Let me begin this reflection on Change and Transformation with a piece by Rilke that captures the difference between two things which may seem the same but are actually not:

As once the winged energy of delight

carried you over childhood’s dark abysses,

now beyond your own life build the great

arch of unimagined bridges.

– R. M. Rilke

Change is the constant, transformation is the response. Sometimes this response is radical and world-shifting. The founding of our democracy was such a response. I believe another such transformation is taking place today.

In a recent NY Times OpEd piece, called The Dark Century, David Brooks asks whether, in the light of what he calls ‘a return to barbarism,’ human beings are essentially good or fundamentally depraved; and whether the natural state of human society is therefore authoritarian to control the depravity or democratic in order to foster creative interaction. He seems to come down on the side of the negative assessment. But he would not be the first, to judge from human history, and I would imagine that many of us would agree with him. I would like to suggest another perspective that is reflected in a growing movement of transformation that includes the Regenerative Economics program of the Capital Institute.

Most of us would agree that we – like every living system – are evolving into greater and greater complexity through our expanding knowledge and awareness. Some of us might suggest that this evolution is from simple survival as separate, competing individuals (which always remains critical) to a more relational understanding of and approach to life as interbeing, which would include collaboration. This is reflected in the development of social structures from tribal and hierarchical to global and democratic; from wanting simply order to wanting more creative interaction. This shift is both reflected in and founded on brain development: from the reptilian (survival)  brain to the limbic (relational) brain. It is the tension between individual survival and collective relationship.

This evolutionary process clearly includes regression when new challenges are encountered. One form that response to this this regression can take is fundamentalism. We see this most obviously in religion but also in politics. If things are not working, we simply need to return to the original teaching and try harder. Brooks would seem to reflect this response when he suggests:

The real problem is in the seedbeds of democracy, the institutions that are supposed to mold a citizenry and make us qualified to practice democracy. To restore those seedbeds, we first have to relearn the wisdom of the founders: We are not as virtuous as we think we are…Democracy is not natural; it is an artificial accomplishment that takes enormous work.

I would argue that this response is valid in normal circumstances. For the work of growing and living up to our principles is difficult, not however because it is not natural; rather because it is a stretch – of the imagination, of our thinking and certainly of our habits of interacting. Sometimes, though, something more is required because something more is happening. There have been times like these in our history that were pivotal and critical for our survival but also for our thriving. Examples include the so-called Axial period, c. 500 BCE, when the major religions emerged; the Renaissance and the Enlightenment might also qualify as such moments. Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 classic, ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ coined the term paradigm shift to describe these moments of transformation when the old order simply falls apart and is replaced by a radically new vision of things.

We are living in a transformation moment today, and what we experience are the symptoms of an old order falling apart. The institutions of this old order – our systems of government, our economics, our healthcare, our education – are simply unable to address the challenges that have brought us to the edge of survival. At the same time – which Kuhn’s theory also notes – there is an awakening, an expansion of awareness that is seeing the way toward new thinking and action and new systems that can address the challenges we face. These responses tend to be on the margins at first and are initially rejected as heretical. Only when the situation becomes intolerable will the old order give way to a new one.

Today, the scientific world reflects an expansion of awareness when it describes and explains the universe in a new way as a world of interbeing, where everything is connected to everything else, where everything is interdependent: what Thomas Berry describes as ‘a communion of subjects.’

Today, we already have the empirical knowledge that should offer a new awareness and understanding of reality and our place in it. Yet, still society clings to old forms even as they clearly fail to address the challenges we face. For, the truth is that real change, in the sense of transformation of awareness and consciousness requires more than knowledge or information. Transformation begins with an experience of a different reality. In other words, the world of interconnectedness that the scientific world presents has to be experienced in order for it to become the foundation for a new society. Radical change begins in the heart. It is like falling in love: people in love have not reasoned themselves into love: they fall… Then the transformation continues with a shift in understanding: what is happening here? What does all this mean? Finally, there is yet another shift, this time in thinking and action: what does this mean for me and for my/our world?

A theory of transformation consists of existential conversion, intellectual conversion and moral conversion. The word ‘theory’ – theoria in Greek – means the contemplation of reality (literally to see God (theos) and a response through understanding and action.

Thomas Berry describes this process as a reinvention of the human at species level in every aspect that is inspired and guided by a new story of the universe: a new story of origins that describes reality and our place in it. It is a reinvention that applies to every aspect of human life and society, from individual purpose to institutional forms. It is a reinvention at species level because the cultural forms are no longer up to the task.

In the context of economics, the experience – and the awakening it brings – to the reality of interbeing (Berry’s ‘ communion of subjects’) impels new understanding of the laws (nomoi) of our home (oikos): a new eco – nomics, in other words.

This radical process, however, also implies a method for realizing this transformation. Mindfulness-Dialogue offers such a method with its stages of connecting deeply in order to experience the reality of interconnectedness, exploring skillfully in order to understand what this interbeing means and where we fit in it, and discovering together what this means for us both personally and collectively.

Teaching a new economics that reflects this awakening to the reality of interbeing, therefore also requires the application of this method in the form of a model whereby every interaction reflects these stages of connecting, exploring and discovering together. This applies not only to learning cohorts but also the entire program. In this model, teacher and students, expert and learner – can connect, explore and discover new insights together that can be developed together as shared understanding  and built into new forms, whether laws or institutions for their application. 

Let me conclude by sharing the final stanzas of Rilke’s poem:

To work with Things in the indescribable

relationship is not too hard for us;

the pattern grows more intricate and subtle,

and being swept along is not enough.

Take your practiced powers and stretch them out

until they span the chasm between two

contradictions…..For the god

wants to know himself in you.

– R.M. Rilke

Thomas Berry speaks of what he calls ‘The Great Work.’ Every generation, he says, has its great work to do. Perhaps, our great work today is the transformation of our society into a community that reflects the reality of a universe of interbeing.


Lent never felt like fun when I was a kid: giving up candy, fasting, doing penance? It seemed to take all the negative aspects of religion and magnify them. And that was a pity, for Lent is really about life: anticipating new life; and seeing practices like fasting, as ways to remind us about this and to sharpen our anticipation so that the experience of life led to an expanded awareness and a transformation of our lives and world. Clearly this is important today as we struggle to define – or perhaps more accurately re-define – our place in the world, which is what we are doing with our New Global WE project.

In the Christian tradition Lent has two emphases: one is the new life of Spring. The old English word ‘Lent’ refers to the ‘lengthening’ of the days. The other emphasis – reflected in other (Latin-based) languages as quaresima, meaning forty – refers to transformation: to an expanded identity born of the experience of this new life that is symbolized by the forty years when the Israelites became the people of the promised land; and symbolized also by the forty days when Jesus stepped into his calling. There is also a reference to those preparing for a new identity symbolized by their Baptism at Easter, when they will become new people: part of a new Global WE.

But, before we reflect further, let’s see if we can personalize this experience of life that led to an expanded sense of WE which we’ve all had in various ways that range from seeing the first flower of spring to the awakening that happens when you fall in love. So, let me invite you into a short Mindfulness meditation on ‘Lent and a New Global WE.’

  • Position yourself comfortably, relaxed but also alert – your back straight, hands in your lap, your eyes closed or ‘softened’ and take three deep breaths, in and out, through your nose. If you notice tension anywhere in your body, breathe into that place and breathe out the tensions.
  • Now begin to use your breath as a way of helping you stay present as the inevitable thoughts and distractions come rushing in by simply paying attention as you breathe in and out, deliberately. See if you can find a gentle rhythm
  • In your mind, softly say the theme of this reflection – ‘Lent and a New Global WE’ – breathing the words, in and out; letting them settle into your body. 
  • Now, call to mind a memory of a moving experience of new life: a spring flower, seeing your new born baby for the first time, your first post-Covid visit to family….
    1. Notice the feelings; let them bubble up
    1. Where do you feel them in your body?
    1. What thoughts do they stir?
  • Now, call to mind a memory of an awakening and transformation that came out of this experience of new life, expressed in words like: now I know what’s important… from now on….wouldn’t it be great if it were like this all the time
    • Notice the feelings this memory stirs; again let them bubble up
    • Where do you feel these memories in your body?
    • What thoughts do they stir?
  • Stay with these memories of new life and transformation for a while, toggling back and forth between the experience of new life and the experience of personal awakening and transformation. I will mind the time for you. When you find yourself distracted, simply return to your breath. If you’d like to stay with this step of the process a little longer, simply pause the recording and come back when you’re ready.
  • Now gently return to the present moment, to your body and your surroundings. For a moment, notice the sense of connection to the moment that this practice has generated: – a fuller presence, a deeper awareness; calm, a sense of trust…

Lent represents the two sides of the reality of an interconnected unfolding world. One is new life that is always exploding into existence; the other is the explosion of new awareness that comes from this profound experience of life. Let me tell you a couple of stories of my own experience of this awakening. Both stories are memories from my time in Africa as a young man.

The first is the way life literally explodes into existence in the desert. I lived in the dry scrubland of northern Kitui in Kenya for a number of years. Coming from Ireland I was clearly impacted by the absence of green and sometimes depressed by the sad, gray bush that covered the entire landscape for miles in every direction. Every year, however, in fact twice a year, the rains came. Around December it was the Short Rains, but it was in April that the longer – literally the Long Rains – brought new life. For weeks before the first drops, though, the gray bush began to bud. The word for this strange phenomenon of anticipation – muniino – touched a deep longing for life in me that I sense is reflected in every single living being. When the rains actually came, then, this longing was realized in ways that were much more dramatic than my previous experience in Ireland. For, within a few short days, the dry desert burst into a display of extravagant colors: yellow, green, purple, red…. It made me cry out with absolute wonder – a veritable quickening of my spirit – in ways that I had never experienced before. It suggested to me that this was resurrection as we all needed to experience it in order for it to transform our lives. I remain forever grateful for this profound gift of the grace of the world.

