21 Questions for 2020: #6

#6. How can we live in better relationship with all the living beings with whom we share this planet, and learn from them about how to live in harmony with Gaia?

I find it interesting and telling that the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam, Christianity) mention animals only in the context of ritual sacrifice or agriculture. I’m no religious scholar, so correct me if I’m wrong, but the only exception from Biblical times that I’m aware of is the story of Noah, who saved not only domestic animals but also wild animals from the terrible flood. 

Contrast this to older human religions and mythology, in which wild animals figure significantly, sometimes even merging with humans, as in the Greek centaurs and gods like Pan. Even the major gods of the Greek pantheon often assume animal form to accomplish certain missions, and sometimes turn each other into animals for fun or spite. 

The twin Enlightenment gospels of Christianity and Science have wrenched western humanity away from our ancient respectful relationships with the more-than-human kingdoms. 

I don’t think I have to tell you how damaging Darwin was to our reverence for wildlife and to our understanding of natural relations. We are only just beginning to recover from the imprint of the “survival of the fittest” and “tree of life” doctrines, which dovetailed so nicely with the rise of corporate capitalism and racist colonialism in their valorization of cut-throat competition and hierarchical social relations, with rich straight white men always at the top and wild animals way, way at the bottom, just a rung above the insects and microbes.

These early years of the 21st century have seen a shift in understanding, at least among thoughtful people who are tuned in to what is happening with the more-than-human realms of our planet. It started in the 70s, with Rachel Carson, Wendell Berry, Thomas Berry, Joanna Macy, Arne Naess and many others, who understood that collaboration is the watchword of our biosphere, with each living being and natural element of our planet contributing to the wellbeing of the Gaian whole. A better metaphor for life would be a spiraling cycle, not a vertical tree. 

We are coming to understand now how absolutely the larger, more visible denizens of the Gaian community rely on the far more numerous but less obvious members. We humans, like all the larger animals, could not exist for a moment without the plants whose specialized cells make our oxygen every day from the abundant sunlight of our planet. The plants rely on the soil microbes and the fungi to complete their process of growth. Without the bacteria, the entire system would crash. And then there are the insects, whose value we are only beginning to realize now that we have almost exterminated them. 

Along with our newfound scientific respect for the more-than-human creatures and elements of our planet, we need to return to a spiritual relationship with them. Imagine if we humans approached plants, fungi, microbes, insects, animals, fish and birds with an attitude of curious respectful inquiry, a sincere desire to learn from the wisdom of these ancient fellow travelers on the planet, who survive and thrive without any of the external tools we humans require—flourishing without fire, combustion, electricity, computers and all the rest of our modern civilizational necessities. 

In their free, natural state, these more-than-human creatures do not accumulate more than they need; they do not know cruelty or hatred, and do not oppress others; they are never depressed or anxious about the future. In short, they are healthy—something that we humans have not been, as a species, for a long, long time.

In order for us to regain our physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual health, we are going to have to learn to learn from the other Gaians on our planet. Not by imprisoning or dissecting them but by observing them in their own natural habitats, and more than this: by connecting with them in the psychic landscapes that underlie the physical world we can touch and see. 

Contemporary cultures that have managed to retain their pre-Christian, pre-Science troves of wisdom, often called indigenous or shamanic cultures, still remember the ancient ways to journey into the psychic realm and connect with other travelers, many from the more-than-human realms. It’s no accident that so many contemporary western people, in deep distress, are seeking shamanic guides who can lead the way to the wisdom of plant and animal medicine. 

Humans may be the most successful invasive species on the planet, but like all species that overstep their bounds and are not in balance with their environment, our population is heading for a contraction, which may take the form of a civilizational collapse. 

I still believe there is time for us to consciously guide humanity back into respectful relationship with the Gaian system of which we are an integral, though currently cancerous part.

The cancer that must be cut out is largely composed of human arrogance—what the Greeks called hubris. We must free our hearts and minds from the myth of human superiority and the ethos of competition, devising economic systems that are in in harmony with the entire Earth system and slowly but steadily scaling back our numbers to a level our planet can support. 

Our more-than-human Gaian neighbors are already living this wisdom. Can we learn from them, before it’s too late?

21 Questions for 2020: #5

5. Can sacred plant medicine help us overcome our alienation from the wisdom of Mother Nature, which we so need in this troubled time? 

As philosophers like Jeremy Lent and Andreas Weber have shown, when we humans became agriculturalists, we established dominion over land and animals, and women became property; the patriarchal religions taught human supremacy, a rigid hierarchical way of thinking about our place in Nature that was carried over into the modern religion of Science. 

Scientific philosophers like Francis Bacon and Charles Darwin reinforced the separation from Nature, not only in the human relationship to the outer world, but also within ourselves. Our “lower nature” was to be banished (a theory that dovetailed nicely with Christian ideas of sin and hell), while our intellect was exalted.

The so-called Enlightenment, with its accompanying savage colonialism and the spread of corporate capitalism, sealed the deal, setting up the fatal oppositions of Light/Dark, Mind/Matter, Man/Woman, Human/Animal, Culture/Nature, and establishing them so deeply in every human endeavor that for a long time we weren’t even aware of how they were conditioning our way of life on the planet and driving us down the road to ruin. 

Fortunately there have always been some stubborn independent thinkers who have refused to be indoctrinated into this way of thinking: indigenous peoples, pagans, artists, so-called geniuses—ordinary people who are open to new ideas. Many have worked in quiet obscurity. But every so often we get a genius like Einstein or Jung, who gives us a great leap forward, helping us see our selves and our world in a new way. 

In these early years of the 21st century, such independent thinkers are few and far between. But there has been a sudden resurgence of interest in the wisdom offered by “sacred plant medicine,” which has been used for millennia as a sacrament among those scattered tribes that successfully resisted the onslaught of colonialism and managed to hold on to their age-old religions and customs. 

