What did you say?” At that moment, it dawned on me that perhaps I had acted precipitously. “What did you say, young man?” Now I have always been a quick thinker but not necessarily a smart one, so I replied with the first thing that came to mind: “Oh, I was just calling my dog. Here Meanie, here Meanie.” (I had no dog.)  Then I walked away with as much nonchalance as I could muster, although with the hindsight of fifty years I am sure I was running, shouting all the time, “Here, Meanie. Come here, Meanie.”

I had scarcely gotten out of sight when the adrenalin rush disappeared, and I was left in a mess of shame. I had betrayed my dream: I wasn’t Roy Rogers, defender of what was right and just; I was Black Bart, the evil one. I wallowed in despair, made worse on the first day of school when Mrs. Lee brought some dog treats for me to give to Meanie. (In good southern fashion, she knew how to pile on the guilt.)  Finally, I confessed to my mother. After the expected rebuke—“David, how could you?”—she reminded me that it was not enough to pretend to be Roy Rogers. I also had to act like Roy.

Lesson learned, although not always remembered. Like you, I have had big dreams, some of them personal but others more centered on what we as a community can do to redeem the ideals we claim as Americans and as Hoosiers. Spirit & Place is one of those dreams. I share my desire for an intentional, reflective community with hundreds of participants who gather each November to celebrate the spirit of this place we call home and to dream about ways we can make it better.  But each year I also am reminded that dreams are not enough. They are essential but not sufficient.  Shakespeare got it right when he has Hamlet say,

“To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, there’s the rub.”

To listen to the audio version of this essay click here!

About the author

David Bodenhamer is the executive director of The Polis Center. An active researcher and professor of history, Bodenhamer is author or editor of eight books, including The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis and The Main Stem: the History and Architecture of North Meridian Street, and has published almost 30 journal articles and chapters in books.