Creative Stress: An Interview with James O’Dea

James O’Dea has a unique perspective on stress and consciousness and the way forward out of the perceived chaos of the world. The immediate past president of The Institute of Noetic Sciences, O’Dea (pronounced o-DEE) champions what he calls “Creative Stress,” and as he writes in his book of the same title, it is about not resisting that which confronts us, but dancing with the energy to create opportunity and possibility as opposed to crisis and suffering.

He will speak at the annual conference of the National Qigong Association (NQA) in the Twin Cities this month [read more] on “Luminous Being: The Nature and Quality of the Luminosity which Pervades our Universe,” reminding those who attend that everything is made of universal, luminous energy, and our consciousness has the power to re-integrate each of our lives back into the flow of life. “We are in essence luminous beings who can tap into the very core of existence in remarkably creative ways,” he says. “The story of our collective evolution, as well as of personal enlightenment, is the story of an unfolding relationship to this luminous core. Even when we think we have been shattered into a million pieces, the core is there.”

O’Dea also will present a workshop at the NQA Conference on “Dancing with the Energy They Call Stress: The Physics of Personal and Collective Transformation,” helping participants learn how they regularly obstruct, interrupt and even fight off the primary energy of the universe – often with damaging consequences – and how to dance with this energy as our teacher. “(It) can challenge us to stretch and grow and take us to the higher reaches of consciousness,” he says. “Our personal and collective transformation is non-linear, and may in fact be a part of the collective field. How you learn to dance with this energy could influence the tidal currents of evolutionary change and collective learning. Change will come as a quantum shift that is truly transformative.”

Once director of the Washington, D.C., office of Amnesty International, and executive director of the Seva Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to international health & development issues in Latin America, Asia, and on American Indian reservations, O’Dea is now co-director of The Social Healing Project funded by the Kalliopeia Foundation. He is a member of the Evolutionary Leaders group founded by Deepak Chopra and Diane Williams and lectures widely on emerging worldviews, and integral approaches to social transformation. He has been a part of dialogue initiated with the Obama Administration on systems work and policy making. He and Dr. Judith Thompson co-led a series of international dialogues called Compassion and Social Healing. His book, Creative Stress: A Path For Evolving Souls Living Through Personal and Planetary Upheaval (CreateSpace) is highly praised, and his latest essay, “Creative Atonement in a Time of Peril,” will be published with other leading authors and practitioners later this year.

He spoke with The Edge about creative stress and how we can collectively dance with the luminous energy of the universal.

Your keynote at the National Qigong Association’s annual conference is on luminosity. Why did you choose that particular topic.
James O’Dea:
I think luminosity is the essence of who we are and I’m concerned, at one level, that we live in an age of babble, fantasy and seduction, and that we sometimes need a little more guidance as to how to reach into our own luminous core. I’m a great believer that in each of us there is this luminosity that gets covered over.

All of us, even my grandmother, the so-called average person, has this luminous core and can tap into it. Remember that old expression, “God is a circle whose center is everywhere, whose circumference can never be found.” That’s a little of luminous. It connects with luminous wisdom, of course.

How can we, as individuals, increase our luminosity?
One of the things we have to do is change our relationships to this primary energy in the universe as it comes towards us and develop a capacity to be able to transform any energy that comes at us. When one pushes any of the energy that comes towards one aside – saying, “Not now, not ever” – I call that the physics of negative stress. You could say negative stress is energy on hold, delayed, not dealt with, whose meaning has not been explored and which hasn’t been refined.

What consciousness does is it meets this energy, and it has the capacity to either block it or to transmute it and to transform it and to make it more subtle. I believe that we can, in a very fundamental way, learn not just the physical dimension of energy work, but the psychophysical dimension of physical work that helps lift it, and as it does, it really is meeting and engaging.

One of the things I say is that very first step is what I call the direct encounter with the energy or the stress that is coming at you, with that consciousness that says, “What can I learn from this experience? What can this energy teach me?” Rather than saying, “I’ve got to get out of town. I’ve got to get away from this. I can’t handle this. I’m so stressed.”

As I mention in my book, there are three basic ways that we respond. The first is absorbing the energy in what I call the victim approach – storing the energy up and to occasionally look into it and say, in its trapped form, “I am victimized by what is happening to me. The universe is alien. The universe is antagonistic. The universe is against me and I’m a victim, and I’ve been betrayed, and I’ve been lied to,” and so on.

