Grande Virada: that is Great Turning in Portuguese--and a theme that resonated strongly with the eight hundred or more Brasilieros whom Fran and I have just had the good fortune to meet and work with. It reflects their hopes in bringing populist president Ignacio Lula to power and initiating impressive steps toward sustainability and working together for Earth.
Nossa Vida como Gaia, our life as Gaia, was the other interweaving theme. It is the title of the Portuguese edition of Coming Back to Life, published in Brazil in the course of the last year, with a foreword by liberation theologian Leonardo Boff and the most beautiful cover that ever graced a book of mine. It portrays a tropical coastal ecosystem held in a fragile scallop shell which is already beginning to crumble into deep blue, star-strewn immensities of space. Fran and I went to meet the artist Jose Gomez in the town of Guaratingeta and view the original oil painting. I came to see it as a visual metaphor for anguish over the drying of the vast Amazon, where deforestation (reaching 17%) now affects its capacity to generate and recycle rainfall, and threatens implosion of the ecosystem seen by many as our planet's lungs. The river is now at its lowest in human memory. It is stranding countless settlements (including Manaus, city of 5 million) that are dependent on access by boat. Gomez's painting also conveys the love than can awaken when we face such fragility and feel a common imperative to protect the web of life.
Our month-long teaching tour in Brazil was arranged by environmental leader Amalia Souza, whom some of you will remember from two of our intensives in the Santa Cruz hills ('00 and '03). She is, in her own person, a kind of embodiment of the Great Turning: in addition to instigating the translation and publication of Nossa Vida como Gaia, her activism includes trusted relations with indigenous peoples, provision of material support for environmental causes through Global Green Grants, and groundwork for an ecovillage in her area. Not only that, she sings. The three weekend workshops we did together, as well as the weeklong intensive, were enriched by her guitar and the marvelous range of her voice.
Our work in Sao Paulo was sponsored by a bank. The Banco Real (ABM MRO Real, to be exact) has embraced sustainability as its goal, and is serious about it. It provided venue and large audiences for presentations with interactive work on the subject of the Great Turning. Of great value to me personally was the invigorating glimpse it gave into what the Great Turning can mean in banking terms. The bank, for example, is applying environmental conditions to all loans (i.e. need to show loan's effects on local ecology and its measures to protect and restore same), and it has initiated microcredit schemes in urban slums, which already are proving highly successful in term of results and repayment rate. A key staff player in this overall effort is Christel Scholten, with whom I was happy to find strong connections through both the Bath (UK) School of Management and the Meg Wheatley-inspired Pioneers of Change.
The work with Brasilians freshened me with a renewed sense of what it means to realize our life as Gaia. In the presence of their passion for life, their erotic take on existence, that phrase became more than a conceptual anchor. I felt again the full charge of what our planetary identity can mean, and how it can inspire and sustain us.
Upon my return last week, in this dark solstice time, I took a day's retreat to look at the year now coming to a close. Its gifts have been many. In the quiet solitude of my backyard cottage I reflected on them, drawing the year's engagements with colors and circles on a large sheet of paper, then dropping into them to feel the deepening changes they brought. First, I took to counting: 91 full days of group work, 4 continents, this many workshops and intensives, that many participants… Hundreds of faces began to surface in my mind's eye, like so many bodhisattva icons. Then the connecting, unfolding flows began to reveal themselves, showing how pervasively the year has been affected by its first event, the 30-days in Australia, called "Seeds for the Future."
Now I can say what I couldn't then: that the collective immersion in a larger context of time, with sustained attention to the needs and perspectives of future generations, has acted as a blessing, or a solvent, on all that has followed. I say "solvent" because it has loosened for me some of the pressures and fears of the present moment. Bringing me into a sense of closer company with the ancestors and future beings, it has made it easier to live with the radical uncertainty of our time. "Radical uncertainty" has emerged, I see now, as an ever more important theme in my work this year. As we set our sails for the Great Turning, it brings a kind of sober, bracing freedom from demands and complaints of the small self. And it brings an ever-fresh recognition of the power of intention and choice, which, like the rudder of our craft, is what we can put our hands to--and the only thing we can control.
Such reflections on the effects of the 30-day in Australia make me grateful for the prospect of another 30-day in 2007. "Seeds for the Future II" is scheduled to take place on a wild stretch of coast in Oregon in the early fall of that year. See my schedule on this web site for particulars.
My month in England in May of this year brought particular rewards. It coincided with the fuller emergence of Gaiabeat Productions, purveyor of tapes, CDs, and training materials created by British colleagues who have also brought forth the Great Turning Times. You can access this amazing e-newsletter by contacting
with SUBSCRIBE in the subject header. A concatenation of energies has brought strong follow-up to the workshops of last May. As a local organizer just wrote, in announcing a 3-day retreat in Devon, "Coming to the end of 2005, it feels like it was a great year for Shambhala Warriors. (Since Joanna's events) there were several workshops attended by over 300 people and that's just the workshops lasting longer than two days… There is such a lot of momentum."
