Jesus Christ, Thomas Berry, and the New Shamanism: What the World Needs Now

Christmas Eve. The night of the year that we celebrate the birth of a baby who would grow up to reveal himself as a seer, a man with a direct connection to the Divine.

I believe that we all have the potential to have such a connection. In fact, I think it’s our birthright as humans, and it’s an ability we share with other animals as well.

All of us animals sleep and dream, and during our dreams we experience the same non-ordinary reality that the prophets and mystics have been telling us about—men like Socrates, Jesus or Mohammed who heard the voices of divine spirits.

For the past two thousand years or so, Western philosophy has been working steadily to wall off the connections between the natural world, including other animals, and human beings.

But in our dreams, those walls come tumbling down, as we visit landscapes and mingle with animals whose messages we strive to remember and interpret when we awake.

Thomas Berry

Thomas Berry

I am very intrigued by the recognition of religious scholar and eco-philosopher Thomas Berry that what human civilization urgently needs, in this time of ecological crisis, is to re-open the psychic channels connecting us to our planetary home.

He calls for a revalidation of the “shamanic personality”; shaman referring to a human being who can enter non-ordinary reality at will, and access valuable wisdom from the spirit world (or the Divine, as Western tradition would call it).

Berry argues that every human being is “genetically coded” to have access to the wisdom of the dreamland, whether in sleep or in the trance of deliberate shamanic journeying. And, he says, this is where we are going to find the solutions to the ecological crises we face today.

Change is not going to come from politics and protests, Berry says. It’s going to come through a psychic shift in which “we awaken to the numinous powers ever present in the phenomenal world around us,” which manifest themselves in human beings in our most creative moments. “Poets and artists continually invoke these spirit powers, which function less through words than through symbolic forms,” he says, continuing:

“In moments of confusion such as the present, we are not left simply to our own rational contrivances. We are supported by the ultimate powers of the universe as they make themselves present to us through the spontaneities within our own beings. We need only become sensitized to these spontaneities, not with a naïve simplicity, but with critical appreciation. This intimacy with our genetic endowment, and through this endowment with the larger cosmic process, is not primarily the role of the philosopher, priest, prophet or professor. It is the role of the shamanic personality, a type that is emerging once again in our society.

Tree spirits.  Photo c. J. Browdy 2014

Tree spirits. Photo c. J. Browdy 2014

“More than any other of the human types concerned with the sacred, the shamanic personality journeys into the far regions of the cosmic mystery and brings back the vision and the power needed by the human community….

“The shamanic personality speaks and best understands the language of the various creatures of the earth….This shamanic insight is especially important just now when history is being made not primarily within nations or between nations, but between humans and the earth, with all its living creatures….

“If the supreme disaster in the comprehensive story of the earth is our present closing down of the major life systems of the planet, then the supreme need of our times is to bring about a healing of the earth through this mutually enhancing human presence to the earth community.

“To achieve this mode of pressure, a new type of sensitivity is needed, a sensitivity that is something more than romantic attachment to some of the more brilliant manifestations of the natural world, a sensitivity that comprehends the larger patterns of nature, its severe demands as well as its delightful aspects, and is willing to see the human diminish so that other lifeforms might flourish.”

Another way to name the “sensitivity” Berry is talking about here is, quite simply LOVE.

The same love practiced and preached by Jesus Christ, but expanded to include the entire earth community, not just the human branch.

tree heart

Tree heart. Photo c. J. Browdy 2014

I am continually amazed by the generosity with which the natural world gives and gives to support the cause of a flourishing earth community. Death comes that life may continue. A clearcut forest patiently begins the work of recreating itself, from the soil bacteria on up. There is no such thing as guilt or blame in the natural world, only endless patience and a resilient creativity, always seeking better paths towards the goal of abundance and teeming myriad forms of life.

Thomas Berry says that we humans, as part and parcel of the earth community, are genetically coded to participate in this great unfolding of exuberant life.

For a long time (at least since the time of Gilgamesh, who harshly slew Humbaba, the guardian of the forests, and cut down an entire cedar forest just because he could) human culture has been working tirelessly to sever our connection to the divinity immanent in the natural world.

“In relation to the earth,” Berry says, “we have been autistic for centuries.”

seeingBut now, “the planet Earth and the life communities of the earth are speaking to us through the deepest elements of our nature, through our genetic coding….Only now have we begun to listen with some attention and with a willingness to respond to the earth’s demands that we cease our industrial assault, that we abandon our inner rage against the conditions of our earthly existence, that we renew our human participation in the grand liturgy of the universe” (Berry, The Dream of the Earth, 210-215).

There is a lot to ponder here. Berry seems to be proposing that in our genetic make-up is an ability to communicate on a deep level with the earth, including other animals and life forms. Under the spell of Western civilization, we have allowed ourselves to become alienated not only from the natural world, but also from our own innate ability to commune with “the dream of the earth,” through our inherent shamanic/psychic powers. We have been content to delegate the connection to the Divine to others—prophets, seers, priests—rather than to cultivate within ourselves that “sensitivity” to divine inspiration and that access to the powerful creative pulse of the universe which we all experience in dreams.

This alienation has led us inexorably to the hairline edge upon which human civilization now perches. After 10,000 years of a stable climate, warmly conducive to the development of prosperous human communities, we are on the brink of another great break in planetary history, this one brought on by our own insensitivity and inability to listen and understand the many cues the natural world has been giving us.

