My name is Philip Gill, many of you here know me. I was Ms. Dantes student and assistant for a little over 30 years. There are a few more things I want to say, but as our dear friend Jeannie Hoffman reminded us, Ms. Dantes began virtually every gathering with meditation. So, in Ms. Dantes’ honor, I’d like to begin by reading something she said about meditation. Then I’d like to ask that we all actually meditate for a short time. Meditation was an indispensable part of what Ms. Dantes was doing in the world. And I hope that those of you who do not regularly meditate will also find that it is a wonderful way to start a gathering. So before we begin, please allow me to read from one of her dialogues about meditation. I’ve condensed it somewhat for brevity.
Quote from Ms. Dantes on Meditation
When true meditation happens in us, it changes our way of living and our way of being. In the meantime, what we can do is to meditate, habitually. That’s all right, provided that we are aware that the habit of meditation is not a true, deep experience of meditation. So, being aware of that, we can practice any technique for meditation—whatever the person likes, or whatever the person feels comfortable with.
One of the helpful ways to meditate is by not closing our eyes totally. Most people close their eyes, but you might want to experiment with different ways. In this way of sitting, by keeping your eyes opened a little bit, you begin to become aware that your relaxation does not depend on shutting everything off; that your quietness does not depend on your concentration and closing yourself in, but rather, in opening yourself out, by including everything. So as you practice, and you become habituated, physically, to relaxation with your eyes open, then you can begin to do that at any time during the day. There is a great benefit to that. Being aware that we can relax at any moment in our lives, being aware that we can be — just simply be — at any moment in our lives, is very important. It is important in our relationships. When these organisms become tense or scared or angry, that is the opportunity to discover anew that one has the capability to simply be with everyone — whether they are upset with us, or we are upset with them. In essence, it is no different than being in meditation. So when we are quiet in meditation, with our eyes open, we are open to everything that is occurring in the organism, and everything that is occurring outside. There is an alertness to oneself, and to the other at the same time, that brings that wonderful experience of oneness — but as a truth . . . not as a learned, intellectual understanding . . . as a true living action, as life itself. Being in meditation, just simply sitting in a state of observation, without judging, without evaluating, we begin to experience these organisms as nature itself. And of course, we begin to observe others as nature itself. What a different way of living that is! What a blessing that is!
I met Ms. Dantes in 1987 and over the next year or so I became a student and “volunteer”, as we called ourselves. I continued to be her student and assist her through the years right up to her passing a month ago. I think I can safely say that Ms. Dantes would not be enthusiastic about a gathering that was all about saying how wonderful she was. Through all the years I knew her she avoided saying much about herself personally. She felt it distracted from what she was trying to convey to people. But I must mention that since announcing her passing, we have received so many emails from people, some of whom we have not seen or heard from for years. Here is a comment by our friend Joan Mahony who is now in Texas: “So, often, when I think about or try to explain what Ms. Dantes is/was about and what she means to me, I have to stop trying to explain or understand and just sit awed like I do in a redwood forest or watching the ocean waves crash against the cliffs of Montana de Oro state park in Los Osos. And just be grateful that I was one of the lucky souls to experienceMs. Dantes in person.”
I do think that Ms. Dantes would probably feel that a gathering in her honor was worthwhile if we were, in our own way, trying to share the message to which she had dedicated over half her life offering to others. For 30 years, I never spoke for Ms. Dantes, and I am not doing that now. But I hope I can at least convey, especially to those who did not know her so well, a sense of what it was about her that inspired me, and made me want to support what she was doing for so many years.
The way I came to understand her, all her dialogues, all her writing, all her retreats was that they all seemed to be pointing to one thing. I think all of us who worked with her would agree that her message consistently emphasized heart-based compassionate living, self observation and inquiry, 100% responsibility for yourself and others, and caring for the planet. But in my experience of her, there was something that was basic to all of that—something she wanted to give to everyone. I remember sometimes she would pause in a dialogue with us and say, “I wish I could just give it to you.” So what was it that she wanted to give to us? Well, I think she said it in the quote I read prior to meditation: “that wonderful experience of oneness — but as a truth . . . not as a learned, intellectual understanding . . . as a true living action, as life itself.”
She herself lived a deep experience of true nature— or oneness, or interconnectedness, (there are several names for it). And she would say that she could not give this experience to anyone because it is something each person needs to discover for him or herself. But we could all see that she lived it, and we could all see how her way of living touched people. And that motivated us.
But this experience of oneness or true nature was so central to what she was sharing. Over and over she would tell us, it’s not about trying to get better, not about trying to develop love and compassion, not about chasing after enlightenment. For her, all the qualities we wish to have: love, compassion, responsibility, dedication to service, joy of life, all of these things emerge naturally from this experience. Living the experience of true nature is transformative, at a “cellular level” she liked to say. Your behavior is different, naturally because the way you experience life is different. You experience the other as yourself, you experience your connection to everyone and everything around you. Instead of being driven by beliefs, instead of being driven by “shoulds”, instead of “trying to improve yourself”, instead of being driven by hopes of future rewards, you are motivated by love, naturally. As she said so many times, spiritual unfolding is not about achieving something, not about improving yourself. It is about discovering what you are. I always loved the way she began one dialogue on compassion. She said: “Discovering what you are is not the same as trying to develop what you think you are not.”
But I think that the goal of her work was two-fold. Yes, she wanted everyone to experience the joy of life that she experienced. She wanted to share that with everyone. But she also saw a larger purpose, a service to humanity, if you will, in each individual who was willing to take the time to discover this deeper meaning in life. She saw this kind of energy as an invisible movement in consciousness, a movement that contributed to the transformation of consciousness as a whole. And the need for a transformation in consciousness was a profound concern for her. She spoke and wrote about this throughout her life, coming at it from many different directions. In my opinion, this was her service to humanity.
For Ms. Dantes, there was no particular religion or philosophy that had a franchise on this experience. She saw it as utterly and completely natural to human beings. And I think a significant part of her contribution in the world was to bring this experience, this joy of life, to people in terms that were not specific to any religion or tradition—that did not require embracing any particular rituals or beliefs. This approach had a lot of appeal for people (myself included) who had abandoned the religious beliefs of their youth and were not looking to acquire new ones. But many people wanted to listen to her: Jewish, Catholic, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim etc., people who wanted to go deeper, to inquire beyond or beneath their belief systems, if I may put it that way. These people also found that inquiring with Ms. Dantes was an inspiration.
Along with meditation, inquiry was perhaps the most fundamental aspect of Ms. Dantes work. Her many, many private and public dialogues were never meant to provide answers, but rather to encourage people to inquire for themselves. To encourage people to look into what prevents experiencing the joy of life. What blocks an experience so natural to being human? I can tell you that she never
stopped questioning to the end of her life. And she never stopped inspiring people to question.
Well, Ms. Dantes has left us now and our retreat house is closed. So the Center for Holistic Living, at this time, is no longer offering a space for retreats. But I know she would still encourage people to find a time and place to retreat—to take the time out of our busy lives.
We do have friends here today who provide retreats and meditations in the Zen tradition. And that is a wonderful way to go! Enrico and Nadia Natali who are here today, have a small Zen retreat center in Ojai. And Carol Kanjin Abrahamson, whom I’ve only just met, is a Zen priest affiliated with the Santa Barbara Zen Center and is also here today.
Ms. Dantes had great respect for Zen. She had, in fact, studied intensely for a year with Zen master Kobun Chino Roshi, a wonderful man who had a great influence on her life and who, incidentally had also come to bless Enrico and Nadia’s Zen retreat center in Ojai. But Zen was not her path. (In fact, when she told Kobun she could not be part of his sangha, he smiled and said “Monastery for you has not been built yet.”) For whatever reason, her work would not follow any particular tradition, although she was respectful of all traditions.
So, to finish, I think what Ms. Dantes would do if she were here today, is what she had been doing for decades. She would ask questions. Do you want to inquire into life? Do you want to find time to meditate and be in silence, to allow your natural wisdom to emerge, to discover a joy of life that you have not known. “Nobody can do it for you,” she would say. And she would say it with those kind, caring eyes, with that unconditional love that would open your heart and dissolve your resistance, and inspire you to look for yourself. Nobody in our organization is going to replace Ms. Dantes. Her gifts were unique. But the Center for Holistic Living is going to carry on. For now, we are going to continue her work online, primarily in the area of inquiry. There is a large population of people, many of them young, who are questioning tradition and searching for a path in life for their spiritual unfolding. Sometimes they are called the “Spiritual But Not Religious”. We feel that it is this group and also those who are called “Progressive Religious” who are going to change the landscape of what it looks like to live a spiritual life.
The goal of our website is to present not only Ms. Dantes’ voice, but also, as she always did, present the wisdom of others. We hope to bring the most thoughtful voices to inspire, educate and empower independent thinkers to lead the lives they yearn for—lives of meaning, purpose and responsibility—so they can contribute to a more compassionate world, and if you will, the transformation of consciousness.
Having probably said too much, I want to thank you for your patience for listening to me. I am grateful for this opportunity to complete, as best I can.