After a Bloody Valentine’s Day, A Meditation on the Human Heart

Many times before in human history violence and mayhem have prevailed, people have wailed and groaned with fear and pain as anger and hatred have roiled society. We’re in such a time now, of personal and political suffering, compounded by the planetary environmental imbalance that threatens, tsunami-like, to blow us all away.

Literally and figuratively, this is a bleak, frightening time to be alive, and everyone I know is feeling the weight of everything that is going wrong. The daily news of mass shootings, civil wars, refugee crises, xenophobia and hatred writ large and small—not to mention the extinctions, polluted landscapes and waterways, and continued unbridled greed of the captains of the industries that are destroying our individual and ecological health—well, it’s overwhelming.

It’s been a while since I posted on Transition Times, and overwhelm is part of the reason I’ve been quiet lately. Another reason is because I try to resist being purely reactionary in my TT writing. Lately the outrages and calamities have come so fast and furious that if I tried to keep up, I’d spend all my time denouncing the bad guys and bewailing the latest tragedy. That’s not how I want to spend my precious time, or yours.

Sages like Margaret Wheatley are counseling now that we try to move beyond hope and despair, to the realm of what she calls “faith.” I think she means that when we take the longer view, and give up our fear of change, we can rest assured that no matter how things unfold in the short term, in the long run everything will be OK.

Well, in the long run you and I will be dead, and there is a release in that, no matter what you believe about the afterlife or rebirth. In the long run, our Mother Earth will regenerate and new, marvelous life will flourish here on the planet, the DNA spiraling on as it did when some of the dinosaurs became our present-day birds.

So in that sense, yes, eventually all will be well. But that still doesn’t absolve us of responsibility now, in our own time, to do what we can to alleviate suffering and cultivate individual and ecological health, harmony and balance.

One thing I can do is try not to be a mirror for the violence I abhor. It doesn’t mean I’m putting my head in the sand, it just means that, as with the ancient Buddhist practice of tong-len­, I can try to breathe it in and transmute it, in my own being, to compassion that I breathe out.

For example, with the most recent horrific school shooting, in Parkland, Florida, I feel the suffering like a rain of fire. The suffering of the victims, and also the suffering of the shooter, alone in the world, evidently left to his own violent, mentally disturbed devices. Now he will spend the rest of his life in prison, and that will be no real atonement for the innocent lives he snuffed out.

I breathe in the horror of that scenario, and although my first thought is of gun control, and rage that the politicians who could make things better continue to sit on their hands and mouth sanctimonious prayers—I try to breathe through that too, and think about how all of us are caught in webs of fear, greed and power-lust not of our own making, unhealthy systems that hold most of us fast, no matter how we try to struggle free.

It’s the systems that need changing, but change always starts with the personal and radiates outward. The question is always, how can I touch the heart of another human being and melt its hardness with compassion and love?

We live in a time of hard-heartedness. Callousness and indifference reign, nowhere more evident than in the U.S. government.

listening for Gaia copyBut I won’t let them harden me. I will continue to cup my hands around the fragile flame of loving-kindness that burns indomitably at my core.

We human beings are born loving. Every infant turns its head blindly towards its mother, searching for love and comfort. Our entire ecosystem runs on the pure positive energy of the Sun, which shines its love down on all equally, warming the seeds and nourishing the plants without which we humans could not live a moment.

Yes, the circle of life includes pain and suffering. Predators have to eat, but when the system is in harmony, death feeds life.

tree heart copyRight now Western civilization is in a death-frenzy that is not life-giving. Let us admit that to ourselves, and imagine the many ways that we could seize the opportunity now in front of us to transition to a healthier system.

It all starts with the human heart. In the wake of this bloody Valentine’s Day, I want to use my heart to send love out into the world, and meditate deeply on what I have to give that is positive and life-affirming.

That is the only way we can be the change we want to see in the world.

Imagine 2018: Dreaming a Better Future

Although there have been countless other dark periods in human history, the particular darkness of our moment is unique in its alignment of the political and planetary.

Politically, human societies around the world are under pressure—religious, economic, social—and are more easily manipulated by dark forces than ever before, thanks to our networked global Hive Mind.

On a planetary level, all life forms, including humans, are under unprecedented pressure due to the human destruction of healthy ecosystems by over-population, climate change, chemical assault and the deadly practices of mining, fracking, logging, agriculture, fishing, etc.

Even while on a personal level many of us here in the heart of Empire are still relatively comfortable, we feel these political and planetary pressures deeply. Each day’s bad news can feel like an assault, and after a year like 2017, I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling pretty bruised and aching.

