Be the prayer

This week has felt hard. It’s reminded me of being in a plane going through stiff turbulence, being bumped around, in possible danger, and without any way to control the outcome of the flight. You just have to hold on tight and pray that the plane is sturdy, the pilots know what they’re doing and all will be well. 

But in this case, we are in the midst of political and planetary upheavals that promise no smooth landing. 

I don’t have confidence in our pilots, a.k.a. world leaders, to carry us safely through the turbulence of climate disruption, pandemic, economic crisis and all the rest of it. 

I know that the rivets are loosening on our “plane,” a.k.a. our planet.

We are in for a rough ride.

All we can do is continue to hold on tight…and pray.

For me, prayer is not about appealing to some all-powerful higher being that can step in to save us. Rather, I think of prayer in the way Mary Oliver described it in her wonderful poem from happier times, “The Summer Day,” when she describes prayer as the act of paying attention to the beauty of the world around her. In this case, it’s a grasshopper she’s watching:

This grasshopper, I mean—

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

The grasshopper invites Oliver’s meditation on prayer:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, 

how to fall downinto the grass, 

how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed

how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

This is indeed the powerful pulsing question of our turbulent time, isn’t it? What are we going to do with the precious time we have left, before we are swept away into the maelstrom of suffering and death?

Glimmers. Photo by J. Browdy

Like Oliver, I believe that the other radiant Gaian beings with whom we share this planet have so much to teach us, if only we take the time to pay attention. 

The biggest difference between humans and other animals is in our vivid imaginations. We humans tell ourselves and each other stories all the time, and sometimes we get so caught up in the stories that they become our reality. 

For example, there I am up in the plane, imagining that any minute the turbulence is going to knock us out of the sky. We’re going to fall, flaming, to the ground! We’re all going to die! I start hyperventilating with terror, even though this is not what is actually happening…in point of fact, we are flying steadily on through the turbulence toward our destination, where, as the pilot has just informed us calmly, we’ll soon be landing.

There is no other animal that expends so much energy on worrying about imaginary future scenarios. Our Gaian relations model for us the equanimity that comes with living tranquilly in the present moment. 

We humans have the capacity to make ourselves sick, physically and mentally, with our neurotic imaginary anxieties.

To counter this tendency, we need to pray, in Mary Oliver’s sense: to ground ourselves in the calm of the natural world around us, and remember to breathe. 

This is probably not possible in the fire lands of the Pacific Coast of the USA right now. It’s not possible when one’s body has been invaded by the coronavirus. In such dire moments, any animal would be rightly terrified and suffering, as so many are at this very moment.

But you who are sitting in some quiet place reading these words…if you are still healthy and well-fed, able to breathe deep and listen to the birds chirping and the wind in the trees…your job is to ground yourself in that beauty and let yourself become not only a receiver but a transmitter for it. 

Send the beauty you inhale out into this turbulent suffering world. Let your attention to the beauty of what surrounds you be your prayer, for yourself and for others.

May our focused gratitude for this precious moment be a balm and a beacon of active hope in a world so desperately in need of the solace of prayer. 

Glory. Photo by J. Browdy

21 Questions for 2020: #20

#20. How will we find the inner fortitude to make it through this time?

I am writing today with a heavy heart, as I look out into a social landscape that seems to be ever-darkening. “I can’t breathe” has come to be the anguished whisper of our time, whether it comes from yet another Black man being criminally choked to death by supposed “law enforcement officers,” or from one of the hundreds of thousands of people who have fatally succumbed to COVID-19. 

Watching the contagion of violence spreading across the U.S. while the immoral  “commander in chief” twiddles his thumbs, seeming to maliciously relish the ensuing chaos, it’s impossible to see where this will end. The November election is still far away, with a lot of turbulence before us. 

How will we find the inner fortitude to make it through this time?

Each of us will find their own answers to this question, day by day. Here is what I am coming up with today.

Despair serves no one.

If we respond to the darkness of our time with a darkening of our souls, then the world will quickly become a very dark place indeed. Light has many gradations. I am not talking about “sunny optimism” that refuses to process reality. Nor am I talking about the pyromaniacs who take pleasure in setting the world on fire. 

I am thinking of the inner light that beams steadily within every living being on the planet, an inner flame that that connects us to the world soul, the anima mundi. This soul light is fueled by the same life-giving energy that turns our whole planet green in the spring, that for untold millennia has welcomed new life with joy and abundance. We humans are part and parcel of that cosmic dance, and we serve no one by letting our inner light gutter and dim. 