The late psychonaut Terence McKenna posited that sacred plants were basis for the Christian “tree of knowledge” in the Garden of Eden. In the Christian myth, humans were expelled from the Garden when their thirst for knowledge grew too great. But all over the world, many other people kept right on eating that apple—i.e., consuming the sacred plants and learning to work with the psychic insights and healing power they provided. 

McKenna goes so far as to hypothesize that the collective psychosis of the modern western world is a result of our outlawing, in the 20th century, open access to sacred plants like psilocybin mushrooms and cannabis. This goes along with some other major 20th century decisions that turned out to have serious negative consequences: investing in sugar, alcohol, oil, gas and cars, for example, rather than in healthier alternatives. 

Modern capitalism runs on speed and efficiency. The system needs us to be productive workers; we can’t be opting out and taking time for psychic explorations. We can get drunk on Saturday nights, as long as we’re sober in time for work on Monday. Most people limit their focus on the divine to a quick bow in church on Sunday mornings; and there is no time anymore for the lengthy explorations of psychoanalysis—just take a Prozac and get on with it, honey. 

But how many of us are satisfied by this workaday world? We are not ants or termites—we know ourselves to be more than simply drones. We want to understand more deeply who we are, why we are here, and how we can make our lives a positive offering to the world. 

Sacred plant medicine reminds us that we are not just cogs in the superficial capitalist wheel; that there is more to life than accumulation of wealth and the selfish pursuit of pleasure. 

Over and over, people who have tried plant medicine report back versions of the same message of divine unity: we are the world, and the world is love. That was the mantra of the 1960s psychedelic generation, and it’s coming back around again in the 21st century, in a world that has only gotten more hostile and alienating during the intervening years. 

The powers that be are threatened by this message because it challenges the philosophical basis of capitalist civilization: the idea of our “God-given right” to dominion over the natural world. If we are all one, how can we continue to turn Mother Earth and her children into commodities, to be prostituted, bought and sold?

Plant medicine is emerging widely in the U.S. and other western nations because we so desperately need its wisdom now. Unlike alcohol, which numbs us and puts us to sleep, psychedelics wake us up—and this is a time when we need to be awake, alert, and cognizant of our potential to take an evolutionary leap forward and survive…or watch our civilization collapse, like so many others before. 

Psychedelics synthesize the wisdom of eastern philosophy, quantum theory and depth psychology, showing us in a visceral, direct way that reality is perceptual; that matter is energy; and that on an energetic level, everything is interconnected. Sacred plant medicines allow us to perceive the multiverses of the quantum, and voyage in the spiritual landscapes that open up in our psyches, beyond time and space. 

Science has refused to embrace full implications of quantum theory, and Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, accessed through the dream world, has given way to “cognitive neuroscience,” which ignores the psyche in its focus on the brain. But slowly the ripples are spreading out from the first few western plant medicine adventurers, like Terence McKenna and John Perkins, who learned from wise indigenous shamans about love as a force of nature, and brought this wisdom back to their western tribes.

Indigenous wisdom keepers have kept this sacred knowledge alive through the dark times that began with the so-called “Enlightenment”: the long period of alienating monotheism and capitalist, extractivist science and industry. Now, knowing that the suicidal tendencies of western civilization threaten to bring the entire planet into a massive evolutionary reset, they are offering plant medicine to westerners as a gateway to sanity and a livable future.

The Bioneers tagline points to the word LOVE hidden in the word REVOLUTION. Revolution also means a turn of the wheel, a new cycle. In the 21st century, will we have the courage to step boldly into what Joanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects calls the “new and ancient story” that teaches us of the interconnection of All That Is? 

It remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: this is a revolutionary time. It is not a time to be timid. 

21 Questions for 2020: #4

4. Is there any silver lining to the dismal political and planetary events of our time? 

A dilemma I wrestle with daily is how to stay politically engaged and attuned to the troubles of our time, while not being so dragged down by all the negativity that I become paralyzed by fear and despair. 

I believe that each of us contributes to the general mental, emotional climate of our society, and ultimately our planet. 

If, as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin suggested, there is a planetary “noosphere” or collectively created “sphere of the mind,” it is now being augmented by our incredible World Wide Web, which spreads the news of the day wider and faster than ever before. And it is sadly true that “if it bleeds it leads”: bad news always seems to be amplified, while good news lost in the furor of the day’s disasters. 

Thus, in our age of “hive mind,” the planetary climate is being flooded with negativity. Each bad news headline assaults our psyches, snowballing and compounding the negative drag on our collective spirits, ultimately affecting the health and vitality of the planet overall.

We can get lost in this waking nightmare of negativity.

Given this scenario, my question is: How can we engage with the day’s disasters without being dragged down by them? If we don’t want to tune out entirely, escaping to la-la land (a choice only available to the most privileged), what is the best approach? 

One thing I know is that we humans are herd animals—intensely social—and each of us acts as a beacon for others. If you see me despairing and fearful, your own light is likely to dim as well. So the importance of keeping our spirits up goes beyond the well-being of the individual. 

One way we can do this is by acting with positive intention in everything we do. Putting our values and ideals into practice as best we can, in our own little lives, has larger ripple effects than we can know. 

I am also trying to understand our current political and planetary challenges as necessary transformations that will lead to better days.

On the political level, our old systems have become too rigid and need a serious re-invention. In the past, such political overhauls have only come about through violence, as happened when the French and American Revolutions successfully threw off the tyranny of the monarchy. 

Theoretically, humans are capable of transforming our social systems through mutual accord and agreement. That is a slower process, more akin to the natural rhythms of biological change. 

But in 2020, we are in a period of great acceleration. Climate disruption is happening faster and faster as the biofeedback loops are set into motion: witness the Australian fires and the rapid melting of the polar ice caps. Political disruption is also happening in sudden leaps and bounds: Trump losing the public vote but gaining the Oval Office anyway; Britain, in one vote, set on a course to leave the European Union. 

