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Jan 6, 2007

Dear People,

I am writing on Twelfth Night, a dozen days since Christmas. That means it is Epiphany, or Drei Königstag, the day the three kings arrived, bearing gifts, guided by a star in their search for the sacred. They found it new-born in a cowshed, and worshipped it. Our holiday gift-giving stems from that story, but what I treasure most is captured in its name. Epiphany: the manifestation of the sacred. I love this day. I love it for what it declares as possible and what it reminds me to do. To let what is holy appear to my eyes, to discover it right here in the midst of life, igniting into radiance when, for a moment, I pay attention.

Perhaps because so much of our world is endangered now, appearing more fragile, more impermanent than ever before, the beauty of it can be excruciating. Walking to my cottage to write this, I catch, for the first time in months, the fragrance of jasmin; see on a cloudbank overhead the sunset's last reflections; pick up from the grass a cardboard airplane Julien had been flying from the upstairs deck. You know those moments, when even the most ordinary pierces the heart.

When I was a boy, each week
On Sunday we would go to church
And pay attention to the priest
He would read the holy word
And consecrate the holy bread
And everyone would kneel and bow
Today the only difference is
Everything is holy now
Everything, everything
Everything is holy now.

On the last morning of our workshop in Nova Scotia , one of the participants, Heather Scott, played a recording of this song as her offering to the group. "Holy Now" by Peter Mayer was a perfect closing for our five days together. Our hearts were so wide open and new, each moment felt like an epiphany.

I was in Oakland this morning and afternoon doing a benefit for the Green Sangha. It was a luminous day. Sun glinting off Lake Merritt , light-filled hall brimming with voices, then flute music, then rapt silence as the two or three hundred present practiced anapanasati, mindfulness of breathing in and breathing out. Randy Hayes, joining me on the program, brought his distinctive warmth and clarity from his decades of eco-activism since he founded the fabled Rainforest Action Network. The event was named "the Great Turning," and Green Sangha organizers saw to it that some real work got done. With the materials and information they supplied, each attendee wrote a letter--either to the California Chamber of Commerce telling them to get behind the state Assembly Bill cutting greenhouse gas emissions, or to the CEO of Whole Foods urging the chain to reduce, and eventually eliminate, its use of plastic bags and containers, so toxic to Earth and all beings.

The Green Sangha consists of chapters which meet monthly in people's homes so they can meditate, then share information, then plan actions to carry out together. One of their chapters' initiatives, Rethinking Plastics, teaches people how to give PowerPoint presentations on the hidden dangers of plastic, provides a Traveling Display to take to grocery stores on Saturday mornings to educate customers, and organizes Nature Ware parties describing the ecological and health costs of plastic and showing healthy alternatives that are already available. ( [Between half a trillion and 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide per year – an average of 150 bags per year for every person on Earth. These bags are made with petroleum (or genetically engineered corn) and virtually indestructible; they leech their toxins into the food chain, and kill more than a million birds and huge numbers of sea mammals and fish.]

Along the same lines of matching actions to Dharma teachings, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship has an award-winning magazine, Turning Wheel. The last issue, inspired by BPF's founder, Robert Aitken Roshi, and entitled "A Call to Action," includes an interview with me. I'd like to quote here from my opening remarks.

TW: This issue of Turning Wheel is a "call to action" in a time of urgency. What actions would you call people to?

Joanna: The phrase suggests sounding the bugle and getting everybody to run to the barricades. That's the response we've become habituated to: urgency, urgency, urgency! At this point, I'm convinced that it is too late to turn around the collapse of the industrial growth society, and that the task we all have, and one that I find worthy and exciting, is to help each other through it, saving what we can, and making sure that the collapse destroys as little as possible.

There's so much to save. There are many mental, spiritual, and psychological tools that we can give each other, as well as linking arms to slow down the destruction and to create new forms, new structures, new Gaian ways of doing things.

The Great Turning, as a concept and perspective, helps us understand that the industrial growth society is doing itself in. There's no way to save it, and why would we want to? There's also no point in buckling on the armor and heading out to destroy it, because it's doing that job very well itself.

So what we want to do is focus on serving life as best we can in this time of unraveling and destruction…

TW: Do you think some fronts are more urgent to work on than others, or do you think it's all equally urgent?

Joanna: Some clearly have more repercussions, deeper levels of causality in our planet's system. Rising sea levels and shifting ocean currents caused by melting arctic ice, for example, could bring on famine quite rapidly.

It's just common sense that some issues are more urgent than others. But the problem with prioritizing is that we can start to compete in urgency, to say, "My issue is more important than your issue." If we are fully, undividedly responding to this time of crisis, we won't try to harangue each other. We won't say, "What are you doing just working for women at the rape center when there are…blah, blah, blah." I find that tiresome in the extreme. All these concerns are interrelated. An attitude that says: "I'm doing this, but I totally respect what you're doing" will serve us better in the long run.