On the contrary, as revolutionary leaders throughout human history have shown, we take the first step towards a better world by standing firmly in the light of our own ideals and sharing our positive visions with others. 

Take our cues from Nature, and the Gaians around us. 

We are drawn to Nature in times of trouble because she models for us, without fail, the potential of positive energy manifested into form. In doing so, she gives us a glimpse of the full glory of a world suffused with the sacred: that sense of rightness that we call divine. 

All around us, in the natural world, we see enacted the principle of equality. The sun shines down equally on every particle of this world. The raindrops fall equally on both sides of every artificial border humans try to impose. 

We see Gaia providing, free of charge and with no strings attached, the conditions of flourishing life for every last member of her glorious Being. We see the tenderness of new life being nourished by the graceful death of the previous generation, a spiraling of life and death without end. 

Looking around us in the natural world, we see our relatives, our sister and brother Gaians of every shape and size, pursuing their life purpose with a fierce joy that knows no bounds. Despair is a uniquely human condition, which we sometimes force on animals we cage—but in Nature, all beings go at their lives with a fearless intensity that makes each new day an unfurling blessing. Death may come any moment, but a being who is tuned into Mother Gaia knows she is held in a secure, loving embrace at all times and does not live in fear. 

Embrace the light—and the darkness. 

The essence of Gaia is not only material, it is spiritual. Gaia is positive energy made manifest by the collective activity of each and every particle of her being. Spirit is the light that shines in and through each of us, and it is our task, each day, to tend our inner flame so that we shine out brightly into the world. This is all the more true when it seems like darkness is threatening. 

Just as there are different gradations of light, all animated by the great Light that gives this planet life, there are different gradations of darkness. The sweet darkness of the womb time, the dreaming darkness of a still, starry night, are not the same as the miasmic darkness of a world set upon by the demons of greed and cruelty. 

Knowing this, we must be discerning, rejecting the manmade darkness that we often call “evil,” while welcoming the blessed darkness of night-time, which we need, just as we need sleep, to nourish the creative power of the Light. 

Living as we do in a time of artificial light and manipulated darkness, we find ourselves under the thrall of artificers who have made us dependent on their spells. We must take care to use our magical technologies to enhance life, not to detract from it. This is not always easy: for example, we can see clearly these days how the connective fibers of social media can be used for good or for ill. 

That is where choice comes in. When we are fully connected to the positive life-giving energy of the anima mundi, we know instinctively, by our inner emotional gauge, when our actions contribute to the Light. 

Yes, there are sadists among us who take delight in others’ suffering. But those are the outliers. I believe that the vast majority of humans come into this world as light-bearers, ready to love and be loved. 

If only we could make society into a welcoming, nourishing garden in which every new soul could grow to its full potential….what a beautiful world it would be. 

Approach adversity with steadfast love and light. 

It’s always been true that we make history with each of our daily choices, but in times of great pressure and sorrow, like now, how we live each day becomes especially momentous. We each have a role to play in creating this great collective tapestry we call Life.

If adversity is the mother of invention, then we are surely in for some adventurous new twists and turns in human history, which afford us unprecedented opportunities for innovation. The specifics are up to each one of us, but the basic task is clear: Whatever you do, do it with love. 

Let your light shine out like a loving beacon on a darkening shore. As each of us kindles our inner light, our connection with each other and with the Gaian world grows stronger, our little lives becoming a prayer rising in a chorus of celebration of the fierce, fearless, unquenchable soul force of Life. 

Let every breath be a prayer. 

Even as we grieve for the unjust deaths of those whose lives have been harshly cut off too soon, life continues to surge through each one of us. 

With each breath, we have the opportunity to offer gratitude for the Gaian world that sustains us. 

And more: with each respiration we can offer inspiration, following the ancient Buddhist practice of tonglen: breathing in suffering, breathing out love. 

Breathe out the light that shines within you; or if you feel your light guttering, breathe in the restorative light of all the bright souls that are dancing beside you, visibly and invisibly. 

Just as Fire needs Air to kindle, we can blow on the embers of our spirits as we breathe, igniting the passion of our soul’s purpose in each cycle of breath. 

Let your breath be a song of love and gratitude, a quiet but mighty offering of the light that you are. 