The second memory reflects the other aspect of quickening: the awakening of new awareness. in myself and my fellow-priest Benny. I lived with Benny for three of my years in Kitui in a place called Kimangao where our entertainment at the end of the day, in a world not only of no internet but no electricity, consisted of reading poetry and singing songs to each other. Sometimes we would choose a verse from a poem or a play of Shakespeare to reflect what was going on for us. Thus, for example, a statement from King Lear – ‘now gods stand up for bastards’ – captured our mood one time when we felt harassed by church authorities and was hung as a banner in our living room. These pieces were a kind of quickening: for us an opening of our minds and hearts to the moment of the season or the situation. One year around Lent, we were reading the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh who was known and loved by many of us for his lyrical descriptions of farming life and its social aspects. In a poem called The Great Hunger, Kavanagh describe the lives of the rough men who eked a meager living out of ‘the stony, grey soil of Monaghan’ – shades of the stony, grey scrubland of Kitui: how they ploughed and planted, wheeled barrows of dung and weeded; how they smoked and gossiped, cursed and scrapped: all parts of a hardscrabble, often painful way of life. But then, suddenly, out of nowhere, like the flowers after the rains in Kitui, the poet writes:

Yet sometimes when the sun comes through a gap

These men know God the Father in a tree;

The Holy Spirit is the rising sap,

And Christ will be the green leaves that will come

At Easter from the sealed and guarded tomb.

What a transformation, this awakening to ‘God the Father in a tree.’ What an amazing resurrection of the Christ of everything from the sealed and guarded tomb of the winter earth. The implication here is that Christ is essentially a name for everything – every expression of life. And what a quickening of hearts, this rising sap of the Holy Spirit of life. This was our quaresima – Benny’s and mine – that changed our identity forever. For, even after many years, this Lent-Easter experience still stays with us; still defines us in some profound way; transcending the, sometimes painful limitations of time and space. We are both older now – Benny a little farther downstream than I, now living in the Care Unit in the headquarters of the Kiltegan Fathers in Ireland. But this identity-shifting, resurrection-transformation remains with us forever. I will send Benny this reflection and I know, for sure, that his face will light up when he hears me tell the story.

But let me see if I can draw some implications for our world today from these memories and the underpinning message of Lent and Easter for our secular world today. As I write this, the challenges are vividly present: Russia has invaded Ukraine, though the world is responding in a way that is new and different than the past. People everywhere have been awakened by the holy spirit of the Ukrainian people standing up for life – now gods stand up for bastards! It is happening, of course, this threat of awful war even as we struggle to rise from the graves of a pandemic: the isolation, the anxiety, the mental health issues, the breakdown of relationships. Perhaps, in fact, this is the spirit of our new global WE. And, then there is the backdrop of the new report on climate change, practically unnoticed in the confusion of these other happenings, that we hardly dare think about, but that will require us to come together in new ways, as a new, united people across the earth. This surely is the meaning of Easter today and the importance of a Lent that will lead all of us home to our new global WE.

The thought brings up a final memory from Africa that I’ll use to pull this reflection together. It was my first Ash Wednesday in Kitui. Ash Wednesday, as some of you know, is the first day of Lent when people began this anticipation and preparation of new life and the transformation it can bring by getting back to fundamentals. Christians would participate in a ceremony where their foreheads were marked with ashes in the sign of the cross while the priest said the words: ‘remember man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.’ No one had prepared me for the strange challenges of trying to relate sometimes rather alien practices to the life of the people I had come to serve. And certainly, I didn’t have the support systems of a traditional Christian parish. Thus, for example, there were no palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday to burn into ashes for the ceremony. So, here is what I did, in my youthful and somewhat arrogant creativity: I took a handful of the red Kitui earth in a calabash as a symbol of the fundamental foundation of life and added water which was literally a symbol of the transforming gift of grace that together with the earth opened the graves of hungry stomachs and filled them with the new life of the fragile harvests. And I smeared foreheads with the muddy mixture saying words – though I hardly remember exactly – like: remember that we are children of the earth who share in the mystery of life’s becoming by living and dying and living again and again…

A makeshift quickening, I know. But, isn’t that always the way….

Let me give the last word, however, to our young American poet laureate, Amanda Gorman, with a piece that holds together the dark threats – the impossible desert – of our world today with the inexorable promise of new life, along with the reminder for us to remember…

May this be the day
We come together.
Mourning, we come to mend,
Withered, we come to weather,
Torn, we come to tend,
Battered, we come to better.
Tethered by this year of yearning,
We are learning
That though we weren’t ready for this,
We have been readied by it.
We steadily vow that no matter
How we are weighed down,
We must always pave a way forward.

May this be the spirit of our Lent this year as we do the essential work of re-defining ourselves as a new global WE; a definition founded on a profound experience of a world of wonderful interbeing.

Changing The World – Personal Protest and Collective Alternative

I wonder when it was that my sense of living a good – moral – life shifted from frustration with an unjust world and a decision to step away from it to an expanded awareness of a world of interbeing and a decision to proactively step into that world. The first, I believe, reflects the response of personal protest in a world of injustice and unsustainability; the second is about finding a collective alternative to this world.

I’m reminded of the conversion process of the iconic monk, Thomas Merton: from a personal rejection of the world and a withdrawal to a monastery, which he described in his best-selling autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, to a kind of falling in love with everyone and everything which he described in a book called Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, that he wrote some years later. This is how he described this second stage of his conversion:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .

The ‘spurious isolation in a special world’ refers, it would seem, to his life in the monastery. This new awakening to the reality of interbeing expanded his conversion from a personal project of protest and withdrawal from society to a search for an alternative society that would reflect this reality of interbeing. It was a radical shift in Merton from me to WE. He described it as a great relief that the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could no longer overwhelm him, now that he realized what we all are…

Continue reading “Changing The World – Personal Protest and Collective Alternative”

Human-Earth Day

Earth Day is essentially about addressing our relationship with the Earth so it could also be called – and perhaps more accurately – Human-Earth Day. There are two basic aspects of this relationship: one is functional and has to do with our dependence on the Earth for survival; the other is existential and has to do with the meaning of Earth-life, and specifically our human form of this life. From the perspective of our human needs, often associated with Abraham Maslow, the first aspect is perhaps simply about surviving:physiological needs and safety needs. The second might be described in terms of thriving in a uniquely human way: love and belonging needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization needs.

I’d like to explore this human-earth relationship which feels even more important in these times when the relationship is being challenged in all kinds of ways, some of them unprecedented. Perhaps we can discoverhow to respond better to the challenges, both old and new. But let’s begin by connecting with this fundamental reality of Earth as our context but also as something more essential – our reality and our identity.

  1. Position yourself comfortably, relaxed, but alert – back straight, hands in your lap, eyes closed or ‘softened’ – to help you go within to a deeper place and a truer self.
  2. Take three deep breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth. Then breathe normally.
  3. Follow your breath as it moves in and out. When thoughts arise, as they inevitably will, simply notice them and let them go. Think of them as clouds passing in a clear blue sky.  Let’s do this for a few moments. Give yourself permission to be HERE, NOW…
  4. In your mind, softly say the theme of this reflection that we might call ‘HUMAN-EARTH DAY.’
  5. Now, as you breathe, see this process as one of complete and utter dependence: We literally breathe in life. 
    1. Be aware of your complete dependence on life – on Earth – for everything: the air you breathe, the water you drink, the food you eat, the shelter that protects you.
    1. With each inhale, breathe in a part of the earth that constitutes our being – air, water, food, shelter
    1. With each exhale breathe out thanks…
    1. Do this for a few moments
  6. Now, focus on the fact that life – the Earth – is actually living you:
    1. Your breath is life breathing itself
    1. Your body is Earth living itself
    1. Your feelings are Earth’s feelings
    1. Your thoughts are Earth’s thoughts.
  7. What happens when you make this shift of focus:
    1. What do you feel? Awe? Gratitude?
    1. What are the sensations in your body? Dependence? Power? Vulnerability?
    1. What are your thoughts? How should I be living: personally, collectively?
  8. Stay with these two aspects of your relationship with Earth and Life for a few moments: perhaps with the first – your dependence – as you breathe in – then with the second – your fundamental reality and identity – as you breathe out. 
  9. Do this for a few moments. Notice what this stirs in you: Dependence? Identity?
  10. Now gently return to where you are, to your body, to your surroundings; and when you are ready open your eyes. 

Let’s take a look at these two aspects of the human-earth relationship. First of all, it is very clear that we need the Earth simply to be – and remain – alive. Our ancestors were more sensitive to this basic fact, perhaps because of their less refined technologies and their inability to impact and control the way our modern world can and does. However, even though this realization of essential dependence did not impinge on our modern world until relatively recently, it has always been there. Some of the earliest human stories contain lessons about the importance of restraining our power, and our obligation to care for the so-called natural world. 

Plato, in his Dialogue on Critias, for example, lamented the human impact of Ancient Greece on the earth: He wrote “All the richer and softer parts have fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land remains.” Advancing agriculture boosted human populations but also caused soil erosion and attracted insect infestations that led to severe famines between the years 200 and 1200. The 18th century witnessed the dawn of modern environmental rights. After a yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin petitioned to manage waste and to remove tanneries for clean air as a public “right”. In 1892, John Muir founded the Sierra Club in the US to protect the country’s wilderness. Rachel Carson brought the environmental movement into focus with the 1962 publication of Silent Spring, describing the impact of chemical pesticides on biodiversity. Then in 1970 a US Senator, Gaylord Nelson, proclaimed the first Earth Day – April 22 – which led to new laws including the Clean Air Act, and the Water Quality Improvement Act.  This aspect of the environmental effort went global with the first UN Earth Summit in 1992. Today its focus is Climate Change that manifests in multiple ways, from shifting weather patterns to the transmission of viruses to humans when their usual hosts have lost their habitat.

As I noted earlier, this aspect of the human-earth relationship reflects our basic needs – physiological and safety needs – for survival.  I have suggested that our other needs – our love and belonging needs, our esteem needs, and our need for self-actualization – that reflect our uniquely human world are also realized through this human-earth relationship. The American poet, Ee cummings says it so well:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any – lifted from the no
of all nothing – human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened

Thomas Berry – whom I often refer to – would say that not only does the earth fulfil our basic survival needs, but it also inspires our mind and heart with deeper movements: with our sense of the divine, in fact.  If we lived on the moon, he would add, our sense of God would reflect the desolation of a lunar landscape. The poet, Mary Oliver, offers us a simple method for addressing these essential human needs. In a wonderful poem she calls Morning Poem she describes how ‘every morning the world is created’. ‘If it is your nature to be happy’, she says, you will be filled with wonder and joy. But, she goes on, as if upon further reflection, even if it is your nature to be sad – ‘if it’s all you can do to keep on trudging’ – you know deep down that you are part of something awesome – a mysterium tremendum et fascinans. I love the way she puts it, how ‘there is still somewhere deep within you a beast shouting that the earth is exactly what it wanted.’ Then she offers her insight – her basic Mary Oliver message:

each pond with its blazing lilies

is a prayer heard and answered


every morning,

whether or not

you have ever dared to be happy,

whether or not

you have ever dared to pray. 

So, while it – the earth and the blazing lilies – doesn’t need us to be itself, we can be part of this amazing dance of life. All we have to do is dare to be happy, dare to pray, suggesting that the two are related. She shows this relationship in another place where she says:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is, 

I do know how to pay attention…

And there you have it, I believe: all we have to do to be happy in this world – to fulfil our distinctly human needs – is to ‘pay attention.’ This is the human form of Earth-Life: paying attention. Of course, the great teachers of all the ages have always said something similar when they spoke of real presence or awakening or mindfulness or resurrection. Paying attention is realizing who we are. The Nicaraguan priest-poet, Ernesto Cardenal put it like this:

Our flesh and our bones come from other stars

and perhaps even from other galaxies,

we are universal,

and after death we will help to form other stars

and other galaxies.

We come from the stars, and to them we shall return.

Of course, my old friend Rilke always has something to say about this relationship, for he describes us as expressions of God who have been give the mandate, go to the limits of your longing. Embody me. He understands that everything does this in its own way, but says that our unique contribution is to be the voice: the one who names things the way Adam did in old creation story. As he puts it in his famous 9th Duino Elegy:

…Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,

bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit tree, window –

…But to say them, you must understand,

oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves

ever dreamed of existing. 

Here, then is where he takes the human-earth relationship to its logical – for him – conclusion:

….Earth, isn’t this what you want: to arise within us,

Invisible? Isn’t it your dream

To be wholly invisible some day…O Earth invisible

What, if not transformation is your urgent command?

Earth my dearest, I will. Oh believe me, you longer

Need your springtimes to win me over – one of them,

Ah even one is already too much for my blood…

Haven’t you felt this kind of energy rise up in you: before a beautiful sunrise, a gentle flower, a baby’s smile, a springtime?

There is also of course the challenge of the less gentle aspects of the unfolding earth – the pain, the loss, the decline, the death… Though here too, perhaps here especially, earth unfolds through the cracks that let the light in, through the pain that brings wisdom – as the Greek poet Aeschylus describes it – by the awful grace of God. It feels to me that this is where we are today on our learning curve. For the infinite spaces – the mysterium tremendum et fascinans – can also terrify. Is this what we have to learn today: to live with the realities that our innocent science has revealed. Certainly, we have opened Pandora’s Box before, though never with the capacity to impact that we have today. Is this what this past year of pandemic with all its effects is about?

We are indeed like children. We have so much to learn. We have only begun – certainly this new stage of the human-earth journey. Denise Levertov, the wonderful humanist-poet describes where we are:

But we have only begun
To love the earth.
We have only begun
To imagine the fullness of life.

How could we tire of hope?
—so much is in bud.

How can desire fail?
—we have only begun

to imagine justice and mercy,
only begun to envision

how it might be
to live as siblings with beast and flower,
not as oppressors.

Surely our river
cannot already be hastening
into the sea of nonbeing?

Surely it cannot
drag, in the silt,
all that is innocent?

Not yet, not yet—
there is too much broken
that must be mended,

too much hurt we have done to each other
that cannot yet be forgiven.

We have only begun to know
the power that is in us if we would join
our solitudes in the communion of struggle.

So much is unfolding that must
complete its gesture,
so much is in bud.

This then is our post-pandemic Earth Day: a new Human-Earth Day which proclaims an expanded human-earth relationship that respects our dependence on earth for our survival but also calls us to our place in the unfolding mystery of Earth-Life: to a redefining of the human role in all its forms.  For we are the Earth. We are part of the great Cosmic dance. 

This is our new Human-Earth Day. Here is where we can begin to survive but also thrive: where we can dare to be happy.

Blessings of the Earth on us all:  Beannachtaí an domhain orainn go léir

Hope and Uncertainty

Easter and spring came together in a powerful way this year, both suddenly exploding out of a cold winter, seeming to affirm the hope of new post-Covid possibilities as vaccinations increased beyond expectations and we began to speak of summer gatherings.  And yet, there is still the daily news of virus variants and new surges and lockdowns which make us unsure, hesitant.  I’m reminded of the opening lines of TS Eliot’s famous poem, The Wasteland:

April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

from “The WasteLand”
By TS Eliot

Is April the cruelest month?  Certainly, for someone living with uncertainty the things that may bring others joy can sometimes instead create more anxiety.  Is that where we are now: facing into tantalizing spring which should fill us with hope, but instead adds to our sense of anxiety?  Eliot captures the ambivalence in the lines that follow:

Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.


Hadn’t we become used to the world of Zoom with its sense of limited control: staying warm at home? Didn’t it bring its own forgetful comfort and security in the face of a frightening world? So, stepping out of that place is not easy.  We feel exposed and vulnerable, like the people of Israel who turned on Moses after he has led them out of slavery but into a desert place of uncertainty: 

“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?”

Numbers 21:5

They had come out of slavery, certainly, but a slavery where the ‘forgetful snow’ of winter had kept them warm with its familiarity:

“We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.”