If a new Messiah is to arise and lead us to safety, it must be one who can reawaken in us the loving ethical responsibility that all humans are born with.

I believe that the potential to become this leader lies dormant in each one of us. My question this Christmas, which is really a question for myself above all: how are you going to manifest, in your own life and in the larger earth community in which we all live, the divine LOVE that Jesus Christ, in his purest form, represents?


On Building Solidarity in Social Justice Movements: Reflections on Ferguson and Beyond

As a scholar of personal narratives by marginalized women activists from around the world, I have been studying the dynamics of privilege and oppression at close range for many years.

Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde

For those on the receiving end of repressive treatment, an essential strategy of resistance is one voiced by the poet-activist Audre Lorde years ago: “the transformation of silence into language and action.”

We’ve been seeing this transformation since the murder of Michael Brown last summer. The people of Ferguson refused to take this outrage silently, and others, of all ethnicities and from all across the country, have rallied to their cause. Since the moment the grand jury decision letting the police off the hook—again—was handed down, my social media feeds have been on fire with declarations of sympathy and anger, along with demands for positive social change.

It has been heartening to see so many Americans marching together in cities all across the country in support of racial justice. Lots of white faces mixed in with the black and brown ones, all united in demanding that our government and legal system protect the rights of all Americans, not just the ones with privilege and power granted by a discriminatory system.

Unknown-1An oppressive system will try to protect those in power and maintain its status quo by discouraging dissent, sometimes silencing its critics by force (as in, for example, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X) or longterm imprisonment (think Leonard Peltier or Nelson Mandela).

Sometimes the silencing is imposed by shaming (think how women are often made to feel embarrassed and “unfeminine” when we dare to speak out against oppression by men); sometimes by peer pressure and the judicious distribution of rewards to those who go with the flow (for instance, young men can be rewarded by fraternity membership or sports glory when they go along with oppressive treatment of women or younger recruits).

One aspect of privilege I have been especially struck by is this formulation, which I learned from the gender studies scholar Michael Kimmel: “privilege is invisible to those who have it.”

Too often, those in power don’t realize how they participate in the oppression of others. Or maybe they choose to turn a blind eye, because acknowledging the effects of privilege would make them feel uncomfortable about themselves.

Privilege and oppression are relative terms, and very few people fit entirely into one category or another. In other words, I might be privileged by my white skin, but disadvantaged by my gender. I might be privileged by my gender, but disadvantaged by being born into poverty. And so on.

Those of us who believe in justice and want to live in a country that protects the rights of all its citizens equally need to understand how important it is to use our privileges, whatever they may be, to fight oppression in all of its guises.


Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, NY, early 20th century

For example, immigration reform: Americans who remember that just a few generations back their families were fortunate enough to be able to enter this country legally need to stand up for the rights of today’s immigrants.

Or women’s rights: we need to cheer on men like Nick Kristof, who consistently serves as an ally for oppressed women, using his privilege as a New York Times columnist to call attention to violations of women’s human rights worldwide.

In the environmentalist and animal rights movements, we see human beings using our privilege to advocate for the rights of wild animals and farmed animals to a life well lived.

And so on. Social movements are strongest and most successful when they draw their power from solidarity between the privileged and the oppressed.

History shows us that when a social system veers too far into an oppressive dynamic, it becomes weak and liable to fall. Social revolutions occur when enough people are fed up and have little to lose by challenging the status quo.

Americans know that we’re in a precarious state right now, with our politicians being bought and paid for by industry, the super-rich growing ever wealthier while the vaunted American middle class slips down into the ranks of the struggling working poor.

We are living through a dangerous time, but a time of opportunity too: a time when those of us who are awake to the dangers can speak out against oppression, stand up for justice, and insist on the structural changes needed to make our country live up to its own ideals.

I’m not talking about riots here, although those are sometimes the only way the system can be made to focus on the rage of the oppressed.

I’m talking about recognizing the dynamics of privilege and oppression, understanding our own place in the system, and using whatever privileges we have to support those with less power.

Only this kind of broad-based solidarity, based in our own communities but with a nation-wide reach, can shift the oppressive system that was stacked against Michael Brown in Ferguson. When to start? Now.

Moving from Anger and Cynicism to Gratitude: Thanksgiving in Dark Times

It’s Thanksgiving time, the time when we’re supposed to be counting our blessings and giving thanks. Given the current bombardment of bad news, it’s hard not to feel cynical.

Do I give thanks for the American justice system, which once again has valued the rights of a white man over the rights of a (dead) Black man?

Should I give thanks that a growing roster of universities are finally being pushed to take fraternity gang rape seriously, after years of turning a blind eye?

Maybe I should be giving thanks that the Kinder Morgan fossil fuel group, responding to public outcry, is thinking about routing its gas pipeline through “an existing utility corridor” rather than through backyards and recreational areas in the heart of Berkshire County, the tourist-friendly resort area where I live.

It’s easy to get angry about the injustice and casual brutality of our world. And one of the problems of modern existence is that when something bad happens, we know about it almost instantaneously, and have to grapple in our own hearts and minds with its disturbing reverberations.

Any wonder why so many people in media-saturated modern societies turn to drugs (prescription and recreational) or alcohol to get some relief?