These dark solstice days, as the earth begins to swing back towards the sun, are a good time to go deep and try to fortify ourselves, intellectually and spiritually, for the new year ahead. Given a personal awareness of the frighteningly out-of-control political and planetary dimensions of our time, how can we keep ourselves centered and steady, awake and aware yet not depressed, despairing or panicked?

In terms of negotiating the Hive Mind, I try to share as much good news as I can find, and bad news only sparingly. I’ve noticed that whatever we share on social media comes back to us amplified, so if I share bad news—the Arctic is melting! the polar bears are going extinct!—the negative emotions of fear, anger and grief that come back to me simply get me more upset, without offering any constructive approach to solving the original problem.

If I share good news, even if it only offers a ray of hope, that ray is brightened by all the “likes” that others add, and our collective mood may be lightened just a little bit.

And brightness this is what the world needs from us now. Those of us who are aware and awake to the slow-motion disaster we’re living through are being called to be the beacons and the anchors for others—and not just for humans, but for all the beautiful life on earth that is under constant assault these days.

It won’t help the polar bears on their melting ice floes or the hordes of animals fleeing the wildfires to have us humans staring at screens expressing our outrage with finger taps. It may make us feel a little better in the moment to virtually scream our anguish, but it’s a howl in the wind that will do no one any good.

Instead of getting lost in the dystopian present, with which the media keeps battering our psyches day after day, the trick to staying centered and spirited in these dark times is to keep burnishing our dreams of a better future.

This requires resisting the prevailing tendency today for dreaming to be dismissed as an unproductive waste of time; for visionaries to be mocked as escapist fantasizers.

I fear that what may doom us in the end is the loss of our capacity for creative daydreaming.

We are all so accustomed to constant media stimulation that it takes real effort to simply quiet our minds and become open to whatever creative thoughts may come. I’m not talking about meditation, which aims to “think nothing.” I’m talking about creative imagination, flashes of insight, lucid dreaming, the kind of thinking that has propelled human ingenuity all through the ages.

We can’t allow our imaginations to be dominated by the “masters of the universe” who control our media. This is a particular challenge with children and young people, the smartphone generations who have grown up as consumers of other people’s fantasies and representations, rather than practicing our human birthright of creative imagination.

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one,” sang John Lennon.

We who are aware of what’s happening around us have to allow ourselves the creative pleasure of dreaming our own utopian dreams, and sharing these visions of a better future with others, so that together we add detail and strength to the positive dream of what could be.

Instead of reacting negatively to the day’s news, amplifying the outrage and discord, we can share our proactive dreams of what could and should be.

My mantra word for 2018 is: Imagine.

Imagine what could be if your dream of how you want to live, personally, were extended into a collective dream of well-being for all life on Earth, and for the planet herself?

Imagine if the “world could be as one”—and imagine yourself doing one small thing each day to extend your dream of personal well-being out further to touch others in the world. Even small acts like filling a bird feeder, donating to a food pantry or smiling at a neighbor will ripple goodness out into a world starving for kindness.

The media hurls countless “micro-aggressions” at us every day. In your own personal sphere, imagine 2018 as a year of micro-kindnesses, and try to consciously make kindness, warmth and goodness a habit.

The more of us practice this kind of radical kindness, the more it will come back to warm and encourage us, in a positive feedback loop that really can change the world.

Imagine.

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Solstice 2017: Visions Bright and Dark, and a Solstice Prayer

Here in the northeast US, Solstice 2017 has arrived with dark, gloomy, damp weather that matches the moods of many people I know.

It’s been a tough year.

When Trump & Co. stole the 2016 election, we knew we’d be in for a difficult stretch.

But who could have predicted the assault on civil liberties, the shredding of the already-meager American social safety net, the rigging of the economy for the super-elite, the blatant racism, sexism and callous indifference to the more vulnerable among us?

On a planetary scale, who could have imagined this year’s battering hurricane season, the raging wildfires, the inexorable melting of the polar ice caps, the steady loss of forests and species, even as the rape of the natural world by the fossil fuel and chemical industries continues unabated?

Here on Transition Times, I’ve been writing about politics and climate change since 2011, but never has the situation seemed more dire. We are all perpetrators, accomplices and frozen bystanders to the rapidly accelerating intertwined disasters of politics and climate change, gathering strength day by day.

25591989_625386244954_8388774816549944067_nAnd yet we continue to go through the motions of our normal routines. We buy gifts; we decorate our homes; we put out seeds for the birds and dream of flying south for warm-weather vacations. Like all animals, we are creatures of habit and it’s healthy for us to live blessedly in the present moment.

I don’t know if I will live to see another Solstice. I don’t know what “normal” will look or feel like a year from now. What I do know is that despite the harshness of 2017, I have so much to be thankful for right now, today.

This Solstice, I give thanks for the abundance I continue to enjoy: loving friends and family, good food and good cheer, health and the freedom to savor the sweetness of each day to the fullest.

I am grateful for the opportunity to write and share these reflections widely (via the World Wide Web, another institution under attack in 2017). I am grateful to everyone who has taken a moment to write back to me with a line of encouragement, a pingback that reassures me that I am not alone, that others are ruminating over similar issues, and what I’ve expressed has struck a chord that continues to resonate out through others into the world.

In 2011, those of us who were awake to the slow-motion disaster of climate change seemed like far-flung outliers, and it was partly to find kindred spirits that I was moved to start Transition Times. In these last days of 2017, I feel the presence of you kindred spirits keenly. It’s important for us to reach out to each other now, shining our lights brightly in the gathering darkness.

The wise ones remind us how important it is to not succumb to fear. As we wake up to the sobering reality of the vast planetary and political changes now in motion, we have to steady our spirits. Amidst all the turbulence it’s our task to stay centered and hold our own little lights aloft so others can see us, and see the way ahead too.

I used to write about keeping hope alive. Now that idea rings hollow; it’s no more than a child’s wish for comfort. What would I be hoping for? A return to the world I was born into, with its familiar abundance and stability? The realist in me knows that world is already gone.

Meg Wheatley counsels that we leave hope behind, not in Dante’s sense of “abandon all hope” as you enter Hell, but in the sense of entering into a more realistic and mature relationship with the reality of our time and place. Instead of hope, we must have faith, she says, that we will be up to whatever is asked of us.

We who are alive for these transition times find ourselves at the threshold of a historical moment unlike any humans have faced before. We must walk clear-eyed into an uncertain tomorrow, giving ourselves permission to feel deeply both the sorrow and the joy of each passing day.

My Solstice prayer:

May I have strength to keep the light of my spirit shining brightly, no matter how daunting the siege of the forces of darkness stalking our planet each day.

May I kindle your light with mine, and together may we illuminate a shared vision of a better world that we can help dream into being, not for ourselves but for our children and future generations.

May we work together for a loving, abundant, beneficent future for all life on our always-generous Mother Earth.

In gratitude, forever….to life!

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Toxic Masculinity & the Power of ME TOO

The latest tsunami to hit us is a cultural disaster rather than a natural one. I’m talking about the huge tidal waves of grief and anger pouring out on Facebook pages, mostly from women, expressed in two telling words: ME TOO.

I don’t know who struck the spark that set off this conflagration (to mix water and fire metaphors, deliberately), posting the very first “ME TOO—Pass it On” on Facebook, but it is running like a California wildfire—out of control, slightly hysterical, as women who may never before have publicly admitted the shame of having been molested, assaulted, or harassed now begin to proclaim it loudly, in ALL CAPS.

As thousands of women join this mega-virtual Take Back the Night rally, you can see those virtual men looking at each other uneasily, beginning to post “Not Me,” in so many words, on their FB pages.

Harvey Weinstein, yes; Donald Trump, yes; Bill Cosby, yes; Bill O’Reilly, yes; Casey Affleck, yes…yes, yes, yes…so many OTHER men routinely disrespect and prey on women. Not me.

Although this dialogue may be new to many, it’s been going on in the fringes of our culture, in the women’s & gender studies circles where I hang out, for a long time.

A few brave men have dared to stand up to the culture of silence (from entitled men) and shame (from fearful, self-blaming women) and say, loud and clear, that MEN need to own the issue of violence against women and children, and clean up their acts collectively.

If women could solve the issue of domestic violence and sexual assault on our own, we would have done it by now.

The majority of men do not perpetrate the violence, yet by looking away from it, they condone it.

That has been the message of men like Michael Kimmel, Jackson Katz and Robert Jensen over many years now. Men need to stand up and reject the toxic masculinity that glorifies aggression, hardness and lack of emotion, affirming instead a positive masculinity that uses its power to protect and embraces its nurturing, loving characteristics.

Boys do cry, as well they should. And men should be crying now too, as they bear witness to the magnitude of the violence that their female friends, partners, daughters, sisters and mothers have had to silently absorb.

Women, brava to us for standing up in this virtual “women’s march” on social media. Now let’s make it real in our lives.

In my memoir and on my Transition Times blog, I’ve been arguing that we must “align the personal, political and planetary” to heal ourselves, our society and our world.

It’s plain to see that in our time, this bleak 21st century, violence against individuals is replicated by political violence against groups and massive violence against in the planet. And let’s be honest: in every realm, most of the violence is perpetrated by men—against people of all genders.

elemental-journey-cover-new-smIt does not have to be this way. Change must start with individuals—ME TOO—and then move out into the world. That’s why I have chosen purposeful memoir as my starting point for myself, and my offering to others.

I have a whole series of purposeful memoir workshops starting in December, and if you can’t wait that long, my new online course is available now.

Unpack those two little words. Tell the stories that go with them. And then move the fierce energy you will release in the telling out into the political and planetary spheres.

When we align the personal, political and planetary, we bring balance to ourselves, our communities and our world. And then…watch us rise!

Radical Hope in Tragic Times

I am trying to absorb the horrible news of the worst American mass shooting in recent history; and at the same time not lose the elated feeling I had after the successful October 1 launch of the Berkshire Grove of the organization Treesisters, dedicated to reforesting the tropics and rebalancing the planet’s climate, while also encouraging women to step into leadership roles in environmental issues.

22154421_620982604884_4669767767180484296_nIt was so beautiful to see people streaming on to the lawn next to Edith Wharton’s mansion The Mount in Lenox MA, where a small group of dedicated dancers and singers led by choreographer and creative designer Anni Crofut Maliki had prepared a beautiful, heartfelt introduction to the Treesisters philosophy, weaving powerful words from founder Clare Dubois together with original song and dance, in a soulful old grove of pines and maples, on a radiant fall afternoon.

22089816_10213164101109781_8490839444826224249_nIt was truly uplifting to stand together in circle, invoking the five points of the Treesisters star of change, envisioning the better world that could be if feminine energy—productive, creative, fertile, nourishing—were to come into balance with healthy masculine energy channeled into positive action and stewardship of the planet.

Yes, we can do it, we all felt, standing together. We CAN make this shift and save our planet from destruction. Oh happy day!

And then in the middle of the night I was woken from a dream by the flashing white light of my cell phone, notifying me of the mass shooting in Las Vegas. I didn’t look at it then, but was greeted by the news first thing in the morning.

Another man gone berserk. More handwringing and horror on the news, the president mouthing simpering teleprompted sympathy messages, all those media personalities milking tragedy for ratings, and watching the stock market spike—perhaps in anticipation of yet more gun sales?

I’m sick of it all. I’m sick of the shock, the numbness, the carrying on. Sick of how violence has become normalized in this country. No matter how high the numbers climb, we seem to absorb the news and move on like automatons. 49 dead? 59 dead? As some commentators are reminding us today, more people than that die every day in America from gun violence.

And then there are the opioid deaths, the car accidents, the homicides, the suicides, the police brutality, domestic violence, the rapes, the self-destructiveness of eating disorders and self-harm.

Yes, we are proud to be Americans, aren’t we? We live in the land of the free and the home of the brave, the best country on Earth.

I used to believe that. I have not believed it in a long time, and each day brings new sadness and outrage to further puncture whatever remnants of the American dream might remain to me.

Since there seems to be no hope of legislative solutions to the multifarious problem of gun violence in America, I choose to shift my focus elsewhere, on change I can control.

I can support the work of Treesisters and other organizations working for environmental sanity and the empowerment of women’s leadership. I can support and cultivate creative people whose vision points us towards a better world.

Through writing, my own creative outlet, I can try to alchemize my shock and sickness into something more productive, something—if only words—that I can offer the planet in these desperately difficult times.

We have to beware of being sucked into the negative whirlpools that inevitably swirl up like black-water vortexes in the wake of mass tragedies like this one.

Yes, we must pay homage to the victims and berate the negligent legislators and courts that have turned our country into an armed camp of vigilantes.

But don’t let all that negative energy pull you down. Keep your spirit burning bright and focus your energy not on what has been, but on what could be. Gather with others and share your dreams and visions for a better world.

This is what I call “doing hope together.” Nothing and no one will stop me from stoking the fires of my radical hope, with other like-minded people and with the planet herself.

And you? Will you come with me?

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What do we do now, in this bleak autumn of 2017?

Autumn in New England is a beautiful season, when the trees delight us by transforming into brilliant torches of color—gold, red, orange, each tree seeming to compete with her sisters to be the most beautiful and eye-catching of all.

Not this year.

It seems fitting, symbolically speaking, that in 2017 the leaves are simply browning off: shriveling up and falling to the ground in the tree version of heat exhaustion as we plod through a September oppressed by record-breaking high temperatures. In the photos below, the colors on the left belong to October 2016; the almost-bare maple on the right was photographed in mid-September, 2017.

We can no longer talk about climate change as though it were a concern for the future, something our grandchildren will have to contend with.

It’s here.

The monster hurricanes hurtling up out of the super-heated ocean; the millions of acres of dead trees in the West, victims of heat-loving pine bark beetles; the dangerous wildfires consuming all that dead timber; the heat surges in places that used to be reliably cool, like the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and the Canadian Arctic…the only natural disasters we can’t blame on climate change are the earthquakes, and those just seem like angry shrugs from Gaia, the earth goddess, ready to dislodge the invasive hordes of humans that have so disrupted her smooth, harmonious ecological systems.

If, as I’ve perceived for some time now, the personal, the political and the planetary are interlocking systems, overlapping rings in a Venn diagram of human existence, then of course it’s to be expected that the imbalances in the natural world are being mirrored and echoed in disruptions in the political landscape and in our personal lives and awareness.

You feel it, don’t you? To tune into the news is to receive a jolt of anguish, like a powerful electrical charge running through a downed wire—dangerous, unpredictable, out of control.

So a lot of us are tuning out, in self-protection. There is just too much bad news to absorb, and all the disasters are blurring together—the terrorist attacks, the natural disasters, the political horrors that daily revive prejudices and hatreds we hoped were long dead.

Those of us who still have the privilege and luxury of sitting on the sidelines—in safe, intact homes, with enough food and clean water, electricity tamely offering itself in sockets and gas at the ready on our stoves—we watch the bedlam going on elsewhere with dread, knowing that any day it could be our turn.

We’re frozen in the headlights of an inexorable future, just waiting and watching those brown leaves fall.

There have been other times in history when it was possible to see the storm clouds brewing, and people had the time and the choice to act. Germany in the 1930s, for example. With Nazism on the rise, some Jews and other targeted people saw the swastikas on the wall and made the decision to get the hell out while they could, even if it meant leaving behind all their worldly possessions. They chose life, and their descendants thank them for it.

There are eerie parallels with pre-war Germany in the United States today. Zombie haters rise again, and don’t even bother to hide their faces—why should they, with one of their own squatting brazenly in the White House itself?

But now not only is the political landscape roiling, but also the natural landscape. It’s a double whammy, the political and the planetary way off balance, and sucking all of us into a vortex of hurricane strength.

What should we be doing now? I think you know the answers.

Get to higher ground, literally and symbolically. Try to get yourself and your loved ones out of harm’s way, even as you acknowledge that in 2017 nowhere on Earth is truly safe.

In the dystopic futures that so many of our writers are imagining for us lately, it doesn’t matter how much money you have in the bank, or how big or well-furnished your house is. It doesn’t matter how successful you are in your career or where you went to college.

What matters, ultimately, is what has always mattered: the quality of our relationships. Our love for each other, and the way we express that love and caring. We don’t need electricity for that, or credit cards.

This is what John Steinbeck was showing us in the heart-wrenching final scene of Grapes of Wrath, when a young woman whose baby has just died offers her streaming breast to a starving old man.

Grapes of Wrath wasn’t science fiction. Steinbeck was describing the world as he observed it, to an audience that hadn’t yet felt that kind of dire need.

There is not much we as individuals can do to alter the future. The hurricane of climate change is already on its way; the political tornadoes spawned by the Republicans are already wreaking havoc.

Of course, we can stay engaged politically and work for a change of leadership in 2018. But we have to be clear-eyed about the fact that even under Democratic leadership, the U.S. has drifted into ever-more-dangerous waters.

Maybe it’s time to lower the lifeboats and try to get away from the mother ship while that’s still possible. By which I mean, lesson our dependence on nation and build up independence and resiliency on the local level, for ourselves and our communities.

If that sounds like libertarianism, well, we live in strange times.

We humans are located in the sweet spot in the middle of the Venn diagram of personal, political and planetary. What we do in our personal lives radiates outward, with real, palpable effects.

The message in the sad brown leaves of autumn 2017 is this: now is the time to cultivate love at home, build up your resiliency and make friends with your neighbors. What else are we alive for, in these turbulent, discomfiting transition times?

 

 

 

 

Coping with Non-stop Catastrophe

I can’t help feeling a bizarre sense of surreality as I enjoy a lovely, peaceful, golden September afternoon here in New England while at the same time being deeply plunged into virtual reality, watching the slow but inexorable progress of Hurricane Irma across the Caribbean and up the Florida peninsula.

It’s like living life in a constant state of split-screen.

On the left, there’s my ordinary life, which (thankfully) is at the moment moving forward without much drama.

On the right, there are the dark clouds, howling winds and rising seas of the storms—literal and metaphorical—that are sweeping over other parts of the USA and the world.

The hurricane is an apt weather-metaphor for the tumultuous weeks since the American solar eclipse on August 21. We’ve had more intense news packed into these few weeks than seems possible.

