Unity in Ashland is a community that honors all spiritual paths. “We call it omni-faith,” says Reverend Norma Nakai Burton. “We lovingly support personal growth and healing of the mind, body and spirit while drawing from New Thought teachings and world religions. We also draw upon the Journey to Completion shadow integration work.” The Journey to Completion is a format for deep personal growth that Rev. Norma developed from years of study in Jungian Depth Psychology as well as with the training she received with the Huichol people of Mexico. Norma went on to say that “At Unity, we honor the Earth and listen to her natural wisdom. If you are seeking spiritual community that embraces all life and all spiritual paths, then we look forward to greeting you with a heartfelt, ‘Welcome home!””
In today’s interview, I spoke with Rev. Burton to discover more about her path to Ashland and the growth of Unity in Ashland. For the past 11 years, Norma has been Unity’s minister and has lovingly assisted its growth into the vibrant community that it is today. Norma received her BA in Psychology and Religion and her Masters of Divinity from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA. Norma’s inspirational messages draw from her studies in comparative religions, especially the mystical traditions of the world including Christian Medieval mystics such as Hildegard von Bingen, the Jewish Kabbalah, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sufism. She also has studied extensively with indigenous elders throughout the world and is a profound teacher of advanced shamanism. At Unity, one can experience a variety of rituals that celebrate the rich tapestry of humanity’s earth-centered spiritualities.
Norma thanks so much for speaking with us today. To begin, will you please tell us about the history of Unity in Ashland?
Thank you, Shields. It’s my pleasure to speak to your readers about a topic so dear to my heart. Unity has been in Ashland since 1987. However, many people do not realize that Charles and Myrtle Fillmore originally founded Unity way back in 1889 as a spiritual school within the New Thought movement. This fascinating couple became known as American mystics for their intuitive guidance, energy healing and contributions to allegorical interpretations of the Bible. A profound part of Unity’s early history included publishing and teaching, and these pursuits are just as important today. Many people know of Unity for its “Daily Word” publication, an inspirational periodical with 700,000 subscribers in 18 countries. Another well-known aspect of Unity is Silent Unity, a worldwide prayer ministry that has been ongoing for 125 years. In 1931, Unity began a formal program to train its ministers that is still thriving today. There are now approximately 1000 Unity churches around the world.
Each Unity church establishes its unique identity. Please tell us about this.
One of the beautiful aspects of Unity is that it acknowledges the unique facets of each church’s minister and congregation. Unity honors how each church wishes to meet the needs of its community. For example, Unity in Ashland reflects my commitment to many spiritual practices of indigenous people blended with my extensive study of Buddhism. Our services are perfect for the less conventional or “cultural-creative” population that exists in Ashland.
Please talk about the idea of “New Thought.”
“New Thought” is a name given to a group of spiritual teachings introduced in the late 19th century that interpret the Bible in a metaphysical rather than literal way, where we perceive God or Spirit, Creator (or any other name you wish to name the Mystery) as absolute goodness. New Thought teaches that changes in consciousness affect our physical being as well as well as our emotional and spiritual well-being. Imagine such ideas being introduced in the late 1800s! Today, they do not seem near as foreign to most people. New Thought is becoming common parlance as more people understand the applications of quantum physics in daily life.
The study of the shadow is something that you work on here at Unity in Ashland. Please say more.
Every human being has a shadow. It’s that part of ourselves that is split off into our subconscious due to traumatic experiences. Our Inner Shadow does its best to protect us and to provide a sense of safety as we progress through life. But this split condition becomes dysfunctional and eventually we must integrate the gift it’s been holding for us.
As well as having formal training in Jungian Depth Psychology and Family Systems Therapy, I lived and studied with indigenous healers of Central and South America. As an apprentice with the Huichol people of Mexico for several years, I learned their tradition of examining the shadow complexes that hold people back in life and ultimately undermine community life. Not only do the Huichol “stalk” the inner shadows, but they have a very powerful method of gathering one’s power back from any form or sense of victimization, thereby extracting the gifts from the shadow complex. Shadow integration work allows us to transform energy surrounding trauma, claim our spiritual power, and live life to its fullest.
