21 Questions for 2020: #11

#11. How can we practice the art of being more fully human in this time of crisis?

Ben Roberts and the Now What?! team are hosting a global conversation on various aspects of this question March 23 – April 14, 2020, and as my “21 Questions for 2020” series is one of the Now What?! Engagement Streams, it makes sense for me to pose this question to myself and my Transition Times readers now. 

To begin, what does it mean to be “more fully human”? 

Humans have always had a sense of our own potential, both positive and negative. 

We know we are capable of great love, and also great hate. Great creative industry, and great destruction. We can be profoundly empathetic, and also the cruelest of all the animals. We live in the uncomfortable awareness of how these binary oppositions shape our experience, in ways we can’t always control. 

Of late, this sense of polarity has been growing stronger. Could it be that the binary mentality of the computer code is coming to dominate our thinking, leading us to see things in moral absolutes? 

Whatever your political stance, it has become a kneejerk reaction to say, “My position is right, yours is wrong, and never the twain shall meet.”  

But then along comes a disaster like the COVID-19 pandemic, and suddenly these political differences are revealed as superficial and even rather ridiculous. 

Coronavirus doesn’t see Democrats and Republicans, white people and people of color; it doesn’t see gender or nationality, class or religious persuasion. It sees humans—its delicious prey. It reminds us how profoundly alike and interconnected we all are—and how fragile we are as individuals and as societies. 

In the recognition of our common frailty lies the potential for becoming more fully human, in ways that will take us beyond the old binary oppositions into what Barbara Marx Hubbard called an era of “conscious evolution.” 

A new hero(ine) leaps into action

For example, let’s take that old bugaboo, masculine vs. feminine. 

The pandemic is pushing us to become more fully human in the typically feminine sense of that term: more fully loving, empathetic, relational, nurturing, and altruistic.

And also more fully human in the more typically masculine sense of the term: more fully active, protective, galvanizing, courageous, and problem-solving.

In this brave new hero’s journey of 2020, the hero cannot be the rugged individual quester of yore, going off to slay a distant dragon. Against the enemy virus, the best weapons are not made of steel, but of gauze. 

Indeed, the metaphor of “war” or “battle” is not really appropriate for our current crisis. We can’t “fight” for our loved ones and our society; we can only “take care” of ourselves and each other.

What a huge shift! It’s as if the virus has done what centuries of feminist activism could not do: effected a merging of the hero and the heroine of our old stories, calling forth the best of what has here-to-fore been deemed “masculine” and “feminine” into a new androgynous type of more fully human being, leaping into action in hospitals and food pantries, in banks and businesses, in homes and shelters across the world. 

At least, this is the potential that is now glimmering into reality.  

Leading from the heart

As Joanna Macy reminded us long ago, being more fully human lies in becoming the prophesied Shambhala warriors, our courage motivated not by aggression but by compassion. 

In a more recent transmission, retired Mt. Holyoke College professor and dean Penny Gill received similar guidance from a voice identifying himself as “Manjushri,” who said that the way to become more fully human in this time of crisis is through the heart, not the mind.  

“The human heart center must open,” Manjushri says in What in the World is Going On? “When we say “heart center” we refer to that seat of consciousness at the center of the human person that is informed both by deep values and a complex understanding of the real world. It is the nexus where knowledge and human feelings are brought together to nourish and direct a richer and more inclusive understanding of people in their community, earth and the universe (73).

What prevents the opening of the human heart, Gill writes, is fear. And this brings us to the “crisis” part of the Now What?! question. 

Overcoming fear by recognizing interconnection

I don’t think any one of us is exempt from feeling the terrible fear of this moment. The gyrations of the stock market reflect our individual and collective panic as we watch the global economy going into free-fall in response to the pandemic. And we are being told that the only way to stop the virus is to stop the production and consumption that has been the hallmark of our western way of life for all of our lifetimes.

Essentially we are being told to go back to a pre-industrial lifestyle for a few weeks or months, but we have lost all the tools and knowledge that our ancestors had of how to live self-sufficiently, simply and locally on the Earth. We cannot be blamed for our fear of this sudden crisis. It’s like being suddenly cast off the mother ship in a little boat with a few supplies and no guarantee of rescue.

What we have not lost is the innate human ability to reach out to one another in compassion. We are instinctively tribal—a term that has gained a pejorative connotation in recent history, but can also be understood in its positive guise as a caring, united community. In the 21st century, we have the potential to understand our tribe in a much larger, more inclusive sense. 

Manjushri, through Penny Gill, invites us to move beyond the fears that divide us into a profound recognition of our interdependence:

“We are looking now on a world built upon fear,” he says. “It is uninhabitable, dysfunctional and teetering on the edge of collapse. The heart-center must be restored to its central function as the source of both compassion and wisdom. The cultural values and practices accumulated around fear must be altered dramatically, before they undermine earthly life itself.” 

Humans must come to see that “the fundamental reality of human life—indeed of earthly life—is interdependence, not solitary individualism and competitiveness. It is the false belief in the latter which gives rise to so much fear, and from fear arises a cascade of dysfunction, conflict, and frankly, stupidity in social and communal human life. The only antidote to this is life from the heart center. That will be possible, one person at a time, as fear is named, deconstructed and disabled” (84). 

Getting past our fears is not going to be easy, and yet I do think this is what is being asked of us as we seek to become more fully human in this time of crisis. 

Now what?!