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How are we to maintain our balance, focus and peace of mind when we’re being whipsawed from a Nazi/KKK riot in Charlottesville to an insane dictator in North Korea playing with nuclear missiles to an epic flood in Texas to the racist anti-immigrant president pardoning a known criminal (Sheriff Arpaio) and preparing to deport nearly a million hard-working Dreamers to record-breaking wildfires on the West Coast to the biggest, meanest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic to a once-in-a-century earthquake in Mexico…and it just goes on and on and on.

Compared with figuring out how to survive a hurricane, or how to clean up a city devastated by one, my split-screen dilemma is trivial. But it is a strange polarity that I must navigate every day: staying aware of all the dire circumstances people are living through, while not getting so caught up in that virtual reality—other people’s lives—that I neglect my own, or become immobilized by anxiety and depression.

41DVsVYbnRL._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_I wonder if this will be a new diagnosis for the psychiatrists to label and record in their DSM? They could call it virtual reality anxiety syndrome, with complications of depression and insomnia.

Part of the anxiety comes from the awareness that it’s only a matter of time before the camera comes swinging around to me and my part of the world. Right now all is peaceful…but the big one will be heading my way soon too, whether it’s an unprecedented snowstorm or a New York City bombing or car attack or water poisoned by chemicals or a crazy man going amuck with a semi-automatic rifle. All of this has happened already, and will continue to happen…there is no escaping the rapid and deadly beat of life in the 21st century.

So the question becomes how to live with this knowledge while remaining open, empathetic, curious, upbeat—how to live each day as a marvelous gift to be unpacked with delight, while sending love and concern to the other half of the screen—the people who have the misfortune to be dealing with the storm systems now.

How do we keep enjoying life without being overcome with guilt, sorrow and rage at the way others are, at the same exact minute, being forced to suffer?

I am doing the best I can. How about you? I’d be very grateful for any suggestions you may have about how to manage “virtual reality anxiety syndrome” better.

And now, back to you, Irma.

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What Lies Beneath: Of Mushrooms, Mycelia and Interconnection

On these warm, humid days of late summer, I have been walking the woods looking for mushrooms. There are so many to be found, and of such a marvelous variety!

Mushrooms mean more to me since I began to understand them as the visible fruits of the vast underground network known as the mycelium.

From Animate Earth by Stephan Harding: “Mycelia can grow at prodigious speed and explore space with phenomenal density. They can extend several centimeters a day and can infuse a mere gram of soil with over a kilometer of their intensely networked pipe-like cells….Some mycelia can be massive in both age and size. Perhaps the largest organism on Earth is a 2,200-year-old Armillaria root-rot fungus that grows in 2,400 acres of forest soil in eastern Oregon.”

FullSizeRender 3Especially fascinating to me is the symbiotic relationship that has developed between trees (and other plants) and the members of the fungi kingdom. The photo-synthesizers turn sunlight into sugar, which they share with the fungi in return for a functional extension of their roots further and wider than the plant could achieve on its own. The fungi exchange valuable minerals and water for the precious sunlight-sugar, and in a healthy environment all prosper and do well on our rich Mother Earth.

I walk the forest moodily these days, spying mushrooms and thinking about what lies beneath. It seems like an apt metaphor to be exploring in our social landscape as well.

What lies beneath the visible expressions of life that seize our attention day by day?

What lies beneath the constant eruptions of violence in the world, from Orlando to Charlottesville, from Aleppo to Barcelona, from Nice to Mosul?

What lies beneath the visible evidence of climate dysfunction—wildfires, floods—and the inexorable biological die-off known as the Sixth Great Extinction?

What lies beneath the naked greed and egotism polluting the American political system? Where is this ugly cancer of racism and hate coming from?

Humans now have the neurological equivalent of mycelia, the vast extension of our nervous system through the World Wide Web. Information is our sugar, and it seems we are quite dependent on it—even addicted, you might say.

The thing is that our Web has grown up in a spiritually impoverished time, in intellectual, technical soils that are superficial and incapable of providing us with the nourishment we need to turn the sugar of information into harmonious, beautiful, ethically strong philosophies and ways of living.

When soils are constantly bombarded with chemicals like pesticides, herbicides and anti-fungals, they produce plants that are weakly rooted and susceptible to diseases and infections.

So too, when we humans inhabit social landscapes that are constantly saturated with negativity, devoid of hope and inspiration, we are susceptible to being taken over by campaigns of hate and sloganeering. We fall prey to violence, whether self-destructive (the opioid crisis, eating disorders, depression and anxiety, physical illness) or against others (domestic violence, sexual violence, hate crimes, gangs, economic bludgeoning and the brainwashed othering that results in racial profiling).

Our World Wide Web could be, and sometimes is, a nourishing network. The places I go on the Internet are places of reflection, ethical courage, and humility. I strive to dig my roots deep into this rich soil and at times make my own thoughts visible, mushroom-style, as I do in Transition Times.

But we learned in the 2016 American election that the hateful, spiritually empty areas of the Web are growing quickly. It’s like a Roundup Ready crop, fast-growing and seemingly robust, yet devoid of true nourishment for the spirit.

What are those boys who brought hate to Charlottesville doing this week, in the aftermath of their eruption into plain view? What nastiness are they readying for the weeks and months ahead?

Harding: “When ready to reproduce, previously invisible mycelia gather their hyphae together to form fruiting bodies such as mushrooms and moulds that sprout into the air….They can emerge quickly because the underlying mycelium is immensely effective at supplying concentrated hydraulic power to a specific point in the network on very short notice. Fungal fruiting bodies release spores tiny enough to ride on swirling currents of air, and thus they find new places fit for colonization. Vast numbers of spores are released—some bracket fungi growing out of trees can release some 30 thousand million spores each day.”

These days, we who believe in equality and justice for all must work harder to make ourselves visible. We must be outspoken and forceful like never before. We must send the spores of our clear understanding of love and inclusivity far and wide, becoming beacons of hope and monuments to “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible,” to quote Charles Eisenstein.

The mycelium of our movement must dig down and go far and wide, creating a rich substratum of thought and practice that counters the shallow, hostile soils of hate that have been spreading on the Web.

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It will be important, in the days and years ahead, to consciously work on building our connections in the real world, as well as in our virtual landscapes.

We have to remember, and teach our children, how to enjoy creative collaboration in real life. It can be as simple as sitting in thoughtful conversation or working together to make a good meal.

We all have the potential to create beauty in our lives, and to share what we have created with others.

As we tend to our social landscapes, we must also remember to value the often unheeded planetary systems without which none of us could survive for an instant: the plants that make our air, the clean waters we all depend on, the rich microbial soils and the vast fungal networks that provide the silent steady pulse of harmonious interconnection.

A task for these August eclipse days: pay attention to what lies beneath the surface of your life. Dig your roots down deep, and work with your neighbors, real and virtual, to build a healthy, vibrant community—for all life on Earth. Stand up tall and send out those positive spores.

Stop the World, I Want to Get Off!

We live in a time when depression and anxiety are at epidemic levels—the so-called “opioid crisis” is really just a symptom of a deeper sickness eating away at the heart of our society. It’s especially disturbing—but understandable—to find high levels of anxiety and despair among the young.

This has been going on for a long time in certain communities—among the urban poor or on Native reservations, using drugs and alcohol to fight the despair is nothing new.

Now it’s spilling into the mainstream—white suburban kids are dying from overdoses, along with their fathers and mothers. This recent report from my home state of Massachusetts presents a chilling portrait of the scale of the problem.

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While better treatment for addicts is certainly necessary, it’s crucial to address the the deeper roots of the problem: the physical and emotional pain that drives kids, men and women to seek out opioids, legal or illegal.

This is a much more complicated knot to try to untangle, but the basic outlines of the problem are clear.

  • We need a more vibrant, creative, exciting educational system, where kids look forward to going to school each day because it’s a chance to interact collaboratively with interesting people—teachers, other students, and community members of all ages—and learn life skills that can be immediately put into practice. Humans learn best by doing, not by rote memorization and regurgitation of abstract knowledge.
  • We need better nutrition: getting chemicals and excessive sugar out of our diet and returning to the whole, unprocessed foods that contribute naturally to our physical and mental health. We need to get connected with how our food is produced, and return to gardening and animal husbandry ourselves when possible. We need more time for eating and socializing around the table.
  • We need a basic social safety net for all, so that no one has to worry about becoming homeless if they get sick, or when they get old. Everyone has something to contribute to society, and people should always be able to find rewarding work in their communities that will allow them to live decently and with respect.
  • We need to create more time and space for fun, especially in outdoor activities, or in creative, collaborative culture-making. Despite all the social media, people are feeling isolated and alienated and even the comfort of talk therapy has been taken away by the insurance companies, which would much rather push those pills on us.

To those who would tell me we can’t afford it, I reply: what would happen if we stopped spending more than $600 billion a year (15% of 2016 GDP) on the military, while giving only 3% of GDP to education? What if those proportions were reversed, as they are in many other Western countries?

And yet even as I type these words, I know the politicians won’t be listening. They are too focused on treating the symptoms to pay attention to the causes.

