Dr. Shariff Abdullah is a consultant, author, and advocate for mindfulness, inclusivity, and societal transformation. Shariff’s meta-vision and mission are simple: we can create a world that works for all beings. Shariff promotes heart-centered inclusivity, compassionate dialogue, and a society based on vision. His work is informed by his spiritual practices; growing up with racism and generational poverty; his years as a successful attorney; and his inclusivity experiences in over 120 cultures, spanning 45 countries. Shariff has written several paradigm-shifting books, including: The Power of One: Authentic Leadership in Turbulent Times; the award-winning Creating a World That Works for All; Seven Seeds for a New Society; Practicing Inclusivity; and The Chronicles of the Upheavals. Shariff serves on IHE’s Curriculum Advisory Board and his book, Creating a World That Works for All, has been a required text in IHE’s graduate programs for more than a decade. 

IHE: In your vision for the future, you imagine humanity entering a “Transcendent Age” in which “humans recognize and fully practice our connection and inclusive relationship with all other humans, all Beings, the Earth and Life everywhere in our Universe.” With humans seemingly more polarized than ever; easily manipulated by falsehoods and manufactured desires; and currently living through both a pandemic and, in the U.S., an upheaval to end racism, both of which elicit varying levels of anger, anxiety, and sorrow, how can we move toward this transcendent age?

Shariff: Over the years, I’ve found it amazing how many people in this country seem resistant to the idea of societal transformation. Even so-called “activists” seem to confine their activism to a limited range of causes. Nearly everyone understands the need for societal transformation, and each one of us can recite a litany of ills present in today’s society. Whether ecological, economic, social, psychological, or any other area, the majority of us have a profound realization: something is wrong.

We see the problems, we see the symptoms, but we do not see the vision. We are unused to thinking about our future. It’s like our future has been hijacked by corporate CEOs and big-budget Hollywood directors.

Since I was very young, I have been driven by a vision: that from the world that exists – a world filled with poverty, racism, and exploitation – we can create a world that works for all beings. When I was 11 years old, I helped to form an organization in Camden, NJ called, “The Black People’s Unity Movement” (BPUM). (At the time, I mistakenly thought that black people were the only ones with problems.)

I am puzzled why others do not generally have transcendent visions – or at least adopt someone else’s. Given the ferocity with which people talk about their problems and challenges, why do we shy away from visions that are profound and comprehensive? 

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Like the rest of us, I am watching as America and much of the world sink into deeper levels of chaos. All of our divides are heightened; all of our problems seem ever more intractable. A positive future seems further away than ever. It has never been more clear: we must “get it,” or we will fail as a society.

Although it may seem contradictory, I think the reason that many people don’t “get it” is precisely because they do. Intuitively, people understand how a powerful vision calls upon them to change. A true vision calls forth the highest in each of us, and we may not want to go there. Al Gore titled his book “An Inconvenient Truth.” Perhaps my next book could be called “An Inconvenient Solution.”

We tell ourselves that we are willing to give up our creature comforts for the sake of our children and the well-being of the Earth, but actually most of us are not. We want to fix the problem in “those people over there” (whoever we perceive as taking something away from us), but we are not willing to look at the fact that each one of us carries within us the seeds of this dysfunction.

IHE: So how will this change?

Shariff: Well, there’s the easy way, and then there’s the hard way.

The “easy” way means going within for a deep and powerful introspection on your deepest fears, drives, and motivations, coupled with a search for your life’s vision and purpose, as powerful events play out on the canvas of our larger society. 

The “hard” way means clinging to your old ways of thinking; trying to hold together your personal status quo while your society is literally crumbling into ruins all around you; trying to restore your personal “Good Old Days,” while facing financial, social, ecological, and spiritual ruin. 

Given these two choices, I believe most Americans will pursue a third option. Instead of either finding a new way forward or working hard to cling to the past, most will choose to walk off the field, not engage, and turn up the volume on their distractions.

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Sometimes, the third option means deferring to someone else, anyone else, who will feed our fears, our completely misplaced ignorance and arrogance. They may praise or demonize that person while avoiding personal responsibility for the current situation.  

Sometimes the third option involves going numb with food, sex, drugs, or entertainment. Sadly, sometimes it leads to suicide.

IHE: At IHE, we believe that we need to transform the system of education because education underlies all other systems. How do you think schooling can move young people toward the building of the Transcendent Age as you describe it, and what do you think schooling will look like when we have entered this age?