In each case, what happens in one part of the planet reverberates all over the world, through our individual and collective responses, and picks up steam.

When we respond with fear and anger, the collective fog of fear and anger builds, creating storms of negativity in our social climate that may indeed lead to violence and the sudden collapse of our current social systems.

The dark vision of Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” seems aptly matched to our time, though it was published 100 years ago in 1920.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

But I disagree with the “blank and pitiless” vision of the second half of the poem. 

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

In contrast to Yeats’ nightmarish vision, I propose that the “Spiritus Mundi” coming towards us now is not a “rough, slouching beast,” but a radiant new incarnation, a Second Coming bringing light and freedom to a world that has become dark and stagnant, and is desperately in need of transformative change.

We can look to Nature for inspiration here. When a natural system collapses—say, a million acres of forest go up in smoke—Nature doesn’t sit around bemoaning her fate. She simply gets busy and starts creating again, anew, from the ground up—a cooperative activity involving every living particle she can muster. 

The opening provided by the absence of trees is an opportunity for new, different life forms to develop: instead of trees, grasses can grow. Flowers and shrubs will follow.

We may not be able to head off the violence and turmoil that are coming at us with the speed and force of a psychic tsunami these days. But we can change how we view it. 

We can see the silver lining in this time of “things falling apart,” knowing that out of the ashes of the old, new life is always born. We can focus on the opportunities and blessings that will come with the transformation of old, outdated systems. 

By keeping our spirits high enough to counter the prevailing drag of the deluge of bad news, we can imagine ourselves as free, light-hearted creatures, full of positive potential, dancing toward Bethlehem to be reborn. 

Change starts from the creative spark of the imagination. If we can dream it, we can make it so. 

21 Questions for 2020: #3

3. What can we learn from the past about how political systems can change for the better?

At least in recent history, we see new political systems emerging when the pressure of living under the old system gets people so upset that they boil over in a spasm of violence that leads to change. 

In the past 500 years or so we have not seen much in the way of peaceful evolution of political systems. It has always taken armed revolutions to force those in power to give it up. In some places this has not really improved life for the masses. Sometimes one power system is just replaced with another, as when a monarchy gives way to a dictatorship or a repressive oligarchy. 

Capitalism and communism, the most widely followed political systems of the 20th century, claim to offer citizens political participation. But in practice, both systems are deeply rigged to support the power and wellbeing of the wealthy. 

In the 21st century, the wealth gap in many countries, including the United States, is growing as extreme as it was back in the days of feudalism. We have modern-day peasants, who are bound by the circumstances of their birth to work for the overlords, accumulating nothing but debt and bad health that kills them off early. The politicians, who are bought by the big businesses that are owned by the wealthy, appoint the judges who bend the laws to favor the rich. 

In the US we go through the motions of participatory democracy, but in the end the Electoral College can, and routinely does, overturn the popular vote. No wonder there is such cynicism about the process that half the people don’t even bother to cast their ballot.

I could go on sketching this dismal picture of political systems today, but I want to get to my question, which is whether we can learn anything from history about how change happens. 

It takes a widespread popular uprising. We’ve had some popular uprisings already in the 21st century—think Occupy Wall Street, Arab Spring, Standing Rock, Hong Kong, One Billion Rising, Women’s Marches, Climate Strikes, Extinction Rebellion. Each of these started in one locale and sparked sympathy uprisings around the world, harnessing the power of social media to spread the message and incite others to rise up in protest too. 

Social media is key, but does not replace physical, visible marches on power centers. All the hashtags, likes and tweets in the world do not replace the power of masses of determined, focused people hitting the streets with a common purpose. 

If we Americans wanted to, we could storm the Congress and White House and throw out our corrupt leaders. But as a society, we have a reverence for the “rule of law” and a horror of violence. We want a peaceful, just transition to a society more in line with our ideals. So we wait patiently for a chance to vote, even while those in power continue to consolidate their chokehold on our throats.

I’m sorry to be so graphic, but that’s how it feels these days. I haven’t even mentioned how our current political systems are using the ancient tactic of xenophobia to manipulate people, setting poor folks—who should be united in the quest for justice—to mean-spirited infighting instead.

Once again we see people falling for those classic divide-and-conquer techniques of power, allowing the disbursement of billions of taxpayer funds to pay for weapons and border walls—money that should be spent on the education and innovation that will allow us all to survive the coming onslaught of climate disruption.

There is so much in our current reality that conspires to keep us docile. From many years of repressive education to a pharmacopeia of drugs right out of 1984; from ever-more-mesmerizing media distraction to debt bondage; from social isolation to ill health and depression—it’s no wonder so many people are just zoning out and giving up on the possibility of political change. 

I see our social, political and environmental challenges as intimately connected: at their source is the unbridled, corrupt greed (both capitalist and communist) that has been the ruling ideology of our species for the past 500 years or so, since the rise of European colonialism, with its accompanying economic expansion.

In the 21st century we have raped and pillaged the Earth to such an extent that she can no longer support our expansion. We are over-consuming what she has to give, literally eating away our own flesh, since we are no more than a conscious emanation of the Earth. We’re on a suicidal path as a species, and the worst thing is that we know it. We can see the train coming at us and predict the wreck, but we seem to be transfixed, powerless to do what needs to be done to avert the disaster.

We must overcome our ingrained inertia. That means overcoming our indoctrination in following instructions, obeying the law, and bowing before authority. It also means taking risks; giving up our attachment to our creature comforts; and being willing to put our small, soft bodies on the line.

I know that for myself, this is no small order. My ancestors fled the pogroms in eastern Europe and were so thankful to settle in the United States, where religious persecution was outlawed, and peace prevailed. My family prospered, possessed of intelligence and a fierce work ethic, as well as the unearned benefit of fair skin; and I have had a more comfortable, easy life than most Americans. It’s hard to voluntarily give up privilege. 