The second form is to deny. That is close to the first form, but it’s a different approach. It’s just denial. I send out a decoy and I say to the world, “Yeah, how are you doing? Oh, I’m doing great. I’m doing wonderfully,” when in fact you’re not. I call it the false positive – and there’s a lot of false positive.

The third form is to bounce the energy back as attack. As it’s coming at me, I send it back to its source at twice the velocity and make sure “that will get rid of it,” and, of course, it doesn’t. It just compounds the problem.

Of course, there is another way. The primary way is to transmute that energy from negative to creative.

So, in a real simplistic way, what you’re talking about is looking at stress as an opportunity in our lives?
Yes. It would be interesting to do a study as to when this word “stress” turned negative. The word stress now does not even get delivered to us as a neutral word. The poet loves stress. He says, “I must stress the language and use stress in order to bring forth the qualities in language.” The musician, the composer, deals with the stress in music. At one point, stress was more neutral. Now if you say the word “stress,” everybody goes, “Yes, I know what you’re talking out. I’m stressed, too.”

I think people even respond to the word “stress” as victims, as deniers and as attackers, the three reactions that you talk about.
Yes. Creative stress is an attempt at being a meaning changer, and I believe, as in the subtitle of the book, “A path for your soul’s living through personal and planetary upheaval,” that it’s not only an issue at the personal level. When we look into the great collective mirror of the things that we’re not dealing with, they’re speaking louder and louder to us, aren’t they? Something has not been really dealt with here. I love Tom Stoppard’s witty expression, “The skeleton in the closet is coming home to roost.”

At the qigong conference you also are going to be presenting a workshop on dancing with the energy we call stress. What can people expect to experience during that workshop?
I like to make the workshop part interactive, to really look at not only how we learn those phases of direct encounter, but how we move all the way through, to deeply shaking the hand of stress to embracing it. There are exercises and practices, and it is important to just tell each other stories of those who have demonstrated to us the transformational power of stress.

In the book, I talk about some of those people, like the woman I met in Northern Ireland last year. Frances, who was shot in the violence between Catholics and Protestants and lost 17 pints of blood, was taken to the hospital and the doctor had called her family. When she came to, they were preparing her to die, and they said, “Frances, we have taken out the most of the bullets, but one of the bullets is lodged right next to your heart. We cannot operate. That would be way too dangerous.” And then six weeks later they came to her and said, “Frances, you’re going to have to get on with your life.” And so she said, “I’m the woman who walks around with a bullet lodged next to her heart.” Now she does peacemaking work between Catholics and Protestants.

And so I say, let’s tell each other the stories of those exemplars and models who are really capacitated human beings, capacitated to forgive, capacitated to make peace, capacitated to transform the velocity of negative hatred and hostility, even when it’s lodged next to your heart. Transform that energy into creative action in the world at a time when the planet is experiencing deep trauma.

You can read the paper from any angle, but the latest news from West Africa is that millions, maybe up to 10 million people, are facing hunger or facing starvation, and that’s just one of the crises. I was with the Obama administration a few months back looking at failing states, water shortages, nuclear proliferation, climate imbalance – the multiple problems that are on our horizon.

I love the relationship of the Qigong work, which is moving and dancing with that energy of the universe, and taking it all the way in from merely being a house practice to being a practice that says of all of the energy as it comes: “We can transform as human beings, the hatred of the world.”

Tomorrow I leave for a trip to Israel and Palestine. I will be meeting with bereaved families on either side of the conflict who have said to the other side, “If you’re in as much pain as we are, let’s try to end this.” I will then be going on to Rwanda, where extraordinary examples of healing are in process. When I come to give the talk at the National Qigong Association conference, I will be freshly back from places in the world where deep healing is being attempted in the cauldron of conflict.

To what degree is forgiveness a part of the process in these locations?
Forgiveness is a very central part of the process. As past president of The Institute of Noetic Sciences and currently extended faculty of that institute, one of the things that we’ve studied is the science of forgiveness. We know that the body is an instrument of our consciousness and intelligence. We have cardiovascular constriction when we think about those we have not forgiven, so the body itself says, “Release it. Let it go.” Your own health depends on it. Our societal health depends upon it.

Forgiveness work is not automatic or easy. It has relationships, as Bishop Tutu reminds us. He wrote a book called, No Future Without Forgiveness. He reminds us that there is a deep relationship between forgiveness and truth. He says we have to know this: “The truth washes the wound, then you can apply the sweet balm of forgiveness.”