And coming from Britain--here are some portions of the Shambhala Warrior Mind Training, which I would share with you as a New Year blessing. It comes from John Wigham, known as Akuppa in the Western Buddhist Order, who came into the Work That Reconnects through a week I taught last April at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California. He is a writer, organizer, and former City Council member of Newcastle-on-Tyne.
Firmly establish your intention to live your life for the healing of the world. Be conscious of it, honour it, nurture it every day.
Do not meet power on its own terms. See through to its real nature--mind and heart made. Lead your response from that.
Simplify. Clear way the dead wood in your life. Look for the heartwood and give it first call on your time, the best of your energy.
Put down the leaden burden of saving the world alone…
As a bird flies on two wings, balance outer activity with inner sustenance.
With great patience to yourself, learn to make beautiful each action, word, and thought.
Sit with hatred until you feel the fear beneath it. Sit with fear until you feel the compassion beneath that.
Do not set your heart on particular results. Enjoy positive action for its own sake and rest confident that it will bear fruit.
Staying open, staying grounded, remember that you are the inheritor of the strengths of thousands of generations of life.
Staying open, staying grounded, recall that the thankful prayers of future generations are silently with you.
Staying open, staying grounded, know that the deep forces of Nature will emerge in the aid of those who defend the Earth.
When you see weapons of hate, disarm them with love.
When you see armies of greed, meet them in the spirit of sharing.
When you see fortresses of narrow-mindedness, breach them with truth.
When forces of power seek to isolate us from each other, reach out with joy.
In it all and through it all, holding to your intention, let go into the music of life. Dance!
Yours for the "grande virada,"
I spent a month in the east this fall, sharing the Work That Reconnects in Michigan, New York, Massachusetts, and Maine. I return with an abundance of gifts. They include the glory of the autumn trees, though the leaves are turning later now, weeks later with each passing year. And they include the beauty of the human heart, revealed in the workshops and unaffected by weather patterns. I want to tell you some of the ways I experienced it.
There is green in the heart of Detroit. In the capital of the automotive age, rusting, empty factories have given way to grassy fields and urban farming. New citizen efforts are sprouting, from cooperative bakeries and senior housing to festivals celebrating the city's natural history, and a vibrant high school for teen-age mothers set amidst barnyards and solar rigs, with a curriculum involving care for goats, sheep, windmill, and babies. These glimpses of our post-industrial future made my heart sing--and song was plentiful. At my workshop organized by Unitarian Universalist women of Michigan, many of the participants belong to the choruses singing the anthems of Caroline McDade across North America. In my intensives I have used Caroline McDade's CDs, especially "O Beautiful Gaia," so I asked the women to sing in the course of our work together--and bathed my soul in those strong hymns to our sacred Earth.
In Massachusetts and Maine I wondered at first if the quality of the workshops would suffer from the high numbers of participants. Because of space needs (I like to move people around a lot), I rarely do more than one full day when the count is ninety or more. Yet, from start to finish, these packed workshops turned out to be just as focused as those of three or four dozen, and just as remarkable in their sense of deep and alert presence. Actually, there seems to have been, in all the groups this year, a more solid and even fiercer sense of purpose than ever before.
As I ponder why this should be so, this is what I come up with. First there's the political darkness that has befallen our nation since the coup of January 2001, and especially since last November's second stolen presidential election (a fraud recently confirmed by the GAO). In discussing the options available to us as citizens, Richard Heinberg in his recent Museletter reflects views I hear from coast to coast, when he points out that, "the federal government is quite literally dysfunctional... Many books have been written about the hypocrisy, ineptness, and even criminality of Washington's elite, and how matters of state managed to degenerate so utterly and completely during the past few decades and especially the last few years... The US government has given up on the republican (with a small "r") form of government and is preparing a totalitarian future for its citizens. Unable to deliver on its economic promises, it is hunkering down for the inevitable class conflict. One can hardly write such words," he adds, "without experiencing strong emotions--principally rage, sadness, and fear."
Many people come to my workshops to simply and soberly acknowledge the kind of reality Heinberg describes. They come to tell the truth about what they see happening to our world, and to face it together without diversions of endless argument or embarrassment for the rage, sadness, and fear that arise. Hence the seriousness of purpose: for without fully being with the truth of our situation, there's no way to change it. It's not surprising that the first aspect of the Work That Reconnects which the folks in Maine planned to share with their home communities was the Truth Mandala.