Like many in my position, I find myself in a holding pattern of waiting and worrying, deeply unhappy with each day’s news, but not willing to take the risk of giving up what I have for an uncertain future. 

But here’s the truth: the future is always uncertain. Do I really value my own small life, with its little creature comforts, more than I value the health and welfare of Mother Gaia and all her children, for generations to come? Am I really not willing to take the risk of disrupting my own life to make things better for everyone?

The cynic in me responds with a sneer: what do you think YOU can do, one small puny aging woman standing up to an entrenched corrupt capitalist oligarchy? 

And the idealist answers: that is how change has always happened, with one little person launching themselves at power, creating the spark that ignites a movement. 

In our time we see it happening with Greta Thunberg, who set off youth-driven environmental protests that are gaining at least lip service of the politicians. Octogenarian Jane Fonda has been leading a charge among older folks, getting herself arrested every week in Washington DC to shine her celebrity light on the need for change. 

If the elders join hands with the children, the most fragile in our society going up against the oligarchs and their goons…we can make change happen. All we need is the will to manifest our vision of a thriving future for all life on Earth. Where there is a will there is a way. 

21 Questions for 2020: #2

  1. How can we draw on the positive aspects of the human propensity to tribalism?

In these early years of the 21st century, we are talking a lot about how our sense of community has become fractured, or even “polarized,” meaning that people have retreated into opposing ideological camps that are pitted against each other for dominance, influence and power. 

Looking into history we can see that this is a common pattern for humans; we seem to gravitate towards social relationships based on in-groups that depend on out-groups for their social cohesion. This was as true among the pre-colonial indigenous tribes of the Americas and Africa as it was for the warlords of early modern Europe. 

Within the in-groups, in the past we seemed to have naturally formed clans based on family ties, with careful rules governing marriages that prevented too much inbreeding. In patriarchal societies, girls and women became property to be bartered and sold in marriage. Boys were trained as the heirs. 

Today, in the United States at least, we live with an uncomfortable mixture of these ancient social practices and the new nuclear family anomie. We still have in-groups and out-groups, but in our widely diverse society they are based on differences like race, ethnicity and religion, as well as class and social customs. 

Women may no longer be bartered and sold in marriage, but we still wield less social power and command less respect than men. There is a lot of physical and sexual abuse of women and children going on today, the isolation of the nuclear family leaving women and children without ancient sources of clan and tribal support. 

In an every-person- (or at least every-small-family) for-themselves world, we face a crisis of isolation that manifests in: 

  • the turn to intoxication (the opioid crisis); 
  • the rise of online groups demanding ideological allegiance (the far-right white supremacists); 
  • the acting out of blind rage at a hostile world (the mass shooting epidemic); 
  • the self-destructive turning inward of rage and frustration (the anxiety/depression/eating disorder/cutting/suicide crisis); 
  • and people constantly crashing through the frayed social safety net, leading to the ever-growing legions of homeless encampments and prisons.

In short, we live in a grim world. 

Is it worse than in the past? All of the elements I’ve mentioned above have always been present, at least in the recent history of the dominant western culture that has given rise to the present-day USA. Scrooge’s famous 19thcentury line when confronted with poverty, “Are there no workhouses?” could be said irascibly by any number of wealthy social conservatives today, starting with the tycoon currently in the White House. 

What those tycoons would prefer that we don’t realize a rather simple truth: that today in America, there is enough wealth to feed, clothe and house every citizen. There is enough money to create new eco-friendly housing, agricultural and transportation systems. There is plenty of wealth to rethink and renew our educational systems, adapting to the current reality of the 21st century. 

The wealth is there. The problem is that it’s being hoarded by a few individuals and their families; and what’s left in the public treasury is being disproportionately funneled into the military industrial complex, which increases the wealth of these few individuals and families, who control the industries. 

That’s capitalism at work in a society governed by fear, greed and corruption.

I am well aware that there was never a rosy golden age of humanity, when we all sang songs together around the campfire and made love, not war. I know that there are bonafide evil types out there against whom defenses must be erected. 

However, in this day and age, the evil is erupting within our own borders. We have a president who calls white supremacist thugs “very fine people” and thinks nothing of tearing babies from their parents’ arms and putting them in cages. This is happening now, in our America. 

And there is much more cruelty going on, less visibly: the dismantling of the food security system for the poor; the debt bondage of college and graduate students; the radical, perpetual insecurity of the gig economy; the outrageous over-pricing of the health care system, sending sick people into bankruptcy. Not to mention the rampant destruction of the natural world. 

Those who want to succeed in this society—‘success’ measured as earning enough money to keep your own family secure—must turn a blind eye to the suffering of others. A hardening of the heart is necessary, simply in order to function in this cold, cut-throat society. 

It is very possible that everything I’ve described above is only going to get worse as the 21st century progresses. The squeeze on individuals will produce more outward- and inward-facing anger and despair, leading to more violence and suicides; there will be more repression in the form of “workhouses”: prisons and detention camps, and schools that resemble these more and more. It’s possible that the natural world will continue to be trashed, leading to the massive destabilization of the climate that will bring us all down.

But I want to give myself permission to dream of a different future, building on the positive aspects of our propensity to tribalism. 

Let us imagine a world where the wealth that is provided for us by our Mother Earth is fairly divided among all her children, including the more-than-human world who have just as much right as humans to live a good life. 

Let us imagine a world where the weak are cared for by the strong. Where laws fairly protect everyone, including Gaia herself. Where nurturing is valued as highly as warring, and children are raised to be responsible stewards of the world around them, instead of takers and destroyers. 

I imagine that people will continue to gravitate together based on family clans, geographic and cultural bonds, and/or ideological affinity, just as we have in the past. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as we can overcome repressive customs, such as the subordination of women, along with the tendency to enrich ourselves at the expense of others. 

