Everything's burning. Iraq is burning. Gaza is afire, and Lebanon and Afghanistan. Flames engulf homes, neighborhoods, hospitals, power plants. Bodies, say reports, are too charred to be identified, and in Gaza are found burning from within as well from without. What new weapons are being used, people ask.
California is burning. Some hundred thousand acres of state forests, desert scrub, wooded canyons and hillsides are ablaze in wildfires. The tally of homes being lost, the numbers of firefighters engaged, all are reported by the media. But there's little if any mention at all of the weather patterns that are turning the state into a tinderbox.
Everything is burning. So began the Buddha's famous Fire Sermon, one of his first public teachings after his enlightenment. "All things, oh brethren, are on fire. Our eyes are on fire, and all our senses and feelings. Our minds are on fire. They burn with the fires of craving and hatred and delusion." Just that bluntly, he summoned people to see their own suffering and the cause of it. So they could stop. So they could enter the coolness of stopping and be free.
Tears might begin to quench the flames. If we can't be monks and cool the passions in meditation, we could at least cry. But tears are discouraged. The coffins of our own war dead are forbidden to be shown.
And even if those thousands of body bags and flag-draped coffins were allowed to be seen, when would we find time to stop and take the suffering in? We can't afford to stop. The grief is too great. The hurry that drives our lives is a kind of fire too.
Last semester at the California Institute of Integral Studies Professor Sean Kelly and I taught a course called "The Fullness of Time." We explored different ways humans have experienced time through the ages. We sought to understand how time today has become so accelerated, how technological and economic forces that cause this to happen, and what it is doing to our attention span and our relations. Then, as promised in the course's title, we explored ways to regain the human capacity to live in a wider context of time, graced by felt connections with past and future generations. We have the ability and birthright to enter that fully into the generosity of time.
From all my workshops and explorations into "deep time" I had a lot to pour into that last part of the course. But it was the middle part on accelerated time and The Tyranny of the Moment (the book we used by Norwegian sociologist Thomas Eriksen) that I'll recall most vividly. It highlighted for the students the drivenness and pressures of their lives, the short-cuts and nagging incompletions, and it opened up grief. It illumined how fractured the mind has become, how hard to fully attend to our collective losses and shared opportunities. Recognizing this, we made sure to start each class with meditation. We learned how the simple practice the Buddha taught called anapanasati or "mindfulness of breathing-in and breathing-out" can help us stop and be more present to ourselves and our world.
The time acceleration of our era, and its effect on the human capacity to track and attend, is both a cause and a consequence of what David Korten calls the "Great Unraveling." It is no secret that the complex social systems and ecosystems on which our lives depend are coming apart faster and faster, given the ways the natural world is being commodified, consumed, and fought over. In his new book, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, Korten points to the Unraveling as the sole alternative to the Great Turning, and the inevitable denouement should it fail.
The Unraveling, which is well underway, can be slowed down. Given the self-organizing capacities of open systems, it can be eventually reversed. But it has to be noticed first. It has to be seen and experienced and felt. That's hard to do when you're on the run, and don't have time to look and feel.
I have recently been given a hard lesson in stopping--or, more precisely, being stopped. For over a year the plans for this June and July had been arranged: six teaching events in UK and Germany, carefully prepared and promoted by local organizers, along with a visit to son Chris in Amsterdam and at the end a holiday with him and my husband Fran in Scotland. Seven weeks crafted like clockwork. Then fate intervened. A virus picked up on the east coast in late May, aggravated by a grueling flight home, put me first in the hospital and then on extended recuperation at home, which continues even now.
Since my life was at no point endangered, this turn of events is hardly worth mentioning. But the learnings I received are worth noting. They seem to be threefold:
(1) One is how accustomed my mind had become to a busy schedule and swift pace. Stopping is disorienting, even challenging to my self-image. I had a role to play, things to say, group skills to employ. Being an ordinary Earthling in an extraordinary time on Earth, could that be enough?
(2) Three of the workshops I was to lead, including one of eight days, took place without me. They went swimmingly. The local organizers drew on their own experience of the Work That Reconnects to lead it themselves in their own special ways--to their great delight and the appreciation of their peers.
(3) And lastly, larger spaces in my mind and vistas of my world gradually opened up for me once I had nothing more "urgent" to do. My friend Frederick Franck was dying at 97, and from my bedroom I accompanied him--or rather let his remarkable life as an artist come to me with exquisite clarity. Each sculpture and painting I'd loved appeared to my eyes; I could walk each step into Pacem in Terris, the sanctuary he'd created from an old mill outside New York, and feel the stones, the texture of the wood, the breath of the river. I let the books come to hand that wanted to be read: I was with Ishi for a while, in Theodora Kroeber's book of that name, imagining what it was like to be the last one alive of your whole people. Ninety years ago he spent his last summer right here on Cherry Street, at the home of an anthropologist just two doors down. For a spell it was books on central America that drew me because my friend Aryeh is making theatre with Salvadoran villagers, and I read biographies: first Archbishop Romero and then Father Roy Bourgeois and Sister Dianna Ortiz, whose lives are devoted to stopping US-sponsored torture in this hemisphere. Books about Goethe and his way of knowing plants hooked my interest after my friend America regaled me with her learnings at Schumacher College, and I began piecing that together with fresh thoughts about the properties of open systems. There was time, again and again, to sit by my altar with my friend Maya who has been receiving from me the Yamantaka practice, passed on by the great yogi Antrim of the Tibetan community of Tashi Jong. She knew him with great reverence and love, and returns soon to India to live nearby.
All of this unfolded with a sweet unhurried spaciousness, and so did my hours with 9-year old Julien, playing Crazy Eights on my bedspread, and my daughter Peggy, playing Boggle on the kitchen table or in the tree-house in Aptos that Gregoire built. My first excursion was to join them there for two days last week. They took me with their kayaks out into the Elkhorn Slough to hang out with the otters and pelicans and seals. You have to be very very quiet. Then you can see what's going on.