So, clearly, the strength of presence I feel in the workshops is a function of the power of attention--and how we choose to direct that power, which is intention. Since the 30-day "Seeds for the Future" event in Australia early this year, I've been including the practice of anapanasati, mindfulness of breathing-in and breathing-out. It's no longer just an optional meditation before breakfast, but a basic element in each days' teaching sessions. Furthermore, in the systems lessons, I dwell on our capacity for intention--how it's evolved that we are able to choose where we focus and direct our mind. I see it as the defining characteristic of self-reflexive consciousness. This marvel enables us, in Buddhist terms, to change the karma. It is the great and sacred gift we bring to our world.
On my trip I met Jack Manno, who teaches economics of sustainability at SUNY's school of Environmental Studies and Forestry. I copied these words from a textbook he wrote: "Human attention is among the most powerful natural forces in the universe. When an individual decides to turn his or her attention to understanding something, accomplishing something, changing something, the resources available to that individual are mobilized, and the world begins to change. When groups...turn their collective attention to shared goals, the potential results are even more dramatic. Since economics is fundamentally about the allocation of limited resources among competing uses, this book is about an economics of attention."
What Jack calls the turning of attention--i.e. the conscious choice of how to use it--is what I mean by intention. And the dramatic results he alludes to were certainly evident in the explosions of ideas ignited in the final, "Going Forth" part of the workshops.
Yet what moved me more than the actions envisioned was, again, the quality of presence. During the week at Rowe I tried to describe it in my journal: "Thanks to the sweet strong attention these people bring and sustain, it's like swimming together, in a school of fish. There are moments of such shared depth, it feels like entering another element, as if we'd pierced some barrier into a realm of mind beyond all words. At the center of the heart, it encompasses the universe."
I leave now for a month in Brazil, accompanied by Fran, preceded by a beautiful Portuguese edition of Coming Back to Life, and organized by our dear colleague Amalia Souza who's got workshops, talks, and an intensive up her sleeve.
In gladness for the work and the world we share,
Images of disaster proliferate. Even those of us whose homes are not flooded, bombed, or bulldozed, are living with a sense of catastrophe. I reflected on this Saturday with Anita Barrows, as we were translating a Rilke poem. Speaking out of her large psychotherapeutic practice and her years of teaching graduate seminars in psychology, she said: "Collective trauma and extinction of life are the backdrop of everything else we do."
I discovered this 28 years ago when I started the despair and empowerment workshops, which were the first form of the Work That Reconnects. I learned that within everyone--whatever their political views and however competent or complacent they may appear--there is, at some level of their consciousness, grief for our world. Like cells in a living body, we feel it when our larger body is in trauma. Whether as sorrow, anger, fear, or any mix of them, we feel what I came to call "pain for our world." It comes with being part of the web of life, which can be expressed differently as Indra's Net or Gregory Bateson's "wider circuits of knowing."
Seeing the devastation in New Orleans and the Gulf States triggers not only sorrow for the victims, but also dread of more and vaster horrors yet to come. Those who know hurricane Katrina's true name, global warming, can sense the dimensions of suffering in store for all of us.
Last month at the August intensive in the Work That Reconnects, Dahr Jamail, fresh from Iraq, showed us videos of Falluja. In distance shots of the bombardment, you can see fireballs like nuclear blasts erupting inside houses from uranium artillery. Then there are long silent close-ups of the rubble, survivors looking for their families, picking up body parts and peeling patches of skin off the walls, as they step through rooms and courtyards guttered of life by clusterbombs.
To watch these scenes arouses not only outrage but foreboding. What fate, one wonders, awaits a nation that has perfected such diabolical weaponry, and used it with such deliberate extravagance. Already the psychic retribution can be measured in terms of our own censorship, lies, and corruption--and such moral obscenities as the hero-action movie being made with Harrison Ford: "The Battle for Falluja."
The question that has haunted me for decades surfaces again. How to live with the knowledge of the destruction we are bringing on ourselves and all life? No amount of activism, prayer, or meditation can alter that knowledge. So how do we stand open-eyed in the face of apocalyptic events, and still find joy in serving life? And, if we can do that, what transformative powers will arise in us?
Years ago a French magazine carried an article about despair and empowerment work, entitled "Travailler avec l'angoisse planetaire" (working with planetary anguish). In his introduction the editor, Gerard Blanc, calls it a rite of passage. He points out that in adolescence we internalize the reality of personal death, and primal societies formalize this stage through rituals offering access to the rights and responsibilities of adulthood. Blanc wonders if humanity, in its planetary journey, has not reached a comparable stage, since we perceive for the first time in our history the possibility of our death as a species. Facing our despair and anguish for our world is, in effect, a kind of initiatory rite, necessary to our growing up, required for our maturation as a species.
This implies, of course, that growing up--in this case, acceding to the rights and responsibilities of planetary adulthood--involves radical uncertainty. It means accepting that we do not and cannot know whether we are here to serve as deathbed attendants for our world or as midwives to a new chapter of life on Earth.
