Cultural Anthropologist & Honorary Foundation Director
As Angeles Arrien describes it, the goal of her Foundation for Cross-Cultural Education and Research is to work in as many countries as possible to preserve some of the most precious resources imaginable: indigenous cultures, perennial wisdoms, water, seeds, and trees.
You might ask yourself, "Indigenous cultures, perennial wisdoms, water, seeds, and trees? What do the first two items on that list have to do with the last three?"
Plenty, says Angeles, who has spent her lifetime considering the links between the earth and that most valuable fruit of human experience: wisdom.
As an anthropologist who has studied the indigenous cultures of places like New Zealand and South Africa, Angeles understands that what she calls "perennial" wisdoms derive from the earth itself—from humanity's primal relationship to nature and its intricate workings.
For this reason, Angeles insists that cultural diversity is just as important as ecological diversity—because the deepest and most ancient wisdoms of humanity, which tend to be preserved in fragile cultural expressions such as performance rituals and verbal histories, can be wiped out as easily and thoughtlessly as any plant or animal species.
A Cross-Cultural Upbringing
Born in the remote and rugged Pyrenees region of Northern Spain known as Basque Country, Angeles Arrien moved with her family to another mountainous spot nearly halfway across the world when she was seven years old: Idaho. As the family was on a three-year renewable visa, Angeles moved back and forth between the Basque country and Idaho several times over the course of her childhood.
"Being bi-cultural gives you a broader perspective," she says. "It makes you understand that there's more than one way of looking at the same thing. My childhood was basically my first experience of cross-cultural education and research."
Today, working as a cultural anthropologist, award-winning author, educator, conflict mediator, and consultant to many organizations and businesses, Angeles is an expert at broadening other peoples' perspectives by exposing underlying commonalities in order to mend rifts and link disparate people and ideas. She works to build healthy relationships between cultures, generations, groups with conflicting interests, and even, as she says, "between eras," doing what she calls "collaborative bridging work," which, simply put, means helping people understand one another in order to fix problems together.
For example, she recently helped to found an organization called On the Verge, which brings together youth and elders in Napa Valley, California in a mutual mentoring program in which young people teach older people computer skills, while the older people teach the younger ones about basic social skills. It's a way to address the problem of gangs and also chance for both groups to become more engaged in larger society. Most of all, everyone involved has the opportunity to give back to the common good.
One look at her website and you'll discover that Angeles Arrien is a very busy person. She runs many workshops and retreats throughout the year for a program she's developed called "The Four-Fold Way," which helps people integrate ancient cultural wisdoms into contemporary life. She is also an associate professor at two universities, a sought-after keynote speaker, a Fellow at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and has even produced a music CD called Drumming the I Ching: A Journey to Better Health and Harmony. Last but not least, Angeles is the author of several books, the latest of which is titled The Second Half of Life: Opening the Eight Gates of Wisdom.
According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, it's likely that the word "wisdom" is related to the verb "to see" through the root "wid"—which makes sense, if you think of wisdom as a kind of vision. Certainly, Angeles Arrien is a kind of visionary. After all, it's because of her vision for humanity—her dedication to the goal of creating a world in which everyone has shelter, food, medicine, clean water, and education—that Alan and Harriet Lewis asked her to be an Honorary Director for the Grand Circle Foundation.
Alan Lewis met Angeles nearly ten years ago, when he attended one of her 12-day Four-Fold Way workshops. The two remained in touch over the years, sharing ideas about how to get things done in the world. Last summer, Harriet Lewis met Angeles when she attended one of her "Second Half of Life" workshops. Now the Lewises want to work together with Angeles to synergistically combine the efforts of the Grand Circle Foundation with those of the Foundation for Cross-Cultural Education and Research. They hope to expand projects such as the clean water initiative Angeles' foundation recently completed, building wells in Africa, India, and China.
"One thing I love about the work Alan and Harriet do through the Grand Circle Foundation is that it's not just an extension of generosity," says Angeles, "it's also about co-creation and mutuality. They're not interested in an old-fashioned patronage system. They're about giving back."
"Giving back" is an idea at the heart of her book The Second Half of Life: Opening the Eight Gates of Wisdom. Angeles explains that there's a natural shift that takes place in our late forties: "We go from doing to being. Ambition to meaning. Acquisition to distribution. Me to we. Power to wisdom."
"After the age of 50," she adds, with the same wry tone Katherine Hepburn might have lent the words, "it's less than becoming if we're not demonstrating some kind of wisdom."
"Mostly what I do is plant seeds," says Angeles. "Ideas. I help people remember."
Remember what? Perennial wisdoms, of course. Those essential truths about human nature and our place in the universe that seem to run through almost all cultures, albeit in different guises. Ancient knowledge and traditions that help explain our essential connection to the earth, and to one another.
Angeles describes travel as "a transformative crucible" because it allows us the possibility of experiencing those traditions firsthand.
"Exposure to other cultures and belief systems improves us," she says. She especially likes the way that Grand Circle Travel and Overseas Adventure Travel make it possible for their customers to do good while they're abroad. "Because at a certain point, we have to give back, otherwise, life is empty."