Mindful U Podcast 91. Netanel Miles-Yepez: Comparative Religion

Mindful U Podcast 91. Netanel Miles-Yepez: Comparative Religion

The newest episode of our podcast, Mindful U, is out on Apple, Spotify, and Stitcher now! We are happy to announce this week’s episode features Netanel Miles-Yepez, a Sufi Pir (Sufi spiritual guide), Doctor of Divinity, and World Wisdom’s Professor at Naropa.

Netanel Miles-Yepez is a teacher in the religious studies department at Naropa University. He is also an artist, an author, a religious scholar, a spiritual teacher and a Co-Founder of The Heart Fire Festival. His focuses and studies are with Sufiism. In this episode, we hear him speak about Sufiism, developing a deeper understanding of religion, and what connecting to his own religion did to assist his soul path.

Full Transcript Below

Full Transcript: Netanel Miles-Yepez

Public Event with Netanel – “Days of the Dead”

When: Wed. on October 26th 12-1:20pm MT and virtual⁣

Where Cultural Center at Cedar Cottage, Arapahoe campus⁣

World Wisdom’s professor and proud Mexican-American, Netanel Miles-Yépez, will lead us in building a Days of the Dead Ancestral Community Altar, inspired by El Dia de los Muertos. While el Dia de los Muertos is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd, the days leading up to the celebration are equally important, as the dead begin their journey back to this world and families prepare to welcome departed ancestors.⁣

Netanel Yepez

Comparative Religion

TRT 81:21

 

[MUSIC]

Hello, and welcome to Mindful U at Naropa. A podcast presented by Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. I’m your host, David Devine. And it’s a pleasure to welcome you. Joining the best of Eastern and Western educational traditions — Naropa is the birthplace of the modern mindfulness movement.

 

[MUSIC]

 

David:

Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of the mindful U podcast. Today I’ll be speaking with Netanel Miles-Yepez. Netanel is a teacher in the religious studies department at Naropa University. He is also an artist, an author, a religious scholar, and a spiritual teacher. His focuses and studies are with Sufiism. And today we’ll be speaking with him about Sufiism and developing a deeper understanding of this beautiful religion. Welcome to the podcast today. How are you doing?

 

Netanel Yepez:

I’m doing great, thank you. Thank you for having me.

 

David:

And I’d just like to say you are my second guest in person this year. So, I’m really excited to like, be face to face. I’ve been having like really good dynamics lately in person. So, I appreciate you being here in the studio.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yeah, it’s fantastic. It’s interesting to rediscover ourselves in person.

 

David:

Yeah, yeah. What is your teaching experience like? Because I know Naropa went through some online courses — were you teaching online as well? How did that work for you?

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yeah, I was teaching online through Zoom. And you know, it was fine. I’m not one of those people that was very upset about that or anything. But after a while I did really miss the classroom. I really am a classroom teacher. I love the blackboard. I love to be walking and talking. There was a moment where it was interesting to take off the mask, because we’d been in the classroom with masks — felt a little naked. But also, it’s a great breath of fresh air. I didn’t mean that as a pun, but —

 

David:

Yeah. It’s funny how that works out. Awesome. Well, thank you for being here. So, I was cruising your website, I was kind of like researching you. And, you know, developing my questions. And I came across like reading about your bio. And it seems as though you had this discovery of your hidden spiritual roots within your family. And I was really interested by this. And — and so it led you on this course of a spiritual path, you know, made you become who you are today. I’m curious, could you talk about the discovery that you found within your family roots? And how that led you to pursue a path that you chose in the like, spiritual scholar world? And then maybe you could also let us know, how did you find yourself at Naropa teaching? This a couple questions, but —

 

Netanel Yepez:

You know, the spiritual path, I think, I don’t know when I wasn’t on it.

 

David:

Okay.

 

Netanel Yepez:

From a certain perspective, I think I was a naturally very devotional sort of child. And there are influences when I was a child, you know, the primary one was, my father was — was an alcoholic, a very serious alcoholic, and at a certain point, got saved, and became an evangelical Christian, you know, so that’s, you know so it’s a Titanic shift in his life, which also was a shift in my life. And so, I grew up at least on weekends with my father, you know, in church, and I was, I think, a sincere Christian. You know, I grew up in a kind of tough neighborhood. So, I certainly wasn’t telling my friends that I was reading my Bible and may not have acted like it. But that was a part of my life from early on. There’s a great sense of devotionalism in me. But what you’re speaking about, I think, is that when I was about 16, or 17, I can’t remember exactly now. I’m from a Mexican American family. And my abuelita my — my little grandmother, she had a recurrence of cancer when I was about that age. And my aunt — my aunt Aurora, decided to take her back to Mexico to see her sisters one last time. And when they came back, you know because my grandmother she — she lived on for another year. When they came back, my aunt Aurora who’d always been kind of a mentor to me, she was the person that recommended books to me and, you know, bought me art supplies, you know, that kind of person in your life. You know, she called me and asked me to come have breakfast with her one Saturday. And she picked up my grandmother and we went to this little breakfast place, and she said, you know, when she called she said, I learned something about our family that I want to tell you about. And I was always big into genealogy. And so, we get to this little breakfast joint and she’s just kind of sipping her coffee and — and I’m really curious. I play along for a little while. But finally, I said, what is it you want to tell me? She says, oh, you remember my cousin Ana Luisa. You remember she married to a German man? Yes. And I said, oh, yeah, yeah, I heard that. And she says, well, something happened after the wedding. And I said, yeah, and — and she tells me how my family is a very — it’s dominated by the women in the family. It’s very matriarchal family. And so, after the wedding, apparently, they went back to one of the family homes, and all the women are talking and they leave this poor man alone. You know, he’s just married. And so, he’s wandering around the house by himself. And everybody’s, you know, having a good time and a conversation. And apparently, he’s wandering around the house. And they hear him call from another room. And he says, who is that Jew? You know, he kind of yells it out. And everybody kind of looks around. I imagine them looking out the window, like, what are you looking at? And so, they look up and he says, why do you have a picture of a Jew on your wall? And turns out, he’s looking at a picture of my great grandfather, Don Pedro Gonzalez Navarro, who has a long black beard, looks a lot like me, actually, except with dark hair. And they go over and look and it’s a picture my great grandfather. My great aunt Delfina says, come here, young man, I want to tell you a story. And she sits him down and tells him how when she was a little girl, and this would be you know, about 1900. Her grandmother had taken her aside and told her that her father had been a Jew from Spain, who had come to Mexico seeking religious freedom, because it’s basically illegal to be Jewish in Spain. After the expulsion from Spain in 1492 all Jews and Arabs were given an ultimatum to convert or leave Spain. And if you left Spain, you also had to leave without your holdings, without your money. It wasn’t just, you know, a decision of conscience, it meant you would be destitute, and so many stayed and converted and kept their Judaism in secret, and ostensibly became Catholics, but tried to hold on to this Jewish identity. And so, she told him that her grandmother’s father had been a Jew from Spain, Tomas Navarro. And then she told him that the man in the picture, my great grandfather, Don Pedro, that when he was a young man and had a young family and his mother lived with him and his sister lived with him. And he had a little business in a little town in Mexico. When he was a young man, still, the people of the town learned that he was Jewish. And one night, they came and took him and his family out of their homes, and started to pile their furniture in the middle of the street and created a great bonfire.

 

David:

Oh, my Gosh.

 

Netanel Yepez:

And we’re about to throw them on the fire.

 

David:

No.

 

Netanel Yepez:

And just at that moment, the police showed up, and surrounded the mob with guns and — and saved to my family, and put them on a train out of the city. And for the rest of his life, that great grandfather suffered from a kind of a terrible paranoia and schizophrenia.

 

David:

I wonder why.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yeah.

 

David:

That’s scary.