At the end of an interview this year with a British-based Permaculture magazine, I reflected on this radical uncertainty. I used the double metaphor of hospice worker and midwife, then went on to say:
The process of being with someone who's dying and the process of attending a birth have many features in common. We can only be grateful for this moment, this breath, this incredible capacity to direct our attention. With our self-reflexive consciousness, we're given that capacity. No need to get whiney and demanding about whether things are going to be just the way they always were. Well, just the way the way they always were wasn't actually that great, when you look at it.
Whatever happens, this can be a moment of unparalleled awakening. We have a sense of what it means for an individual to wake up. For the collective to awaken, we cannot even imagine what it will be like. The evolutionary pressure on us now, which can feel so ghastly, pushes us toward this awakening. Life-forms have gone through periods when it must have seemed totally hopeless. For example, when oxygen was a poison, who could have imagined that life would develop the breathing apparatus to use it?
M (the interviewer): Do you think that it is because of the nature of the human mind, with its huge creative abilities but equally destructive impulses, that we have to be taken to this brink before we can focus our energies creatively?
J (me): It sure seems that way. But I am open to the possibility that this could be the end and that we will discover our capacity to love each other at the moment of our collective death. I don't think we've been given any absolute guarantee that conscious life on Earth will continue. It might. It might not. In either case, this is a most extraordinary and beautiful moment. Because in this moment we can make a choice for loving life and taking care of each other. Right up to the end, we can make that choice, and that's glorious. So we don't need to ask, "Will it go on forever?" This moment is forever. In this moment I can honor the ancestors, honor the future beings, honor you, Maddy and Tim, and the beautiful work you are doing. And there's no end to that.
M: And that's enough for you?
J: Well, there isn't really room for much else.
Blessings to you all,
P.S. Do you know that Anita Barrows' and my second book of Rilke translations is out? Look for In Praise of Mortality: Selections from Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. We're happy that it includes the German originals. Our first volume, Rilke's Book of Hours, will be republished later this year in a centenary edition with new material and (at last!) the German too. That first book has had a wonderful career, selling over 60,000 copies, inspiring many choral works and songs--including (ta-daa!) a Carnegie Hall concert with Renee Fleming. There will be a concert tour soon and a CD, which I'll try to note here when dates are definite.
Anita and I find the process of getting inside Rilke's poetry so deeply rewarding that we seem unable to stop. At a gentle pace we proceed with a third collection. Saturday, when we got to talking about extinction, we had just translated these two from 1905:
In the fading forest a birdcall sounds--
how strange to hear in a fading forest.
And yet that birdcall roundly rests
in this moment that it made,
as wide as the sky over the fading forest.
All things weave together in that cry:
the whole land seems to lie within it,
the great wind seems to rest within it,
and the instant, which wants to persist,
stops still, as if knowing things
arising from that cry,
that one would have to die to know.
How far from us everything is,
and how long gone.
I think the star whose light
reaches me now
has been dead for thousands of years.
I think I heard
in the boat that went by
something anxious being said.
In a house a clock
has struck the hour...
In which house?
I would like to go out from my heart
and stand under the great sky.
I would like to pray.
One of all those stars
must surely still live.
I think I used to know
which star may have kept on shining--
which one, like a white city,
rises still at the far end of its light.
Last night at Black Oak Books Anita Barrows and I had the delicious pleasure of reading from our translations of Rilke's Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. In Praise of Mortality appeared in March in a beautiful edition from Riverhead Books. We've read from it already on the air, thanks to a local (KPFA) newscaster's love for poetry, but it was a special joy to be face-to-face with a hometown audience, sharing the depth, passion, and beauty to be found in these great works.
It has been an invigorating quarter-year since I wrote here last. Despite unrelenting bad news, the response I've found to the Work That Reconnects has been as swift and strong as ever. Participants at workshops and retreats seem readier than ever to grapple with the grimness, speak their hearts, and team up for action. The honesty is electric. It seems that the more obvious and delusional our leaders become in pursuing dreams of empire, the more I see arising in people a passion for integrity and consequence.
Deep Time work is wonderfully bracing in this regard, especially for facing climate change and end of oil. Those twin challenges have riveted my attention. In England, where I spent the month of May, one of my workshops and public talks was sponsored by COIN, the Oxford-based Climate Outreach Information Network. I read a lot in preparation, but I learned more from the folks I met, who seem far better informed than here, thanks to their less controlled and more grown-up public media. Upon my return I took part in a UN World Environment Day event in San Francisco, where Al Gore gave a stunning presentation on climate change with photos from space and animated graphs. It was shocking and, at the same time, reassuring--that the word was actually getting out.
The end of oil has been featured at my intensives for some years now, thanks to the compelling work of Richard Heinberg, author of The Party's Over and Powerdown. A professor at nearby New College in Santa Rosa, Richard has become the voice on public issues that I most respect. I felt honored to be asked to appear with him at a recent Oakland event where he reported on the ASPO (Association for the Study of Peak Oil) meeting in Lisbon he had just attended; but, having no expertise on these matters, I wondered what I could meaningfully contribute. Then I recalled Deep Time work. I evoked the seventh generation and what its storytellers, as you can see below. And before Richard spoke, I asked the left hand side of the big church hall to listen to him from the perspective an ancestor and the right side from that of a future being.