The Earth and the Sun freely offer enough energy and material resources to support all of us. What’s needed is a new social system for equitable distribution and protection of those who are currently being left out in the cold and abused, including our four-legged, winged and finned relations. 

Can we imagine a new tribalism for the 21st century, with a tent and a net big enough to support us all? 

And can we move swiftly from imagining it to making it happen, at least in our own corners of the world? 

21 Questions for 2020: #1

1. What do we do with our negative emotions, which can so often be either paralyzing or panic-inducing as we live through such turbulent, upsetting times?

When I think about how human beings have treated other animals and all life on Earth, I am quickly moved to shame, guilt, anger and despair. If this is what it means to be human, then I don’t want to be human! Let me come back as a butterfly or a blade of grass! 

But the wise ones say that negative emotions like shame, guilt, anger and despair don’t help anyone or anything. We live in a vibrational universe, and whatever emotional vibration or signal we send out, we amplify that tone in the world. 

This is not to say that I should be merry as I wake up on New Year’s morning to horrific scenes of destruction in Australia, fires destroying the habitat and outright killing millions of innocent creatures.

But my being upset won’t help them, and it ends up being paralyzing for me. Sadness and despair simply breed more of the same, when what is needed now is strong, positive, energetic action. 

We must ramp up rescue efforts for those immediately in harm’s way—how is it possible, for example, that Australia is still depending on volunteer firefighters with fires burning out of control on millions of acres and closing in on its largest cities? 

And we need to work with determination and clarity on mitigating the harm of climate disruption, and adapting to the rapidly changing conditions of the 21st century. Politicians, media influencers, the global judiciary and governing agencies, and all the ordinary people on the frontlines must not be allowed to look away from the looming existential threat of the climate emergency of our time.

The burned koala bear accepting a sip of water from a straw won’t know or care what richly clad senators or board members decide in an elegant paneled conference room half a world away. But those decisions will determine the fate not just of that little bear, but of all her relations, and whether her kind will still exist in the 22nd century. 

As far as we know, humans are the only animals on the planet with the magical ability to see into the future. Thanks to our highly developed communication skills, we can keep records of the past and present, allowing us to predict the future with remarkable accuracy. 

Thus we understand that the massive climatic changes taking place on Earth now have not happened on this scale in at least 10,000 years, and it’s been even longer since die-offs and transformations of habitat like we’re seeing now happened so quickly. 

Our foreknowledge is both a blessing and a curse. 

Unlike, say, the koalas and the coral reefs, we have the time and the ability to adapt to the changes underway. 

But we also go wide-eyed into this transition time, understanding that in the 21st century all that has been familiar may be swept away, from institutions to cities to the forms of social organization that have served us, for better or worse, these past 500 years or so.

So yes, as I sit with my crystal ball (or illuminated touch screen) and contemplate the future not just of humans but of all the innocent animals, birds, insects, fish, sea creatures and plants—as I take stock of the destruction of the beautiful lands, waters and atmosphere of our Mother Earth—I can’t help but feel sorrow and anguish. 

I know that I have contributed to this desecration. I am complicit, and therefore I also feel shame and guilt. 

These emotions are a mark of my humanity—we call those who perpetrate violence without remorse “inhuman,” and there seem to be far too many inhuman humans running around the planet these days.

As we enter into a new decade, the 2020s, I bow to my sorrow, rage and guilt, knowing that they are powerful emotional signals that all is not well. 

Our emotions are like built-in gauges, designed to help us navigate our world. Right now, my emotional alarms are on high alert, warning me to wake up and take action.

But I am also aware that my “fight-or-flight” fear mechanism is not going to serve me well right now. Fear is understandable, given the circumstances we face. But we can’t run from this climate emergency, and our best approach to fighting it is calm, focused determination.

We may decide strategically to unleash the always-effective human power of mass protest, as Extinction Rebellion and the Youth Climate Strikes did in 2019. 

The key word here is strategically. We must be clear about the what, when, why, how and where of our protests, to give this effort maximum visibility and effectiveness. And of course, we must harness the power of social media to amplify and extend live actions. 

2020 is sure to be a turbulent year on the political and planetary fronts. This year, even our negative emotions must be focused and directed like fire hoses on the wildfires of change overtaking us. As we act, we’ll find that our fear and depression turn to clarity and determination. 

To be human on this planet now means to hold the power of life or death over all life on Earth. We humans have created quite a mess on Earth, and we are the only ones who can clean it up. 

If you value life, you must accept the responsibility that comes with being human. And then raise your vibration, strap on your jumpsuit, and get to work.

21 Questions for 2020: Introduction

I begin this New Year with gratitude for a solid enough perch on life to be able to sit in warmth on a cold winter morning, tapping away at my computer, a mug of steaming dark coffee at my side and a candle bringing light to the great blue dawn around me.

I no longer take any of this for granted, aware as I am of the fragility of everything that makes life predictably comfortable from one day to the next. Each day brings its tidings of suffering: so many beings, human and more-than-human, are wounded, traumatized and suffering their way to death each day. Knowing this, I cannot relax into the ease of my life. I am aware of my complicity as a citizen of a country that has cushioned some of its citizens at the expense of many others, both internally and around the world. I know the moral price I pay for my comfort here and now.

I have so many questions about life in this period I call our Transition Time: these early years of the 21st century when our Mother Gaia is laboring to birth a new, healthier world order. Being of a scholarly bent, I have been reading and researching, looking for answers. And being trained to read as a Comparatist, my quest has been broadly interdisciplinary, ranging widely from the sciences to the humanities, as well as out on the fringes of conventionally accepted thought, where I’ve found some of the most interesting characters and ideas hang out.

Most of my questions lead to more questions, as is to be expected in a time when our learning curve—as individuals and as the collective “hive mind” we are externalizing through our Worldwide Web—is growing in leaps and bounds. This is not a time to settle on new dogmas. It’s a time for experimentation and innovation—but in my view, the adolescent eagerness of western science must be tempered with and informed by ancient indigenous forms of wisdom. Earth-centered spiritual traditions are now re-emerging all over the world, after centuries of repression, offering what Joanna Macy calls “new and ancient ways of seeing”: pathways into a more balanced, harmonious human relationship with the Earth and all her beings.