21 Questions for 2020: #18

18.  What is the message of Gaia’s call? Mother’s Day reflections, 2020.

The other day I read a lament on Facebook by a woman who was in despair over the horrendous state of life in 2020 America. If she didn’t have loving family and friends, she said, including her children and grandchildren, she would be seriously contemplating suicide.

As she worked through her complicated grief and horror, cathartically retelling the tragedy we are all living through, I heard the persistent pulse of Life beating through it all….Life, that impels us to endure and persist, to rise and do it all again under tomorrow’s Sun, no matter how difficult or impossible the way forward seems.

We humans thrive on Love; we wither and fade away in despair. We are fundamentally loving, social animals, though far too many humans have become pathologically twisted these days, seemingly incapable of the empathy and altruism that is our birthright.

Our loving nature is not just a matter of psychology; it is also biochemically wired into us, evident in the hormones that flood our body when we feel love, whether romantic love or the love of a mother for her baby. Every living being on the planet, whether or not it has an emotional nature, is similarly wired to thrive. 

This is especially easy to see in the plant kingdom: seeds crack and send tendrils up towards the Sun, while tiny roots are impelled to anchor themselves in the Earth. Figuratively, each of us begins life as just such a seed, reaching for love and light as instinctively as any other new growth.

Many cultures anthropomorphize Mother Earth and Father Sun as the lifegivers, to whom great gratitude is due. I don’t think we need to humanize our planet and our star to understand that they are our everything; each of us is just a small cell in the vast planetary body of the Earth, which itself exists as a speck in the unimaginably huge galaxy and cosmos. 

Each of us may be small, but we are far from insignificant. Just as every blob of algae and blade of grass has a role to play in creating the life-giving oxygen of our planet, every precious Gaian manifestation, from rock to raindrop, from earthworm to human, contributes to the overall vitality of the system as a whole.

Human beings, over the past 500 years or so, have been flourishing so well that we have been edging out the conditions of life for other species. We are, as I’ve noted before, Earth’s most successful invasive species. From the perspective of other life forms, we humans have been a deadly viral pandemic, relentlessly invading and destroying.

Humans have been on a suicidal path as a species, poisoning our own nest, and in the process rendering vast swaths of land and sea uninhabitable for other species as well. This cannot go on. Humans have over-populated ourselves by using up more than our share of Earth’s resources. This is unsustainable. 

Now, at the tipping point, we are faced with a truly momentous question: 

Will we use our tremendous intelligence to find ways to work with Mother Earth, to restabilize her life-support systems in a regenerative and sustainable way, understanding that we can only thrive in a thriving system? 

Mother Earth has her own ways of restoring balance to her life systems—for example, viruses and climate changes. Earth seeks to maintain the conditions most conducive for the thriving life of every Gaian. She does not play favorites, she loves all her creations equally. We humans are only just waking up to what such impartial mother-love truly means.

Mother Earth, on this Mother’s Day I give you honor and praise as the Life-giver of us all. You create the myriad beautiful forms into which Spirit pours. Each new baby that opens her eyes to meet the loving gaze of her mother repeats the miracle of life that you reanimate again and again. And at the end of life you receive each of us back again, in a ceaseless spiral dance of matter and energy. 

Mother Gaia, I know you are calling each of us to bring our strength, courage and intelligence to the task now at hand: restoring the balance of your systems so as to maximize the potential for Life to flourish. Not just human life; all life.

As we reach and grow towards conscious evolution, we humans are beginning to become aware of the harmonic dance of all beings, the great positive vibration of Life begetting Life, of Life flourishing. If we can tune in and calibrate our own beings to the great Hum of Mother Earth, we will find it impossible to do anything but join in that great swelling chorus—the choir of Angels (Spirit) singing in harmony with Gaia (Matter). 

Mother Gaia, my voice may be soft, I may be very small: but such as I am and such as I have, I offer to you. May I make the best use of the life you have gifted me. May my flourishing contribute to the vitality of all Life, in an endless reciprocal dance. 

Namaste, Mother Earth, and thank you. 

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: #6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 Questions for 2020: 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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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?

World on Fire: Rebuilding Notre Dame is Only the Beginning

We don’t know, today, how and why Notre Dame’s roof caught fire on April 15. What we do know is that it happened on the very same day that the Extinction Rebellion protests also caught fire, especially in London but also sending sparks all over the world.