The Buddhist journal Inquiring Mind just wove the talk I gave that night, along with the one at Oxford, into a single piece for its fall issue. They abridged some of the oil and climate stuff, and brought forward the Buddhist bits, but I think you'll enjoy it, so I'm putting it in below.
For INQUIRING MIND
Submitted June 27, 2005
THE END OF OIL, CLIMATE CHANGE , AND THE GREAT TURNING
(Adapted from Joanna's talk on June 14 for the Postcarbon Institute in Oakland California, where she appeared with oil-depletion expert Richard Heinberg, author of The Party's Over and Powerdown. This piece also draws from her speech on May 9th in Oxford, England, for the Climate Outreach Information Network.)
In Buddhism, there are two mudras, or hand gestures, that I cherish. Statues and paintings of Buddhas and bodhisattvas often show them. One is the Fear Not or abhaya mudra--right hand raised at chest level, palm outward. It says, "I will not be afraid of the fear. I will not close down, I stay fully present." It's strikingly similar to the gesture of greeting associated with American Indians. "How!" they said, as I saw in the movies, and later I learned the meaning of that raised empty hand: "See, I carry no weapon, don't be afraid."
The second hand gesture I give you tonight is the Earth-touching one, the bhumisparsa mudra. Its other name is Calling the Earth to Witness, and it connects with the story of when Gautama, soon to become the Buddha, sat down under the bodhi tree. I picture him saying, in effect, "I am not going to get up until I have broken through to the secret of the suffering we cause ourselves and others. Until I wake up to that, I am not going to move." Well, this infuriated Mara, the embodiment of sin and death. Mara sent demons to frighten Gautama and dancing girls to distract him; but the Buddha-to-be didn't waver. Finally, Mara challenged him outright. "By what right and authority do you think you can solve the mystery of suffering? Just who do you think you are?"
And Gautama offered no personal credentials. No curriculum vitae. He didn't say, "I'm the son of a king. I graduated summa cum laude from the Yoga Institute or went to Harvard Business School." He said nothing at all about himself. He just touched the Earth. It was by the authority of Earth that he sought liberation from suffering.
So we can make that gesture too. We can touch the Earth. That act, even if only mental, reminds us of who we are and what we are about, as we confront the collapse of our oil-based economy and our oil-damaged climate. We are here for the sake of life. By the authority of our belonging to Earth from the beginning of space and time, we are here.
These Buddhist mudras are mirrored in the protocol which the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Six Nations Confederacy used when opening their treaty meetings. You can make the following gestures mentally or physically.
We offer salutations and respect to all present at this meeting and to all who will be affected by it.
We brush off the chairs on which we sit--
to make a clear space for a meeting of minds.
We brush off from our clothing any debris picked up on the way--
to clear our minds of extraneous matters.
We wipe the blood from our hands--
to acknowledge and apologize for any hurt we have inflicted.
We wipe the tears from our eyes--
to acknowledge and forgive any hurt we have received.
We take the lump out of our throats--
to let go of any sadness or disappointment.
We take the tightness out of our chests--
to let go of any fear or resentment.
We acknowledge and pray for guidance
to the Great Creator Spirit of All Life.
Ho. So be it.
The Six Nations Confederacy, we are told, weighed every decision by its effects on the seventh generation. To adopt such a practice ourselves, we would need to let the future ones figure in our minds. To help me do that, I've been trying to imagine what storytellers of the seventh generation may recount about us. Maybe they'll say something like this:
"Once there was a mighty people. They possessed the greatest concentration of economic and military power the world had ever seen. And that vast power of theirs derived from ancient sunlight stored deep in the body of the living Earth. They felt entitled to that black gold--entitled to use it all, leaving none for us who came after. They felt entitled to it even when it lay under other peoples' lands. They felt it was theirs, because they had come to depend upon it in every aspect of their lives-- in food, clothing, shelter, in travel and transportation and communicating with each other. They had lost the ability to imagine any other way of life.
"A few voices warned that the black gold would run out and that its end was soon approaching. But those voices were hard to hear. More warnings came: that the burning of the black gold was disrupting the seasons and weather patterns, bringing vast climatic changes in the very metabolism of Earth. But that seemed too huge and too remote to take seriously, until...
"Until, faster than anyone had foreseen, it all began to happen. The black gold grew harder to find, costlier to pump. They called that point, when the decline began, Peak Oil. And at the same time, it was plain to see how melting arctic ice was altering the ocean currents which had steadied the climate for thousands of years. Droughts and flooding increased, giving a hint of the suffering in store from hunger and rioting and mass migrations."