Across the disciplines, we are in a period of increased awareness of the great mysteries of life—of all we don’t know. In science this is represented most clearly in physics, which has discovered that some 98% of the universe is composed of “dark matter” and “dark energy”—so named because we have no idea what they are. Thus, what we can see, touch and at least superficially understand is only 2% of All That Is, according to physicists. Perhaps the parallel worlds of the multiverse posited by quantum theorists have their place in that “dark matter” sector, beyond linear time? And could it be that every night we humans, along with all life on Earth, access that quantum realm—also known as the domain of Spirit—when we range far beyond the confines of time and space in our dreams?

I am increasingly convinced that the greatest mystery of all has to do with the relation of Matter to Spirit. In our Transition Times, it seems urgent to understand this relationship better, including in its basic earthly guise as the cycle of life, death and rebirth. As the human population has exploded into the multi-billions, the familiar species we grew up with have been going steadily into the night of extinction. Our scientists tell us that we humans have thrown the entire global ecosystem out of balance, pushing us into the Gaian reset mode we call “climate disruption.” Is our current predicament entirely about matter—a situation for the earth scientists to study, diagnose and solve? Or is there also a component of spirit involved in the vast global changes we are living through now?

To ask such questions is to open oneself up for the possibility of radically new answers. Too often our best and brightest minds are being trained to look for answers within disciplines, and thus they miss the potential for leaping beyond the frameworks that have led us inexorably to this extremely pressured moment of transition. What is needed now is a new synthesis of knowledge that opens its arms wide and is not afraid to admit how much it does not know. We need a new human humility that is not a servile crouching to a “higher authority,” but an acknowledgment that our hubris has not served us well, nor the many bright beings, our fellow Gaians, whom we have tortured and sent to their deaths unnecessarily in these past 5,000 years of what we call, euphemistically, “civilization.”

It’s a time that calls for an alchemical union of opposites: the heretofore dominant masculine-intellectual-competitive-hierarchical-separation modes of knowledge joining with the feminine-emotional-collaborative-horizontal-inclusive approaches. Not either/or, but both/and; with the heart-mind perhaps the most important union of all. Westernized humans have to reconnect with our heart’s knowing, and use our emotional intelligence to guide the blazing smarts of our intellect. Imagine if the men who unlocked the energetic potential of atoms had been tapped into their hearts as they made their startling discoveries. Would they have weaponized that fiery power? Or instead worked on it quietly until they understood how to use it for good, including solving the intractable problem of waste disposal?

So many human inventions have proceeded in the same way as nuclear power, guided by short-term thinking and greed, without sufficient attention to consequences. We need to become better longterm thinkers, hyperaware of how every choice we make impacts the entire web of life, of which we, as physical, earth-based creatures, are an inextricable part.

It is important now to keep a positive, life-affirming outlook on all the changes coming rapidly upon us. This is not a time to succumb to fear, or to panic over the unpredictable future. The fear-mongers are out there, but I’m not buying their wares. There is no point in spending my precious days on Earth freaking out over the future. There is huge value, on the other hand, in using this time to search for understanding that can help humanity navigate the tumult of our era with a heart-centered balance that can guide us through to better times.

This approach is neither easy nor common in a time when so many of us wander around with heavy hearts, plodding through our days, looking forward to the release of intoxication and distraction. But I’ve become aware that keeping our vibration high is essential to accessing what I can only call higher knowledge. We are moving from a heavy, dark, low-vibration time—what historians call “the industrial age”—to a light, airy, high-vibration time, a time of transition to a new, lighter way of being on Earth. In this moment, the calm before the storm, we are poised on a tipping point. The wave of change is gathering strength. Will we ride it with exuberance and grace, or will we roll and tumble painfully in the pounding surf?

To the extent that I can choose, I choose Grace. And with these initial reflections in my backpack, I’m setting forth on this journey of 21 Questions. My promise to myself is to keep a “fool’s mind”—free of dogma, open to new ideas, with a certain spring in my step, looking for pleasant surprises.

I’ll be posting a new question, and my own mini-essay response, every week for the next 21 weeks. Come along with me, and bring your own questions and ideas! Your company will be most welcome as we set off into this new year of a new decade, 2020.

giphy

Calling for a March of Love

Grief is in the air in this dark Winter Solstice time. Almost as if to combat it, we had an extraordinarily large, bright Full Moon this month, reflecting off the snow and lighting up the landscape, almost as bright as day. But still, it is a dark time.

79697705_661133542084_130965003237851136_n

The COP25 talks on the climate were upstaged in the US by the impeachment hearings, dramatic evidence of how low America, once the leader of the free world, has sunk. Our better politicians are so consumed with the fight to get rid of the liars and cheats who are ruling our country now that there is no energy or time left for taking on bigger battles like—oh, saving the world?

I know as well as the next person that getting rid of Donald Trump is part of saving the world. I am sure I’m not alone in wishing he would just disappear. Why can’t someone throw a bucket of water at him and have him fizzle away, like the Wicked Witch in Frank Baum’s fantasy?

We are not living in Oz. We have to deal with this grinding reality, the ordinary grayness of our dark time. Michelle Goldberg wrote recently in the New York Times about “democracy grief,” akin to the “climate grief” that’s been affecting many of us in recent years. It’s more than just grief, though; it’s fear.

“Lately I’ve noticed, and not just in myself, a demoralizing degree of fear, even depression,” she writes. “To those who recognize the Trump administration’s official lies as such, the scale of dishonesty can be destabilizing. It’s a psychic tax on the population, who must parse an avalanche of untruths to understand current events.”

