21 Questions for 2020: #16

#16. Whither education in the time of the pandemic, and after?

This is a question that cuts close to my bone, since education has been my calling and profession for my whole life: as a college professor, I am the perpetual student, always wanting to explore my own cutting edge, never content to simply offer again what I already know. 

In recent years, as you might have guessed if you’ve been reading this series, I have become far more interested in questions than in answers. In the Internet age, we can find 100 expert answers to any research question we might pose, and students are always whipping out their phones in class to consult their pocket oracles.

But the kinds of questions that interest me cannot be easily answered by a Google search, or even a virtual trip to the library database. 

I want to explore the questions that have not been answered yet. Big ones that I ponder regularly include: 

  • What happens to the spirit after death? 
  • How can we access the energetic and material realms that scientists say compose 98% or more of the knowable universe, the so-called “dark matter” and “dark energy” fields? 
  • How can we engage in more frequent, widespread and reliable communication with the mysterious voices that a few open channels among us have been blessed to receive? 
  • How can we make more intentional and regular use of the potential of the dream world as a portal for telepathic communication, healing and guidance?

Answers to these questions lie tantalizingly out of reach of my rational mind, and yet my intuition continues to circle them, probing for a way in to understanding. Especially at this juncture in history, when the systems that uphold our physical world and our social structures are under such strain, a better understanding of the non-physical realm beckons urgently. 

If we knew that death was a gentle return to a dazzling energetic sea, a chance to reset and renew in the company of our loved ones, with whom we have returned to physical form over and over again, beyond time…how differently we might live our lives and contemplate our deaths. 

I have been thinking about Socrates lately; how he insisted that the job of a serious student of philosophy was to prepare for death. A well-educated person is a person who is able, ready and willing to make that ultimate journey into the unknown. And the method of education, for Socrates, was asking questions. 

My students and I frequently get annoyed with Socrates for asking leading questions and tangling his interlocutors up in sticky spiderwebs of nuance that never lead to any clear answers.

But the example he set in his own death, as recorded by his devoted student Plato, was crystal clear. Death for Socrates was a blessed release, for which he had spent his life preparing. In his own calm, peaceful death, he gave his weeping students the greatest lesson of all. 

Enjoy life. Be a lifelong student. And be not afraid of death.

***

As an educator, I am always questioning my own goals and methods. With a PhD in Comparative Literature and an expertise in personal narrative by women from different parts of the world, for many years I offered classes where we used the course texts to open windows into complex identities, social structures, and dynamic communities. In particular, I have been interested in patterns of resistance across cultures—how women found their way and claimed their voices and their power despite individual and societal barriers. 

But now it seems that resistance is no longer the right thread to be following in exploring the ever-shifting tapestry of life.

I don’t want to push angrily against what is; I want to explore, eagerly and with an open heart-mind, what might be. 

Young people today do need to learn the real, unvarnished history of the centuries of pain and injustice inflicted by the powerful on whomever they could subordinate and dominate in the service of their greedy goals.

But having learned what was, students today need to turn their bright minds and spirits to imagining what could be

How can education focus itself around the urgent task of creating a happier world where people live well in harmony with the flourishing more-than-human denizens of our planet? 

Shifting the questions we’re asking seems key. 

If we were to ask not “how can we maximize profits” but “how can we maximize happiness,” as Bhutan did in establishing its Gross National Happiness index, the goals of every field of education would shift. 

Instead of applying our intelligence to domination and extraction, the black magic of turning exploited workers and natural resources into money in the bank, we would be looking at how to make an entire system thrive, from the tiniest microbe in the soil on up.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to trigger massive social and economic shifts that we can’t yet measure, one question keeps surfacing for me urgently:  What do today’s young people need to know? 

What talismans of knowledge and rites of initiation can educators offer that will light young people’s paths on the shrouded road ahead?

I am pondering this question, with no sure answers to offer yet. I would be grateful for your thoughts. Whither education now?

21 Questions for 2020: #15

15. Question for Earth Day: Will humans seize the potential of this corona-induced “time-out” to move towards “conscious evolution”?