 

Netanel Yepez:

And so, you know, that was his story. So, after that, nobody had talked about being Jewish in the family anymore. You know, that that was kind of the — the event that made us completely secret. And it’s really interesting that I only know that I’m Jewish, because this German man looked at this photo of my great grandfather, you know, with all of this history — the Holocaust and you know, Germany and so on, I only know because of him. And he wasn’t a bad man. You know, my aunt said right away. He’s a lovely person. He just grew up with this kind of cultural conditioning and said, you know, those kinds of things. He was terribly embarrassed and —

 

David:

Humbled.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yes. And my great aunt Delfina was telling him no, you just married into such a family, I think you should know.

 

David:

And guess what’s in your family lineage?

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yeah. So, what was interesting for me, was that, as my aunt is telling me this story, as soon as — in her reporting, she says his name, who is that Jew? I felt something click inside me. You know just like something —

 

David:

Is it me?

 

Netanel Yepez:

I knew where the story was going. I already knew. And I somehow felt I knew that that was true beforehand. And so, it became a real question for me what part of me could know that? How can — how does the person know what they don’t know? Because I anticipated the story. And I also already felt I already knew that. And so, from two perspectives, it became a great place of exploration for me. One, what does it mean to be Jewish now? I have a Christian identity. And I wanted to know more about that — it was an excitement, you know, it’s like, discovering, there’s this whole other part of me it’s, you know, it’s like Jason Bourne finding all the passports.

 

David:

Yeah.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Who are these identities? And so that was exciting. And it made me want to learn more about religion, about Judaism. And the other part was that inner dimension. What are these capacities we have, what part of me knew before I knew.

 

David:

What’s beautiful is recognized too, is it seemed as though you had somewhat of a spiritual path, or like a religious wanting, you were interested in spirit, you had a drive towards spirit, and then something came along that invited you to check something else out that had the spirituality sense behind it.

 

Netanel Yepez:

The great thing for me was, I never rejected Christianity, I wasn’t in that experience, I wasn’t having a bad time with — with Christianity. This became then a great challenge. It wasn’t like, I was a indifferent Christian. I was actually at that time thinking of going to seminary. And so like, I was on a pretty serious path. I didn’t want to be a minister, I couldn’t speak in public, I was thinking I’d be a theologian.

 

David:

Okay.

 

Netanel Yepez:

You know, alone with books —

 

David:

Yeah, just lots of books and robes.

 

Netanel Yepez:

I don’t know what I thought I’d be. I certainly didn’t think I’d ever have to speak to anyone.

 

David:

Just Gregorian chanting your way to —

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yeah, the whole holy path of books and music. But part of not being a disaffected Christian, and then being confronted with another identity, that’s Jewish, means that has to get worked out inside. So, it’s not like leaving one behind and then exploring a new thing. It was I have two things, and they both just exist. And that’s really important for a lot of things I talked about today that the whole notion of spiritual but not religious, gets critiqued in a certain way is kind of, like marketplace, spirituality, it’s all picking and choosing. And that does happen.

 

David:

Uh huh.

 

Netanel Yepez:

And it’s open to critique because it does happen. And it is kind of weak spirituality often. But what I like to point out is that in the increasing interaction between cultures and religions we’re more and more just subject to influence, and the presence of those things in our lives. And so here, I am a Christian, and discover that I’m also Jewish, and then have to know what that means. That means they just have to coexist. And they exist in attention long enough till they create something new. And I think that that’s really the story of our planet, right now. We’re open to this influence. And so, it’s not so much picking and choosing, it’s just a place of evolution. And there are mutations happening.

 

David:

Yeah. Also, understanding the core principles of spirituality and religious ideologies, are loving people, getting along, figuring it out, not saying like, oh, you don’t fit my ideological model, so therefore, you are not good. I think the foundational models of all of this is about being a good person. So, you know, if somebody has a different religion that I’m not, I don’t really like resonate with, it doesn’t mean I don’t like the person. If you are a nice, genuine person, great. We’re gonna get along just fine. But it’s this like, oh, well my God is better than your God. And I also do feel like I’m guilty of the picking, choosing spiritualities. I sort of lean towards the Buddhist teaching — you know, so religion, ideology, vibe, but I also grew up Catholic. And I had this very interesting thing where my friends were all different religions and you know, we’re like in elementary school, and we would debate the Bible. I thought that was pretty interesting. That was very unique, and I think that helped me kind of lead my spiritual path in a sense, kind of how it helped yours, but you had family roots so you got a interesting spark. You’re like, huh, I want to follow this.

 

Netanel Yepez:

But even in the other version, you know even when, so maybe you know you didn’t have a connection to that Catholicism anymore. Well, that’s as natural as anything. It’s like, if it wasn’t communicating, it wasn’t sparking, then that left a vacuum to be filled. You know, that’s not to be critiqued, unless you’re going to critique the Catholicism for not actually communicating something of depth and richness of meaning. So, there’s a real poverty of perspective in the way we were critiquing spiritual, but not religious now. Now there’s — an organic thing is happening on the planet that was never possible before, you didn’t get to question what tradition to which you would belong before. It was just an assumption, whatever — whatever you grew up in culturally, and there were no other options. That’s just what it was. And then you would be more or less of that internally, but you didn’t have a choice. Now, it’s all going to be religion by choice. And where things don’t communicate, they leave room for something else and —

 

David:

Thank you for saying that. I love that idea. I’ve never thought about it like that, where there is a void in which you have to fill whether it’s through something that you were born into, whether it’s something that you find along your path, or you develop on your own and look at the stars and pull cards or whatever, like there’s — there’s some sort of aspect to yourself, that has to find something that ignites the spirituality within you.

 

Netanel Yepez:

I mean, if that’s a call within you.

 

David:

Or the void of spirituality, like, oh, nothing exists, but in some sense, that’s still holding space for the spiritual thought in your body. Okay, so you’re kind of talking about a teenager, how did knowing this information, help you pursue your educational degrees, your religious scholar pursuit? And then how did you end up at Naropa?

 

Netanel Yepez:

Well, I didn’t go to seminary.

 

David:

Okay.

 

Netanel Yepez:

That’s — that’s what didn’t happen based on that information. I don’t think I abandoned the idea. Right away, it wasn’t like, oh, I’m not going to seminary. I’m not Christian. I am this Jewish — it wasn’t that. It was that my world opened up a little more. Now I want to know what being Jewish is about. I’m reading books on that. Also, I continued to read theologians like Karl Barth and Schleiermacher and Paul Tillich. And I didn’t stop reading all of that. But now I was reading Martin Buber. And I’m reading about medieval philosophers in Judaism, like Maimonides and so — which is all unusual, because I grew up in a pretty poor neighborhood. And I didn’t really have access to these things. I luckily discovered them and — and then started to work in a bookstore.

 

David:

Oh, cool.

 

Netanel Yepez:

That gave me access to ordering books. And so, I think that was as influential as anything. But there was no money for any schooling. So, I’m just reading a lot. In fact, I didn’t go to school for several years, because I just had to save money. And — and so I just read tons through working in this bookstore. And more and more, I became interested in religion, like, what is this phenomenon? And what is this impulse in me? What is it about? How does that function in people? And I’d caught a great break — this same aunt who had been my mentor, she knew I was very interested in my grandfather, who had passed when I was about five years old. But it turned out I was very much like him. He — in Mexico had been a brilliant student of philosophy and a painter and a poet. And the Mexican Revolution came along and just wiped out all his family holdings, and now he’s on the run and just trying to save his family from war. And that’s how he ended up in the US. But in the US, he’s just a Mexican. And so, this very brilliant philosopher, painter, poet ended up working in a carton factory making cartons for the packaging for cereal, designed from Battle Creek, Michigan, where cereal was invented. So, he works in a factory his whole life. And this very brilliant man, and I seemed to have it in inherited a lot of his gifts. And I heard it my whole life, how, like I had those gifts. So, I wanted to know more about him. And one day, my aunt, his eldest daughter said to me, if you want to know what your grandfather felt like, what he was like, go to the library and take out these videotapes called, The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell. She says your grandfather spoke like him, had this sense of presence and — and it was all just a search for my grandfather, which was a search for my own identity. But then I discovered Joseph Campbell, and that just opened my world. I wanted to know, it wasn’t just myth. I wanted to know the ideas of religion and so on. And so, when I eventually did get myself into college, I did study philosophy for a little while — literature, but by the time I got through —

 

David:

You were super well read by then.