This much, we know, the future storytellers can say. What will they go on to recount? What ensuing drama will they recall?
That is partly up to us, of course, because we are living it. We cannot make the realities of end of oil and climate change go away, but we can choose how we're going to respond.
It seems to me that there are two kinds of response to massive collective trauma. One is to contract--to close down in denial and fear, to tighten the heart and the fist. The other is to open up--open eyes, heart, hands, freeing the capacity to adapt and create. We know we're capable of that, because it is happening now all around our world.
A revolution is underway. You may not see it, if you don't know where to look, for in the words of Gil Scott Heron, "this revolution will not be televised." But once we become aware of this tidal change, the end of oil appears not as some hopeless, ghastly fate, but as an adventure requiring all our wisdom and passion for life.
This adventure is what many of us call the "Great Turning." It is the epochal shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining society. This is the context in which to view the end of oil and climate change. Those two major disrupters of normalcy weave through all our other environmental battles, and they are at play, as well, in our militarism and social inequality and abuses of political power. More clearly than other crises and calamities, they sound the death knell of our industrial growth society.
So those future storytellers, looking back at our time, may go on to speak of the Great Turning. I can imagine them saying, "Our ancestors back then, bless them, they had no way of knowing if the Great Turning could succeed. No way of telling if a life-sustaining culture could emerge from the death throes of the industrial growth society. It probably looked hopeless at times. Their efforts must have often seemed isolated, paltry, and darkened by confusion. Yet they went ahead, they kept on doing what they could--and, because they persisted, the Great Turning happened."
For us alive today in the midst of it all, we can learn to see the Great Turning by bringing into focus its three dimensions. They co-arise and reinforce each other. The first dimension is holding actions in defense of life; they function to slow down the destruction caused by the industrial growth society, and buy time for more fundamental changes. The second includes all the life-affirming structures emerging now, fresh social and economic experiments ranging from land trusts, ecovillages, and local currencies to alternative forms of education and healing, many of them inspired by old, indigenous ways. And the third dimension consists of a profound shift in our perception of reality. As the ecological and systems worldview takes hold, our planet appears to us, not as supply house and sewer, but as a living web of relationships. And as ancient spiritual teachings resurface, we awaken to our essential identity with this web of life and accept our sacred responsibility to honor and serve it.
This multidimensional revolution holds such promise that I can't help thinking of it as comparable to the First Turning of the Wheel, when the Buddha Dharma broke forth upon the world. Once again the reality of our radical interconnectedness with each other, and all beings through space and time, becomes clear. And now our very survival depends on our waking up to that reality.
This Great Turning alters none of the facts about end of oil and climate change. It cannot save us from the immense and painful challenges they bring upon us; but it does enable us to engage them wholeheartedly, with wisdom and courage. For, like those two mudras--Fear Not and Touch the Earth--it grounds us in our mutual belonging.
In that mutual belonging is our solidarity--with past and future generations, and with each other. There is no end to that resource. It will never run out.
On the first full moon of this year, 43 of us gathered on the southwest coast of Australia to spend a complete lunar cycle on a journey together into deep time. The event, organized by the Gaia Foundation in Perth, was called "Seeds for the Future: Deep Time, Lunar Time, Dreamtime."
Imagine stepping aside from the pressures of daily life and, amidst the wild beauty of ancient coastal forest, opening to a wider time frame from which to see the perils and promise of this historical moment. Imagine taking 30 days, together with fellow activists from three continents, and using the Work that Reconnects, arts, drama, silence and ritual--along with reports on key issues (like genetic engineering, nuclear build-up, end of oil)--to call our larger, ecological self into play, to rediscover the gifts of the ancestors, and to learn what coming generations need us to do.
You're not the same after such a journey. For me the changes seem too deep and inward to describe, though I notice an easing in my heart, a clarity in perception, and a spontaneity in teaching that feel new to me. Still it's hard to talk about what happened; so I'll borrow the words of others who were there, and better than I in reporting to their friends.
From John of Perth, co-founder of the Gaia Foundation:
"(It was) a most significant event in the history of the Work that Reconnects--an important part of the attempt to shift from the cancerous Industrial Growth Society and its hypnotic trance, to a genuine Life Sustaining Society of the future. This Great Turning is necessary not only for human survival, but also for the survival of complex life on Earth. It effectively means the transition from a civilization built upon limitless consumption, and the greed, fear, hatred and delusion associated with that, to (one) built upon radical generosity, courage, love and truth. The depth of our current difficulties means that we humans, as a species, will be required to take 'the longest stride of soul folk ever took,' as Christopher Fry showed...
"The ego-locked self-reflexive consciousness of us individuals must be recognized as a transitional, not the ultimate stage of evolution--We urgently need awareness on a planetary scale of a larger evolutionary and ecological self. The appearance of this larger Self is a necessary condition to secure the survival of human life on planet Earth."