When my Huichol mentor, Guadalupe de Los Rios, granted me the right to share lineage teachings with others, I formulated the “Journey to Completion” model that I have taught all over the world. Unity offers “Journey to Completion” classes to all who are interested.
Doing shadow work in small groups enhances the tribal life of Unity in Ashland. It helps our members to transform deeply and move beyond obstacles that otherwise might block healthy and sustainable community life.
No matter one’s spiritual or cultural background, we all have to do our shadow integration work. Our culture has created a dualism in which we are taught to perceive ourselves as separate from everything. So often humans target groups they perceive as different from themselves as wrong or evil.
As we move beyond dualistic perceptions to accept the mystical truth that “there is only one of us here,” then we can come together as a world community. When we do our shadow work, we heal our perception that there is an enemy out there, thereby realizing our inter-being-ness and oneness. This state of non-dual awareness is enlightenment.
Can you talk more about the name Unity?
Unity means that we see all life everywhere as a single, connected creation. We see oneness even amidst diversity. Diversity in all of creation is good and to be encouraged. We talk about original blessing — not original sin. The essential nature of every human is divine and therefore inherently good. We are here to heal trauma wounds in people and help them to express their highest potential as realized and demonstrated by Jesus, Buddha, and other master teachers. The more we awaken to our divine nature and learn to follow our inner guidance system, the more fully Great Spirit expresses in and through our lives. We are here to set a positive example and be a role model for others. We are here to co-create heaven on earth because heaven is not a place, but a state of consciousness. We create our heaven or hell right here and now. So you see, by practicing Unity consciousness, we help make this world a better place.
Acceptance and unconditional love are an integral part of Unity. What are some ways that you see this being demonstrated?
We love one another through thick and thin, so we demonstrate unconditional love by accepting and welcoming real people with real challenges and encouraging them to trust that the universe is a friendly place. We welcome anyone who has a sincere commitment to spiritual growth as well as those who are testing the water for spiritual growth in their lives. We demonstrate unconditional love by welcoming people who have been judged or excluded from other religious groups such as LGBT persons, and those recovering from fundamentalism. People who come to our Sunday services say they can feel the powerful love as soon as they walk into the sanctuary. It seems we have honed a love force field or vortex of happiness that they experience as a safe and nurturing space, an actual sanctuary.
Tell me more about Unity’s connection to outreach in the community.
As an omni-faith minister, I am asked to lead many innovative weddings and memorial services. I believe this is because people want to bless these big life passages with rituals that do not impose religious doctrines but rather represent their particular beliefs.
Also, many people who attend Unity are social activists. Our members provide leadership in every aspect of service in the Ashland community, from leading the anti-GMO campaigns to KidSpree, from holding newborn babies in the hospital to being court advocates for teens to making the world better for animals.
Another connection with the community is through rites of passage retreats I lead for all age groups. This past summer, we co-hosted a mother-daughter vision quest in New Mexico at the enchanting Ghost Ranch. Next year, we will host a mother-daughter retreat in Scotland.
Please tell us about your prayer team.
We also have an incredible and active prayer group who prays together every Monday at 5 pm. And not only do we pray for people, but we also go out to help people in need. For example, if an elder person is alone we send someone to sit with them and provide companionship. We organize meals when people are sick and provide transportation and support in so many practical ways. Prayer support is a valuable offering. We also teach people to pray in an effective way, and it is heartwarming to get to see so many miracles occurring in people’s lives.
“Affirmative prayer” is the highest form of creative thought. It includes the release of counterproductive, negative thoughts, as well as holding in mind statements of spiritual truth. Through meditation, we experience the presence of the Divine. Prayer and meditation heighten our awareness and thereby transform our lives.
We meet every Monday evening at 5 pm in a classroom at the Havurah to meditate and pray. All are welcome. Come and give yourself a treat and sit in prayer circle with these powerful women and men.
We also host an intensive, one-day training for prayer chaplains — those who wish to become Anam Cara, soul friends, to those who are sick and dying.