 

Netanel Yepez:

And a kind of, in the way of an autodidact — like a self learner. And so, there’s huge gaps in my education. Yeah, so I’d read a lot widely for a kid from my neighborhood, especially. But I eventually got to Michigan State University, and I studied history of religions or comparative religion, we might say, and that really is my specialty as a teacher is comparative work. It’s not popular or fashionable in the — in the academic world anymore, but I learned a lot.

 

David:

Academically sexy.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Right.

 

David:

I mean, honestly, to me, it is.

 

Netanel Yepez:

I still think it’s great.

 

David:

I like to think about different religions and ways of thought and, you know, the uniqueness of each one.

 

Netanel Yepez:

So, you know, in college, I got a great education through hovering around my professor’s offices.

 

David:

Yeah.

 

Netanel Yepez:

I was never a good student about getting to class. Oh, this is terrible for Naropa.

 

David:

Are you not on time? What’s going on?

 

Netanel Yepez:

I just didn’t even show up half the time.

 

David:

Okay.

 

Netanel Yepez:

I had issues as a student. But I was always in my professor’s offices asking the questions that were meaningful to me, and, and some of them around scholarship, and they were always giving me resources. And I learned a lot that way. But I had a fairly profound experience for me. I was always trying to apprentice, like whatever religion I was learning about — and in those days, my great study were Hindu traditions. I had access to some pretty brilliant professors. One was Dr. Paul Mueller Ortega, who was one of the world’s great scholars of Kashmir Shaivism. And — and I got this guy teaching me intro to Hinduism. And he was a fantastic lecturer. I still can remember things from his lectures, I can see moments from them.

 

David:

It’s fascinating how someone that can captivate your interest and you’re just like keep talking, man.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yep, exactly.

 

David:

It’s so good.

 

Netanel Yepez:

I had an experience where he had a big lecture hall, like there’s like ten religious studies students, even at this big university. But I went into his classroom, the first day for this intro to Hinduism. And they’re like 80 people in there. And they’re not religious studies students. So, I’m wondering well what’s going on, it’s that his classes were popular. And it was a kind of a on a long incline this classroom, so it went down and has an aisle that goes down the side and I sit in the very front seat, you know, and — and I hear a door open in the back of the room — way back there. And I look over my shoulder and I see a man probably about my age now. Striding down the side of the chairs, and he’s got on a trench coat, which he kind of takes off elegantly and throws over one shoulder, and he begins talking halfway down the aisle. And then like, an hour and a half later, it’s like he stops and it’s like a minute has passed. I don’t know what happened. He’s began his story as he was walking down the aisle, which led into teaching about — the story was about Ramakrishna and I remember, I can still, I could probably retell it. And it’s like, he snapped his fingers. It was over and the dream was over. And it’s the end of class. And that was a great moment for me. And though I had no conception that I could do such a thing, I thought I want to be that.

 

David:

Captivating.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yeah, he was — he was an amazing lecturer. And I studied with a Great Quran scholar who was a really good — he really taught me scholarly work. And I got to study with Advaita Vedanta scholar. But in — in many sense, I was a very devotional person and thinking of how will I apprentice in different traditions, like I want to know what practitioners know, and I don’t want to just know the information that’s in the books. And so, I would go to Hindu temples and there was one in the next town over — Michigan State is in East Lansing, Michigan and over in Okemos, just next — a number of probably professors and researchers, you know, who came from India decided to build their own temple at some point. And they built a temple over there and I was visiting the temple and they have all these murtis up in there with Prasad in front of them and I’m just in the temple observing, and a man comes up to me, you know, clearly I looked like a guest. And so, he said, can I show you around and — and he shows me a particular murti and he says, I don’t know what this means. And my mouth opened, and I start explaining. I didn’t —

 

David:

You started explaining to him?

 

Netanel Yepez:

I started explaining to him. And I didn’t —

 

David:

Narrative religion.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yeah, I knew all the things. I knew all the details. And, you know, I was a good student from that perspective. Like, I’d read really deeply at this point. I had great professors and — and I — so I’m explaining everything to him soon. And he’s a nice, humble person. So, he’s really listening. But I very quickly start to notice internally a sense of superiority.

 

David:

Hmm. Okay.

 

Netanel Yepez:

I felt superior. And then I felt disgusted with myself. Who am I? Like, what do I really know? Like, this is all information. What do I know about the devotee that puts their head on the floor bowing and prostrating before that, that murti needing something desperately? What do I know? And I didn’t like that feeling of superiority. I didn’t like myself for feeling it. And it became a reflection that began to unfold in me. I’ve gotten off track. I came here because of a passion to know about myself, and my own devotionalism. And now I’m becoming this other thing, this academic scholar, and maybe a good one. And I was starting to have new goals. You know like, I wanted to be the next Mircea Eliade or something. And then I was reminded, I don’t think that’s who I am. I don’t like myself as this person. And — and so I decided to step off that track. I think it was more an internal decision than — then like one that was well thought out. And at that point, two things happened. I had a great desire to learn about what it was to be Jewish by going to the university too, but there weren’t any Jews. There was — even the professor of Judaism wasn’t Jewish, because you don’t have to be to teach a religious subject, like the — a subject on religion rather.

 

David:

It seems like it would help though, right?

 

Netanel Yepez:

It could help. But in those days, it was also questionable about objectivity.

 

David:

Okay.

 

Netanel Yepez:

You know, the good scholar, at least has a desire to be objective.

 

David:

Like a neutral stance.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yeah. And — and you do get a lot of good scholarship that way. But then there’s a dimension, you don’t know

 

David:

What I’m hearing from you, is you talking about knowing but not doing? There’s a difference between practicing and understanding the ideas what they’d like, oh, I know, I need to wear this color. And, you know, I need to bow three times here and light that certain incense, but like, how does it make you feel? What is the intention that you put behind it? So, there’s a difference between knowing and doing and it sounds like you we’re continuing on a path of, I know, a lot. But it wasn’t sparking that thing that you needed inside you.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yeah. Well, I really wanted to be the practitioner. I hadn’t forgotten that entirely. But there’s a — the seduction to this level of learning. And you get seduced into the trap of head knowledge, basically. And I don’t — I don’t blame people for this, because it’s a trick of our consciousness. When you read about something, you have an as if experience, if you can understand it, conceptually, you feel as if you know it, even if you’ve never experienced that.

 

David:

I know everything all of a sudden.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yeah. And you know, and I’m always making this joke that you know, that there’s always a student in one of my classes who’s read a lot, and is always telling everybody else how things are. And —

 

David:

Leans in their chair a bit differently?

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yep. And they really don’t have any real experience or depth or wisdom, and yet a lot of information. And they’re always annoying to people. And I had a fear that I was becoming such a person.

 

David:

You’re able to self reflect, which is a beautiful tool. So that’s great.

 

Netanel Yepez:

And I think it’s part of the — being in touch with, you know, I knew where I’d came — came from. But I also knew I had — I had not gotten to study two things that I was interested in. One I had not gotten to study Buddhism. It was there taught by the same Hinduism professor and he did a fabulous job teaching about it, but I wanted to learn from people that were practitioners. He, it turns out was a secret practitioner of Shiva Tantra, which helped a lot. You got those perspectives, but I felt like oh, I want to apprentice in — in Buddhism. Where can I do that? And the other thing was more personal. I still had this Jewish quest that I had not gotten to, you know, it was still all in books for me. You might say it was still Judah-ism. And not being Jewish. It’s like I read a lot about Judaism.