I don’t think we should insulate ourselves from the reality of what’s happening in our world, even when the news is very bad. But we do need to find ways to retain our own sense of balance and inner resilience in the face of the constant heartbreak that characterizes contemporary life.

I try to remind myself, at Thanksgiving time and all year round, of all the things I do truly have to be thankful for.

I give thanks for the protesters who have been standing up to the fracking and drilling industry giants all over North America, and indeed all over the world. I am thankful that Sandra Steingraber has been released early from jail, so she can spend Thanksgiving with her family.

Sandra Steingraber by Seneca Lake

Sandra Steingraber by Seneca Lake

I give thanks for the many innovative scientists who are working hard to develop viable alternative forms of energy, from better solar panels to clean battery cells to geothermal, tidal and wind generators. I am thankful for entrepreneurs like Elon Musk of Tesla, leading the way towards a clean-energy future.

I give thanks for the health workers who are at this very moment risking their own lives in order to bring the Ebola epidemic under control. I thank all the health workers, worldwide, who give so much to others day in and day out.

I give thanks for my family, friends and comrades—for all the good people who are working in their own spheres to be sources of love and compassion.

On dark days like this one, it can be hard to feel confident that the human capacity for love and empathy will prevail over the less admirable side of our nature; that our ethical intelligence and social creativity will succeed in tempering our greedy self-interest and destructiveness.

Every day presents opportunities to live in ways that elevate the human condition and spirit. Even the greatest events in human history always depend on the actions of individuals, each within our own sphere. All we can do, as human beings alive on the planet in these frightening transition times, is strive to embody love.

We won’t always succeed; no one of us is perfect. But as Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Let us place ourselves on that arc, with gratitude for being able to help it bend towards justice now, in our own time.


Envisioning a Cosmic Religion, Rooted in Mother Earth: Homage to Thich Nhat Hanh

It must have something to do with reaching midlife. The beat of elders moving on out of this lifetime has picked up for me, and it’s so hard to let them go, knowing that as each life ends, those of us remaining are called ever more strongly to step into their shoes and become the elders leading our society.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

Few people alive today could step easily into the humble, powerful shoes of Thich Nhat Hanh. Like the Dalai Lama, he is a Buddhist monk who has been so generous and warm in inviting others into his orbit. Whether or not you practice Buddhism, whether or not you follow any religious tradition at all, there is so much wisdom and guidance in Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings, so much to learn and gain from listening to him.

I regret that I never had the chance to be physically in his presence, but as with so many of the other great leaders I admire, I know him through the writings he has shared and through his public persona and the good works he has accomplished.

At 88 years old, Thich Nhat Hanh is in the hospital with a brain hemorrhage from which he may still recover. He is still with us today but even after he is gone, I know his spirit will be showering us with the lovingkindness he knows we need to overcome the negativity that besets so many of us as individuals and as societies.

Today, in homage to Thay (as his students call him lovingly), I want to quote at some length from one of his last books, the beautiful Love Letter to the Earth. I urge you to buy a copy of this small bright gem of a book, and use it as a guide and inspiration—maybe you will be moved to write some love letters of your own to our dear battered planet.

“Dear Mother Earth,

“The human species is but one of your many children. Unfortunately, many of us have been blinded by greed, pride, and delusion, and only a few of us have been able to recognize you as our Mother. Not realizing this, we have done you great harm, compromising both your health and your beauty. Our deluded minds push us to exploit you and create more and more discord, putting you and all your forms of life under stress and strain. Looking deeply, we also recognize that you have enough patience, endurance and energy to embrace and transform all the damage we have caused, even if it takes you hundreds of millions of years.

“When greed and pride overtake our basic survival needs, the result is always violence and unnecessary devastation. We know that whenever one species develops too rapidly, exceeding its natural limit, there is great loss and damage, and the lives of other species are endangered. For equilibrium to be restored, causes and conditions naturally arise to bring about the destruction and annihilation of that species. Often these causes and conditions originate from within the destructive species itself. We have learned that when we perpetrate violence toward our own and other species, we are violent toward ourselves. When we know how to protect all beings, we are protecting ourselves.

“We understand that all things are impermanent and without a separate self-nature. You and Father Sun, like everything else in the cosmos, are constantly changing, and you are only made of non-you elements. That is why we know that, in the ultimate dimension, you transcend birth and death, being and nonbeing. Nonetheless, we need to protect you and restore balance, so that you can continue for a long time in this beautiful and precious form, not just for our children and their children but for five hundred million years and beyond. We want to protect you so you can remain a glorious jewel within our solar system for eons to come.

Northern lights, photographed from space

Northern lights, photographed from space

We know that you want us to live in such a way that in each moment of our daily lives we can cherish life and generate the energies of mindfulness, peace, solidity, compassion and love. We vow to fulfill your wish and respond to your love. We have the deep conviction that generating these wholesome energies, we will help reduce the suffering on Earth and contribute to alleviating the suffering caused by violence, war, hunger and illness. In alleviating our suffering, we alleviate yours.

“Dear Mother, there have been times when we suffered greatly as a result of natural disasters. We know that whenever we suffer, you suffer through us. The floods, tornadoes, earthquakes and tsunamis aren’t punishments or manifestations of your anger, but are phenomena that must occur on occasion, so that balance can be restored. The same is true of a shooting star. For balance in nature to be achieved, at times some species have to endure loss. In those moments, we have turned to you, dear Mother, and asked whether or not we could count on you, on your stability and compassion. You didn’t answer us right away. Then, beholding us with great compassion, you replied, “Yes, of course you can count on your Mother. I will always be here for you.” But then you said, “Dear children, you must ask yourselves, can your Mother Earth count on you?”

