Like a rolling snowball, Valerie Skonie called two people and they called two people and so on and so forth. Skonie, a Sufi teacher based in Hailey, had an idea: to gather people gather daily for 40 days for meditation.
She was inspired by line of poetry by the Islamic poet Rumi: "What nine months does for the embryo/forty early mornings will do/for your growing awareness."
Last year, about 100 people in the Wood River Valley committed to a 40-day meditation period either on their own or in groups, organized by Skonie, with help from the Light On The Mountains Spiritual Center, just south of Ketchum. The center acted as the initial contact for those interested in participating, and hosted a dinner event to cap off the meditation period.
The idea grew beyond her wildest dreams. People in Boise took up the concept, then the Iranian press covered it. Soon, people from 18 countries, including Croatia, Sweden, Romania and India had committed to the second annual event, to be held from Jan. 15 to Feb. 23, 2009.
"I don't know how these people are finding us," Skonie said. "It's the grace of God, I swear." This year's event, she said, is focused again on meditation and prayer. She is hoping to integrate all spiritual practices as well as yoga, martial arts, contemplation and expressive arts.
A businesswoman and consultant in California's Bay Area for many years, Skonie moved to the Wood River Valley hoping to be a part of a spiritual community. Though she is a Sufi practitioner, the 40-day meditation period is not dictated by any one practice
"Sufism is all about the heart and it's cultivated through daily practice," she said. "I thought, 'How do I find these people? Maybe I have to create it.' I found the Rumi poem and said 'That's it.'"
Since then, the event has grown both in scope and in depth.
"This is not the only place that needs this," she said. "The main thing is 40 minutes every day."
Winter Feast for the Soul is based on the ideas of subtle activism, as opposed to physical, psychological or social. The term 'subtle activism' refers to a collective activity of consciousness that participants hope will ultimately bring about social change.
Such acts aren't unique in history. David Nicol, author of the essay "Subtle Activism: Applying Spiritual Power for Social Change" wrote that during the Battle of Britain, Londoners of various faiths united daily for one minute of silence after the chiming of Big Ben at 9 p.m., a practice intended to strengthen the moral resolve of the city's inhabitants during the war.
"It is not hard to find other examples of the use of collective contemplative practice to unite people around political objectives or for social harmony," Nicol wrote. "A global meditation and prayer event, in which hundreds of thousands of people around the planet unite in silence and prayers for world peace, is a prime example of subtle activism."
As part of this year's event, Nicol, the director of the Gaiafield Center for Subtle Activism at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, will attend. He'll be there for launch of the Winter Feast for the Soul on Tuesday, Jan. 13.
Other activities planned for Winter Feast for the Soul are ongoing meditation classes at the YMCA, Light on the Mountains and elsewhere. During the Feast period, there will be a series of home parties in which the short film "Winter Feast for the Soul," will be shown, lectures and a Whirling Dervish demonstration and instruction. The Whirling Dervish sect of Sufism was started by Rumi more than 700 hundred years ago.
"I've been planning since before the last Feast ended," Skonie said. "There's so much." She and the organizers intend to have online meditations, and the Sun Valley Spiritual Film Festival will sponsor a film night Wednesday, Dec. 17, on the anniversary of Rumi's death.
"It will be an instructional and inspirational evening," she said.
This celebration of Rumi will be held at Light on the Mountains Spiritual Center and will include a light supper and the one-hour documentary, "Rumi Returning." Members of the community will read the poetry of Rumi, accompanied by local musicians. Shot mostly in Turkey, the movie examines the 13th-century Muslim Sufi mystic who wrote hundreds of poems beloved by people of all faiths. It features Sufi music, high-definition visuals of the Whirling Dervishes Rumi inspired and the architectural masterpieces of medieval Islam.
Then at the close of the Feast, on Feb. 23, noted Rumi translator Coleman Barks will be the featured speaker.
Rev. John Moreland of Light on the Mountains and Victoria Roper are coordinating the local events for the Wood River Valley, including identifying mediation sites. People can go online to sign-up as a meditation leader, to commit to the Feast and to donate to the cause. Once a person commits to the Feast online, updates will be regularly sent. Skonie is actively fundraising to pay for the special events planned, and the response has been favorable.
Already several spiritual leaders have sent their blessings and well wishes.
Tenzin Taklaha, a secretary to His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote, "I am very happy to convey to you His Holiness' prayers and good wishes for the second annual Winter Feast for the Soul being held in January and February 2009."
As well, blessings and prayers were received from Pir Zia Inayat Kahn, the head of the Sufi Order International; Anam Thubten Rinpoche, the spiritual leader of the Dharmata Foundation and the Rev. Kathy Hearn, of the United Centers for Spiritual Living, based in Colorado.
For more information visit winterfeastforthesoul.com.