Goldberg quotes several therapists who are seeing how this public disarray is provoking private distress. “People are afraid that the institutions that we rely on to protect us from a dangerous individual might fail,” says one psychologist.

If you’re not afraid then you’re not paying attention.

And yet all the reading I’ve been doing lately, mostly in a spiritual vein, is about how damaging it is to come at life from a position of fear.

Psychologist Paul Levy diagnoses human society today, especially in the US and other “western” societies, as having fallen into a collective psychosis, which is driving us to radically self-destructive behaviors.

For example: we know right from wrong, yet we continue to elect politicians who have no scruples about doing wrong, on a huge scale. And we continue to passively wait for someone else to do something about it.

Or this: we know we are extracting and consuming more from the Earth than she can sustainably support, yet we continue to buy-buy-buy, even as this behavior shackles us to never-ending debt bondage to the banks.

Most of us know what we’re doing; we know what’s going on. And yet we are frozen in fear, like a rabbit in the headlights, too scared to flee the oncoming car.

Greta Thunberg, bless her, showed what is possible when we get past our own fear and depression and find ways to act. Each one of us should be searching our own souls this Solstice season, for entry points into our own paths of action.

All the wise ones say that when our action is motivated by love and fueled by the positive, life-enhancing energies of the universe, we humans can become an unstoppable force for good.

We are seeing clearly the avalanche effects of the opposite impulses. Humans are herd animals, it turns out, and we can be easily manipulated by stories. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have a powerful fear-based story and they are master manipulators.

So where are the storytellers on the other side? We have to stand up and tell a better story!

The story I want to tell is about the potential for human beings to be a positive force on this planet.

We are so smart. We can solve our current personal, political and planetary problems.

We can reconnect with the more-than-human beings of this planet in a loving way, stewarding and cherishing rather than torturing and destroying.

We can find creative new ways to relate with each other, recognizing the beauty and worth of each individual, and building new bonds of love and trust.

We can do this. We totally have the capacity—the intelligence and the compassion—to bring the light back to our darkening world.

But we have to stop waiting for someone else to lead the way. The way forward runs through the human heart—your heart, my heart, and the throbbing yearning for love that each and every one of us is born with.

This Solstice season, take some quiet time to recalibrate yourself to the steady beat of your own loving heart. And then feel how your heart connects to so many others who are standing up for what’s right in a world that seems to be slipping into madness.

Let the beat of our individual and collective resolve to be a force for good become a radiant vibration that will give us the courage to go forward into the dark, carrying the torches of our love.

Part of the reason we feel fear now is because we have been through this kind of insanity before. History is packed with evidence of the cruelty and savagery of humans. With each step towards moral progress, a generation will swear “never again”…and yet here we find ourselves on the brink of the same old descent into fascism, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, you-name-it, that the Trump and Johnson people represent.

Well, now is our time. If we look to history as a guide, we can see clearly that it is already past time for us to be out in the streets demonstrating. The Internet is a wonderful organizing tool but it cannot substitute for the power of showing up in the real live public square, taking to the streets with our soft, vulnerable bodies, our loud voices, and our indomitable courage.

I am calling for a March on Washington, in the New Year, while the Senate trial is going on. Who will join me? Hearts and minds blazing, let’s take back this country and chart a new course for this planet!

Now is our time. What are we waiting for?

45779658_642328672194_1370619219154042880_n

 

 

 

 

The Truth of American Thanksgiving

I have been thinking and writing about Thanksgiving for many years on Transition Times. Waking up to the deep hypocrisy of this American holiday was part of my own process of mental decolonization, unlearning the indoctrination of my conventional American education. With each passing year, it’s good to see more public acknowledgment of the truth of how the early settlers of this country treated the native people they found here.

The myth of sharing a bounteous table may have been true on the Indian side: early accounts of Native-European interactions often show the Europeans reacting with amazement at the generosity of their Native hosts. Without a doubt, the Indians helped the Pilgrims and other early colonists survive by sharing food, seeds and knowledge.

 

History tells us how this generosity was repaid. It’s true that some of the cultural and physical genocide was inadvertent, as alcohol and smallpox were let loose on a defenseless population. But as time went on and more settlers arrived, all greedy for land, the violence and cruelty increased. When you read about the massacres of entire villages of Native people in Massachusetts, New York, and throughout New England; or the Cherokee Trail of Tears; or the heartrending massacres that occurred throughout the West…it’s easy to understand why Native Americans today consider Thanksgiving a day of mourning rather than celebration.

 

My complicated feelings about this holiday have only deepened over the years, as I’ve become more aware of the huge sacrifices that undergird the comforts and pleasures that I might want to give thanks for on Thanksgiving Day.

Let’s take food as an example. I am thankful for the markets that are bursting with food at this time of year. I am thankful for the delicious meals I will be enjoying at the tables of family and friends.

And yet I am aware of the holocaust of turkeys that occurs to satisfy American appetites on Thanksgiving. For most Americans, the traditional Thanksgiving side dishes of sweet potatoes, cornbread and stuffing will be cooked with conventionally farmed vegetables and grains—meaning that billions of beneficial microbes and insects were destroyed to bring them to our table, with the costs reverberating up the food chain as the toxic wastes of industrial agriculture flow into the ground waters and rivers, and the loss of insects devastates the birds, bats and other creatures who depend on them.

This is just one example of many I could give of the way the contemporary American lifestyle is based on a violent, unsustainable foundation. If you peel back the glamorized façade of American Thanksgiving, what you see behind it is a bleak industrial landscape, a place of poverty, ill health and unhappiness. It is no accident people are turning to drugs—whether alcohol, cannabis or opioids—to escape from it all. It’s no accident that the suicide rate keeps rising in our “home of the brave, land of the free.”

 

The Thanksgiving holiday is an extreme version of the whitewashing of American history, and the willful ignorance and denial of all the damage that our vaunted American lifestyle has wreaked on the world. Each of us who sees beyond the façade has a choice to make: we can continue to maintain a complicit silence and go along with the destructive flow; or we can speak up and share our perspectives with others.