“Dear Mother, today we offer you our solemn reply, “Yes, Mother, you can count on us.””

Love Letter to the Earth concludes on a vision of a new kind of spirituality, a new kind of religion, founded on the Buddhist principle of interbeing—which, like deep ecology, understands that every form of life on earth, and indeed every element of our planetary biosphere is profoundly interconnected and interdependent, not in a hierarchy but in a rhizomatic web. Every strand in that web must be honored and tended, and this is the work that human beings, especially, are called upon to take up.

If Thich Nhat Hanh’s vision of a new religion for the 21st century could be realized, what a wonderful world it could be. Listen:

“We can build a deep spiritual practice based not on dogmas or beliefs in things we can’t verify, but entirely on evidence. To say that the Earth is a great being is not just an idea; each of us can see this for ourselves. Each of us can see that the Earth has the qualities of endurance, stability and inclusiveness. We can observe the Earth embracing everyone and everything without discrimination. When we say that the Earth has given birth to many great beings, including buddhas, bodhisattvas and saints, we are not exaggerating. The Buddha, Jesus Christ, Moses and Mohammed are all children of the Earth. How can we describe the Earth as mere matter when she has given birth to so many great beings?

“When we say the Earth has created life, we know it’s only possible because she contains within herself the whole cosmos. Just as the Earth is not only the Earth, so too are we not only humans. We have the Earth and the whole cosmos within us. We are made of the sun. We are made of stars. Touching the true nature of reality, we can transcend the dualistic view that the cosmos is something greater than ourselves or different from ourselves. Getting deeply in touch with the phenomenal realm, the historical dimension, we can realize our true nature of no-birth and no-death. We can transcend all fear and touch eternity.


“Every advance in our understanding of ourselves, our nature and our place in the cosmos deepens our reverence and love. To understand and to love are fundamental desires. Understanding has some kind of connection with love. Understanding can take us in the direction of love. When we understand and become aware of the great harmony, elegance and beauty of the cosmos, we may feel great admiration and love. This is the most basic kind of religious feeling: it is based on evidence and our own experience. Humanity needs a kind of spirituality that we can all practice together.

“Dogmatism and fanaticism have been the cause of great separation and war. Misunderstanding and irreverence have been the cause of enormous injustice and destruction. In the twenty-first century it should be possible for us to come together and offer ourselves the kind of religion that can help unite all peoples and all nations, and remove all separation and discrimination. If existing religions and philosophies, as well as science, can make an effort to go in this direction, it will be possible to establish a cosmic religion based not on myth, belief or dogma, but on evidence and the insights of interbeing. And that would be a giant leap for humankind.”

Amen, Thay. Go lightly.  We will carry on.

Quotes from Thich Nhat Hanh, Love Letter to the Earth

Parallax Press, 2013

As We Dance the Spiral Dance of Life, Death and Rebirth, We Build Bridges to the Future Every Step of the Way; What Future Do You Choose?

We’re now going into the darkest time of the year, the time when many cultural traditions contend that the veils between the living and the dead grow thinnest, most penetrable.

In San Francisco tonight, Starhawk and her Reclaiming coven will be dancing a grand spiral dance with thousands of people, all united under this banner: “2014 Intention: With the help of ancestors, descendants, and the great powers of nature, we weave magic and action to save our home! A ritual to honor our beloved dead and dance the spiral of rebirth.”


Having participated in one of Starhawk’s circle dances, focused on raising energy through the power of collective intention, I can begin to imagine what a spiral dance on this scale will accomplish.

We Americans too often ignore the significance of energetics in our lives.

We imagine that it doesn’t matter that we spend more and more of our time bathed in low-level radiation from all our electronic devices, from computers to cell phones to electric meters and on.

We don’t pay attention to the way we are similarly taking in steady doses of negative information day after day, from Ebola and cancer to corruption, violence and poverty.

In these dark days of the year, at least in my gloomy northern corner of the world, I can feel my own energy levels sinking, my will to rise and dance on behalf of my ancestors, descendants and Nature wavering.

Morning clouds over Stockbridge Bowl. Photo J. Browdy, 2014

Morning clouds over Stockbridge Bowl. Photo J. Browdy, 2014

So I give myself pep talks. I remind myself that the dark days of the year are among the most powerful times for focusing inward and setting new intentions for what will be accomplished with the return of the light.

I get out the photos of my grandparents and my children and remind myself that I must be a strong link on the hereditary chain that stretches back untold generations, if my descendants are to have the good fortune of enjoying the kind of safe, happy, fulfilled lives on Earth that I have had.

Fannie Ashe Browdy and Philip Browdy, my paternal grandparents, around the time of their marriage.

Fannie Ashe Browdy and Philip Browdy, my paternal grandparents, around the time of their marriage.

I remember that I came to this lifetime full of the rising sap of positive energy, loving nothing more than to rise early to watch the dawn, and stay up late to look for shooting stars.

Rooted like the trees that shelter and inspire me

Rooted like the trees that shelter and inspire me

Like the great old trees I love, I have rooted myself deeply in the glacial rocks and rich soil of my life, and now have a wide network of students, friends, colleagues and relatives that I help to nourish with my ideas and initiatives.

