This year's ten-day training intensive in the Work That Reconnects took place once again at Land of Medicine Buddha, southeast of Santa Cruz, California. Earlier this month, amidst redwoods and prayer-wheels, thirty-nine of us from five continents moved through the spiral of the work. It was like entering the heart of the world, and finding it in the depths of our own being. That stemmed, I believe, from the exquisite, almost excruciating tension between our awareness of unbearable suffering and a dawning sense of unbelievable promise. Truth-telling bred such trust and respect between us, I imagined our heart-minds as interlinked as neurons in a neural net.
As usual my co-teachers were Fran Macy and our veteran intensive coordinator Doug Mosel. Doug, in his commitment to local food sustainability, has become a full-time farmer and organizer. His offering to our group's altar this year was freshly harvested grain, including the first wheat to be re-introduced to Mendocino County.
As usual the goals of the intensive were clear from the start. Since they have guided us well, I'll list them for you here:
1. To sharpen our perceptions of both the unraveling of the industrial growth society and the emergence of a life-sustaining society.
2. To understand cognitively and to integrate psychologically and spiritually the Work that Reconnects. This includes: a) conceptual learning (e.g. living systems theory, deep ecology); b) spiritual practices from several traditions, especially Buddhist; and c) interactive processes (including despair work, deep ecology and deep time exercises, rituals, and collaborative small group work.
3. To build strong, lasting connections with sister and brothers warriors for life on Earth, that can provide mutual support under conditions of political repression, economic breakdown, and ecological collapse.
4. To review our lives, reflect on our gifts, and clarify our intentions for taking part in the Great Turning.
Except for our mid-intensive solo in nature, each day together begins in the same fashion. The collective quiet, or Noble Silence, that begins the night before at 10:30 and continues through breakfast, is not broken until we start the morning's plenary at nine with the Elm Dance. It is like a spontaneous prayer in motion, the way places and beings we want healing for are called out into the music as we dance. Then, after anchoring those prayers by deep bows to Earth, we receive an offering by one of the participants, in the form of song or poetry or movement. Next comes a five-minute newscast by our own radio-journalist, who rose early to listen to the BBC. Fran likes to balance the day's headlines by weaving in an item or two reflecting the Great Turning. This "News from Earth" is an important ingredient, bringing the outside world into focus and keeping our experience together from becoming a self-referential bubble--especially since our intensive is cell phone and laptop-free.
The morning session that follows blends oral teachings and experiential practices. The rich mix is like being in a combination of monastery, think-tank, and psychological laboratory. We begin with meditation practice: basics of and variations on anapanasati or mindfulness of breathing in and breathing out. Merging mind with body, it unites the group in a quiet, rapt attention to the present moment. It is excellent for heightening our sense of belonging to Earth, as we experience ourselves being breathed by life. Opening to the newness of each breath, we attune to our nature as flow, learn to befriend uncertainty and lessen fears of our own impermanence.
Ah, the knowledge of impermanence
that haunts our days
is their very fragrance.
Rilke's Sonnet to Orpheus, Part 2, 27.
Toward the end of one morning session, Doug led a new version of the Wheel of the Great Turning. After a very sobering presentation and discussion on the food crisis, from genetically engineered seeds to the effects of oil scarcity and climate change, he had us assemble in circles of 13 or so. In the middle of each large circle he placed three objects. First, a roll of gauze bandaging or other first-aid material, to represent holding actions. Then a little jar of his fresh grain (in the classic version of this exercise it's usually a green vine or leafy stalk), to symbolize systems change and new ways of doing things. And thirdly a crystal for the third dimension of the Great Turning, the shift in consciousness. In each circle we took turns randomly to reach out and take the appropriate object in our hand and speak of something we are doing or taking part in doing for the health and security of food. After each sharing, we all repeated "So it is with the Great Turning!" We were still going strong when Doug called a halt after twenty or thirty minutes, to wrap up the morning session. At our closing circle on the last day, a participant from New Zealand singled out that particular experience as having given her the most hope for the future.