Obviously I am choosing the latter path, in my own small way here on Transition Times. No, I won’t be making speeches at my family’s Thanksgiving table. I truly believe, with the great Audre Lorde, that guilt helps no one. Go ahead and enjoy your turkey and stuffing.

But as you tuck into your Thanksgiving meal this year, be aware of the true costs of our American lifestyle. Don’t take the ease and comforts of the industrial agriculture system for granted. Know how fragile our life support systems are, in this time of ever-increasing climate disruption.

There may come a time, in the not-too-distant future, when we Eur-Americans will turn again, in desperate need, to the wisdom of the indigenous people of this land. We will give thanks, then, that they held on to the ancient knowledge of how to survive in the old ways: how to hunt and gather and farm sustainably, in harmony with the other creatures who inhabit this Earth.

This Thanksgiving, I honor and give thanks to the indigenous people of Turtle Island, who are so often on the frontlines of resistance; who are too often victims of violence and abuse; but who still—indomitably, stubbornly, powerfully—stand tall and proud as crucial wisdom keepers, holding the spiritual, philosophical and practical keys to a thriving future for humans on Earth.

May Americans come to honor and respect the precious legacy embodied in the resilient, wise Native peoples of this land. May we give thanks for their great generosity of spirit, symbolized in the American Thanksgiving story. May we Eur-Americans learn, with humility and compassion, to live in harmony with all others in our Earth community.

Namaste.

 

Wisdom-Lessons-Cover-MaryLyons-FRONT copy

If you are looking for contemporary Native American wisdom, I recommend this book, which I was privileged to midwife into the world through Green Fire Press. Available wherever fine books are sold.

 

 

Gaia is calling. How will you respond?

I know I am not alone in feeling the keening cry of Gaia, our Mother Earth, at this time of war and wildfires, political tumult and typhoons.

The evidence of our entrance into a full-blown climate emergency swells by the day. The billions of dead birds; the “very poor” prognosis of the Great Barrier Reef; the methane boiling up out of the melting northern seas…there are so many unmistakable signs of the rapid decline in our planetary life systems.

Let’s be frank: we are hurtling rapidly into one of Earth’s great extinction events. It’s happened many times before. What’s different this time is that we are here to witness it. The dinosaurs didn’t know what hit them. We are busy measuring our downfall as it happens, in real time, in agonizing slow-motion.

We are very good at charting the physical indicators of change, but we are only beginning to understand and acknowledge how our inner landscapes are being affected.

Those who are more self-aware are starting to talk about “climate grief”; about the need for “death doulas,” not just for individuals but for communities, societies, a way of life. Guides like Malidoma Some and Martin Prechtel offer bridges to rare intact indigenous societies that still remember how to live and die secure in the embrace of Gaia.

As civilizations die, as individuals die, they create compost and space for new growth. This natural Gaian cycle is being highlighted for us now.

If we can get beyond the fear of change, we will begin to sense the wild delight of creation that is opened up for us as the old structures and necessities fall away.

For example, as the nation-state becomes irrelevant as an organizing structure, new forms of community will be imagined and manifested, more appropriate for our times. We will start organizing ourselves in locally self-sufficient communities and bioregions, redrawing the maps in alignment with the contours of the lands and the waters.

The opportunity exists now for a deep and thorough reimagining of every aspect of human society and our relation to the other life forms of the planet. Education, psychology, spirituality, economics, politics, social relations, scientific inquiry—every field of human knowledge and endeavor has the potential for a radical shift, powered by the urgency of our moment of profound change.

This is not to minimize or ignore the fact that climate disruption and cascading extinctions are already bringing widespread suffering, on a planetary scale that will only increase in the coming years.

How we respond to this, as witnesses and participants, matters.

Each of us, at every moment, stands at the crossroads of a future that is always under construction. Our choices, small and humble as they may feel to us, have a resonance beyond what we can realize.

According to political scientist Erica Chenoweth’s influential research, if just 3.5% of a human group focus their attention and intention on a desired change, that change will be set in motion, and will have a good chance of success.

Change starts in the heart and the mind and moves out into the world. Each of us has more power to affect the future than we may realize.

If each of us accepts and internalizes the fearful, violent, dystopic visions of the future that are constantly presented to us in the media, that is the vision that will take root in our psyches and grow.

If, on the other hand, we nurture in ourselves and communicate with others a more positive vision, we can shift the reality that unfolds before us.

All the other Gaian life forms give themselves in an unselfconscious way to the pursuit of life and happiness. You won’t find an eagle or a newt troubling itself about the future; and yet in their dedication to life they contribute to the intricate weave that sustains our planet.

72633097_657802667184_6074299756274778112_n

Humans’ dedication to growing our own civilizations and technological powers has made us such a successful invasive species that we have overshot the carrying capacity of the planet, and a correction is inevitable. Our future life on the planet depends on whether we can learn very quickly to readjust our relationship with Gaia, reconnecting ourselves in a harmonious way with her life systems.

The changes needed are vast and daunting. But this is also an exciting moment to be alive, full of potential for positive change.

Let us admit to ourselves all the ways that human existence on the planet has become dull, constrained, anxious and ignoble. Let us admit all the harm we have inflicted on each other, on other living beings, and on Gaia as a whole. Let us perceive the potential in our moment of climate emergency, the opportunity to make real change.

So much depends on how we align our hearts and minds in the project of creating a visionary road map to a better world.

No matter what, Gaia’s steady, majestic cycles of life and death will continue. What’s at stake is our own future on the planet, and that of the other bright beings who co-evolved with us.

This is no time for paralysis or depression. It’s a time to pull out all the stops, to give all we have to the quest for a sustainable future on Earth, as Greta Thunberg is modeling for us so gallantly now.

Gaia is calling. How will you respond?

%d bloggers like this: