Spiritual Unfolding at The World Bank
by Richard Barrett


Whenever people hear about the World Bank Spiritual Unfoldment Society (SUS) they always have the same reaction: incredulity. Why? Because it sounds like an oxymoron. How could such a bastion of intellectual economic conservatism have anything to do with spirituality?

The World Bank is a global partnership of 175 countries that employs about 8,000 people, most of them in Washington, DC, just a few blocks from the White House. Created in 1945 to rebuild a war-torn Europe, The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (known as the World Bank) has since become one of the major providers of funds to assist the governments of developing countries. The Bank provides loans, technical assistance, and policy guidance to help its developing country members to reduce poverty and improve living standards by promoting sustainable growth and investment in people. The Bank currently processes approximately $20 billion in loans every year.

The Bank has many supporters and many detractors. Its supporters believe it has the power to work economic miracles; its detractors believe it is at best no longer relevant. To many people, the organization is an institutional monolith, an organization wedded to mainstream capitalist economics, an organization that lives in the intellect and has lost touch with its heart.

Towards the end of 1992, 1 was nearing completion of the second draft of a book that draws on leading-edge theories of science, religion, and psychology to create a practical approach to spirituality. To get feedback, I invited about a dozen of my more spiritually minded colleagues in the Bank, where at the time I was Assistant to the Vice President of the World Bank for Environmentally Sustainable Development, to discuss the ideas and theories expressed in my book. We began a series of six brown bag lunches.

A few weeks after the meetings were over, two colleagues from the discussion group approached me and asked if I would set up a spiritual study group. That was the start of the Spiritual Unfoldment Society. Naturally, there was some fear in our early planning discussions about what we were doing and whether it would be acceptable to management. As I saw it, there was nothing to lose. Our mission statement was perfectly laudable: "The Spiritual Unfoldment Society promotes personal transformation through self-knowledge, understanding, and awakening higher consciousness. SUS provides a safe forum for the exchange of beliefs and ideas that promote spiritual awareness. SUS encourages the integration of higher consciousness into every aspect of our lives. SUS seeks to create within the World Bank a consciousness of love and understanding that contributes toward transforming the way we interact with one another (and the way the organization interacts with the world)."

We began holding weekly meetings in March 1993. We did not ask permission. We simply advertised the meetings in the staff weekly bulletin and waited to see who showed up. Within two months 40-50 people were attending the meetings. People came out of the woodwork, both attendees and presenters. It was as if suddenly we had given permission for those interested in personal transformation, and those seeking a deeper meaning to life, to come out of the closet. At first, some of the internal presenters didn't want their names mentioned in the weekly announcement, as they feared how their colleagues might react. Within a few months, it became perfectly respectable to be associated with the SUS. We began to announce our meetings on the internal e-mail system.

A major boost to the Society came within a few months. The Washington Post featured the SUS in a magazine article on July 4, 1993. Management was particularly delighted with the following quote, "The World Bank at 18th and H streets NW, typically regarded as just another institutional pillar in the Washington power structure, is gaining a reputation for enlightenment." After the article appeared we immediately started getting calls from people who worked in the downtown area who wanted to attend our weekly meetings. We also had inquiries from outside speakers. For more than two years, we have never had to search for a speaker.

Between March 1993 and July 1995 the membership of the SUS grew from about 25 to almost 340. In three months, weekly attendance began to average 50 to 60 people. As many as 80 to 90 people show up for some of the more popular seminars. In 1995, we begin introducing monthly meditation sessions, and created special interest groups that spun off to hold their own meetings. We held two retreats in the first two years thirty to thirty-five people showed up. In August of 1995, we added a new discussion format to the seminar and meditation sessions.

Since the very first meeting of SUS, I have received countless e-mad messages from members about the effect of the meetings on their lives. Some reported significant life-changing insights. For yet others, it was the sense of community and open sharing that attracted them to the meetings. We knew we were doing something right because people kept turning up.

Then, from the steering committee came the idea for an international conference on spiritual values that would be put on by the World Bank, that would explore the link between spiritual values and sustainable development. I presented the idea to the Vice President for Environmentally Sustainable Development. He was supportive, but felt that at that time, it was beyond the growing edge of the Bank. He would, however, support the SUS putting on the event. I felt very deeply that this was an event that had to be put on by the Bank and not by the SUS, so we shelved the idea for about a year. Sensing a shift in global consciousness, I again presented the idea to the Vice President late in 1994, and the idea was accepted. The title of the conference would be "Ethical and Spiritual Values and the Promotion of Environmentally Sustainable Development."

This international conference took place at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., on October 2 and 3, 1995. No one could believe that the World Bank was putting on such a conference. Once more, I heard people say, "I am totally amazed." The outside world was finding it difficult to believe that this conservative monolith was holding a conference on ethical and spiritual values in relation to development. The real, but subtle, significance of this conference was that Bank staff now has permission to talk about values in development, to question their beliefs and their right to impose them on others, and to bring their hearts, as well as their minds, to work. The supremacy of the intellect is being challenged in the World Bank. We must wait and see just how far the heart of the organization unfold.

Excerpted from the article Spiritual Unfolding at The World Bank
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