This is as true for dealing with climate change as it is for dealing with the opioid crisis. Everyone is looking for quick fixes that will allow us to continue with business as usual, no matter how many casualties that business generates.

When confronted with an intractable problem, my mom used to say, “Stop the world, I want to get off!”

Lately the feeling of just being along for the ride—and a hurtling, scary, out-of-control ride at that—grows stronger day by day.

And of course, we can’t get off, not alive, anyway.

So how do we deal with having to sit in the back seat while the drivers take us down bumpy roads in the wrong direction at dangerous speeds?

My own response is to focus on what I do have control over.

  • I can weed my garden, spend more time outside.
  • I can eat healthy foods and cultivate mental clarity by cutting back on the distractions of social media and television.
  • I can try to contribute positively to my community—family, friends, the larger circles of positive creative people I care about.
  • I can review my life goals, and set some intentions for the coming years that, with focus and effort, I may be able to achieve.

Most of all, I can set my internal compass to LOVE and try to hold it steady there, no matter the jerks and lurches along the road.

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My new online course, The Elemental Journey of Purposeful Memoir, will be launching this fall. Through catalyzing writing prompts, I invite you to consider how you got where you are today, and to envision the future you want to create and live into. Join me!

What is being asked of us now? Gaian death doulas for a world in transition

Memorial Day, by design, is focused on death. This year, it seems like the tide of death has become a roaring tsunami. You know what I mean; I don’t have to list it.

As I try to cope with my grief and anger over the state of our world today, it’s becoming clear to me that those of us who are aware are being called to become death doulas for our dying world: Gaian death doulas.

It’s an odd juxtaposition: death doula. Doulas are usually all about birth: they assist midwives, mothers and families to warmly usher babies into life.

Death doulas are more like hospice workers, trying to help smooth the passage for those who are dying, and their families. Amid a growing awareness of the lack of graciousness in the medicalization of death, the idea of death doulas is catching on.

As I look for ways that the personal, political and planetary align, I see that just as personal death doulas can help dying individuals with their transition, and ease the grief of those who love them, Gaian death doulas can bring a political and planetary perspective to help communities in transition, helping us balance our grief over what is being lost with a quickening awareness of the potential of the new era now emerging.

Western civilization understands life and death in too linear and finite a way. Death and life are part of a great spiral dance, as Starhawk put it long ago; a dance in which each living being has a role to play, from the tiniest insect or plankton to the human, the whale and the great baobab tree.

In beginning to understand my own role as that of a Gaian death doula, I am indebted not only to Starhawk but also to Joanna Macy, both of whom have long been leading the way.

The work begins with looking back to understand the great dying we humans have presided over and contributed to over the past 5,000 years, since Gilgamesh so symbolically killed the guardian of the forest and starting cutting trees to build his city.

We have to look unflinchingly at the steady increase in destruction caused by industrial capitalism, in order to understand our personal and political role in the system we were born into.

How have we been socialized into a callous acceptance of constant unnecessary death and destruction? How have we acquiesced and contributed to this? Have we ever tried to imagine a better, more life-affirming relationship to our planet?

These are the kinds of questions I raise in my memoir, and in my purposeful memoir workshops, where we consciously consider how the personal, political and planetary have aligned in our lives.

But it’s not all about sadness and guilt. Even as we bear witness to “the sixth great extinction” that is unfolding in our time, we can also celebrate our planet’s endless potential for regeneration and rebirth.

Yes, we may lose many of the iconic species we love, our dear elephants and sweet polar bears.

But let’s remember that other wonderful species have been lost before, on the road to our present moment, and not all of them due to human aggression: from the dinosaurs to the saber-toothed tiger or the mammoth, many species have had their heyday and spiraled back into the birth-death-rebirth dance of Gaian evolutionary history.

We can learn from Mother Earth’s endlessly creative and abundant example. She doesn’t waste time mourning; she immediately gets to work regenerating, using the building blocks available—we can see this plainly in the way green grass shoots right up to take the place of trees that are cut down.

Gaian death doulas can help us understand the transition process we’re in now, so that we can support Mother Earth in her important work of regeneration. Yes, we can and must grieve those lost, but we must also cultivate and support the new life rising.

For me this is as much about standing up for a nurturing Gaian education for our young humans as it as about insisting on humane treatment of farm animals and properly regenerative agricultural and logging practices.

This Memorial Day, I grieve the tremendous dying-off of our time. And through my tears, I smile and extend a hand to those grieving with me, and to the young ones who are just coming in to this story.

The next chapters are ours to imagine, ours to dream and to manifest. What role will you create for yourself? Let’s work together to craft a story we can live into with joy.

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