And I am not only connected to human friends and relatives, but also to the intricately woven biosphere, with which I interact on a cellular level with every breath I take, every ray of sunshine I absorb, every drop of water I drink.

We are all dancing a great spiral dance together on this planet, weaving our intentions and our gifts into the actions that will build a bridge into our collective future.

Every step we take matters. Will we work day by day towards aligning our love for the planet with our individual actions?

For example, will we invest in fossil fuels or solar panels this year? Will we support local farmers, or buy packaged food that’s trucked in from far away? Will we take a break from eating fish to allow the wild fish stocks to recover? Will we lend our political and financial support to those working to make the human relationship to the planet life-enhancing, rather than destructive?

Reminding ourselves that literally or metaphorically speaking, our ancestors and descendants are relying on us to do the best we can to keep the chain of life strong and unbroken into the future, can help us to make decisions that are forward-looking and mature.

My maternal grandmother, Mildred Louis Rubenstein, with my younger son, Eric

My maternal grandmother, Mildred Louis Rubenstein, with my younger son, Eric

The dance we weave today and every day is about much more than just our own individual lives. We can be and do much more than we imagine, if we resist the downward pressures of negative thinking, and keep the channels of positive energy open to the cosmic flow.

Remember that the Earth and the Cosmos are one and the same, and we humans are just another manifestation of that endlessly circulating energy.  Photo J. Browdy 2014

Remember that the Earth and the Cosmos are one and the same, and we humans are just another manifestation of that endlessly circulating energy. Photo J. Browdy 2014

Finding Hope in Hard Times

Amid all the darkness and chaos overtaking our world—the beheadings of journalists and the enslavement of women, the bloody flux of Ebola, the melting of the poles and the relentless advance of the bulldozers and chain saws into the forests—amid and despite all that, I am still seeing the frail but determined light of hope burning.

And the best thing is, I see this light growing in places that surprise me.

In recent weeks some huge financial players have announced their intention to fight the stranglehold of fossil fuel companies over our political economy.

Stephen Heintz, left, with Valerie Rockefeller Wayne and Steven Rockefeller.  Photo: Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Stephen Heintz, left, with Valerie Rockefeller Wayne and Steven Rockefeller. Photo: Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Right after the dramatically successful People’s Climate March in September 2014, the Rockefeller family declared it would join forces with the nascent fossil fuel divestment movement. John D. Rockefeller built a vast fortune on oil. Now his heirs are abandoning fossil fuels,” trumpeted the lede in the New York Times article by John Schwartz.

“The family whose legendary wealth flowed from Standard Oil… [announced] that its $860 million philanthropic organization, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, is joining the divestment movement that began a couple years ago on college campuses.”

This is big news indeed! In a society where money rules, the people with the most privilege are the ones with the most social power to create change, and the Rockefeller family can catalyze other wealthy philanthropists to start to think outside their parents’ box.

Not that the rest of us have no power. It’s only because college students and their adult mentors dreamed up the divestment movement and pushed vigorously for it that the Rockefellers made this move.

Student divestment activists at Tufts University

Student divestment activists at Tufts University

We ordinary folks—those of us who are awake to the critical state of our planet and human civilization today—can and must apply pressure to the rich and powerful in our society to shift their resources from our current death-dealing economic model to a life-giving, ecologically sound human relationship to the planet that sustains us.

timthumb.phpWhen current economic top dogs start to pay attention at last, we know we’re making progress. It was heartening to hear that the Women Donors Network is focusing its 2014 annual conference on strategic visioning of future scenarios for the year 2030.

At this year’s annual conference, the organizers state, “we will get the chance to step out of the urgent demands of the present to think big and strategize for the long term. What kind of future do we want to create? How can we work with the major trends we know are going to shape the future? And what can a powerful group of progressive women philanthropists do together to make the most of this critical moment?”

I find hope in the fact that this big group of wealthy women will be spending their valuable time not at a spa or a vacation in Paris, but at a conference where they’ll be, according to the conference Program, “’transported’ to 2030 to experience what our collective future could look like based on the decisions we make now, in this critical moment….We will participate in three “future scenarios” that are designed to help us clarify the role we hope WDN and all of us as individual philanthropists can play in helping strengthen the progressive social change movement.”

Go women go! The more of us become aware of the extent to which our choices today affect the futures that await us, the more we can act to create the green and glowing future we want.

Chief Oren Lyons

Chief Oren Lyons

I find hope too in the news that Chief Oren Lyons of the Onondaga Nation will be making a special visit to the Bioneers conference this month to talk about the new international initiative, the Plantagon urban agriculture system. A joint venture of the Onondaga Nation, Sweden and several East Asian investors, the Plantagon aims to revolutionize urban agriculture by making it possible for cities to feed themselves locally—a shift that will have enormous benefits in relieving pressure on rural water and land, reducing dependence on fossil-fuel transportation of produce, and also reducing or eliminating the need for harmful chemical inputs.

Artists' rendering of the Plantagon

Artists’ rendering of the Plantagon

To me, the word “Plantagon” summons up a word that has very different connotations, “Pentagon.” When we Americans hear the word Pentagon, we think immediately of military force and the way American military might has most often been called upon to defend “American interests”—politico-speak for access to resources, principally oil and precious minerals, often at great cost to local people and environments.