 

David:

It’s a study of something and not the practice of.

 

Netanel Yepez:

And I knew nothing about being Jewish, about mitzvots and hagim holidays and the commandments in the practice — I knew nothing about that. And — but I knew a lot about Judaism, which was really interesting. And so, I remember saying to myself, I’m tired of reading about Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mordecai Kaplan, where is one of these people today? These are big names in Judaism. Is there such a person alive today are they all dead, you know?

 

David:

You have such apprentice energy, you’re like, teach me. I want to know.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Exactly.

 

David:

I love it.

 

Netanel Yepez:

And it gets to feel like that, you know, these great names are all dead. But you know, these are living traditions today. And I thought where is such a person today? So, I was a big nerd. And my favorite place where the — was the library at Michigan State and I would just be in the stacks all the time. Just combing them for books — you know, book titles, I might want to take back and sit in there with my stack of books and just go through them. And at one point, I was going through — they had like 50 volumes of Judaism, a quarterly review, just looking for articles I might like. And so, in volume, whatever, in 1960, I found an article by a rabbi Zalman Schachter called Hasidism and neo-Hasidism. And it said it, I think it looks a little picture of him and little bio about how he was a orthodox Hasidic Jew of this sect, and he’s writing on this subject from his position as a university professor at the University of Manitoba. I read this article, I loved this article. And at the moment, where I’m having that experience of becoming something I did not intend, and am questioning, where is one of those people today and his name came back into my head, this person whose article from 1960 I’ve read, is he alive still? And so —

 

David:

Now that we have Google, you can search him up.

 

Netanel Yepez:

It wasn’t even Google. I think it was like Alta Vista is the search engine that I was using then, you know, it’s like, still on the days where we had choices around that. Nobody had won the game yet. And I looked him up, on Yahoo or Google and — and I found oh, wow, this person has really shifted. The Orthodox…is now very famous and infamous, like people hate him. And people love him. And he’s either betrayed the entire tradition, or he’s revolutionizing it — there was no in between.

 

David:

Something is going on there.

 

Netanel Yepez:

And now it’s different. Now — he’s — he’s pretty celebrated. But back then it was still — it was like an argument. And so, I saw he had shifted a lot. He’s not in the Orthodox world anymore. But he’s also not not a part of it. And where was he at? At the Naropa Institute? And he was the world wisdom chair holder at the Naropa Institute.

 

David:

Yes, I know who you’re talking about. I’ve seen him speak.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yeah?

 

David:

He’s been there — yeah, because I was at Naropa in 2010.

 

Netanel Yepez:

  1. So he died in 2014.

 

David:

Yeah, I saw him speak like two or three times. He’d wear these like green robes. Reb Zalman.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Reb Zalman. And so, I had heard of the Naropa Institute, because now I — I was finding books by, you know, if you were in a bookstore in those days, Tibetan Buddhism was not as hot as it is today. And so, you know, if you were at Barnes and Noble, the greater percentage of books you would see would be by Trungpa Rinpoche. And a few other possibilities, but those were the ones you were seeing, you know, out of Shambala and Shambala had become a hot publisher and — and that was — that was the mainstay. And — and I’d looked at these books by Trungpa Rinpoche, and I even had one or two. And in the back, they all mentioned the Naropa Institute, founded in 1974. And so that was in my head and I’m like, how was he at the Naropa Institute? And I’d been thinking about the Naropa Institute, because I had that other desire. Like, I haven’t got to study Buddhism in depth.

 

David:

Oh, yeah.

 

Netanel Yepez:

The two things came together.

 

David:

Wow. That’s beautiful. So, you were actually a student at Naropa?

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yes.

 

David:

Okay.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yep. And I was running up against a wall at Michigan State, I cannot do math to save my life.

 

David:

Yeah.

 

Netanel Yepez:

And also, I was very rebellious sort of student. I wouldn’t take a class that I wasn’t inspired about. And so, I was like the world champ —

 

David:

Is that rebellious though? That’s just following your passion.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Not for a Naropa student.

 

David:

But in the educational pursuit, they do kind of make you take certain classes, you’re like, ah, it’s like, I don’t know if I want to do this.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yeah. And Michigan State had gotten very formal notice in the states, and they had some pretty high requirements. And I could meet most of them. But I —

 

David:

Yeah, numbers, not your things. Letters, yes.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yes. And I am self taught. Like I did — I really don’t have an education. And so, I had a problem, I was not going to graduate. And yet, I was a very good student from another perspective. And I’d like — I always say, I hold the world record for independent studies, at any university anywhere. Because I was always just trying to study what I wanted to. And I’d gotten pretty far, but I — I was looking down the road, I’m like, I’m not gonna graduate, they’re not gonna let me out of here. I can’t pass the math classes. But it was also at the point where I really wanted to shift. And that’s when Naropa came up. And in those days, Naropa had what was called a three year master’s, where you can transfer in, finish your BA, you just, you know, finish those credits and — and be seamlessly in a master’s program. And I applied for that. And the big idea was, okay, I’m gonna get to study and do graduate studies and Indo Tibetan Buddhism, which is what I did, but my secret plan was to meet this great spiritual teacher and somehow, you know, get my —

 

David:

We’re going to be best friends. We’re gonna hang out all the time.

 

Netanel Yepez:

I’m gonna be a student. He’s gonna take me —

 

David:

Gonna take me under his wing.

 

Netanel Yepez:

He’s gonna recognize me and see, you know —

 

David:

See my Halo.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yeah. See that little light that other people can’t see. Yeah, you — you have all those desires. So, I applied for that, to come to the Naropa Institute, I had to talk my wife into moving across the country. And I got delayed by a year because she had to complete her master’s studies, and it got delayed. And that became a thing for me, because I had been accepted into that three year program. And then by the time I got here, they had just closed it. And then so I had to make this argument like — like, no, actually, you accepted me. And can you make an exception for me? I still have a problem around that — the kind of got to do it. That’s how I ended up at Naropa. And I had this fantasy that maybe I could become his student. And also, I don’t really know him. It’s like, it’s — it’s an — it’s an instinct. Like, I saw that picture. I remember that article. And I was hoping he would be this great figure. Turned out he was.

 

David:

Yeah, he was beloved amongst the community.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Oh, yeah.

 

David:

He would do talks, and they wouldn’t let people in the doors because it was so packed.

 

Netanel Yepez:

You know, and that was really the idea. And I loved this ideal that we once had of the world wisdom chair. And the idea was that when Trungpa Rinpoche passed, you know, not that he was an active teacher or anything, but his presence was, it’s like, you come to Naropa, because there’s an idea that the real thing might be available here. You know, the thing that’s in the books.

 

David:

Or which is in you the whole time. Yeah.

 

Netanel Yepez:

And you want somebody to help you unlock that.

 

David:

Yes.

 

Netanel Yepez:

And somebody had a great impulse that, you know, he — you know, this institution was founded that way, and we should always have such a wisdom holder from one of the traditions on the campus so that — with the teaching classes and the students can have access to them, and Reb Zalman was probably the one wisdom chair holder that really held that ideal. He really made himself available, he was on the campus. And you got to see as they say, in Hasidism, how the master ties his shoelaces. It was asked of a Hasid, you know, you know what, why are you here? What do you want to learn…it’s like, I want to learn how he ties his shoelaces, which is to say, I want to know how he lives this life in — differently. I’m sure he has to eat and go to the bathroom and deal with all the problems that we have to deal. I want to see how that person does it.