A high point of the Konferenz des Lebens was an evening devoted to a Markt den Moeglichkeiten (marketplace of possibilities), which turned the final Going Forth stage of the spiral into a kind of festival. With only one hour free to prepare the space, and with zero coordination from the leadership team, the participants turned the huge hall into richly decorated fairground, where paths wound through several dozen stands displaying the ventures and activities they are undertaking for the Great Turning. Music, art, and dancing enlivened the scene. As I wandered about with this old friend and then the next, I thought to myself, "this is what heaven is like."
Fran and I are winding up a week's holiday. It was originally planned for the high Sierras, then canceled because we thought the altitude might be too much of a challenge for my lungs, which had been affected this summer by the smoke of California's wildfires. We decided to take a holiday anyway: right here at this lovely B&B on Cherry Street. A neighbor of ours called it a "staycation." We weren't sure how we'd steer clear of our computers, phones, and usual piles of overdue work, but; we did!
We read in the garden--my nose deep in an engrossing new biography of Albert Einstein by Walter Isaacson, and Fran's in Bill Plotkin's Nature and the Human Soul. We walked around Oakland's Lake Merritt, hiked in the hills of Tilden Park, and swam in its Lake Anza. We went to the movies (don't miss Edge of Heaven) and a brilliant out-door matinee of Tchekhov's Uncle Vanya by Cal Shakes. And we became tourists in San Francisco, taking the BART into the city to soak up paintings by Frida Kahlo and a quartet of Women Impressionists including Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt--and even showed up one night at Beach Blanket Babylon, the raunchy, goofy musical still going strong after forty years.
On Friday, picking up son Jack at the Department of Environment where he works, we walked with him up the street and into United Nations Plaza, now entirely given over to the displays and celebrations of Slow Food Nation, the first such event in the country. Stalls of fruits and veggies thrummed with life, color, and young people. The whole lawn in front of San Francisco's City Hall was transformed into raised-bed gardens bursting with native flowers and food plants from tasseled corn to juicy tomatoes, chard, melons. The avenues of plane trees on either side sheltered stands of good things to eat and straw bales to sit on while you ate --slowly, of course.
The rewards of staying home were described to me in a letter last winter from a woman in western Canada. After explaining why she and her husband were not coming to an intensive despite their great interest in the Work that Reconnects--no passports, for one thing--she went on to say:
. . . We have given up the ownership of a vehicle. Life without the car gives us a wonderful intimacy with our surrounding world. We are immersed in the selfsame finite landscape that Fran speaks about on the Workshop DVD. It is our daily life and it grows into our full beingness. In sacrificing our 'wings' we have found an entirely new way to fly and we are infused with an extraordinary sense of liberation. In saying No to the commands of the Industrial Dogma we are saying Yes to the Great Turning. . ."
One of the things I most love about the Work that Reconnects is the way it can give voice to the spiritual teacher within each person. We become each others' guides, bestowing learnings, steadiness, and inspiration. So let me share with you some nourishing words from students and colleagues.
"I'm starkly aware of planetary suffering these days. I can't ignore it even if I wanted to. Sometimes it feels like a mounting tension pulsing beneath the surface of everything. I've been having disturbing dreams. . . I've found it helpful to move the fear and grief from my throat down into my lower body--it feels more spacious, more connected and grounded, less personal from that place. And I've also been calling upon future beings and ancestors, and feeling their presence also helps me widen my perspective and sense of self." Young teacher of environmental studies.
"The Great Turning is rooted within the planet herself. And it begins within each of us. It is our planet (be)coming through us." Student at California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS).
"Just as a near-death experience can result in the expansion of normal awareness, so too can this [planetary crisis] precipitate the emergence of a new relationship between humans and the natural world." Andrew Beath.
A former student of mine also speaks to the relevance and significance of the death experience. Nate writes:
"Faced with the reality of our present condition and holding even the vaguest sense of how enraptured and embedded in our modern industrial way of being in the world we humans truly are, one comes to the same conclusion as French philosopher Edgar Morin: the situation is 'logically hopeless.'
"The situation is logically hopeless, not because we lack the innate creativity to remedy our ills, but because we refuse to enter the depths of our own sickness. . .