From Emma, young activist in refugee and women's rights:
"We came together as "seeds," intent on recognizing our inherent potential, and emerged a month later as seedlings, tender yet strong, nourished by the courage, honesty, insight and compassion that overflowed within the group. We held each other through the longest, darkest hours of the human soul: we dove into the wellsprings of our grief and despair--our fears that there'll be nothing left for our children's children--and we emerged on the other side, celebrating together our strength and solidarity, and our place in the 'family of things.'
"The process led us from the microscopic lens of the present moment to the vast expanse of deep time. We traveled back in time to learn from our ancestors, we traveled forward to consider the viewpoint of future generations, and we applied ourselves to the excruciating detail of what is happening right now: the political repression, the corporate globalisation, the oil-addiction, the nuclear madness. We voyaged within in search of stillness, and we explored our greater being as a part of the living system we know as Earth. We traversed the diverse landscape of human emotion: we wept, raged, laughed, howled, loved and grieved.
"When we weren't in teachings, we were celebrating, sharing, or quietly reflecting, with a renewed awareness of the joy of being alive. We hugged, we danced, we talked late into the night. We slept under the stars and swam by the light of the moon. We had theatre groups, singing groups, discussion groups, training sessions. We had excursion days and days of silence. We had precious time with the local aboriginal custodians of the land, who welcomed us into their hearts and home and took us to the sacred mountains where their ancestral spirits abide.
"The point of all this catharting and connecting was to empower us, to give us strength and resources to work toward a life-sustaining alternative to the self-destroying 'industrial growth society.' Grounded in Buddhism and systems theory, Joanna's work provides a theoretical and extremely practical framework for this shift, which comes from within, through facing our enormous fear and despair and awakening to our fundamental interconnectedness. It is based on the understanding that activism and spirituality are inextricably intertwined.
"The retreat was an opportunity to deepen our spiritual practice, to get informed about new issues, to learn new skills. Every day there were countless possibilities for challenging yourself or stepping into a new role...
"So what did I come away with? To sum it up in one short sentence: a previously unimaginable inner strength. It gave me the most incredible range of skills, ideas, support, and motivation. It gave me 41 companions on my way, to support and be supported by. And it allowed me to face my darkest fears about the suicidal trajectory of human 'progress.' It didn't give me renewed hope for the future of our civilisation. If anything, our unflinching gaze dashed the little I had had. At the same time, though, it gave me a profoundly different appreciation of what it means to be alive, to be human, to be a part of this Earth and connected to all of its beings. It helped me to understand that the very existence and wonder of life is a cause for celebration. And most importantly of all, it allowed me to realise the simple and complete integrity of working creatively towards a life-sustaining society. This is not a goal-oriented activity. It is an end in itself."
From Jenny of Germany, peace studies graduate and organic farm worker:
"The magic circle is at the Cove in Denmark (Western Australia), where I spent one lunar cycle to explore time, communication with nature, diving into my grief and growing into my true self, healing in every moment...
"Imagine yourself in a beautiful rainforest, right at the beach, pelicans are flying above you and you see the sunrise over Honeymoon Island. You welcome this new day, knowing you will share it with 40 other humans, who care for our planet Earth...
"You share your gratitude of being alive, what makes your heart sing, with the others to prepare yourself for the information of the suffering of the world, which you are about to receive. You listen to talks and go through different exercises about nuclear waste and weapons, the end of oil, genetically modified food, child soldiers, the war on terrorism, dying species, climate change and much, much more.
"Grief flows through you, cracks your heart open and takes you into deep pain, but at the same time you feel deep relief, because no longer do you have to pretend that everything is alright. You live through the pain, feel the healing of it and come out of it ever more compassionate.
"You dive into your creativity, perform a theatre piece on nuclear waste for the future beings, paint, sing, play music and write poems.
"You explore nature and the sacred sites of the Aboriginals who have welcomed you to their country.
"You sleep under the stars and welcome a new day standing in the water naked, the sun in one hand and the moon in the other.
"At new moon you walk the labyrinth, facing your death, watching yourself coming apart, making space for new things to arise.
"You look into another human's eyes, recognizing each other, knowing that you have spent many lives together and finally found each other again...
"You awaken to the new person, your new name you've grown into: Touching the Moment."
These last words of Jenny's remind me to tell you that at the halfway point in our 30-day journey, as we moved into the Dark of the Moon, a ritual shedding of our old identities occurred. My colleague Bobbi led us in a process of writing our names and many roles onto stringed labels, which, with considerable laughter, we were then tied up in so thoroughly we could hardly move. At the last moment before we dispersed, we were cut free, and told that in the next day's silent solo in nature, we would find new names. Names with verbs. Jenny received Touching the Moment. My new name is Peeling Karri, which won't make much sense to you if you're unfamiliar with the gorgeous gleaming, silvery golden trunks of tall Karri trees as their long strips of bark peel off.