You also have an outreach program to native communities. Please say more.
We are launching a cultural exchange program with the Huichols in Central Mexico. We offer practical help and resources and they in turn share their spiritual teachings with our visiting youth and adults. The Huichol’s rich cultural heritage is on the verge of extinction due to having their sacred lands taken over by mining companies, and their young people are migrating to the cities and never return.
Usually nomadic, the Huichols recently have been able to purchase some land and have established a school for the youth where their art, language and spiritual heritage is being preserved and kept alive. We give this Huichol school and village practical help with permaculture farming techniques, solar, and gray water systems along with physical building materials. And in turn, they share Huichol spirituality with us. Such an exchange is a wonderful opportunity for our young people to travel and immerse themselves in the ancient wisdom culture that the Huichol carry.
Members of Unity are very activist-oriented. Please say more.
Unity people are social activists as well as meditators. We believe people are the only hands and feet that God has — so we must carry out actions of “erotic justice” as Hildegard von Bingen said. In other words, we follow the passions of our hearts to help heal the world and make it more sustainable. Our members are leaders in environmental issues such as the Family Farms Movement. We teach alternative economics, participate in time banks and the gifting economy. Unity supports the Gay Marriage Movement and is welcoming to all LGBT people. We sponsor adult and youth education classes in non-violent communication and restorative justice. We speak out about ending the possibility of nuclear violence. Whatever cutting-edge issues arise, we are there.
Norma, please tell us more about yourself and the role you play at Unity.
My training is as a theologian, pastoral counselor, hospice chaplain and shamanic teacher. Before my seminary training in the late 1980’s, I had a long career as one of the founders of the rape crisis and battered women’s movements. I served as Director of Shelters and State Coalitions in New York, Oklahoma, and California. I also have worked as a spiritual counselor in drug and alcohol recovery centers and as chaplain/coach to Fortune 500 company executives. From the kitchen table to the boardroom, these experiences have deepened my compassion for the problems humans inevitably encounter. I’ve honed the skills to counsel people through their darkest nights of the soul into the light of their personal empowerment.
Thus, I have a heart for healing the pain at the core of family life and in the workplace. My message is one of hope and the possibility of real change. I have helped to bring lasting healing to even the deepest wounded places, the most broken of relationships, healing to even the most dysfunctional organizations. My experience bears the test of time, and I can assure people that integrity and wholeness are possible, and inner peace is attainable. Unity in Ashland’s authentic message to our community contains all of my experience. Healing our planet is possible — one person at a time — beginning with ourselves.
You also have a monthly study group. What are some topics you discuss?
In our Circles of Eight groups, groups of eight people gather once a month for dinner and to discuss a spiritual book. Our last book was one by Thich Nhat Hahn. The groups meeting this fall are reading and discussing D. Patrick Miller’s “The Book of Practical Faith.” The books are springboards for sharing discussions on spiritual topics as well as a way of getting to know each other better. The Circles of Eight also provide Unity members a chance to form deeper friendships with others outside of our usual social circles.
Norma, where did you grow up and how did you come to your path?
I was blessed to grow up in a small town in western New York on the edge of a Seneca First People’s Reservation. My grandparents moved to the area during the Great Depression era to be of service to people who were suffering from poverty and had little money or food. My grandfather was President of Nabisco, and my grandmother was a registered nurse. They moved from a mansion to live with the native people on the edge of the reservation.
My grandparents did a big giveaway for years, and after my grandfather had died, the people wanted to honor my grandmother, so they adopted her into the tribe. Her adoption took place when I was five years old, and the memory is still so fresh! There was my grandmother, being the guest of honor at a ceremony that took years to create and thousands attended. Thus, I grew up being part of the Seneca Lodge ceremonies, powwows, and healing rituals. In my twenties looking back, I realized my upbringing was bi-cultural.
I always felt called to be in spiritual leadership. As a 17-year-old, the town’s people, who had watched me grow up, held a ceremony to tell me why they felt I had a calling to be a spiritual leader. That encouraged me to pursue theological studies and then later to study with indigenous healers and spiritual leaders from around the world.