Shariff: It will look like nothing we have right now. My work, and the work of Commonway, is mindfulness. I believe this to be the ultimate educational system. I think the purpose of education is simple: to awaken and enhance mindfulness. How do we create a society of people who are mindful of their past, mindful of their present, mindful of their relationship with all other beings, and mindful of the possibilities of their future? How do we create a society whose members are conscious of their needs as well as the needs of every other living being? 

Education can’t get us there unless we free it from the conceptual and historical shackles we each place upon it. When I say the word “education,” most people picture young people in brick buildings, desks in a row or in clusters, a teacher standing in front, a curriculum, books and screens, bells ringing, a gym, students moving through halls, lockers in the hallways, and a flag on a pole out front.

Almost all of the words/memes of “education” – school, curriculum, teacher, test, class, grades –  are rooted in a European-based, 19th-century model, one that is dysfunctional for a 21st-century reality (and probably was dysfunctional in the 19th-century, too).  

Whenever I run into education reformers, I ask them these questions: “Why do you want to reform education? What is the purpose of education?”

The answers I receive are surprisingly similar. I hear variations on: “We want our children to be happy, intelligent, empowered, creative, motivated, inspired, self-actualizing, living their highest potential….”  And then I ask them, “Why do you want them to be all those things?”  

We want children to be intelligent, creative, empowered individuals. But, what do we want for our society

I believe that the purpose of “education” should be the development of a world that works for all living beings. Teaching anything else means that we’re not truly paying attention to what’s happening around us.

IHE: I love that. It’s really similar to our vision that education’s purpose should be to educate young people to be solutionaries for a just, healthy, and humane world. 

2020 has been a tumultuous year, and it’s only half over. Our global economy has been decimated by a virus that has had a worldwide impact (and so far an especially deadly effect in the U.S.). Now protests against racism are shaking the country. How do you see our way forward?

Shariff: We need to remember that everything dies. This is true for people, galaxies, and societies. Some beings have a life cycle as short as a mayfly or as long as a redwood. But they all die. And all return, in some form or another.

Some people in our society act like death is an option, not a reality. They live their lives as though they were not part of the natural order. They have a fervent belief, bordering on a religion, that they can do what they want, when they want, and that there are no consequences to their actions. If something goes wrong, they take a pill, or sue someone, or invade someone’s country, or find someone else to blame. But, now the bill has come due. We are staring into the face of inevitability.

The science fiction of the past century has shown us what “the end” looks like. Sometimes it’s zombies shuffling down Main Street; sometimes it’s space aliens landing in Washington DC; sometimes it’s big asteroids punching canyon-sized holes in our cities.   

We see the end, but we don’t seem to be able to perceive the simultaneous beginning.

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In the face of existential despair, some of us have been planting the seeds of a new society. We’ve been doing it for quite some time. The seeds are our visions of a positive, inclusive future for all. The seeds are buried deep in the fertile soil of our soul and nurtured with the compost of our past failures and shortcomings.

These seeds lie in our heart. It is the content of your heart that will be borne forward. If vision, compassion, inclusivity, tolerance, patience, and other virtues are in your heart, that is the society you will live in. If greed, competition, hoarding, isolation, separation, and violence lie in your heart, what you are now seeing is the end of the world. 

We reap what we sow, and what we reap and sow, we teach to others.

IHE:  In the face of this, what are the projects you are working on now? How might our readers become involved with your work and vision at Commonway?

Shariff: Since Commonway has been advocating and catalyzing an inclusive human society for the past 30 years, very little has changed! 

Starting in the Fall, we will be expanding our “Shadows to Light“ (S2L) program, which is designed to understand and dispel the four principal conflicts or “Shadows“ that dominate the American consciousness. Our challenge: how do we go beyond the “surface,” or presenting issues, to see the nature of the conflicts that lie at the heart of America’s soul? These four principal Shadows are:

  1. The Shadow of Violence (manifesting as war, insecurity, domination, and oppression)
  2. The Shadow of the “Other” (manifesting as racism, sexism, and all other forms of separation)
  3. The Shadow of Poverty, Greed, and Hoarding (manifesting as need, exploitation, economic imbalance)
  4. The Shadow of Despair (manifesting as depression, anger, and suicide)

We have offered this program of teaching, meditation, and action over several years, to positive reviews. We are looking to greatly expand our impact this year so that we can actually shift the energy and consciousness of an entire society away from the Shadows that plague us.

We will be making other offerings during 2020, as appropriate to our evolving circumstances. The one thing we know: this is our time. Whatever lies before us signals the beginning of a profound shift for us and for all of humanity.