 

David:

Why? Because you wanted to integrate maybe those teachings or those ways of moving through life in your life. So, you —

 

Netanel Yepez:

Because that’s really — the real thing is like it’s not — you know, it’s not on a mountain. I mean, we have — those are great stories, and they happen, but we want to transform our experience of this life. Because, you know, it can be one of two things you know more than two but there’s a truth in life. Often, pretty much the same bad things will happen to two different people. And they might be two remarkably different people in terms of their energy. One is broken by them, and inflicting pain because of them. And another person might be an amazingly whole and beautiful person. And they both had the same life experiences. So, the thing to know is like, what’s going on inside? What internal moves is that person making the transformed their experience of the same reality? That’s what we need to know. And so how does the master tie his shoelaces? How does he do his ordinary life so that it becomes extraordinary?

 

David:

Becoming emotionally sound? Yeah.

 

Netanel Yepez:

So that’s what I was looking for. And — and I think the world wisdom chair was a fantastic thing. And he really lived that, and he got to teach whatever classes he wanted and I signed right up for them.

 

David:

And at Naropa, we don’t have those like halls of classes of people. So, you got a very intimate, beautiful experience, because Naropa has very intimate class settings.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Though, for him, they were doing world wisdom lectures. And so, Wednesdays, he might give a world wisdom lecture, that’d be open to the public. And that particular semester, they made it — they made it kind of a hybrid. He would give a public lecture, I think weekly, but it was also a class for certain students kind of world wisdom class. And so, we had separate homework and so on, and somebody else taught that class, but we would go to those talks. And that was the first time I saw him, just striding into Shambala Hall. And he had such an easy manner about him. He was this old man, but he didn’t move like an old man. He had these slingback leather shoes, and had on a little beret.

 

David:

Suspenders.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yeah.

 

David:

Those suspenders were his thing.

 

Netanel Yepez:

And no chair. He’d like to sit on a stool. I like this myself. And he sat down on that stool and crossed his arms and just closed his eyes and started to sway back and forth, and then opened his mouth and started speaking, it was amazing. And then I had a class with him called Judaism as Civilization — as a civilization. And he assigned a paper, you know, reflection paper after a week or something. I don’t remember what I wrote. But his office was in the school house. It doesn’t exist anymore. That’s now a classroom to the left of the stairwell. And to the right there was — was a set of offices that were religious studies —

 

David:

In the vacant building, in the basement.

 

Netanel Yepez:

No, this was on the main floor. And in these religious studies offices were off to the left there, and he had an office in there. And I was just coming in through the main doors and about to go upstairs to Shambala — Shambala Hall. And he came out of his office and looked at me and pointed at me, and you know, did a gesture of come here. And to this day, I don’t know how he knew who I was, it’d only been a week of classes. I don’t even think he took attendance. And so — and he said, I want to talk to you about your paper. How did he know which paper was mine? And he brought me in and from that day, he kept me a little bit closer. I don’t remember what I wrote. I don’t know why he did that. And I don’t know how knew —

 

David:

I want to know what you wrote.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Because — I have no idea. And so, from that time on, he gave me a little attention. And of course, you know, this is what I wanted. So that’s how I got to Naropa. And then I did study in the Indo Tibetan Buddhist master’s program with Judith Simmer Brown and Reggie Ray. And yeah, that was a great time. Naropa was very small, then. It wasn’t a four year school, it was still the institute.

 

David:

It was like a certificate and not even a degree program.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Well, you could get — let’s see, you could finish a BA, but you had to come in as a junior or you could get a master’s degree. And so, I was a little bit caught between them.

 

David:

I see.

 

Netanel Yepez:

So, all my classes were really MA Indo Tibetan Buddhist studies, classes. But — but technically I was a BA student.

 

David:

When did you graduate?

 

Netanel Yepez:

2000

 

David:

And what was your degree? Religious Studies.

 

David:

Religious studies. Okay. So, what do you teach now at Naropa? What is some of the class titles that you have?

 

Netanel Yepez:

I was brought in to Naropa in 2013 to teach Islam.

 

David:

Okay.

 

Netanel Yepez:

I think we’d had trouble with that position for years just trying person after person, trying to get the tone right for Naropa. And — and it was a difficult class for people to teach, especially after 9/11. And we’d had another professor that was actually fairly successful, Patrick de Silva, I think, and he just — he just moved on just to pursue further studies in his — his doctoral work. And he’s become a very well known scholar. And I took over the class at that time, mostly because I was a Sufi.

 

David:

Uh huh.

 

Netanel Yepez:

And so that was seen as some sort of expertise. But I still had to come in and interview against the PhDs and so on. I did that and so I began teaching Islam. Later on, I took on religion and mystical experience. I created a Sufism course for — for the university. Right now, I’m teaching Kabbalah and consciousness, because, you know, my friend Zvi is not so present right now. But I also have the capacity to teach, you know, those courses. What else? And I’ll be teaching InterSpiritual dialogue next fall. Yeah, so I’ve taken on a lot of such classes.

 

David:

Nice. So, I’m hearing like Sufiism. I’m hearing Judaism, Islam. Can you sort of tell us the difference and the similarities between those and how to navigate those?

 

Netanel Yepez:

The differences between Sufism and Islam?

 

David:

Yeah, like Judaism, Sufiism, like, are those separate or are they together, because I’m coming from like a Christian Catholic background. So, I don’t have much knowledge in those worlds.

 

Netanel Yepez:

We call traditions like Christianity, Judaism, Islam — we call those normative traditions, you know, just basic, you know, religions, and they have a lot of diversity to them. And then when we’re talking about Kabbalah, or Sufism, or even mystical or contemplative Christianity, now we’re talking about supra normative traditions, little — little above and beyond, often very integrated. But they have a specific emphasis on practice and inner dimensions.

 

David:

So maybe less thought, and more like devotional practices?

 

Netanel Yepez:

Can’t say that, because they’re mystical writings, you know, from those traditions that are at the highest level of thought and sophistication. There’s a premium on experience, that there is an experiential dimension. You know, a lot of it is that it’s — it’s a dissatisfaction with the norms. It’s like, I don’t want to just have Christ on a pedestal. I want to experience what Christ experienced. So, there’s a —

 

David:

But do you?

 

Netanel Yepez:

Well, yeah, and — and you learn that too, whether — whether you really want that download, but there is that kind of drive, that desire to know and — and, you know, over time, you can talk about the mystical traditions as a subject in themselves, because they have, you know, over time they acquire a lot of body of practices of their own. So, from one perspective, and for probably the majority of Sufis all over the world, there’s Islam and Sufism are seamless. Yes, I’m a Sufi. I’m a Sufi practicing Muslim. And that means I may have these other devotions. But the main part of my practice is still being a Muslim. And I feel like my Sufism only enhances that identity and makes it deeper and richer. That would be the perspective of most Muslim Sufis. For me there is — I didn’t invent this, there is a Universalist Sufism.

 

David:

It’s not universe — it’s Universalist?

 

Netanel Yepez:

Universalist, meaning that it’s — it’s a Sufism that is not exclusively bound to Islam anymore. And so, it’s available, it’s universally available. That’s because a Sufi master came to the United States — came into the west from India, the first Sufi master to really come west as it were, in 1910, a person named Hazrat Inayat Kahn, a great Sufi master, and meeting Westerners, I think, probably had an internal dialogue, because he was sent by his own teacher — go into the West and teach Sufism and probably had an internal dialogue, where he — he realized, well am I here to make them Muslim as a prerequisite to being Sufis? Or am I — my teacher told me to come teach Sufism.

 

David:

Okay, I see what you’re saying.

 

Netanel Yepez:

So, I think it became a question for him, like, oh, Sufism is a 1400 year old tradition with tons of teachings, tons of practices. I may be able to offer this as — as an adjunct to whatever your base is. And you can stay a Christian, you could stay a Jew, you could stay whatever, and you could use this to catalyze and turn on. So, it could be — you can — you could practice your Christianity in a Sufi manner.

 

David:

Religiously bilingual.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Right.