For some time I’ve been writing with grief and shame about the way humans, particularly my Euro-descended people, have been battering our beautiful Earth. I have been not only a bystander to the violence, but complicit as well—burning fossil fuels, consuming food and products produced in violence. 

I sit in judgment on myself, and shame myself for all the ways I have not done enough to stand up to the prevailing culture, every single day. 

But I also know that this way of looking at the human-Earth relationship is fundamentally human. Mother Earth doesn’t blame or shame. She doesn’t waste time and energy in grief and rage. Her entire Being is dedicated to Life; Life is her business, pleasure and purpose.

For Gaia, if humans are flourishing, all well and good. If humans are flourishing so much that they are consuming more than their share of the Earth’s bounty, then a correction will be made. Not with anger; it’s not a punishment. It’s just a rebalancing to restore Earth to her optimum conditions for the flourishing of life. 

A pandemic is a perfect example of such a correction. 

Climate disruption is a bit different; more long-lasting, more transformative. 

Past episodes of climate disruption on Earth have been caused suddenly by seemingly external, random events—a meteor hitting the Earth, a volcano erupting. 

Human-induced climate change, accompanied by deforestation, the acidification of the oceans and the rapid decline of all species on Earth, is not happening overnight, but it is happening very quickly in geologic time. As Mother Earth seeks to reestablish her steady state, optimum for bringing forth and nourishing life, those who can’t adapt to current conditions will have to give way to those who can, just as the Dinosaurs long ago succumbed and made way for the Mammals. 

I am thinking about this as I contemplate Earth Day, 2020. In the 50 years since Americans began to celebrate Earth Day, there have been some advances in protecting the health of Earth and all her denizens. But mostly it’s been a steady slide into human over-population, toxic contamination, climate destabilization, and the loss of so many of the sweet species with whom we were born to share the planet.

The greatest human misconception is that we have total control in our abusive relationship with Mother Earth.

In fact, Gaia is much stronger than we are. She will take our battering the way a mother tolerantly submits to the pummeling of a small child—for just so long. 

Gaia continues to go about her business of turning the oxygen, water and carbon into Life, in partnership with the Sun. She does not favor one of her children more than the others; she knows that the health of any one individual depends on the health of the entire system. 

On Earth Day 2020 humans are coming face to face, as never before, with the boomeranging consequences of our heedless fouling, despoliation and exploitation of our planetary home. 

It’s hard to say right now what the longterm effects of the pandemic will be. Will we become ever more fearful, technologized and controlling? Or will we seize the opening of this worldwide “time-out” to begin to envision and create a harmonious, non-violent relationship with our Mother Earth?

In 2020 we can’t use the excuse that we don’t know how to improve conditions for current life forms on Earth, humans included. 

We know how to limit population; how to create regenerative agriculture; how to deploy renewable energy; how to develop social systems that maximize and reward the creation of quality of life for the majority. We are so smart. We know how to do this.

In 2020, there is no more time to waste. The urgency is real and present. If those alive don’t get into a right relationship with Mother Earth, she will do it for us—without rancor, without shame or blame, but with the efficiency borne of millions of years of ceaseless rebalancing. 

This may be the first time in history that a species has had the luxury of a brief window of time to actively adjust in order to change course and avoid a lemming-like dive over the cliff. 

We have the possibility of “conscious evolution,” now. 

Will we take it?   

21 Questions for 2020: #9

#9. Do we still need “women” or “feminine qualities” in this brave new post-gender world? 

For many years I taught an introductory gender studies course in which I divided the semester into thirds and spent equal time focusing on women’s issues, men’s issues, and LGBTQIA issues. The last time I taught it, a few years ago, the students had little patience for talking about the issues of men and women—categories they considered so passé, so last-century. They were excited by the fluidity of gender identity and felt the best path forward for humanity would be gender-neutral, leaving the travails of gender-based discrimination and male privilege behind. 

Gender-neutral rest rooms have sprouted on many college campuses, including mine, but the realities of life in gendered human bodies remain pretty much the same. The same old issues that women have been dealing with for centuries—equal pay for equal work, equal access to leadership roles, freedom from sexual harassment and assault, equal participation in childcare and housework, for starters—are still unresolved. 