How to do it? Staying active, in heart-centered projects, seems to be key. A frontline doctor in New York City wrote recently in The New York Times: “Please flatten the curve and stay at home, but please do not go into couch mode. Like everyone, I have moments where imagining the worst possible Covid-19 scenario steals my breath. But cowering in the dark places of our minds doesn’t help. Rather than private panic, we need public-spirited action. Those of us walking into the rooms of Covid-19-positive patients every day need you and your minds, your networks, your creative solutions, and your voices to be fighting for us.”

I have been heartened in recent days to see networks of “caremongerers” springing up in communities across the globe. Even our political leaders, who have seemed so heartless in the past, are responding with greater compassion now—and yes, we can cynically view this as self-interest, but even so it illustrates a dawning awareness that to be more fully human in a time of crisis is to understand our interconnectedness. Together we swim, or together we sink. 

And though I said that our ancestors’ knowledge of how to live self-sufficiently and sustainably has been lost, that is not entirely true. There are those who have been preparing for this moment of crisis for a long time: Rob Hopkins of the Transition Town movementFindhorn and the Global Eco-village NetworkSchumacher College, the California Institute of Integral Studies, the permaculturists and the regenerative economists…there is indeed already a large global network of creative thinkers who have been working steadily, cultivating the compassionate, heart-centered wisdom and knowledge that we will need now to become more fully human, in this time of crisis. 

Many of these thinkers will be joining the Now What?! conversations over the next few weeks, and I hope you will too! Our World Wide Web is a wonderful tool of interconnection, as so many of us are discovering as our livelihoods are shifted, without fanfare, into remote online work. 

The art of being more fully human in this time of crisis starts with simply showing up and asking, as Julia Alvarez asked in the poignant essay she contributed to my first anthology, Women Writing Resistance: “How can I help”?

Find out more and register for Now What?! conversations here.  

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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Extinction Rebellion 2019: Power Concedes Nothing Without A Demand

Last night I added the Extinction Rebellion frame to my Facebook profile photo, a gesture of support and admiration for the brave protesters around the world who are putting their bodies on the line to stop business as usual and focus attention on the most important matter at hand: restabilizing the life systems of our planet.

Greta Thunberg, our charismatic climate change Joan of Arc, told EU leaders bluntly this week, “Forget Brexit! Focus on the climate!” Here in the US, our political system is in an uproar over the Mueller report, which has had the effect of poking an already-angry nest of politician-ants, sending them all into a scurrying frenzy. And over in France, the mourning continues for Notre Dame, though people are questioning how it was easy to produce the millions needed to restore the cathedral, while money for restoring social stability and human services cannot be found.

Along with Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg, I say:

It is past time to stop feeding the greedy maw of the global corporate capitalist extractivist “limitless growth” economy.

It is past time to rally around the banner of Life and recognize the Divine in every expression of Life on this planet, from the tiniest plankton in the sea to the great pulsing soul of a mountain.

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***

Maybe one of the reasons I found the crash of the two Boeing 737 Max airplanes so unsettling was because the analogy to our current situation, as passengers aboard the capitalist machine, seems so apt.

The system has been programmed in such a way that even thinking, caring, competent humans are unable to avoid disaster.

I have the panicked feeling that we…are…all…going…DOWN.

But we are not there yet. And the protesters on London Bridge, like the youth climate strikers last month and the Green New Dealers in the US, are proof positive that the passengers are awake, aware and unwilling to go down without doing everything possible to overcome our suicidal societal auto-pilot.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand.”

Power and greed together, in the hands of the men (mostly white men) who rule this world, are a dangerous combination. Power and greed sent hundreds of those 737 planes out into the skies with a fatal flaw that caused the deaths of hundreds of innocent people.

Power and greed are ripping up the Amazon rainforest and razing the Canadian boreal forest; trawling the seas, fracking the land, and sending deadly poisons into our waters.

The sickening of Life on the planet, in all its forms including homo sapiens, is well underway. The extinctions are proceeding in an ever-accelerating cascade as the Holocene gives way to the grim, grimy Anthropocene.

Today I stand with Extinction Rebellion in spirit if not in body, to shout at that deaf, blind, deadly machine of global capitalism: NO MORE!!!

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The image reminds me of brave Rachel Corrie, who stood before an Israeli bulldozer in 2003 to protest the razing of Palestinian homes, and was crushed under its treads.

Protesting against powerful greedy men and their machines is dangerous. But we’re at the point where NOT protesting is equally dangerous.

Are we going to sit numbly in our seats as Life as we know it on the planet goes down?

Or are we going to get ourselves mobilized on the side of all the sweet innocents of this planet and do the best we can to steer the ship to safety?

***

It’s not a matter of whether or not it’s possible to change course and avert disaster. We know what needs to be done, and we know how to do it.

We still have time to shift to renewable energy and regenerative agriculture, renounce ecocidal chemicals, build resilient cities and towns, repair and renew the frayed social fabric of our peoples and reconnect on a soul level with the other life forms who share our planetary home.

These shifts start with the personal, with our conscious decision to stand for Life; and move out into the political, as we link arms with others sharing our planetary goals and become a force that the greedy politicians and CEOs can no longer ignore.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand.”

It was Frederick Douglass who said those words back in 1857, when the idea of abolition must have seemed quixotic to many. He went on, “Find out just what a people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted…. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

People, let us endure no more. So much depends on what we choose to do now.

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**For more inspiration, tune in to the Climate Change & Consciousness Conference (CCC19) starting today at Findhorn, Scotland; many of the keynotes, including Bill McKibben and Charles Eisenstein, will be streamed around the world to “hubs,” including here in western Massachusetts. And if you’re in the Berkshires, consider coming to my workshop on Saturday April 27, which will provide an opportunity to write and share about “climate change and consciousness” in good company. Namaste.

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