Positively Happy

A few weeks ago, the Earth and Spirit Podcast released an episode featuring a conversation I had with one of our faculty members, Dr. Tony Zipple. Tony is a positive psychologist who has run large behavioral health organizations, and he just finished teaching a course with us, “The Science of Changing Your Brain for the Better.” In both his course and our podcast conversation, Tony made the point that happiness is a skill you can develop and strengthen. Because of the wonders of neuroplasticity, we can literally rewire our brains, such that we get better at noticing and appreciating the positive things in our life.
This approach makes happiness an “inside job.” Happiness doesn’t have to wait until your money troubles, partner troubles, kid troubles, work troubles, health troubles, or any other troubles get resolved (if they ever do). You simply have to change your relationship to these challenges and make some conscious decisions about how you relate to them and where to place your attention. Which, I believe, is the heart of mindfulness practice.
Easier said than done, of course. The key word here is “practice.” There are some blessed souls on this planet who seem to have rich natural aptitude for gratitude. Alas, I’m not one of them. I have to practice every day to exercise my “happiness muscles.” Every day, I have to choose – consciously, intentionally – to give less power to all the things that outrage, depress, or stress me, and instead to cultivate appreciation, even for things that seem small and trivial, even for things whose gifts I can’t begin to fathom. Plenty of days, I fail, or do it grudgingly, or scrape the bottom of the barrel for any sort of thanksgiving. But having been at some sort of gratitude practice for many years, I can say that even though I still have plenty of dark days, I think those days are far fewer and less dark than they otherwise would have been. With practice, happiness gets easier.
It’s also easier with the support of other people. That’s why Tony and our amazing ESC volunteer Mariam Ballantine recently started our new monthly Happiness Discussion Group, also called “the happiness club.” I hope you’ll consider being part of it, or any of the many other communities that gather regularly at the Earth & Spirit Center. We’d be happy to see you!
Take care,
Kyle Kramer, CEO

Kentucky General Assembly to Learn Strategies for Stress Resilience

The Earth & Spirit Center is being introduced to the Kentucky General Assembly as a “Gem of the 41st District,” and representatives from the Center will provide a presentation of basic skills designed to promote personal stress resilience using mindfulness techniques. Presentations will be Friday, March 10, 2023, before convening of the General Assembly, from 8:00 to 8:45am and from 11:00am to noon in room 316 at the Kentucky State Capital, 700 Capital Avenue in Frankfort, KY. All members of the Kentucky General Assembly and members of the press are invited to attend.

The Earth & Spirit Center is honored to be recognized by the Kentucky General Assembly as a resource important to the well-being of the citizens of 41st district and beyond. The opportunity to share basic stress resilience skills and the importance of practicing them in these challenging times is well aligned with our work for the flourishing of individuals and communities. Providing these skills to our statewide leadership, knowing the difficult decisions and challenges they face and that relief from these stresses is possible, is an endeavor the Earth & Spirit Center embraces enthusiastically.

An overview of the Earth and Spirit Center: A Gem of the 41st District will be presented by Kyle Kramer, CEO of the Center. A Taste of Mindfulness Practice – two guided practices with compelling rationale for stress resilience – will be presented by Karen Newton, MPH, RDN, senior meditation faculty member of Earth and Spirit Center.

The purpose of these presentations is to provide basic stress resilience skills for the improvement of the wellbeing of attendees. The Earth and Spirit Center hopes to spark curiosity about the value of practicing these skills, as we are all challenged in our daily lives. This is important to foster the wellbeing of the entire Commonwealth. Our young people are struggling, their families are struggling, their teachers are struggling… we are all struggling as we do our best to ensure our own self-care and our care for those around us. Relief from stress is possible, and we will share skills and practices that provide a healthier approach to difficulties.

The Earth and Spirit Center is a nonprofit, interfaith spirituality center. We cultivate transformative learning and service opportunities dedicated to mindful awakening, compassionate justice, and care for the Earth. We are dedicated to a single, sacred Earth community in which all members flourish. We are located on a beautiful 27-acre wooded campus in the heart of the Highlands neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky. Learn more about the Earth and Spirit Center at earthandspiritcenter.org.


Assuming nothing fatal befalls me, this year I will hit the half-century mark. To honor that milestone and lean fully into the richness of my second half of life, I made a resolution to visit an old-growth forest this year. I got my chance a few weeks ago, when I traveled to the Great Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee to lead a retreat. After it concluded, I hiked about seven miles through Albright Grove, one of the finest stands of old-growth cove hardwood forest in the Eastern US.
As a rural person, I’ve always loved trees and forests, but Albright Grove felt like another world entirely, and I am struggling to find words for how powerfully moved I was to be among such massive, ancient creatures. At one point I took a break in the shelter of a tulip poplar that was at least seven feet thick and I would guess to be older than the founding of our country (that’s it in the photo).
Albright Grove made real for me a quote from Lao Tzu that I keep taped to my computer monitor: “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” These trees and this forest had patience on a scale that I aspire to fathom, much less emulate. Whether as a tree or a person (take note, busy-busy self!), there is such immense power in standing still and waiting. And waiting. And waiting some more.
But when you stand still over a long period of time, $h!@ happens. “Virgin” old-growth forest might mean untouched by human destructiveness, but Mother Nature deals plenty of disaster in her own right, and almost all of the oldest trees have blown-out limbs, lightning scars, and other signs of damage and decay. They are beautiful, but theirs is a beauty that includes much brokenness. What a reassuring example for those of us fortunate enough to have many decades on our odometer.
There is less than 5% of the original old-growth forest still standing in this country – and less than 2 or 3% in the Eastern US.  We humans are, at this adolescent stage of our evolution, a terrifyingly ravenous species. And yet despite the carnage we have inflicted on this land, the trees of Albright Grove gave me hope that they, and their other sylvan relations, will be able to wait us out. When we finally learn to live peaceably among our non-human kin, or when we finally extinguish ourselves because we fail in that learning, the trees will flourish. In time, cut-over lands will become old-growth forest once again, and the broken and damaged webs of life will reweave themselves. They will not hurry, yet they will accomplish everything.
Take care,
Kyle Kramer, CEO

Future-Driven or Future-Drawn?

At the Earth and Spirit Center, our staff and board just concluded a new strategic planning process that provides an exciting, actionable vision for growing our programs in meditation, compassionate social justice, and Earth care, our retreats and summer camps, and our emerging mindful leadership work with non-profit and for-profit organizations.
Being a driven, type-A personality, I have a tendency to get pretty fanatical about strategic plans – just ask the rest of the ESC staff! Plans and goals are certainly essential for a multi-faceted, impactful organization like the Earth & Spirit Center: they help keep us focused, effective, and accountable. But of course there are at least two problems with being plan-driven. Sometimes your plans run roughshod over reality – such as ignoring the people and needs that present themselves but that don’t fit neatly into the plan. And sometimes reality runs roughshod over your plans – as we learned when COVID-19 disrupted pretty much everything. Either way, holding onto the plans too tightly causes some sort of damage.
I’m starting to play with a new approach to making and following plans, which is informed by my reading in evolutionary cosmology and spirituality: What if we went from being future-driven to being future-drawn? In other words, what if – instead of treating the future as something we charge toward by making a battering ram out of our goals and plans – we imagine that the future is actually drawing us toward something bigger and more wonderful than we even have capacity to imagine? That’s certainly how folks like Thomas Berry and the paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin saw it: the journey of the Universe is one in which we’re all being pulled toward greater, more beautiful diversity and a deeper, more interconnected communion, in which all creatures – animal, vegetable, mineral creatures – have intrinsic value. For me, the name of both that drawing power and that relational communion is simple: Love, writ large and writ long.
We need our plans, just as a ship needs charts, a compass, and a rudder. But we also need to bracket our goal- and plan-driven egos (Self, I’m talking to you!) enough that we can be responsive to the more beautiful world that keeps calling to us from the future. And staying open to that future, ironically, can help us keep our hearts open to the gifts and needs of the present.
As always, the Earth & Spirit Center provides both the tools and the communal support to help you be drawn by the future and mindfully present in the present. We hope you’ll make some plans to get involved this Spring!
Take care,
Kyle Kramer, CEO