You also had many years of study in Buddhism.
Yes, I lived in Japan for several years because I wanted to study Buddhism in one of its native settings. When I returned to this country, I pursued a Masters and Ph.D. studies in Buddhist-Christian dialogue at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. During graduate school, I worked as Executive Director of the international headquarters of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Thich Nhat Hanh’s organization. It was a profound experience to spend time with this humble Vietnamese monk who taught us how to practice peace in such practical ways.
Buddhism, at its core, is a psycho-spiritual system to help us study our minds and learn to discipline our thoughts so that we can achieve inner tranquility. It is very compatible with the core teachings of Unity in that both honor the power of silent meditation. I meditated in Goenka’s style 10-day Vipassana retreats for years, sometimes doing 21 and 30-day-long silent retreats. Silent meditation is one type of meditation we also teach at Unity. Such practice is helpful in deconstructing mental constructs that we tend to cling to for security, moving through to a deep inner equanimity.
How did you eventually find Unity?
I had friends who said you’ve got to check out Ashland. I fell in love with the beauty and nature of it. My daughter and I moved here when she was a freshman in high school. Now she has graduated from the University of Oregon and returned to live and work here. When we moved here, I was the first hospice chaplain in Ashland and helped to get the Hospice Center started here. Simultaneously, I was invited to attend Unity and loved the message of hope and unconditional love I felt there. So I started attending and soon was asked to step into being their minister. It’s been 11 years now, and I am enjoying every minute of serving this loving community.
Please tell us about Unity’s Children’s Program.
We have amazing professional teachers leading our loving, innovative, and fun children’s program. They offer experiential learning for elementary-aged children. Based on the “Golden Threads of Truth” curriculum, the children’s program teaches appreciation and respect for all the great religions of the world. The program teaches meditation and consciousness training in a fun, easily-understood way within each Sunday’s activities. Lessons are activity-based and age-appropriate. We seek to shape the heart, nourish character, liberate the spirit, and affirm the wondrous potential of each unique and precious child. Children come and go during the regular Sunday program, which is 90-minutes long.
What do you see as the future of Unity in Ashland?
We are in an exciting time of growth and change as an organization as we move toward building an Earth Temple and Eco Village community. We currently are in search of the right land in or around Ashland on which to build. The Earth Temple will be a deep-green building of exquisite architecture designed to house our spiritual programs as well as host sacred dance and drumming classes and earth-centered spiritual education for children and adults. We also plan to host an intentional spiritual community with individual, green-built dwellings and a common building for communal meals and events. This community is fashioned around permaculture principles and will be welcoming to all ages.
If someone is interested in learning more about Unity and participating where do they start?
Please join us each Sunday at 10:30 am. We meet in the Havurah’s lovely sanctuary at 185 N. Mountain Avenue here in Ashland. Come on Sunday at 10:30. Join on Facebook and follow us. Our new website is UnityAshland.com.
Norma, what are some comments that you frequently hear from your new members?
“I’ve finally found my home!” “I’ve been looking for this for a long time.” “Your talks hit it out of the ballpark every week!” “The music is great.” “The message is always just what I needed to hear!”
Finally, do you offer personal availability if someone wants to meet with and talk to you?
Yes, I love to reach out and get to know people personally and see how our visions harmonize, as well as what we can learn from each other. You might see me often meeting at Dobra Tea with newcomers to Unity.
Our members also host a social time with great food, coffee, and tea after each Unity Sunday service. Great conversations take place, and we make new friends during this time.
Upcoming Inspirational Message
- Week 1 – Topic – Reporting on the Parliament of World Religions which Rev. Norma is attending Oct 15-18, 2015
- Week 2 – Topic – Mary Magdalene – Why is she a Goddess for our times?
- Week 3 – Topic – Creating One’s Own Religion – based on Thomas Moore’s latest book.
- Week 4 – Topic – Navajo Beauty Way – a more in-depth study to aid our mission in healing the eco-system.
Unity in Ashland
Every Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 12:00 noon
185 N. Mountain Avenue
Check out the Unity in Ashland website here
Check out Norma Burton’s website here