These direct action protests are reminiscent of the old Occupy movement, but with added urgency, as now we are concerned not just about income inequality, but about the much broader, more looming collapse of our planetary ecosystems and the very survival of life on Earth as we know it.

Various voices on social media have been pointing out that the roof of Notre Dame was made of some 1,500 giant, ancient oak trees, harvested from more than 50 acres of old-growth forest near Paris. Some accounts put the age of these trees at 400 years, meaning that they were seedlings in the 800s AD. They gave their lives to build that majestic cathedral, and now they have returned to the carbon cycle as ashes and dust.

The cathedral will be rebuilt. But what about the trees?

It is now rare to find a 50-acre stand of old-growth trees anywhere on the planet. The Amazon, under Brazil’s Trump-like new president, is being cut down at alarming, ever-accelerating rates. The boreal forest in the Arctic Circle is also being razed for oil extraction, timber and mining, as well as under siege from climate change. The great tropical forests of Indonesia and Africa are being harvested for lumber to build houses and furniture.

It’s one thing to harvest ancient trees reverently and use them to construct a sacred place of worship, as the medieval builders of Notre Dame did.

It’s another thing to clear-cut forests with giant machines and use them to build deck chairs.

Today we know how dependent we are on our planet’s forests and other plant life. The great Amazon rainforest is the primary generator of the weather patterns that enable us to grow food in the northern hemisphere. Tree roots support the mycorrhizal networks that nourish healthy soil. With every breath, we sustain ourselves on the oxygen they produce.

For me, trees have a value that goes beyond the essential “ecosystem services” they provide.

I am not a person who worships the divine in a church. When I want to connect with the sacred, I go to the forest.

Jen Grandmother Tree Small

There is something in the way trees send their roots deep into the Earth and their branches way up to the sky that symbolizes for me the role of all life on Earth—rooted here, and yet connected and energized by our Sun and the entire Cosmos, which we still barely comprehend. I go to the forest to try to understand more deeply who I am and what I am here to do.

The fire at Notre Dame Cathedral reminds me of the task before me; before us as a human species. Yes, we have to rebuild Notre Dame. But even more importantly, we have to rebuild the health of our planet.

We have to mobilize to push world leaders—political, business, financial, industrial—to take immediate, effective action to reverse the existential threat of climate disruption and environmental destruction in order to avoid planetary and civilizational collapse.

We don’t have to stretch very far to imagine our world on fire.

IT IS ON FIRE.

It’s not hard to imagine the collapsing spire of Notre Dame representing the extinction of yet another species on Earth.

For now, the stone structure still survives. The rose windows are still intact. It’s still possible to rebuild.

But we will not be able to rebuild the Amazon rainforest or the boreal forest in Alaska, Canada, China and Russia. If the forests go, the climate will be disrupted beyond the point of repair. The Holocene will be over, and the Anthropocene, the brief period of human ascendancy, will also come crashing down.

Life will persist on Earth. Gaia will regenerate. But it will be the end of civilization as we have known it.

There is still time to put out those fires. This is, as I wrote last week, an all-hands-on-deck moment. Whatever your gifts and abilities, now is the time to put them at the service of Life, of Beauty, of the Sacred understood as inextricably in relationship with the Earth and the Cosmos.

Rebuild Notre Dame, yes. But that is only the beginning.

 

“Houston, we have a problem.” Heeding Harvey’s Message for Humanity

Water is Life.

Unless it’s coming at you by the trillions of gallons, blown on hurricane-force winds. Then water can be death. And death also lurks in the water that lingers after the storm, contaminated with chemicals, fossil fuels, sewage and decomposing bodies.

Although evangelical preachers may be tempted to blame the storm on the sins of individual Texans, the blame must be spread much more widely, and it has nothing to do with conventional Christian understandings of sin.

We have brought this destruction down on ourselves by our actions and inactions—that much is true. And we have the power to right the wrongs and avoid or at least lessen the catastrophes still to come.

I don’t know if anyone has done a “budget analysis” of which country, on a per capita basis, bears the most responsibility for climate change, but I bet America is right up there at the top.

On a deeper level, Americans have been the great influencers of the 20th century, especially the post-World War II era when the fossil and chemical industries really took off. In trying to keep up with the Americans, the rest of the world followed suit, and everything seemed almost too good to be true, for a while.

What gave us the arrogant notion that Mother Earth would endlessly tolerate the warming of the oceans, logging of the forests, chemical dousing of the prairies, wholesale destruction of millions of species and industrial-scale torture of domesticated animals? Did we really expect to be able to mine and drill and burn and drain and pave without any consequences?