I don’t cling to gender identity in any conservative way—I wrote my BA thesis, many years ago, on the trope of androgyny in the novels of Virginia Woolf, and I don’t think men or women are best served by the extremes of gender identity. 

But look closely at today’s “gender-neutral” or “androgynous” type-casting, and what you see is a default towards masculine identity. It seems that the whole idea of gender-neutrality is just another way of eroding respect for women and femininity, yet again. 

So why do I think it’s important to maintain the categories of male and female, masculinity and femininity, when so much harm has been inflicted in their names over the years?

It’s the body, stupid. Sorry, I don’t mean to be crass. But we inhabit bodies that are not the same. 

As far as spirit goes, once we are free of our bodies, I don’t believe sex and gender are relevant. But while we’re here in embodied existence on Earth, just like all other mammals and almost every other life form, we have specialized bodies that are adapted for certain biological tasks. 

Feminist theory shied away from acknowledging this reality, calling it, pejoratively, “essentialism”: the reduction of women to our bodies. In the spirit of “we can do everything men can do” feminist politics, it did not serve us to call attention to our biological differences. 

Nevertheless, such differences persist. Even in a post-gender world, women still menstruate, get pregnant, have babies, and nurse babies. Women, especially young women, are still the primary targets of sexual assault by men. Women have higher amounts of hormones like estrogen and oxytocin, which predispose us, biologically, to be nurturing and relational. 

These basic biological differences affect us at home, in school, in the workplace—in every aspect of our lives. We cannot just wish them away. And more importantly, we should not wish them gone, in some kind of brave new post-gender fantasy.

Human differences are glorious and precious. Imagine how boring the world would be if we were all clones of some genderless, colorless, characterless human. 

Rather than trying to flatten out gender differences, we should be working to cultivate the best in each one of us, elevating the human potential that exists in equal measure in every human embodiment. 

I believe that gender identity is a fluid spectrum, not a static binary opposition. Every human has qualities that we have been socially conditioned to think of as “masculine,” as well as qualities that society has told us are “feminine.” What has happened for too long is that the so-called feminine qualities, like nurturing, collaboration and emotionality, have been considered less valuable than the so-called masculine qualities, like aggression, competition and intellectual prowess. 

We can see what our society values in very stark terms in the national budget. How much do we spend on the military, vs. how much we spend on education and the wellbeing of children? 

Societal decisions like where to put our money are not gender-neutral. Choosing to spend more on weapons and warfare than on parental leave and high-quality day care, not to mention food security and education, have consequences for men and women. The financial pressures most American families endure are not the result of individual choices, but social policy. 

Why are our divorce rates so high? Why are so many women struggling to raise children alone? Why is it so hard for women to succeed professionally in a climate that demands 110% commitment to the job in the child-bearing years?

The answer to these social problems is not to do away with women as a social category. We should be celebrating and supporting women’s remarkable biological ability to give birth and nurture young children. This is not to say we want to return to the days when women were confined to the kitchen and the nursery. Not at all. 

If women got more social support for their role in those critical child-bearing years, as they do in the more advanced countries, we would be able to take our important relational skills into politics and the professions and make every field a warmer, more nurturing place. This would result in a better world not just for women, but for all humanity. 

Social change comes very slowly. We won’t be voting for a woman president in the 2020 U.S. elections. We still have a long way to go to achieve equality. 

For the sake of future generations, not just of humans but of all life on this planet, we must persist in proclaiming the value and worth of the “feminine” qualities of nurturing and collaboration. Let’s honor every human being who embodies these qualities and brings them to a world so badly in need of loving attention. 

On this first International Women’s Day of the 2020s, in the year that commemorates the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States, let’s  celebrate the remarkable resilience and courage of women, worldwide. The crucial fight for gender equality is still very much game on

21 Questions for 2020: #7

7. How can we best help Mother Nature to heal herself from the desecrations of the Industrial Revolution? 

This question hit home for me in the past week, as local officials announced plans for dredging the Housatonic River, which runs through the heart of Berkshire County, MA, where I live, and creating a 20-acre toxic waste dump in a residential neighborhood in the town of Lee, MA. 

Like so many other rivers across the country and the world, the Housatonic River was polluted with PCBs by industry—in this case, General Electric (GE), during its heyday as a manufacturer of electrical transformers. 

