FIU’s Program in the Study of Spirituality: A Retrospective

April 16, 1999, was “the greatest day in the history of FIU,” according to Modesto A. Maidique, President Emeritus. What prompted his enthusiasm was the first-ever visit of His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama to Florida, during which FIU honored him with an honorary doctorate.

I was sitting in the “green room” of the then-named Panther Arena with HHDL, then-Provost Mark B. Rosenberg, and Governor Jeb Bush. About five minutes before it was time for the procession to the stage, HHDL leaned toward me, arched his eyebrow, and half-joking asked, “So what should I talk about?” When I stopped laughing, I suggested that he might share his reflections about the American system of higher education.

“In the modern education system,” he told his enthralled audience of 5,000, “you pay attention to the proper development of the brain. But you do not pay adequate attention to the development of the warm heart. So some sort of combination, the development of the good heart and the development of the good brain, these must go together.”

This visit galvanized the entire South Florida community as it reverberated throughout our campus. And many of us pondered what we ought to do with HHDL’s comment, whether there was any way to implement his idea in the context of a major public research university.

With endless conversations and President Maidique’s active encouragement, a plan began to emerge. How could we combine secular studies with the warm heart, with spirituality? A robust lecture series was obvious, and it took time to add to that core both curricular and research endeavors. In time, we were able to craft a multi-disciplinary curriculum that drew from religious studies, of course, but also literature, music, medicine, psychology, environmental studies, education, and so on. It took years – one draft proposal after another, how to identify courses that would be part of the curriculum, and finally how to convince our skeptical colleagues that spirituality belongs in a modern university. Finally we did, and the first-ever academic curriculum in the study of spirituality emerged, and over the years numerous undergraduate students have earned a Certificate in the Study of Spirituality.

At the same time, we began offering support for research and conference travel by faculty and graduate students. Our challenge was that our fledgling Program would receive no financial support from university funds. Whatever we wanted to do, we would have to attract donors and grants to cover the substantial costs. That we have been able to do so, however modestly, is testimony to the timeliness and correctness of the concept.

For HHDL’s second visit to FIU, 2004/5 was proclaimed the “Year of Spirituality” by the CAS Dean, and that year we welcomed four of the world’s truly great religious teachers: HHDL, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (who also received an honorary doctorate), Hindu guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, and eminent psychiatrist Jerry Jampolsky.

PSS is best known for bringing spiritual luminaries to FIU. Many have been traditional practitioners of spirituality: Tibetan lamas, Jain nuns, Hindu swamis, imams, rabbis, priests (including Archbishop Thomas Wenski), ministers, and shamans.

But we were even more interested in the interfaces between spirituality and a variety of human endeavors. Our watchword became that to excel to the highest level in any endeavor, it must be infused with spirituality. For example, President Maidique’s recent research into leadership has argued that at the highest level of leaders are those who infuse their efforts with spirituality. Dr. Dipak Jain, another eminent scholar of business, has visited us several times with his gentle vision of spiritual leadership in business.

We have learned about the interactions of music and spirituality from Nestor Torres, Gloria Estefan, Amir Vahab, Madhurai Mani, and others. Our own Andrea Seidel taught us about the cross-cultural spirituality inherent in dance. We have discussed spirituality and sports with FSU’s legendary Bobby Bowden. The role of spirituality in the practice of medicine has been an ongoing focus, and I have been invited to teach on this subject in our College of Medicine, just as we have brought physicians Manoj Jain of Tennessee and John Loike of Columbia to engage our medical and other students. Psychiatrist Brian Weiss even taught an entire course at FIU, and engaged the Tibetan lama Geshe Lhakdor on after-death experiences. Marc Buoniconti inspired us with his dedication to spirituality-based service.

We have looked into how spirituality might enhance peacemaking, and Arun Gandhi led panels on our campus twice. On the anniversary of 9/11, we presented a program of Sufi (Muslim mystic) music and poetry with Amir Vahab and Peter Rogen, demonstrating to their audience the very heart of Islam, which is also the heart of us all. It was a unique moment of healing.

We also partnered with Red Lotus Films of New Mexico in a documentary, “Is There Room at the Inn? Muslims, Jews, and the Holy Land,” based on a conference at FIU and featuring Prof Imam Khaleel Mohammad of San Diego State Univ., Prof. Rabbi David Novack of Univ. of Toronto, Prof. Aisha Musa of Colgate Univ., and myself, in 2007. The film will premier on Feb. 15, 2015.

Leading ‘New Age’ teachers have been included, including Rabbi Yehuda Berg, leader of the Kabbalah Centers, and Rev. Marianne Williamson, now a candidate for the U.S. Congress from California.

Finally, we have built institutional linkages, including our ongoing relationship with the Sivananada Yoga Ashram Resort in the Bahamas, and leading a major research collaboration with the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. We have also been sending students for studies in India and Indonesia.

We very carefully developed a business strategic plan, thanks to the leadership of business professor Clifford Perry, who along with medical school professor Kalai Mathee, comprises our leadership team. As I near retirement, my respected colleague, Prof. Whitney Bauman, has assumed the Directorship of PSS.

To ensure our long-term success, we must turn to our supporters. One way to engage would be at the talk by Prof. Raymond Moody, the Ph.D. philosophy professor, M.D. physicians, and psychiatrist who coined the term “near-death experience.” Although we try to make all of our events free and open to the public, once a year we charge a modest admission fee and seek out sponsors. His talk will be on January 25, 2015, and we hope that will engage and re-engage the community we wish to serve.

PSS is something unique in the entire world! Let us keep it going!