I don’t believe in “Mother Earth” as a Kali-like goddess bent on vengeance; but as Gaia, a living system striving to stay balanced and flourish through every living particle of her being, our planet will naturally seek to return to the steady state that humans have destroyed in the past fifty or so years.

Gaia has her own ways of curbing an invasive species. Hurricanes, floods, wildfires, droughts, earthquakes, epidemics…these are not acts of a vengeful God but the natural biofeedback methods of our planet, seeking stasis and harmony.

This is no comfort to Texans going back to destroyed homes and neighborhoods this weekend. It’s no comfort to the rest of us on the East Coast, keeping a wary eye on the next hurricane churning in our direction across the Atlantic, Category 3 Hurricane Irma.

 

In the old days, a preacher could look out at a grieving, distressed congregation and offer the solace that death and disaster were part of God’s plan. The message was to bow our heads and humbly accept the suffering as part of the human experience.

But these early 21st century “natural” disasters are neither divine retribution nor a cross we must bear as the price of being human.

The mind-blowing tragedy of Houston and the surrounding area is the simple result of human arrogance, shortsightedness, greed and stupidity.

  • Build petro-chemical plants on salt-water marshes along the ocean and see what happens.
  • Build housing developments on low-lying land along rivers and bayous and watch them flood.
  • Burn fossil fuels as fast and hard as you can, even when you know the consequences of over-heating the atmosphere—can you really feign surprise when storms come up out of the hot oceans?

Harvey was preceded by Sandy and Irene and Katrina…it will be followed by more and more staggering storms, until we finally get the message: we cannot continue to live as though the world were our sewer.

We cannot continue to focus our intelligence on developing ever-more-destructive weapons and toxic chemicals, on engineering feats that ride roughshod over natural habitats and drive other members of the Earth community over the cliff of extinction.

Our intelligence is desperately needed now, but in the service of Life, not Death.

Water is Life. Air is Life. Earth is Life. The good Fire of our Sun is Life.

But only when these elements are balanced and respected. Out of balance, rendered toxic, they spell our doom.

It is late, but not too late, to pull our planet back from the brink of the major reset she’s tracking towards.

If the preachers want to send a useful message, how about reminding people of our responsibility to steward the Earth? When the floods came in Biblical times, Noah built an Ark, not just for himself and his family, but for all the creatures on Earth.

We must recognize our entire planet, our Gaia, as a precious, sacred Ark of Life, for which we are the pilots and tenders.

She is sending us wake-up call after wake-up call. Are we awake yet?

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Hurricane Harvey from the International Space Station, 8/25/17. Credit: NASA European Pressphoto Agency

In the Shadow of an Uncertain Future

On the homestretch to the 2017 solar eclipse over America, it seems that the shadow is already falling on this beleaguered country.

Tear gas and violence in Charlottesville over the decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, racist hero of the Confederates. A president who tries to appease both sides, refusing to condemn racism and white supremacy as a failed and destructive ideology that has no place in 21st century America—no surprise, as he is busy enacting his racist anti-immigration policies and looking the other way on gender- and race-based violence.

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, a trigger-happy, unstable and belligerent boy king is daring to challenge the trigger-happy, unstable and belligerent American president. The whole world watches, aghast, knowing that these two boy-men have the power to drag us all into war, and deadly nuclear war at that.

Wildfires burn in the West, floods wash out parts of New Orleans, and overhead the Perseid meteors sizzle and flash.

I can’t help but feel the portent in all of this, and to wonder why it is that most people seem oblivious.

KeyArt_LowRes_copyThe chatter in the audience this evening before Al Gore’s new film began was all about cultural doings, restaurants and vacations. Needless to say, people were more subdued after watching 100 minutes of Gore turning gray in his indefatigable efforts to wake people up to climate change and get us to fight for our future.

The movie tried to end on a hopeful note, and yet we can’t avoid the dire fact that our climate gets further out of balance year by year. This summer there are unprecedented wildfires in the previously frozen peat bogs of Greenland, releasing tons of methane, a greenhouse gas way more potent than carbon dioxide.

The writing on the bog is clear: in a relentlessly warmer world, we’d better start adapting.