The river has been remarkably resilient—I see bald eagles, blue herons and many kinds of waterfowl there all the time. But the PCBs buried in the sediment remain a potent carcinogenic hazard, which the federal Environmental Protection Agency has ruled must be cleaned up.

At a recent informational meeting, an EPA official talked dispassionately about the “biota” that would be destroyed through the dredging. As he spoke, I had visions of the frogs, fish and crayfish sleeping quietly at the bottom of the river, not knowing that soon the steel jaws of giant machines would be coming to take them away. 

The EPA’s argument, which has been accepted by town officials, is that it is necessary to disrupt and essentially kill the river in order to clean it. Once the PCB-laden mud is out of the river bottom, they say, things will get back to normal. 

But under the EPA plan, the people of Lee will have to accept a dangerous new normal: a toxic waste site the size of five football fields, 20 feet deep, rising 50 feet high, holding up to a million cubic yards of contaminated soil, right in the residential neighborhood of Lenox Dale.

Local folks are especially angry that they were not given a chance to vote on this solution. It was presented as a done deal, although there will now be a period of public comment. There is a movement afoot to bring a vote to the town meetings, which could send the negotiators back to the table. 

What are the larger issues here? 

1. No one trusts the good intentions of the EPA. Especially in the Trump era, the EPA has become the handmaiden of industries with terrible records of environmental assault. Why should we trust them when they promise that the dredging won’t result in airborne PCBs, or that the plastic-lined toxic waste dump won’t leak poison into the groundwater?

2. People trust the good intentions of GE even less. This is the same company that created a toxic waste dump for PCBs right alongside an elementary school in its hometown of Pittsfield MA, which has been plagued with cancer since the mid-20th century, as the PCBs came home to roost in people’s bodies. After having built up Pittsfield as a factory town and carelessly disposing of toxic waste in the county river, GE decamped around the turn of the 21st century, and has spent millions in resisting the responsible clean-up of its poisonous leavings.

3. Shipping to a toxic waste site in another state is NIMBYism, no doubt about it; I can’t whole-heartedly support that solution, although it does seem obvious that a dump should not be located in a heavily populated area like central Berkshire County, which is economically reliant on its appeal as a scenic tourist destination.  

4. If the towns were to appeal this decision in the courts, it is possible that an even worse solution would be mandated. Would the anti-environmental Trump courts and EPA accept GE’s initial proposal of three toxic dumps in residential neighborhoods, instead of one big one? Full disclosure: one of those three was proposed for a beautiful patch of riverside forest, just a few blocks from my house—almost literally in my backyard. 

The case of the Housatonic River clean-up is a microcosm of similar issues all over the world, as we the people of the 21st century grapple with the damages wrought by 20th century industries. There are some important lessons to be learned here. 

1. We have to think of future generations in everything we undertake.

Yes, “GE brought good things to life” as it created its lightbulbs and transformers. But it did not sufficiently account for all the bad side effects it was also creating, such as PCBs. It flushed them down the river, like so many other New England factories and mills, without understanding the longterm effects of these chemicals on the ecosystem. Going forward, we have to insist that industry be more careful—for example, with fracking, one of the huge chemical scourges of the 21st century.

2. It is always best to work with Mother Nature rather than against her.

Why aren’t EPA officials paying more heed to the possibility of cleaning the river sediments with bioremediation techniques? There are many promising test cases of bacteria or fungi that can “eat” and neutralize hazardous chemicals, without harming the “biota” of the river—a dispassionate scientific term for the fish, frogs, birds, insects and plants that call the river home.

Human beings are so intelligent. We have or can create solutions to every problem we face today—solutions that will not, like a plastic-lined toxic waste dump in a residential neighborhood, end up causing as many problems as they purport to solve. 

Past generations did not realize the harm they were inflicting on innocent wildlife and people as industry grew in the 20th century. We are now reaping the results of that shortsighted negligence, and we can’t claim ignorance anymore. 

We know the harm these chemicals wreak. We owe it to ourselves and future generations, human and more-than-human, to clean up our act—and do it right.

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: 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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

 

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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.