Numbers 11:5 NIV

I’d like to explore this place where I find myself in these early days of cruel April, for I imagine I am not alone here.  Perhaps we can discover how to respond better, with more awareness; how to move with and within a world that clearly transcends our limited ideas of ‘back to normal’ and our little contrivances of hope.  But let’s begin by getting in touch with this strange apparent contradiction of hope and uncertainty that we are experiencing:

A Mindfulness Exercise

Position yourself comfortably, relaxed, but alert – back straight, hands in your lap, eyes closed or ‘softened’ – to help you go within to a deeper place and a truer self.

Take three deep breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth. Then breathe normally.

Follow your breath as it moves in and out. When thoughts arise, as they inevitably will, simply notice them and let them go. Think of them as clouds passing in a clear blue sky.  Let’s do this for a few moments. Give yourself permission to be HERE, NOW…

In your mind, softly say the theme of this reflection that we might call  ‘HOPE AND UNCERTAINTY’.

Now see if you can call to mind a memory of hope: perhaps a childhood waiting for Christmas or anticipating a favorite vacation; or expecting the arrival of a special friend:

What do you feel – alert, joyful?

What are the sensations in your body – warmth in your chest or belly?

What are your thoughts – imagining how it will be?

But now allow in uncertainty: What if my friend doesn’t come, what if I don’t get the hoped for gift:

What do you feel now – anxious, angry?

Notice that as a sensation in your body

See where your thoughts take you

Hold these two feelings for a few moments: Notice the tension…

Now gently return to where you are, to your body, to your surroundings; and when you are ready open your eyes. 

So, what is hope then?  And where does hope end and projection begin?  Perhaps, more accurately, is hope simply something we make up to soothe ourselves and our children in the face of difficult circumstances? Or is it something more?  And how does it deal with uncertainty? The poet, Mary Oliver, suggests that it is something more: something more fundamental, in fact, that drives us, no matter how we tend to feel in the moment. Her poem is called – appropriately enough – Morning Poem

Every morning
the world 
is created. 
Under the orange

sticks of the sun 
the heaped 
ashes of the night 
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches— 
and the ponds appear 
like black cloth 
on which are painted

of summer lilies. 
If it is your nature 
to be happy 
you will swim away along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination 
alighting everywhere. 
And if your spirit 
carries within it

the thorn 
that is heavier than lead— 
if it’s all you can do 
to keep on trudging—

there is still 
somewhere deep within you 
a beast shouting that the earth 
is exactly what it wanted—

each pond with its blazing lilies 
is a prayer heard and answered 
every morning,

whether or not 
you have ever dared to be happy, 
whether or not 
you have ever dared to pray

Morning Poem
By Mary Oliver

It’s worth reading a couple of times.  Notice a word or a phrase that catches your attention. 

Let me take up a couple of lines that touch me:

The first is ‘every morning the world is created’: not some mornings but every morning; and this world is created not improved or cultivated.  I’m reminded of what Thomas Berry describes as thefirst and primary imperative of the universe: ‘differentiation’, by which he means the infinite of unique forms of life; no two forms the same; each of them ever-new and ever-fresh; like the ‘every morning’ that Mary Oliver writes about. Hope has something to do with the uniqueness of everything and every moment.

The description of the emergence of the leaves and the trees, and the ponds with ‘their islands of summer lilies’ is really a description of an expanding awareness, for they – the leaves and the lilies – were there all the time, in a sense.  The suggestion is that hope is also about new – expanded – awareness.

Here, then, is where she begins her actual reflection on hope with her line – ‘if it is your nature to happy’.  She notes that not everyone sees what is around them with the same eyes.  But, more importantly, she adds that, even when they do, how they respond to this revelation depends on their ‘nature’.  She emphasizes, though, that this is not a question of comparison for, as she  continues, ‘and (not BUT) if your spirit carries within it the thorn that is heavier than lead’, implying not that one response is better than another, but rather that – for lots of reasons – our natures, and our responses, therefore, are simply different.  Her apparent conclusion is that hope is not simply about choice or practice – though these do matter – but more about where we are in our lives.  Nor is it about contrivance or projection, for the truth that we all in fact know at the deepest level where the beast – our essential, spontaneous self –  shouts, is that:

..the earth is exactly what it wanted

The impulse to hope, then, is not something we make up to comfort ourselves, rather it is the impulse of Life itself in us and as us, that energizes the unfolding of the entire universe through everything that lives.  

The Czech poet-statesman, Vaclav Havel captures the insight:

[Hope] is a dimension of the soul and is not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world

Vaclav Havel

In other words, we are made to hope: we are hope enfleshed.  And this is true even if we have forgotten or denied our true nature, which is precisely what our societies have caused us to do with their illusions of human separateness and superiority. Oliver finishes her reflection with a flourish proclaiming, as it were, this way of Life – of the earth, the universe, and every unique form of life:: 

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
every morning,

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray. 

Now you can decide for yourself what a prayer is, though  Mary Oliver actually offers us her own definition in another poem (Summer Day):

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is, 
I do know how to pay attention…

So perhaps here is where we might begin to draw some of these apparently disparate threads of hope and uncertainty together. First of all, we don’t have to generate hope, the earth will do that for us, and the beast inside us will shout this out spontaneously.  But, if we want to participate in this amazing world of life and death, of spring-life emerging again out of winter-death, we do have to pay attention.