 

David:

Interesting.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yeah. So, in that way, a universalist Sufism was born, mostly through the lineages that now come off of him. And I’m — I’m the head of one of eight such lineages.

 

David:

Beautiful. So okay, you sort of mentioned the mystical side of Sufism. And I, myself, I’m really into like mysticism. I’m really into the mystical aspects of ideology, religion into, you know, like the light body of the Buddhists and literally disappearing and going to the Bardo, I’m really into that stuff. And I’m curious, could you clarify what does it mean to actually be mystical in Sufiism, and maybe some mystical things about it.

 

Netanel Yepez:

The definition then, would really have to do with experience. My own teacher Reb Zalman like to define mysticism by experience. It’s the experiential dimension of religion. And that might be a range of experiences. So, that would all be by him, and I think by me considered mystical. There’s a way of approaching religion that can be very just dutiful. This is what I’m supposed to do. This is what I’m supposed to believe. And what’s lacking is an interaction with what you’re supposed to be doing. How do you feel about it? How do you experience it?

 

David:

The contemplative approach, essentially,

 

Netanel Yepez:

Essentially, but what it points to is there’s a capacity in us, especially in the past, when you didn’t have a choice about what — what you’d be practicing. And if you didn’t go to church, you might, like, was it Shakespeare or his father was a, you know, fined for missing church, those were laws. So, there’s a way of, you know, cooperating with that religion that may have literally no connection to your heart. If, while saying a prayer, I felt something. I may not even know what that was that I felt, but I felt a something. Well, that’s on the spectrum of the mystical. Connectivity, its connection to what’s happening there. And that might have a range that would go all the way to the lineal mystica, the mystical union, the experience of divinity itself, you know, as oneself, beyond the self, of, you know, consciousness without a content, you know, this — this might be a range. I don’t want to privilege one over the other. But just to say there’s a diversity of experience, and we would all call that — we would call it mystical. Even if somebody will say, that’s just emotional. Well, if you felt something in the context of religion, that’s great.

 

David:

Yeah. And emotions inspire some really amazing ways of being, you know, so like an emotion can actually inspire you to pursue a path, like a lifelong path, like look at you.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Exactly.

 

David:

And that’s very mystical.

 

Netanel Yepez:

We privileged certain things like a vision and so on as mystical. But I just think that that’s in the range of the mystical.

 

David:

Yes. Okay.

 

Netanel Yepez:

But so, I would just call it experiential religion.

 

David:

Because religion in itself is mystical. So, you incorporate the two?

 

Netanel Yepez:

Well, it’s just that the religion is like, it’s free stride. You know, it’s ramen noodles. You know, it’s like, you got to put them in the boiling water.

 

David:

You got to add flavor, though.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yeah, you definitely want to add that little packet. It’s no good either. So, it’s that religion has a possibility for experience. But it doesn’t necessarily happen. So, you can have religion without the experience. Sometimes we get used by religion and forget to use it. It’s really for us, not us for it. And — and so it has these potentials of unlocking the possibilities of experience, a whole range of experiences, and promising a transformation. And the more the person wants that transformation and wants to activate that possibility, the more they are a mystic. They’re — they’re engaged in that dimension. And so, there are mystics within religions who don’t know they are mystics — who would not even claim the name, but are benefiting from the tradition in such a way they’re feeling things and things are changing and shifting.

 

David:

Yeah. And I guess in a sense too mystical experiences are not contained to religion too. Because you I’m sure you know, any near death experience is fairly mystical.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yeah, like we don’t need religions for that.

 

David:

Dreams, all that stuff.

 

Netanel Yepez:

And that’s why I tend to define religion a little differently. So, I have a religion and mystical experience course.

 

David:

How do you define it?

 

Netanel Yepez:

I define religion is what we do to access spirit.

 

David:

I like that.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Because you know — you know, I’ve written on this a little bit, you know, when we talk about spiritual but not religious. I know what somebody’s saying when they say that, but do they know what they’re saying when they say that? And it’s a question because if you ask the person, they may be so vague, and it may be so vague in them, they may not be able to tell you, they might like struggle to answer. The ones that can answer better start telling you about practices that they do that come from religions,

 

David:

It’s an apparatus to get you to become more spiritual.

 

Netanel Yepez:

That’s right. So, the religion — religion is just a vehicle for cultivating a spiritual experience. And as such, it’s fine. But when you think you belong to the religion, well, then, you know, the vehicle is driving itself. And you’re getting driven, and is it where you want to go. But when we know it’s a tool, then it’s fine, like, we’re not getting used by it, and we don’t have to be mad at it. It’s just a tool. And so that’s how I define religion. It is, you know, the tool we use to cultivate some — an experience.

 

David:

That’s great. I really liked that. I resonate with that, too. You know, if I was trying to define it to someone, I think that’s kind of what I’d be generally saying is it’s something you use to get you to somewhere where you want to be spiritually so you’re not filling — the void isn’t being filled by something else.

 

Netanel Yepez:

And at this point, I’m feeling a little guilt, because you said we would talk about Sufism. And I’ve taken us on a very lengthy journey into crypto Judaism, and how I came into contact with Buddhism. So, I feel like I owe a little explanation as to how I ended up teaching Sufism and becoming a Sufi teacher. And that is connected to the previous story about becoming a student of Reb Zalman. And also connected to this notion of the organic process that we’re all participating in right now. I did not choose Sufism. It chose me.

 

David:

But you’re driving, right? Not Sufiism.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Right.

 

David:

Okay. Just checking.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Well see I said yes to it. You know something can choose you, but you still have to consent.

 

David:

Okay.

 

Netanel Yepez:

So, I consented.

 

David:

Yes.

 

Netanel Yepez:

But what I had really chosen first, you know, the path I was on was like, I want to keep studying religion, come to Naropa, I’ll study Buddhism, I want to know that at a higher level, I want a better understanding. And then there was my internal quest, which was to learn with this particular teacher and understand what it meant to be Jewish. And — and he did bring me closer. I always described myself as the, you know, the luckiest boy in the world, because I got my own Obi Wan, you know.

 

David:

Yeah. Mentors are powerful.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yeah. And — and I had that — that experience that most people don’t get. And so, I’m really grateful for this. And it makes me want to find more possibilities for people today, because they all don’t get this experience. We all want an Obi Wan, we all want to Yoda, you know, the access is limited, and they’re rare.

 

David:

And an Obi Wan wants a little padawan to teach all the things because they don’t — they don’t want to like just go with it.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yeah, you know, it’s a saying in the Jewish tradition, you know, more than the calf wants to suck, the mother wants to give milk. There is a mutual process there like, the milk wants to let and there’s even an emotional component that wants to now feed. And those people, they look for the right students to pass the transmission through. I’m not saying I was that student, but I wanted to be and — and I found in this person, a great mentor. And I got to have that ideal experience where I traveled with him. I carried his bags, you know, I got to have the private conversations with him because I was — I put myself in that position of service. And it was a really good relationship because the right kind of teacher for me was almost a grandfather.

 

David:

Hmm. Oh, look at that.

 

Netanel Yepez:

And I was young. I was 26 then. And — and that worked out really nicely. So, I got this very ideal experience of you know, the walking and the talking and not just being in audience’s but you know, the backroom discussion.

 

David:

The intimate moments being able to express questions and thoughts that you don’t publicly want to address and having a, you know, a very important, knowledgeable, self made person, be there to help guide you.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yeah, and so that’s the dream, and I got it. And so, I count myself very, very fortunate. Lucky, really. And I was at Naropa for two years ’98 to 2000. I think it was probably April of 2000, I’m getting ready to graduate, right? And — and again, I’m walking into the schoolhouse up the main steps. And again, Reb Zalman comes out of his office, points at me. I don’t know how he knew I was coming in, did he know me, and he calls me into his office. And I go in there, the room is fairly dark. And he says, sit down. And I sit down. I don’t know what this is about. And he says, I want to talk to you about your future.