The U.S. Pentagon

The U.S. Pentagon

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, I find hope in the recent announcement that the Pentagon is now taking climate change into account in its strategic planning, not just for the distant future, but for next week.

In a new report, the Pentagon asserts unequivocally that “climate change poses an immediate threat to national security, with increased risks from terrorism, infectious disease, global poverty and food shortages,” reported Coral Davenport in The New York Times. Whereas “before, the Pentagon’s response to climate change focused chiefly on preparing military installations to adapt to its effects, like protecting coastal naval bases from rising sea levels,” Davenport writes, “the new report…calls on the military to incorporate climate change into broader strategic thinking about high-risk regions — for example, the ways in which drought and food shortages might set off political unrest in the Middle East and Africa.

“Experts said that the broadened approach would include considering the role that climate change might have played in contributing to the rise of extremist groups like the Islamic State.”

Well hallelujah! At last the most powerful force in the world is recognizing that climate change is here, it’s real, and it’s already a major destabilizing factor in world politics.

The challenge now will be to see if civil society can exert enough pressure on the military to get them thinking in proactive ways, rather than being a reactionary, often highly destabilizing force in the world.

Why can’t we use the wealth and resources of the U.S. military-industrial complex to support and sustain life on the planet?

Let’s get those military planners, along with the big boys at the World Bank, IMF and the U.S. Congress to understand that building schools and investing in sustainable agriculture and distributed energy networks is a far smarter and saner use of funds than blowing things up and rebuilding them (which has been our strategy in the Middle East over the past decade).

I see glimmers of hopeful light behind many of the dire stories in the news right now. We need to focus on those flickers of consciousness, blow on them gently and encourage them to grow brighter and stronger.

Hope is a verb, and we do it together. I’m working on it; how about you?


Reconnecting with the Earth…with Joanna Macy


Joanna Macy

At 85, Joanna Macy is still a beautiful tiger of a woman: fierce, focused, passionate. At a recent weekend workshop at Rowe on her signature Work That Reconnects, she was a keen and generous leader, with an impeccable sense of when to speak and when to be silent, when to share the microphone with younger leaders, when to get out in front and show the way.

Joanna has been refining the Work That Reconnects since the 1980s, when it grew out of her engaged Buddhist practice and her anti-nuclear activism. Its premise is simple: that we are integral parts of the Earth, having emerged out of carbon and water billions of years ago just like everything else on the planet; but we humans, having caused the near-collapse of the current epoch with our fixation on industrial growth run on chemicals and fossil fuels, have a special role to play in shifting our civilization to a sustainable footing.

To step into our power as change agents, we must first undo the social conditioning that has alienated us from our primary relationship with the Earth. The Work That Reconnects accomplishes this through a series of exercises and meditations, which can take a day or a week or much longer to accomplish, depending on how much time you have and how deep you want to go.

In the weekend version of the workshop, we spent a three-hour session on each of the three stations on Joanna’s Spiral of the Great Turning, led through a series of interactive activities designed to get us thinking about ourselves as bodhisattvas, awakened ones willing to give our lives in service to the higher good of all life.


In the forest at Rowe. Photo by J. Browdy

First came Gratitude: appreciating and giving thanks for being alive in this beautiful place, alongside myriad other complex and beautiful creatures who call the Earth home; and also giving thanks for our own strengths and capacities to become active warriors on behalf of the planet.

Then there was the grief and despair work for which Joanna is justly famous: she calls it Honoring Our Pain for the World, and it is a radical, counter-cultural push to sit with and confront all the sadness, despair, anger and pain we feel when we allow ourselves to become fully conscious of the destruction and devastation human beings are wreaking on the planet. Grief for individual loved ones lost to cancer mingles with grief and anger at the loss of the Great Blue Herons and the paved-over forests, in a powerful and galvanizing outpouring of rage and pain.

After an evening break that featured song and dance around the warmth of community, we turned the next morning to the last two stations on the spiral: Seeing with New Eyes and Going Forth.

Joanna talked about the necessary shift from the alienated form of seeing our relationship to the Earth as “our supply house and our sewer” to a new form of seeing, an understanding that we are embedded in the sacred living body of the Earth, and what we do to her we do to ourselves.


A closer look. Photo by J. Browdy

One of the reasons I love Joanna’s approach to activism is because she is unafraid to call on the imagination as one of our primary tools for social change. In a powerful closing exercise, she arranged us in pairs and asked one person to take the role of a descendant seven generations in the future—about 200 years hence, in 2214. The other person remained herself, in 2014.

The future being, prompted by Joanna, asked a series of questions of the ancestor, and then listened to the answers—this was not a conversation or a dialogue, but a witnessing of the struggles of this ancestor—you and me, in our time—to bequeath a livable world to our children, grandchildren, and on down the line.

After listening to three different present-day people talk about their work for the planet—what makes it hard, what makes it rewarding, what keeps them going day to day—the future being had a chance to respond, and it was an incredibly powerful experience to imaginatively inhabit the spirit of the future encouraging us embattled ones in today’s world to find the strength to persevere.

Joanna at Rowe

Joanna signs books and talks with workshop participants. Photo by J. Browdy

In the call to Go Forth, the final turn on the spiral, Joanna reminded the gathering that this work is impossible to do alone—“it’s impossible to even take it in alone,” she said. We need to create communities of “Shambala warriors for the planet,” who can function like “the immune system of the Earth,” a potent metaphor she attributed to Paul Hawken.

In the Shambala prophecy that Joanna has been sharing ever since she heard it from one of her Tibetan Buddhist teachers back in the 1970s, it is said that great courage is required of those who work for the good of the world, because we must go right to the heart of the “barbarian empire,” armed only with two critical weapons: compassion for all living beings, and the radical insight of interbeing—that everything in this biosphere is intricately and integrally interdependent and connected.

And of course the truth is that the “barbarians” who inhabit this destructive empire are not strangers. They are, quite simply, us.

At the very end of the workshop, Joanna led us through a series of affirmations honoring our perceived enemies as our most important teachers.

Through our awareness of what we don’t want, we learn what we care about most. And through our caring—what Joanna calls the awakening of our “heart-mind”—we find the courage, passion and commitment to do the most important work of our time: transitioning from our current dead-end, greed-based, exploitative society to a society that honors the sacred in all life and works respectfully for the well-being of each participant in the dance of planetary life.

old tree

An elder maple in the forest at Rowe. Photo by J. Browdy

As I walked out under the ancient maples and hemlocks in the forests around Rowe, lit up in all their autumnal glory on this beautiful September weekend, I could feel the warrior spirit rising in me and in all of us who came from near and far to learn from Joanna.

Now is our time, and time is precious: there is none to waste as the forces unleashed by the industrial growth of the past 300 years threaten so many life forms on the planet with extinction.

Will we succeed in transitioning to a sustainable future? Will we humans grow into our potential as stewards and nurturers of our beautiful garden, this Earth? Or will we all slip away into the history of the planet, as the march of evolution and transformation continues on to the next era?

All we can do is go forth with good heart and brave spirit into our own communities and carry on the work that reconnects in our own spheres. I am so grateful to Joanna Macy for continuing to lead the way and for so generously sharing the powerful tools and practices she has developed over a lifetime, for others to take up and carry forward into the Great Turning.

JB & Joanna Macy

Joanna and Jennifer

N.B. Joanna’s classic book Coming Back to Life, a guidebook for doing the Work That Reconects by yourself or (preferably) with groups, has just been re-issued by New Society Publishers in a revised and updated edition. Joanna is hoping that people will gather in schools and church basements, in Transition Towns and activist organizations, to do the inner work that can sustain and fuel the outer work we must all undertake to transition to a life-enhancing human relationship to Earth.

Communing with Grasshoppers: An Elemental Prayer

There’s nothing like an out-of-control fatal virus to make you stop and give thanks for each day of your still-unfolding life.

Every year when I teach the five-day Writing & Thinking orientation workshop at Bard College/Simon’s Rock, I end by leading the students on a slow, silent, meditative walk in the woods, and before we set out we read Mary Oliver’s wonderful poem “The Summer Day,” which ends with these lines:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention,

how to fall down into 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?

The students think and write and share their responses to that final question, which is the part of the poem that leaps out at them—understandably, as they are poised on the threshold of an exciting new chapter in their lives, starting college two years earlier than most of their peers.

The more I read this poem, the more drawn I am to the earlier lines, though. I love Oliver’s humility in admitting, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” followed by the suggestion that prayer can take the form of communing wordlessly with the unmown fields and the grasshopper that Oliver observes “gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.”


Fewer and fewer of us humans have the chance, these days, to simply relax into the natural world around us.

Fewer and fewer of us are even aware that we inhabit a natural world—or if we do think about it, it’s more in terms of annoyance (“the mosquitoes are so bad this year!”) or fear (“the seas are rising! What are we going to do?!”) or utility (“the Arctic ice is melting, let’s get an oil rig up there and start drilling!”).

Oliver’s insight that prayer can take the form of “blessed idleness” in nature seems key to me now. That’s the kind of religion we need more of today.

Not the hysterical fanaticism of the pseudo-religious Islamic State, which, like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland screaming “Off with their heads!” at every opportunity, is turning the beheading of civilians into a spectator sport.

Not the Cain-and-Abel warring of the Israeli Jews and the Palestinian Muslims; not the Christian capitalist posturing of “do unto others” while simultaneously creating wealth disparities just as vast as back in the days of feudalism, with inherited misery for the masses and inherited luxury for the few.

In creating a society that sees and understands itself through the mediation of computer screens, we have, in a few short generations, succeeded in cutting ourselves off from what we once knew: that we are an integral part of our planet, and indeed of our universe.


Unmowed field off the Appalachian Trail, South Egremont MA. Photo c. J. Browdy

Humans are not that different from grasshoppers, or birds, or maple trees. Everything alive on Earth is made out of the same basic building blocks of oxygen, hydrogen and carbon, fueled by the intense energy of our sun.

Without sun, water and oxygen-rich air, all of us will die.

It makes perfect sense to me that we humans should make our everyday lives into a prayer in honor of the Elemental Nature that sustains us.


Humans are the consciousness of the planet; we are the one species that can weigh actions in the present based on our knowledge of the past, our calculated predictions of the future, and our elaborate system of ethics.

If we could just pull our eyes away from our hypnotic screens more often and remember our kinship with every precious manifestation of life on our beautiful planet, it would become inconceivable that we could allow ourselves to destroy it all.