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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?

Keeping Our Spirits High

It can be really hard, as we go about our daily lives, to keep our spirits up.

And yet this is precisely the good medicine we need these days.

We need to keep our vibrations high.

Wisdom keepers from many traditions, from physicists to reiki masters, tell us that what we think of as “matter” is actually “energy.” The physical world, including our own body, is composed of countless particles in constant motion.

When we are healthy and well, our cells vibrate in harmony with the larger rhythms of our planet. When our spirits are high, we can tune into the “music of the spheres,” and experience the joy of the life unfolding ahead of us each day.

In our time, such harmonious vibrations are becoming a rarity.

Modern life is full of loud, discordant noise, from lawnmowers and chainsaws to the jangling noise of the day’s bad news, broadcast at us constantly over a thousand different channels.

Climate disruption, with its consequent ecosystem collapse and cascading extinctions, is the planetary version of a discordant vibration.

With so much negative noise, or bad vibrations, coming at us all the time, we are forced to tune out in order to remain functional. In order to go about our daily lives without being overwhelmed by fear and stress, we end up numb and lost, wandering in a nightmarish funhouse that is not fun at all.

The runaway negative biofeedback loops that our occurring in our time, on the personal, political and planetary levels, are at least in part the result of the “hive mind” that we humans have developed through our Internet technology.

We have always been connected in the dream world, through what Jung called the collective unconscious and others might call the Anima Mundi.

But our new networked waking mind gives us the potential for unprecedented impact on the planet—for good or for ill.

In the past decade or so, we have seen the negative results of our collective impact on the planet. With earphones in our ears, we have become the world’s most successful invasive species, but at a tremendous cost.

In our networked times, what we do as individuals is broadcast out to our larger communities. If we are stressed, fearful and depressed, that’s the signal we put out into the world, where it is amplified and multiplied. If we are able to keep our spirits high and maintain our sense of emotional and physical balance, the positive vibrations we send out help attune others as well.

Keeping our spirits high is not at all the same as putting on rose-colored glasses, or sticking our heads in the sand in denial.

It is about training ourselves to tune in to the steady pulse of the planet, which beats on calmly even now, despite all the stresses on systems and individuals.

How do we do this?

For me, it’s about appreciating silence, and the quiet sounds of nature: the drip of rain, the rush of a river over rocks; birdsong and the cricket chorus; the swish of the wind through the treetops.

It’s about rediscovering the pleasure of vibration moving through my body; making my own music with instruments or with my own voice.

It’s about seeking out others with whom to make joyful noise together—as Greta Thunberg has done in rallying people all over the planet to stand with her for the Earth.

I have also become much more conscious of what I send out into the world via my writing and teaching. In my new memoir workshop series, “The Alchemy of Purposeful Memoir,” each session starts by looking for positive in our life stories. When we look at less positive aspects of our lives, it’s with the explicit aim of transmuting these negative moments, through the alchemical power of writing.

Likewise, in my “Purposeful Memoir as a Path to a Thriving Future” workshop, which I’ll be presenting several venues in the coming year, including Bascom Lodge, Mt Greylock; the Bioneers Conference; and Findhorn, our aim is to look backward over our life stories in order to understand our present moment more fully, and to be able to envision the thriving future we all want to move into.

Here’s the thing. If we are all running around jangling with fear and shouting at each other about how the sky is falling…our negative vibrations will be amplified and their effects—on ourselves as individuals and on our political and planetary systems—will be compounded.

If, on the other hand, we are able to maintain a modicum of serenity, we can set the tone for others and draw them into harmony with our steady vibration.

There’s often talk in spiritual circles about “holding the light” as a way of invoking and maintaining the positive. I have come to realize that “maintaining a positive vibration” is at least as important.

Here’s a poem from Rumi that I often like to share in my workshops. He says it all.

God picks up the reed-flute world and blows.
Each note is a need coming through one of us, a passion, a longing, a pain.
Remember the lips where the wind-breath originated, and let your note be clear.
Don’t try to end it.
Be your note.
I’ll show you how it’s enough.

Go up on the roof at night in this city of the soul.

Let everyone climb on their roofs and sing their notes!

Sing loud!

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