Hope, then, is an orientation of the universal self – and of every individual self. It is an openness, even an entrusting of oneself to life, and, in this way, participating in the great work of Life/God’s becoming.  Pushing against this reality is the cause of our miseries. In the Buddhist context it is attachment to our insistent illusions of separation and  control.

Hope, finally, is a way of living in the world that consists of a vision that serves as a framework, the practice of paying attention (praying) that expands awareness, and thereby participating with life in a way that mitigates the uncertainty, fear, anger, resentment that we have received and internalized from our cultures, particularly our modern culture.

Lots of practical applications here and I am determined to try some of them.   I’m going to more deliberately walk the spring paths of my world this year and pay attention to this world coming back to life – every morning as well as every season, as well as after every crisis – no matter how I feel or what I think:  I’m going to dare to pray.  

Mary Oliver adds a final critical piece to her reflection on hope and uncertainty when she connects daring to pray and daring to be happy.  I have a hunch that the happiness we all want but seldom taste for all kinds of reasons – for all kinds of thorns that are heavier than lead – might actually be part of the deal.  

I HOPE so…

Covid Dilemma

Just recently I listened to an interview with Christine Runyan, a clinical psychologist who’s been exploring what is happening to our nervous system in the Covid pandemic we have all been experiencing though in different ways. She focused on the lack of connection that masks and social distancing, etc. have imposed and how this impacts us in a particular way since we normally come together in order to address conflict.  It struck me that addressing this Covid dilemma and the uncertainty surrounding our world after Covid must surely be a critical part of our ‘new American We’.

Before we explore this challenge, I think it will help to first get in touch with two aspects of our response to Covid and indeed to any perceived threat.

A Mindfulness Exercise

Position yourself comfortably, relaxed but alert – your back straight, hands in your lap, eyes closed or ‘softened’.

Take three deep breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth…. Then breathe normally. Where you feel tension in your body, breathe into that place and breathe out the tension. Do this for a few moments.

Now try to let go of the thoughts that are running around in your head by paying attention to your breath as you breathe in and out, deliberately. See if you can find a gentle rhythm.

Now, see if you can bring to mind an experience of trauma. 

Notice how your sympathetic nervous system kicks in: glucose for energy, increased heart rate, immune system boost; all intended to prepare you for fight or flight. Notice these changes in your body and stay with them for a few moments. This is our body’s response to trauma.

Now notice how your parasympathetic system emerges: your brain tells you the threat has passed; your heart rate slows; you feel relief… Notice the changes in your body that this causes and stay with these for a few moments.

Continue with our Mindfulness Meditation by giving yourself permission to be present in this place.  When you find yourself distracted – as you will – simply return to your breath. I will keep the time for a few minutes (if you’d like to extend this part of the reflection, simply pause the recording and come back when you’re ready).

Now gently return to this moment, to your body and when you are ready open your eyes. Feel the connection – presence, awareness, calm, trust – that surrounds you.

When we are integrated in our lives, this system is in balance in what is called the ‘optimal zone of arousal.’  As you can imagine there is a window of tolerance for such experience of arousal and calm.  Understandably, this window shrinks when prior traumas are triggered but also when the same trauma is repeated over and over.  Today, both of these are in play, for in this year of Covid, the trauma never went away.  And to add to the impact, the virus trauma was added to by the sometimes related traumas of partisan and violent politics, racism, and climate change.  So the impact just kept going.

And now? A year has passed, the vaccination has come, winter is over: all signs of hope, right? And yet we hear so much talk of uncertainty which manifests in many ways, including apathy,  dissociation, and acting out in various ways.  This may be because the energy of the many arousals that we have become used to has numbed us.  Or perhaps, the protective stance of the sympathetic system is simply watchful, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

There is also the rumination cycle that is part of all trauma: did I mess up? could I have done this better? what if ….?? etc.  The Buddhist tradition speaks of the two arrows of a trauma: one is the actual event or experience which is bad enough; the second is this ‘rumination cycle’ that can be even more challenging than the first because it never seems to let go.  It is well understood that a trauma actually resides in the body, at a cellular level, waiting, as it were, to be triggered again and again.  As the poet William Stafford describes it:

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of
storming out to play through the broken dike.

From “A Ritual TO Read to each other”
by William stafford

But the Covid trauma also has its own unique and distinctive aspects.  For, in normal circumstances, a fundamental response to trauma is connection: we reach out to others to comfort and be comforted.  This connection transcends differences that would otherwise keep us apart: like politics or race or religion.  For example, the recent weather crisis in Texas brought people together across their normal divides.  The reason is that when we are in trauma we experience ourselves as essentially one and connected, and it is this realization that allows our nervous system to calm down.  This connection, moreover, is physical: in other words it is visceral, body-based, and chemical.  The connection releases oxytocin which is a hormone and a neurotransmitter that is involved in childbirth and breast-feeding. It is also associated with empathy, trust, and relationship-building. It is sometimes referred to as the “love hormone,” because levels of oxytocin increase when we hug. In other words, oxytocin is released when we connect and the oxytocin then, in turn, impels us to connect further in a kind of deepening of the healing process.