Soon after coming home I read a recent speech by one of my teachers Richard Heinberg, author of Powerdown. His words echoed and affirmed our experience at Seeds for the Future. "In essence," he said, "we must plant the seeds for what can and will survive, for a way of life as different from industrialism as the latter is from the medieval period, a way of life whose full flowering we ourselves may never see in our brief lifetimes"
"It is probably optimistic," he went on to say, "to think that (this message) will be understood by more than one or two percent of the population. However, if that seed nucleus of the total citizenry really gets it, we may have a chance. We all know what seeds are capable of."
Yours in glad solidarity,
P.S. For a gold mine of information about the Work That Reconnects in the UK and beyond, subscribe to Chris Johnstone's quarterly email newsletter, "The Great Turning Times." Write to him at
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My sabbath year has ended now. There's no longer a current address for that house of inner silence. Still I hope I can bring some of its qualities with me as I go back to work and a busy schedule. Though it is probably too early to name them adequately, my gratitude for the sabbath of 2004 asks me to honor some of its blessings.
None of them are earthshaking; I didn't get enlightened or discover a formula for triumphant tranquility in the face of apocalypse; and the same old face looks back from the mirror. But let me mention some of the simple gifts of this sabbath brought me:
- Beholding things. When I planned my sabbath year, I had more ambitious plans for the occupation of my mind. Fortunately I fell sick at the outset last January and for two months pneumonia left me too weak to do anything but lie there and look. At the sky, mainly, which is extraordinarily beautiful and luminous and constantly changing. Then at plants, leaves, faces, ants in the sink. Just to look is a rapture, endlessly nourishing. This appetite for looking endures. Nothing can quench it or equal its pleasure. You can imagine how I enjoyed this with my grandchildren, for my sabbath gave me plentiful, exquisite hours with Julien, Eliza and Lydia, looking at the world through their eyes.
- Time to think. This is rare, actually. Even as a scholar I'd been so busy preparing things to say or write for other people that I seldom indulged in this forbidden fruit: to stop in puzzlement or curiosity, to wonder where an idea might lead, to follow that thought, teasing it out, recognizing junctures of my own intuition or ignorance, and waiting to see where they led. Systems theory and deep ecology, though already staples of my work, were especially engrossing and rewarding. At moments I wept with gladness that my life had brought me into play with these unfolding structures of thought. And ever again I drew them into concourse with the concept and experience of time. The 30-day workshop in Deep Time, soon to happen now in Western Australia, served as a magnet to my mental explorations.
- Missing the group work. The Work That Reconnects, because I had withdrawn from it, revealed its importance to my own inner ecology, especially in a time of so much national and global bad news. Simply discussing the news in conventional conversation often left me feeling empty and powerless; and I realized how much nourishment I had drawn over the years from the truth-speaking and deep community ignited by the workshop practices. This new depth of appreciation for the Work That Reconnects is one of the more poignant gifts of my sabbath.
- Gratitude for the bodhisattvas of our world. Although I joined efforts to defeat Bush in the presidential election, and to garner support for Sarvodaya's work with victims of the tsunami in Sri Lanka, I took, by and large, a breather from activism. This restraint did two things for me: 1) it forced me to feel the grief of what's happening without recourse to reactivity and submerging that grief in the frenzy and self-importance of mounting some action or other. And 2) it impelled me quietly to identify with all my brothers and sisters who are taking action. To honor them, identify with them, and urgently pray for them. This allowed space for a fuller, more grateful sense of what they are doing--whether they're reporting from Baghdad like Dahr Jamail, or trying to get the votes counted in Ohio like Susan Truitt and Jesse Jackson, or, like my Sarvodayan friends in Sri Lanka, rebuilding lives decimated by the tsunami. So, strangely enough, the stillness of my sabbath year heightened my sense of connectivity with brother and sister bodhisattvas--in the living web of Indra's Net.
Having talked about the gifts of stillness, I should in all honesty mention two projects that insinuated themselves into this sabbath year. One is the completion, with my co-translator Anita Barrows, of a new volume of translations of Rilke's poetry. In Praise of Mortality: Selections from the Sonnets to Orpheus and Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke will be published in March by Riverhead Books. I cannot begin to describe the sheer goodness and joy this effort has brought me, both in the process and the product.
The other project is a study-action group on the issue of uranium weaponry, which grew out of our August intensive in the Work That Reconnects. Meeting monthly, our "pod" of some seven or eight bright souls bring hard work and high spirits to a pretty ghastly subject, convinced that knowledge about it will help turn our nation away from war. Look at the fact sheet we just created, and posted on this website under Nuclear Guardianship. I don't know whether the grim information it offers can convey the warmth and gladness that our pod finds in working together.
Fran and I leave for Australia on the 18th and will be gone until mid-March.
Yours for Earth and always,