Life is Risky

As 2022 drew to a close, the Earth & Spirit Center board and staff concluded a months-long strategic planning process to help us chart our course for the next several years. One of the more mundane –though important! – administrative items that came up in conversation was the need to create transition plans for key staff members in the case of planned or unplanned departures. It’s something we’ve been meaning to do for years but not gotten around to. When I tried to reassure the board that I have no plans to leave my role, it was pointed out to me, only half-jokingly, that I do have some risky hobbies, namely rock climbing and mountain biking, that could put me out of commission pretty easily.
I don’t see myself as a middle-aged adrenaline junky, and the heart-racing activities I love are a paradoxical counterpoint to a lot of calm time spent on a meditation cushion. What I do know, and what we recognized in our strategic planning process, is that life is risky, and to be fully alive means to take reasonable risks. 
That’s what the Earth & Spirit Center has done and continues to do: take careful but bold, calculated but courageous risks in the service of life and our organizational mission. We continue to invest in new staff, new programs, new infrastructure and new ideas. Not everything works out perfectly, but the overall outcome has been growth and innovation that I don’t think could have happened any other way.
As we being a new year, none of us has a clear picture of what may await us, individually and collectively. So the best we can do is walk forward together into the risks of the unknown future, hopefully with some forethought and hopefully from a clear, non-reactive stillness that meditation can provide. In that calm courage, we can trust Thomas Berry’s wise counsel: “In the immense story of the universe, that so many of these dangerous moments have been navigated successfully is some indication that the universe is for us rather than against us. We need only summon these forces to our support in order to succeed.”
Take care,
Kyle Kramer, CEO

Holy Darkness

When your eyes are tired the world is tired also. When your vision has gone, no part of the world can find you. Time to go into the dark where the night has eyes to recognize its own. There you can be sure you are not beyond love. The dark will be your womb tonight. The night will give you a horizon further than you can see. – David Whyte
Here in the northern hemisphere, as we slide toward the winter solstice, the days are becoming shorter and shorter. We live more and more in the dark.
In general, most of us tend to denigrate darkness – especially those of us on a spiritual path! We associate spiritual growth with the light: seeking the light, seeing the light, being enlightened, and so forth. Darkness we consider a place of fear, danger, doubt, despair, and all kinds of negativity – not to mention historical prejudices against people with darker skin. 
Lately, I’ve been rethinking this dichotomy between darkness and light. Kabbalist mystic and Zen teacher Jason Shulman, whom I interviewed recently for the Earth & Spirit podcast, helped me see that darkness can be a lovely and necessary place of gestation, intuition, and integration of our full selves – not just the shiny, happy self we may wish to pursue or project. It is the yin that complements the yang. The Kabbalists even speak of the “lamp of darkness,” and upcoming podcast guest and dharma teacher Deborah Eden Tull writes of “luminous darkness” and “endarkenment” as a complement to enlightenment. Perhaps the “light shining in the darkness” in this Christian Advent season is a partner to the dark, not an enemy of it!
In these next weeks, I’d like to invite all of us to make a nondual journey into the darkness, in whatever forms it may take in our lives. Let’s travel there with mindfulness and open-hearted curiosity, and see what gifts it may offer us. “There you can be sure,” as poet David Whyte writes so beautifully, “you are not beyond love.”
Take care,
Kyle Kramer, CEO

Creation Spirituality

One of the great blessings of hosting the Earth & Spirit NPR Podcast is the chance to have deep conversations with some absolutely amazing leaders in the areas of spiritualty, social justice, and Earth care. I recently had just such a conversation with Matthew Fox (check out the episode here), a wonderfully cantankerous spiritual teacher and prolific author of 39 books.
Among the many topics Matthew and I covered, we spent a lot of time talking about Creation Spirituality, which rests on the assumption that divinity (by many names and understandings) permeates the world and can be experienced through spiritual practice. Creation Spirituality has four main paths: the positive path of awe, gratitude, and joy; the negative path of darkness, doubt, suffering, and letting go; the creative path of birthing beauty in its many forms; and the transformative path of justice-making, compassion, and healing our relationships with other people and the planet.
I find great resonance with these four paths, which also hew closely to the Earth & Spirit Center’s mission commitments to spiritual practice, social justice, and Earth care. Many days, feelings of wonder and gratitude come quite easily to me. Others I feel disconnected, dry, and full of doubt. Still others I feel most spiritually alive not on my meditation cushion but in the hustle-bustle of efforts to create a better and more beautiful world.
Creation Spirituality reminds me that the difficult times don’t have to be obstacles to spiritual practice, but can and should part and parcel of it – and that authentic spirituality absolutely requires active, deep engagement with the messy needs of our beautiful and hurting world. Also, spiritual practice and spiritual experiences vary daily and evolve over time: as the world changes, as our circumstances change, as we change and grow. Set-it-and-forget-it cruise control isn’t really an option for those on a genuine path of spiritual seeking. I hope that the Earth & Spirit Center can support you as you walk the many paths of your spiritual journey.
Take care,
Kyle Kramer, CEO