 

David:

Uh oh.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yeah. I’m both excited and terrified. And — and he said — he said, I could make you a rabbi. He said, but I don’t think it would serve your soul well. And he says, the truth is, you know, 90%, of what I learned, and you know, in the Shiva in the seminary, you know, I don’t use. I don’t think that that was true, but — and it was clear, he was thinking about what he was saying, like he’s looking reflective, like I’m — I’m a problem to solve. What — what is he going to do with me. I think he thought that I was going to leave Boulder. But like, I came to Boulder to meet him. So, there’s something he didn’t know. And so, I think he was thinking he was faced with a decision about me. You know, thinking, maybe being a rabbi wasn’t the right path for me. But I’d come to learn Judaism and I was learning with him. So, at that point, he closed his eyes. And he was sitting in a chair opposite me. And he began to just rock in that chair as he would. And it’s clear he was thinking, maybe even praying. And then he started turning his head from side to side a little. And he said, I can see on what levels your soul is Jewish. And he said, but I don’t think it’s for you to represent Judaism in this world. Which is both a validation and a recognition that my path may be a little different than other people’s paths, and even different than some of his other students. And with his eyes still closed, and still rocking, he said, if you can stand to exist at the crossroads of religions, you’re going to help a lot of people. And it was clear what he was saying that the crossroads of religions is an uncomfortable place. Because you don’t have a home. It’s much more comfortable to be on one side of the fence and have the support of you know, whatever that culture is, but at the crossroads, especially then it’s a little different than now. It was going to be uncomfortable, he says, but if you can stand to exist there, you’re going to help a lot of people. Then he opened his eyes. And he said, what do you know about Sufism? And being non sequitur for me, you know, I almost started stumbling and I said, well, I studied with the Quran scholar in you know, Michigan State and — and I did study a little Sufism. I liked it. I studied the writings of Al-Ghazali, and so on. And then he told me this story that around 1975, he had been spending time with Sufis in San Francisco, especially universalist Sufis, and he had read and studied the writings of Hazrat Inayat Khan, this Sufi master had come over to the west. And around then he was probably around the age I am now he decided he wanted to take Sufi initiation back then. Because he felt a real affinity for the tradition. And because it was universalist, it didn’t conflict with his commitments as a Jew as a rabbi. And like you can run into conflicts. So, it’d be much harder to be a Muslim Sufi, and rabbi in a — a Hasidic Rabbi the way — so he decided he wanted to take initiation. He told me the story. And he went to a Sufi Sheikh, and said, I’d like you to initiate me. But the Sufi Sheikh was much younger than him and looked at him as like his elder and mentor. And he said, I don’t think I can initiate you. You’re — you’re a master, you know, and that Sufi Sheikh said, but I’ll tell you what, another Sufi master is coming to town. And he’s the son of Hazrat Inayat Khan, who brought this Sufism into the West, and — and he’s older and they were of more parallel age. And I can arrange for you to meet him and have an initiation with him. And so back in those days, they had these interfaith gatherings, they called them holy man jams.

 

David:

Oh, I like that.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yeah, now it’s a little —

 

David:

It sounds like a dance party.

 

Netanel Yepez:

It probably was a little part dance party and — and they really were, you know, it was, you know, it sounds a little patriarchal today too. And it was because they were all men back then. And they were all immigrants from other countries you know this — and the holy man jam like the one that was had was brother David Steindl-Rast and Swami Satchindananda. You know, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche — all the big names. And they were all immigrants from other countries.

 

David:

This is Boulder, right?

 

Netanel Yepez:

That was in probably in Santa Cruz — somewhere in the bay area or above the Bay Area. And so also Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan was coming. And so, they arranged to meet for initiation. They didn’t really know each other. But they saw one another across the room on a break, because they were both in the holy man jam. And Pir Vilayat comes over to him and he looks at Reb Zalman in the eyes, and he says…which means, it’s a way of saying, I can see you’re an intoxicated mistake. And then on another break, they go aside to do this initiation. And Per Vilayat beautiful long white hair, long white beard, and Reb Zalman is wearing the outfit of — of a Hasidic master, Russian fur strangle, it’s called for a hat, black silk jacket with a silk belt. And so, these two masters kneel down. And this is a pretty amazing thing, is how many times in the history of religions have two masters of two different traditions on opposite really — of opposite religions do an initiation. And so, Per Vilayat is in the middle of this initiation for Reb Zalman and stops right in the middle. And he was known for his great insight, great ability to see inside and he said, you’re master, he says, I can’t make you a mureed, like an initiate of mine. You know, you’re never gonna be my student. You’re a master already, in your own tradition. And then he closed his eyes again. And he resumed the initiation now but making Reb Zalman a Sufi Sheikh, a master within the Sufi tradition, and Reb Zalman notices it at the end, and he says you — you made me a sheikh? And he says, what are my responsibilities as a sheikh? And — and Pir Vilayat says, you’ll know when you know. And so, Reb Zalman told me this story — he’s a Hasidic master and which is why I came to him. But he’s also Sufi Sheikh. He says, that was 1975 and here I’m sitting with him in 2000. And he says most of this time in Sufism, I’ve been an uncle and not a Papa. Your dad has responsibility for you. You got to get hard lessons. You know, your uncle, you can go get a bit of advice. You know, some spare change.

 

David:

You see me on your birthday?

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yeah. And you know, it can be more playful. They’re not responsible for you. So, in Sufism, he never wanted to be responsible for anybody. He’s already founding a movement in Judaism, you know, it wasn’t fake. Like Reb Zalman was tremendously learning. He was a genius. And he knew his Sufism, even subtleties, you’d be surprised at what he knew. It was really interesting. And he did mentor some — some Sufis that were students of Pir Vilayat, and he mentored a number of Sufis, but he would not initiate anybody. So, he said he had been an uncle and not a Papa. And he said, but I’m going to initiate you. And I became his one and only.

 

David:

So that’s why he brought you in the classroom? Like, what do you know about it?

 

Netanel Yepez:

Exactly.

 

David:

That’s beautiful.

 

Netanel Yepez:

So, I became his one and only Sufi initiate. And from that point forward, he brought me even closer and he — he said, we will continue to study Hasidism.

 

David:

He’s like, don’t leave Boulder.

 

Netanel Yepez:

And he said, in terms of Sufism, he’s going to give me two mentors — two Sufi sheikhs who are senior disciples of Pir Vilayat. And they were going to teach me Sufism. And I would be learning both parallel at the same time. So, you know, that’s the point I was making earlier. Like, I — I consented to that. But it’s not like, oh, I want to learn a little bit of this, I want to learn, my path was laid out in front of me, and I had to choose it or not. And so, I get closer and closer with Reb Zalman and we write a number of books together. After a while, he’s — you know, he really doesn’t take students anymore. He wasn’t taking close students even at the time I came around. So, I was very lucky. I’m among the youngest of his students, most of them 20 to 30 years older than me, which was always a little odd. And then I was different, too, because here I am learning Sufism and Hasidism, and he’s mostly teaching Jewish —

 

David:

Because you’re at the crossroads. He’s seeing this potential in you.

 

Netanel Yepez:

After a little while, he wants to start sending students to me and then it’s — it becomes a question, what am I teaching them because now it’s — I’ve gotten —

 

David:

You know when you know.

 

Netanel Yepez:

And I taught them hybrid things, things from both traditions. I knew the difference between the two traditions, I could still say this is from Hasidism. But they had integrated in me over time. And so, I was a hybrid. And so that — that led to the formation of a new Sufi lineage which had influences from Hasidism, and inference from Sufism.

 

David:

So, it has that uni — how do you say at the universal —

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yes, it’s — it’s a universalist Sufism, but it has these hybridized elements. And that’s why I’m the head of one of the branches because our branch is different. So again, that’s — that’s how I became a Sufi teacher.