Also we need to realize that we may not succeed, and to actually take that in. Because we suspect it, so we might as well bring it around from behind our left ear where we don't want to look at it: We may fail. Like everything else in life, the Great Turning comes with no guarantee we'll pull it off. But this is our chance you know? The very dire nature of our situation helps us drop our dependence on seeing the results of our own actions. Once we drop that, then we're almost unstoppable. It's very liberating.

The Work That Reonnects lends itself to any issue. This is certainly demonstrated Down Under. "Stillness in Action" retreats, combining this groupwork with Dharma talks and sitting practice, were invented in the 1990s by Bobbi Allan and Simon Clough in New South Wales , and continue to spread in other regions of Australia . They resemble somewhat the retreats I offer at Spirit Rock Meditation Center from time to time, but they have their own distinctive structure and quality.

In Melbourne , folks who've trained with me now offer events which specifically apply the Work That Reconnects to the issue of oil depletion and the end of cheap energy. "The Heart of Peak Oil," orchestrated by Dot Green and friends, opens the gate to effective action by breaking through the numbness and denial that so often blanket people's responses to this crisis.

My colleague of many years, John Seed, who gives "road shows," talks, and workshops in the U.S. as well as across his native Australia , is using our work to rally people to face the oncoming disasters of climate chaos. He and his partner Ruth Rosenhek, along with other seasoned facilitators, are launching a campaign which, at each locality visited, includes a roadshow (talk with music and song), a one-day workshop called "Climate Change Despair and Empowerment," and plans for an ongoing study-action group. Here's some of John's language in promoting the workshop:

In "An Inconvenient Truth," Al Gore noted that with respect to catastrophic climate change, many people go from a position of denial, straight to hopeless despair without leaving any space for action in between.

One reason why this is so, is that people in our culture have not learned how to deal with their deepest feelings of anguish, rage, terror, and despair at what is happening to our world. Yet these feelings are a profound and irreplaceable element of our intelligence. It is feelings that "move" us… Without them we are paralyzed, caught in the onrushing headlights of catastrophic climate change unable to find the personal resources to fight back with the vigor and passion that the situation surely warrants.

(In her books…Joanna Macy) describes a spiritual technology that allows us to transform these feelings into empowered and effective action… Suppression of these feelings leads to a sense of dispirited helplessness, paralysis, "it's too late anyway," "what can one person do" etc. (But) when in a workshop we create a safe container and a process where these feelings are invited to inform us, invited to express their wisdom, then joy, motivation, and empowerment inevitably follow.

Equipped once more with our emotional and intuitive intelligence, in the second half of the workshop we will nourish our ecological identity by exploring deep time and anchoring ourselves in the 14 billion year history of the universe and the 4 billion years of life on Earth.

From here, participants will be invited to creatively vision a sustainable future for our cities and towns and commit to making changes that will allow for fuller engagement in the complex issue of climate change. Networking and resources will be offered to catalyze study-action groups and inspire existing ones.

Couple friends of mine have just published books that I would like to plug. Physician and musician Chris Johnstone of Brighton , England , has distilled his wit and wisdom, accrued through years of counseling addiction recovery and facilitating the Work That Reconnects, into a vibrant new book: Find Your Power. It's now published in the US , so you'll be able to get your hands on it.

Chris writes that he is now making a DVD about using tools the book describes for cultivating inner resources to tackle personal and planetary issues. He says it features "three puppets coming to one of my workshops. One wants to become happier, another wants to give up smoking, and the third has just seen al Gore's film and wants to do something about climate change. But in their way are the dreamblockers of fear, cynicism and disbelief, played by three other puppet characters…." He started filming last month. For word of its availability, as well as news of developments and workshops in Europe , check out his web site

The other book is by Jim Schenk of ImagoEarth in Cincinnati , and it's called What does God Look Like in an Expanding Universe? Many images of God, death, and afterlife, arising from the old cosmology, are so detrimental to life on our planet, that new metaphors seem essential for survival. In order to find them, Jim invited theologians, scientists, artists, poets, and thinkers of all walks of life to share their thoughts on "Where do we come from," and "Why are we here," and "What happens after death." The result is a collection of reflections attuned to the new cosmology.

Anita Barrows and I continue to harvest deep pleasure in translating the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Here's a poem from his Neue Gedichte. Written just about a century ago, it captures the sweet hunger of the heart from which Epiphanies arise.

The Donor

This is what he had ordered from the painters' guild.
It's not that the savior himself had appeared to him,
or even that one single bishop
ever stood beside him, as depicted here,
gently laying his hand upon him.

But this, perhaps, was all he wanted:
to kneel like this.
He had known the desire to kneel,
to hold his outward thrusting self
tightly in the heart,
the way one grasps the reins of horses.

So that when the Immense might happen,
unpromised and unpaid for,
we might hope that it wouldn't notice us
and thus, undistracted, deeply centered,
it would come closer, would come right up to us.

May all be well for you.