Earlier this month, the Earth & Spirit Center took part in the Louisville Resonant City Peace Project, part of the larger Global Peaceful Cities Project. I served on the planning committee for a time and did an interview about the project for the Earth and Spirit Podcast. The project leaders chose a specific focus area in Louisville, gathered enough meditators from across the city (and beyond) to equal a certain minimum percentage of that area’s population, and facilitated 20-minute guided daily meditations for 11 days, with the intention of reducing crime and violence in that area by at least 25%. It is a double-blind research study, so none of the meditators knew what part of Louisville was the focus area. Number-crunching PhD statisticians will now be analyzing Louisville crime data to see if there is a correlative reduction in crime. 
This project is based on the conviction – subjected to scientific scrutiny – that meditation can have tangible effects beyond just the individual meditator and her own behaviors. A musical analogy explains it best. I’m a guitarist, and even without my touching the strings, my guitar can vibrate sympathetically in response to tones of my voice or other instruments, when those frequencies match the guitar tuning. Similarly, it may be possible for there to be resonance and amplification of shared, focused prayerful and meditative intentions for the peace and well-being of others – such that there are tangible correlative effects. I don’t pretend to comprehend that, but in a world of interdependent quantum entanglement (I love Einstein’s phrase, “spooky action at a distance”), it certainly doesn’t seem implausible. I certainly like the idea of resonating with others who share common intentions for good.
The point, which we’ve emphasized since opening our doors in 2005, is that meditation is never just a private pastime. It can and should have ripple effects – resonance! – far beyond yourself. As always, we’re here to help and support you as you tune up, center down, and join the symphony.  
Take care,
Kyle Kramer, CEO

Roots and Wings?

Recently, the tectonic plates of our family life shifted as our oldest children, our dear twin daughters Eva and Clare, began their freshman year of college. We settled them into their dorm room, floated home on a lake of tears, and began processing what this change will mean for our family life. 
They say that a parent’s job is to give their kids roots and wings: a good upbringing and a solid foundation of support, and the ability to go their own way as adults. My wife Cyndi, however, thinks that analogy isn’t quite right, and I agree with her. Our kids certainly need roots, and we worked hard to create a safe, supportive environment in which they could grow up. But wings? Self-determination and mature adulthood, of course. Wings, however, implies that your kids’ leaving is the point of raising them, and while I don’t want our kids living jobless in our basement in their 30s, neither does it seem a given that they should just fly away to their own entirely separate lives. There are plenty of other cultural models and expectations for intergenerational family life that don’t at all conform to the roots-and-wings idea.
I’m much more drawn to the analogy of roots and branches. Branches do go their own unique way, seeking the light. But they also stay connected, both nourishing and being nourished by the trunk and roots. Or even better, I like Dr. Suzanne Simard’s image of the mother tree, nurturing the nearby younger trees – her own offspring and even other species – all of them woven together in a complex underground mycelial network of exchange.  To me, these images seem so much more true to what we are coming to understand about interdependence – whether in family systems, ecosystems, or quantum entanglement. 
Whatever the analogy, the point is this: we’re made for groundedness, connection, and freedom – all constantly interacting and evolving with each other as our circumstances change. When you think about it, those three qualities are the fruit of meditative practice, as well. Mindfulness can ground us in present-moment experience amidst the storms of life and the chattering of our ego. With mindfulness, we can experience the world through a lens of non-duality, helping us see that we all belong to each other. And mindfulness gives us the freedom to act with skill and wisdom, rather than compulsion and reactivity.  
In a few days, we’ll begin our fall meditation classes at the Earth & Spirit Center – a perfect place to get grounded, stay connected, and grow in freedom. We hope to see you, and we’d also be deeply grateful if you’d share these opportunities with those you know, to help us regather and grow our community after COVID-19. Thanks so much!
Take care,
Kyle Kramer, CEO