"We believe the world is ours to save, that because we are the direct and tangible cause of its destruction, we must also be its savior and rescuer. We believe, in our modern hubris, that human ingenuity is the primary essence of Earth's expression and the ultimate product of its evolution. . . In this delusion we have come to believe ourselves as the grand redeemers, destined to save the world from its demise. . .
"To live through this moment we must fully enter our own death. . . Only by embracing the uncertainty of our moment and stepping fully into our unknown future, in an ultimate gesture of surrender, will we ever live to be reborn. . .
"Surely Earth is in need of our dying. . . The journey into our dying is the surrender to our becoming the fullest expression of ourselves."
In a CIIS course on the Great Turning, I shared experiential work in deep time. Graduate student Sean Ellsworth gives me permission to quote from his paper. I do so here at considerable length because deep time work is becoming more and more important in the Work that Reconnects, more and more generative of insight.
About the practice called "Harvesting the Gifts of the Ancestors," Sean wrote:
"As I wound my way back through time. . . back to the African forest we all came from, I was overwhelmed with the power, struggle and love embedded in all the acts of the ancient ones. As I stood looking across the savanna into the deep future, I was glad to know that the feelings in me would be able to find deeper expression in art, language and society, and was able to forgive the damage and pain that I also saw in the future, knowing that pain and suffering would natrually arise along the path towards balanced expressions of loving relationship. . .
"Retracing the journey of the ancients out through the ages, I noticed so many different kinds of personalities. . . the timid and cautious as well as the rash and dominating. I was surprised that I felt gratitude, not judgment, for all these ancient ones, whose interactions brought us here today. I do not like domination and the oppression that goes with it, but this exercise gave me a sense of how all these ways of groping into being were involved. . . Thoughts and impressions such as this were coming up as I neared my body again, and wave after wave of gratitude surfaced.
"It wasn't until I stepped back into myself that fear, anger and hatred again emerged. It was quite surprising how distinctly they emerged, like slipping into old shoes that fit well. I now reflect that part of my practice. . . must be to try holding the fear, anger and hatred that I experience in this body in respectful gratitude. This steppping back from the "me-ness" of negative emotions, I feel, is a part of our emerging Gaian consciousness, one that looks at all life processes from a greater perspective that can hold them and allow space for healing. . ."
Reflecting on the Seventh Generation exercise, called the Double Circle in my book Coming Back to Life, Sean notes that he was assigned the role of a future human, and writes:
"I was surprised to see how I could receive the responses from each of the humans of the Great Turning more compassionately from the future. I received messages of pain, confusion and hope. When I was asked to give a message back through time I was surprised that the answer came easily, if heavily. . . I saw the pain and love in each of their hearts as the seeds of the future, the intuitions of what could or should be. It was in this experience that I most profoundly felt the pain and suffering in my own life. . . The feeling that we each can be grateful for our struggles in the knowledge that they are part of the creation of the future, its karmic roots perhaps, is one I am trying to carry with me."
Reflecting on the re-organization of self that the Great Turning invites and requires, Sean writes:
"The process of remembering who we are and where we are. . . promises to be a painful one. The image of psychic birthing comes to mind. The exercise we learned of 'Breathing Through' the pain and suffering of our time resonated with me as a form of Lamaze for human consciousness's birth into Gaian consciousness (my emphasis). It is a way for us to hold onto ourselves and not get lost in the pain and suffering around us. And more than that, it is a way that we can use that suffering to let us stand in the chaos of life, thereby facing suffering and respecting it.
"This remembering who we are, and whose voice is trying to speak through us, does not in any way diminish our personal struggles. . . (or) the societal and biological burdens. . . But I feel this remembering is necessary to make our burdens lighter, to make our daily lives more livable, because we can have hope that there is a voice in us that can speak in the power of wisdom, and a voice that can speak in wise action."
* * *
Alert to all lovers and doers of the Work that Reconnects: a network of facilitators in North America to be posted on this web site is in process of creation, thanks to Barbara Ford of Portland, Oregon. For explanation and application see the menu on Work That Reconnects page of this web site.
Yours in solidarity and gratitude for Earth,