 

David:

That’s amazing. It’s really beautiful. And I love like how you’re telling me of your path, because it’s very unique and interesting, kind of how you got there. I mean, there’s probably nothing better than having a mentor that you love dearly, and you respect and them adorning you with something that they’ve never done to anyone else. And that’s got to be very impactful for your life and kind of who you became and how you teach. And I can see that being very beautiful.

 

Netanel Yepez:

He also had worries for me for that reason too because I was a little one off, you know, like, would I have a place in the world, you know, this —

 

David:

You’re perfect —

 

Netanel Yepez:

A little other?

 

David:

You’re so perfect for it because you are uniquely off, you know, you — you might have to be.

 

Netanel Yepez:

I mean he turned out to be right about a lot of things that I didn’t know at the time. That — that pivotal —

 

David:

They’re good at that, they know.

 

Netanel Yepez:

And I still wonder how he knew and what he knew. And did he know what he knew? Like, how aware was he of the things that he was doing, right? Like that one meeting in his office — turns out, he was right about two things that I did not know, like, now I’m a Sufi, like, I didn’t come for Sufism. Like I came to explore my Judaism. And now he’s got me being a Sufi, and — and being a good sort of student, like, you tell me what to do. I may question it, but I’ll probably do it, you know, and I’ll go hard at it. And you know, and you know as that practitioner that got up at four in the morning and did all those things for many years. And so, like really serious, determined sort of student. But that doesn’t mean I knew what it was about. I just took it on and took him seriously. So, I’m a Sufi for many, many years, without knowing why. It was only after he died 14 years later. And that’s 2000 — yeah, 14 years later, I was with him 16 years total, that that kind of vocation for being a Sufi really took off like, I went through a like a pretty hard transition when he died in my personal life, a lot of rough things happened and — and when I started to come back into myself through those rough things, I discovered stylistically I was such a Sufi — it was so suited to me, but I didn’t know as well as he apparently knew, by instinct, how suited that particular path was to me, by style.

 

David:

During the practice, during the development of the practice, you know, he because he can see that you’re a diligent learner, you love reading, you liked — you like feedback, you like to be mentored, and you have like roots already based in Judaism, and Buddhism. So, you have like ways of thought. So, he probably saw all these coming together and being like, you fit the role.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Yeah. And I think the thing I didn’t know about, you know, Sufism is a very love oriented tradition, high on passion and in the possible transformation that can come through that. So, in those years, I was really rediscovered myself through love. And, boy, I did not — I was hiding. I had been hiding for years from how passionate I really was. And there were people that knew it about me, but I didn’t know it about myself. Like I was a remarkably passionate person. And I was living a very quiet life, which served me in a lot of ways, but I was hiding. And I think — I think he was one of the people that saw that. And so, when my life erupts, then I discover oh, that was right all along. The other thing he was right about was the crossroads of religion, not only in taking on this hyphenated identity between Sufism and Hasidism, but I already had hyphenated identities. I was a Christian that discovered that he was Jewish and — and — and even being Mexican American there’s lots of hyphens for many of us today. Hybridized existence that we’re trying to work out. But naming the crossroads of religion, he also named what I would be doing vocationally, and I did not know it then. So — so today, it seems obvious like I’m at the forefront of defining what’s called inter-spirituality. My primary work outside of the university here has been an interfaith dialogue and working in — in the nuanced, you know, areas of those dialogues and — and with complex identities, complex spiritual identities, that’s most of my work today is at the crossroads of religion, literally, at the intersection of inter-spirituality. So that was a great, amazing moment for me. And looking back on it, it makes more sense than I made in the moment, because in the moment, I had no idea what he was talking about. I just trusted him.

 

David:

I feel that too, of how we definitely want to make sense of things really early on, and sometimes it’s just not available. And now you get to see it circling back around me like, oh, he knew that all along. And, you know, it’s like you’re discovering who you are in the moment, and realizing some things that someone already knew about you.

 

Netanel Yepez:

Lots of things are just a great tease. You know, and we have a lot of proximate goals, like, I really want to do this. And later on, you look back, and you go, oh, that led me to the thing I was supposed to be doing. Sometimes we get into disappointments because the proximate goal ends, or doesn’t go the way we think. But really, it was just a good lead in.

 

David:

Yeah, I have a thought that I came up with its, don’t have a plan, have principles. So, if you have principles, and you know, like, I want to learn Tibetan Buddhism, so I learn it. And then while you’re in there you like, oh, I really like Sanskrit — I just talked to Andrew Schilling. So, it’s just like this path. So, because if you — if you have a plan and your plan ends, you’re kind of like what’s next. But if you have principles, you’re like, what’s next. Shows up a bit differently, and you have more availability to choose different things that interests you, and you can follow in the moment, as long as you’re following your principles.

 

Netanel Yepez:

We get too caught up in having to have the answers. It’s like, just know what you enjoy. Know what you love. You don’t have to have answers around it. Just keep following that spark. Well, that’s Joseph Campbell, follow your bliss. And he’s kind of right about that. He’s — a lot of people think that they’re looking for meaning. What they’re really looking for is an experience of feeling alive. And that’s a thread that you can — you can observe and follow pretty closely. You don’t have to mix it up with the idea of like, I need to make money doing that — that’s often a mix up. But how much can I be around that? How much of that can I get in my life? Can I get more of that in my life? That’s really the path and it’s not about having the answers. It’s just about being aware and close to what sparks that thing in you.

 

David:

Yeah. Oh my gosh, I feel like I have so many questions for you now and we’re gonna have to do this again. Our time is up at this moment, but we’re gonna have to talk again because I’m really interested and this is really going into beautiful place but before we go, can — do you want to share with our listeners out there any way that they can find you whether that be with your art, with your writings, with your — your teachings, like do you have like social media, any websites or anything like that?

 

Netanel Yepez:

Well, before COVID I was traveling and teaching a lot. Less so since. I think the things I can mention, yeah, it’s — it’s a nice opportunity to mention some things but I mean with regard to the Sufism and the order I represent, it’s called the Inayati-Maimuni Order. And there’s a website for that. It’s probably inayati-maimunis.dot org.

 

David:

How do you spell that?

 

Netanel Yepez:

I-n-a-y-a-t-i underscore Maimuni, M-a-i-m-u-n-i — there’s a little information there. We’re mostly a closed circle. We mostly do, Zikr private together. But every once in a while there’s public events mentioned. My other work in inter-spirituality, I do through a foundation that I started with two friends. One of whom I should mention will be giving the, Opening the Heart lectures in the fall, Reverend Adam Bucko, who is a great activist and Christian contemplative, and he’ll be here in the fall giving those lectures. So that’s — that’s a great opportunity for the Naropa community to see somebody amazing. He and I and another friend, Rory McEntee started a foundation called Charis foundation. Charis is a Greek word for grace. And so, it’s spelled C-h-a-r-i-s, Charis. And that’s easy to find. Charis foundation for New Monasticism and InterSpirituality. And now we — we have our own podcast, The New Monastics and just released our first episode last month.

 

David:

Amazing. We love podcasts.

 

Netanel Yepez:

And you know, this is a great one. So, I’m glad to be — just being able to be speaking on this one and not helping to produce it.

 

David:

So, I guess y’all hear that. And again, I just really appreciate you spending time with me and coming to the studio and having an in the face person dialogue, because it just feels like there’s so much more there that we can interact and, like you’re just sparking my mind. I want to go deeper into mysticism but just thank you so much for being here. And I just appreciate you speaking with us today.

 

Netanel Yepez:

A real pleasure and I’m glad to finally meet you.

 

[MUSIC]

 

On behalf of the Naropa community, thank you for listening to Mindful U. The official podcast of Naropa University. Check us out at http://www.naropa.edu or follow us on social media for more updates.

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