51yaY7uJ07L._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_In the same week as seeing Gore’s film, I also read James Lovelock’s latest book, A Rough Ride to the Future, as well as his student Stephan Harding’s marvelous book Animate Earth: Science, Intuition and Gaia.

Lovelock—the pathbreaking scientist who, with Lynn Margulis, was the first to understand the Earth as Gaia, a vast interconnected biological system—is now 98, and he’s still way out in front of the pack in terms of visionary, unconventional thinking.

His book envisions the possibility of humans taking an evolutionary leap hand in hand with our computers and robots, founding a new civilization of cyborgs that no longer rely on what he calls “wet carbon life forms,” which will not be able to withstand the hotter world we are creating. He advises that we build new, sustainable cities in areas of the world likely to remain arable, and let Gaia take care of regulating the rest of the planet, as she has always done through many great climate changes in history.

Although Lovelock calls himself an optimist, the book ends on a sober note.

“I do not envision the death of Gaia, the Earth system, in the immediate future, either through human folly or otherwise. It can sustain human life for a good while yet, and human life can be the catalyst for Gaian survival in the much longer term. But there is one snag. The system cannot sustain the present level of human population for very much longer. The future world may be a better place, but getting to it from here will not be easy, and we will not all make the journey.”

Watching Gore’s movie, with its dramatic footage of floods, fires and melting glaciers, as well as his reminders that the terrible violence in Syria started with a drought that destroyed more than 60% of the country’s farmland, while an increase in pandemics is inescapable on a warmer planet….well, you’d have to be pretty obtuse not to see that there are many paths to human population crash, and we’re rapidly swarming down all of them.

We are about to be the victims of our own success as a species, and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot any of us can do about it. Even Al Gore seems pretty stumped by the end of the movie, after Trump’s decision to scuttle U.S. participation in the Paris climate accord.

I may not be much of an optimist, but I won’t allow myself the luxury of despair, either. I agree with Gore and Stephan Harding that we must use our power as consumers and taxpayers to push for climate-friendly changes at the local, national and international levels, including electing politicians who will represent the best interests of people and the planet.

But before that can happen, we need to wake people up to the necessity of profound, rapid, systemic change that goes beyond individual choices to the realm of national policy.

Harding’s vision is very much aligned with my own belief in the importance of starting from personal experience. The way to get people to care about the Earth is to help them remember moments when they were able to perceive the beauty and awe of our planet. This is the aim of my forthcoming online course in purposeful memoir, “Becoming Gaia,” and Harding puts it very lyrically in his conclusion to Animate Earth:

51w61ADyV4L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_“To act well, we need to experience the Earth not as “nature” out there, nor as an “environment” that is distinct from us, but as a mysterious extension of our very own sensing bodies that nourishes us with an astonishing variety of intellectual and aesthetic experiences—with the roar of the sea and with the wonderful sight of the night moon reflected in a calm lake. Right action requires us to live into the body of the Earth, so that we feel just as comfortable with the air, water, rocks and living beings that are the life of that wider body as we do in our human-made environments. If we could only do this, our focus would shift from the endless fascination with human affairs to a wider, more fulfilling perception of the animate Earth in which these affairs take place. We would then encounter a broader, Earth-centered view in which every breath we take and every decision we make is a pledge of service and allegiance to the greater personhood of our planet.”

Truly, a pledge of allegiance to the planet is called for today.

To those who have been tasked with carrying out the ecocidal will of the fossil fuel cabal now in political power in the United States, I say: you have a choice.

  • If the mad president tells you to pull the trigger on a nuclear weapon that will incinerate a nation, you can say no.
  • If the energy transfer company wants you to put a gas pipeline under a river or over an aquifer, you can say no.
  • Even if you are offered a lot of money for staying silent, you always have the choice to say no.

“The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” Your resistance may be vilified in the short term, but it will eventually be understood as heroic whistleblowing that saved millions of lives, in service to our shared sustainable future.

Gore compares the fight to head off climate destruction to other morally based American movements: abolition, women’s suffrage, civil rights, gay rights. The climate justice fight is bigger than any of these—it’s global, and it goes way beyond humanity. We are fighting for all the beautiful members of our Earth community who came up with us through the eons, the plants, animals, birds, insects and marine life that evolved together into the complex, perfectly balanced system of water, oxygen, carbon and sunlight that makes our planet such a living wonder.

An Inconvenient Sequel ends on a defiant note. “Fight like your world depends on it,” Gore says.

Because, of course, it does.

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