In your recent Prayer to the Gulf, which we sent out to our readership, you ask for help in returning to deep community. Share with those who are unfamiliar with that term why that’s important and how we can return that.
There are three words that are related: communing, communication, and community. They all are very interrelated. We know from contemporary science that those who are in nurturing relationships – in community, serving community – live longer and have healthier lives. Communing requires that integrity of communication, shared communication processes. When we come to community, it is a place where we can share a deep, inner ecology of sustaining our heart, mind, our inner lives in connection, in relationship, and the forms we use can also be sustainable in the systemic perspective.

It is a very amazing time to live. There is some branch of science that has colluded with pharmacopeia, militarism and other excesses. But there is a branch of new science that is deeply reinforcing the health and well-being of relationship, of conscious community development. We can, in fact, create models. I live in such a model, a place called Crestone, CO.

Crestone is in a very ecological setting, and the community is very watchful on the ecological level, even down to noise. The military was doing practice fly-overs and this community got the military to move off because they said human beings need more serenity and peace. Crestone also has land that has been given to many of the world’s spiritual traditions. There is a Carmelite monastery, an ashram, Buddhist temple, Sufi groups and yoga groups. There is spiritual nurturance, you have the ecological work, and you have a community that is caring. The nearest mall is 50 miles away. So it is possible to recreate communities that are slower, deeper and more nourished, healthier and spiritually diverse, honoring our diversity of beliefs. Nature itself always mirrors unity in diversity.

For people who are stuck in the concrete jungle, the urban setting near shopping malls, what advice do you have for them in connecting with nature?
I think it begins with looking for community wherever you can build it. Am I dealing with stuff myself? Am I taking responsibility? In my Prayer for the Gulf – and I’ve been hearing from people as far away as South Africa, so that message has really spread – taking personal responsibility is at the core.

In the Prayer for the Gulf, I confess that I am a part of the problem. Then, how do you take it from there, wherever you are situated, wherever you are living? We need to see how we are colluding with the problem and not just simply say that the catastrophic deluge of oil in the Gulf is just 1 of 10,000 forms of pollution. Nigeria has experienced an Exxon Valdez every year for 25 years. Are you aware of that? Oil is just one of the forms of pollution.

I like to help focus people on where we are in time. I wrote an essay and a book called, The Mystery of 2012, saying, “You were born for such a time as this. You are living in a time when, in fact, the hyper-acceleration that you are experiencing is the final death throes of a system that is so out of balance, so based on consumption and greed, so lacking in core-nurturing values, that it’s going to collapse. How it collapses, to what degree, how we reconstitute it: These are the questions that conscious and aware people must be living, not just thinking about.” The philosopher, Whitehead, said in the 20th century that “the merest abstractions are now used to control people’s thoughts.” You hear a lot of people talking about the crises in the world without convening the energy, the creative energy needed for it.

What single message would you want to leave with all of humanity at this moment, if you had the opportunity to do so?
Our crisis, as Barbara Marx Hubbard put it even 40 years ago, is a birth. We are being invited into the great synthesis of human process, where we can restore our relationship to the holy order of Nature and the justice within Nature and the restorative justice, that we can heal. My message is the human story is fundamentally a healing story, and that this word “healing” is the heart of the word “wholeness.” That we can find wholeness in a whole new expression of global community.

What allows you to remain optimistic that we collectively can do this?
I have experienced the worst. I’m someone who comes from Hell and says, “You know, it’s not the end of the story.” I was in Beirut during the bombing, during the massacre of the Palestinians. I spent 10 years as director of Amnesty International’s office in Washington, daily looking at the genocides, the confusion, the horror in the world, and always seeing the indomitable nature of the human spirit.

I’m a place-holder for the part in the story where it gets very, very dark and grim and it looks like the bitter end, and I say, “Look at the prisoners of conscience. Look at the great spiritual leaders. Look at the communities coming. Look at Rwanda.” People are talking about Rwanda now as the Switzerland of Africa. It’s a healing story beyond belief.

I’m able to say this because I live with that consciousness that engages, that doesn’t look away, that doesn’t go into the false positive or the pretend reality that all I need to do is affirm nice things and the world will be beautiful. No, we actually need to go through the witnessing of our own fall – and we’re all a part of that – to realize our resurrection as a species.

For more information on James O’Dea, visit For more on the National Qigong Association’s Annual Conference, visit



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