The distinct and unique – and also troublesome – aspect of the Covid trauma is that the opposite is required of us in order to heal: distancing, masks, lockdowns, and quarantine.  Our nervous system gives – or more accurately is given – conflicting messages: don’t connect, stay away, even though your natural impulse is to do the opposite.  It is this that constitutes the tragedy of the Covid trauma which manifests in painfully undermining ways that are both individual and collective: you suffer and die without family and loved ones.  This understandably adds to the responses of frustration, irritability and erratic behavior we witness everywhere.  Even the reactions to the vaccination – the rejection and refusal of an obvious solution – are a form of acting out.

And so, our inability to connect has now become a result as well as a cause of our situation.  For, don’t we use isolation in our prison system to punish and hurt people.  Thus, our medicine is also therefore both cause and effect of further trauma.

All of which has created a pan-trauma and a constant PTSD that triggers old wounds and generates increasing aggression, myopia, inflexibility, and – most important – a massive loss of empathy.  We are in fact suffering a collective trauma: as a species, as members of the earth community.  So if we are to heal and get beyond this Covid trauma, we will have to start here. By this I mean we have to recognize – and name – what is happening: we have to frame the experience and see our various responses as valid, including the frustration and apathy and all the other unexpected and confusing experiences that come in their wake.

A particularly dangerous effect of the rumination cycles of self-blaming and depression is the loss of self-compassion.  And without self-compassion we will not get through this.  We know this about healing others – that compassion is what allows and enables healing to happen – but often forget it when it comes to ourselves.  Instead, we add to our own burdens with messages, both subtle and not so subtle of blame and even punishment.

We also have to let go of medical perspectives as the only way to look at this because they tend to be pathological in their diagnosis.  Often, in fact, they actually add to the effects, including breakdown on the physical side because of what is known as allostatic overload, which is when our bodies lose the ability to recover.  Nor do short term solutions serve us, whether these are drugs or alcohol or Netflix, or even worrying, which can be its own form of drug. 

Healing in this strange – and increasingly unpredictable – world begins with naming and allowing: it means ‘metabolizing’ the reality that there is no control.  This has always been the case of course – that we control essentially nothing about the unfolding of our lives – but in a culture of control we have developed the illusion that we do control things to an art form.  However, one of the main points that Christine Runyan made in the interview was that we have to do more than think about this; we really have to embody it.  This is an aspect that Mindfulness-Dialogue practice can help with.  In other words, we have to make space for, be present to, breathe in and out this reality.  In this place we will rediscover our true self; and in this place too we will find that ‘cool unlying life comes rushing in…and passion [makes] our bodies taut with power..’

This new energy, of our authentic – ancient – self, will reignite our brain and affirm for our nervous system that everything is ok.  We can then reinforce this sense of self by breathing deliberately; particularly by exhaling slowly in a way that does, in fact, activate the parasympathetic system which calms and returns us to balance. Dr. Runyan emphasizes the body aspect of this healing process by suggesting that we use our senses – smells that soothe, music that centers – to send messages of comfort and support to our threatened nervous systems.  Let me paraphrase a short body practice that highlights the simplicity and easy accessibility of what we might call ‘body self-compassion’:

So, once again position yourself comfortably, relaxed but alert – your back straight, hands in your lap, eyes closed or ‘softened’ and take three deep breaths, in through your nose and slowly out through your mouth…. 

Now place your feet deliberately and firmly on the ground/floor:
Press down: first with your heels then with the balls of your feet

Feel yourself in the seat
Hold this for a few moments and allow this message that you are grounded, on the earth to rise up through you.

And gently return to the present moment when you are ready

I think the main point perhaps that Dr. Runyan makes is that we have more power than we realize: the power of our own bodies that are doing their best to take care of us.  So, the most important thing we can do in this confusing time of Covid is to learn to relate again to our body by paying attention to how it responds to the things it encounters.  If we have learned anything during this Covid time – and I believe we have learned at both individual and collective levels – it is to trust our bodies: to let our body teach us.  For, while technology has given us so much in these past months, it has also revealed that it doesn’t know what to do.  So we would be foolish to entrust too much of ourselves to it.  Most of all, our kids have to learn to see this and to discover how to reclaim their souls by taking back their bodies.  

Indeed, perhaps another – bigger – learning is that we are not bifurcated creatures of bodies with a soul nor are we spiritual beings having a body experience.  We are – body and soul – an expression of life and need to relate to life in an integral way.  As I noted at the beginning, when we are integrated in our lives, our nervous system is in balance in what is called the ‘optimal zone of arousal.’   We could add that when we are integrated in our lives, we know how to relate to everything, from one another to viruses.

Maybe this is the biggest lesson of Covid: that we – our ‘new We’ – is one with life and with all its forms, and that this reality is the foundation of a healthy and happy human life at both individual and collective levels.  This, in fact, is the real meaning behind the ancient axiom – the Golden Rule of every tradition – that we need to love our neighbor (everything in other words) as ourself. 

In terms of how we should proceed after the learnings of this Covid time, let me offer a piece by Rilke that reflects on the heart of this reflection which I might describe as discovering (a continuous, perhaps eternal process) our real or true self and what this means for how we need to live. It’s called Moving Forward:

The deep parts of my life pour onward,
as if the river shores were opening out.
It seems that things are more like me now,
That I can see farther into paintings.
I feel closer to what language can’t reach.
With my senses, as with birds, I climb
into the windy heaven, out of the oak,
in the ponds broken off from the sky
my falling sinks, as if standing on fishes.

From “Moving Forward”
BY RM Rilke