Wildflowers, Nova Scotia.  Photo c. Jennifer Browdy, 2014

Wildflowers, Nova Scotia. Photo c. Jennifer Browdy, 2014

The quest to restore balance to our natural systems should become the Holy Grail of our time, with all the best and brightest on the planet dedicating themselves to the grand collective effort.

I wish every young person on the planet, but especially the brilliant, pampered, over-stimulated, often-jaded young people of privilege, could have the chance to sit in a field in blessed idleness on a lovely summer day and commune with a grasshopper.

If we would only pay attention, we would see in “her enormous and complicated eyes” the reflection of our own human souls.


Michael Brown and the Dream of Radical Equality

 If Michael Brown had been Michael White, would the still-unfolding tragedy of Ferguson have occurred? When was the last time you heard of a white college student being shot down in cold blood by a police officer? Kent State, maybe? Yeah, it’s been that long.

10547712_1453135431613983_6655587389963374312_nThere is no excuse for the police officers hired to protect the peace using their weapons to kill unarmed citizens on the street.

There is no excuse for the kind of racial profiling that has spawned the bitter joke among Black men that they were stopped for DWB—driving while Black.

For a naturally empathic species, we humans can be remarkably insensitive to the well-being of others. I have realized, through examining my own experience closely, that this is due to cultural conditioning that enjoins us to put ourselves first—as individuals, as members of families and cultures, and as human beings.

We are not encouraged to think of ourselves in relationship to others. And without that sense of relationship, it’s hard to get worked up about what happens to others. It’s their business, their concern, not ours. Michael Brown? He must have been causing trouble.

The riots that came down in the wake of Brown’s killing show us that people of color knew otherwise. They took this murder personally because it could have been any one of them shot down by police. They are standing up for their rights in the way that people without power do: putting their own bodies on the line and raising a ruckus too loud to be ignored by the authorities.

Sometimes smashing storefront windows and setting cars on fire is necessary. It’s the last resort of people pushed beyond the bounds of civility.

There is a song that keeps running around in my head lately, from the Civil Rights Era, called “It Isn’t Nice.” It goes like this:

It isn’t nice to block the doorway

It isn’t nice to go to jail

There are nicer ways to do it

But the nice ways always fail

It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice if you told us once you told us twice

But if that’s freedom’s price

We don’t mind.

Well we tried negotiation

And the token picket line

Mr. Charlie wouldn’t see us

And he might as well be blind

When you deal with men of ice

You can’t deal with ways so nice

But if that’s freedom’s price

We don’t mind.

What about the years of lynchings

And the shot in Evers’ back?

Did you say it wasn’t proper

Did you step out on the track?

You were quiet just like mice

And now you say that we’re not nice.

But if that’s freedom’s price

We don’t mind!

 When yet another unarmed black boy is shot by police for no apparent reason…well, it isn’t nice, and the authorities can’t expect a nice calm response. Further curtailing civil rights by imposing a night curfew won’t help matters either.

What’s needed is first of all an apology; and secondly a real sit-down between the Black and the white communities, a sincere and prolonged effort to come to terms with reasons behind the continuing segregation and impoverishment on the Black side of the tracks, and strategies for making things better.

10600474_1445994419015603_795058456781638434_nBarack Obama’s rhetoric from early in his presidency—we are not Black Americans and white Americans, red Americans or blue Americans, we are all Americans—comes back to haunt me as I think about the killing of Michael Brown. For too long we humans have seen the world in terms of differences and separations, rather than recognizing the ways we are all the same and connected.

One day I hope humans will look back on this period of history and shake their heads, wondering how their ancestors could have been so misguided as to imagine that people with dark skin were any different than people with pale skin. I hope that in this future time, it will be inconceivable that a life could be snuffed out for no reason.

We humans are blessed with incredible powers of creative imagination, and the ability to manifest what we dream. We need to focus our imaginations now on envisioning a safer, saner world, where respect and mutual aid are the highest values—and not just respect for humans, but for all the life forms on the planet.

If we can use the situation in Ferguson as a catalyst for moving forward in the dream of radical equality, then Michael Brown’s tragic death will not have been in vain.


I’m now in the middle of my annual summer retreat to the LaHave Islands in Nova Scotia, Canada, and it’s no exaggeration to say I feel like a different person than the harried, exhausted woman who packed up and headed north on the highway three weeks ago.

I am sleeping better—my dreams are lucid and intriguing, with elaborate narrative plots that I enjoy following even if I lose the thread when I wake up.


I am writing again—going back to the manuscript of my memoir with fresh eyes and tightening, tweaking, reworking the introduction over and over until (I think) I get it right.

I am reading for pleasure—yes, you heard right! After a long school year in which, as a professor of literature and media studies, I could read only to prep classes, I am indulging in the guilty pleasure of reading mystery novels—Donna Leon’s Brunetti series, with their wonderful descriptions of Venice and Italian food.

I am spending long hours walking the empty beaches and cliffside trails, drinking in the natural beauty and letting the soothing sound of the waves banish all my worries and cares.

Gaff Point

I am enjoying adapting to the rhythm of my parents’ life, which takes me right back to my peaceful childhood, where each day was spent in a judicious measure of work, conversation, meal preparation and relaxed eating. My parents sit together at their lovely dining room table—here in Nova Scotia, with the dramatic view of the bay outside their windows, and the constant sound of the waves on the rocks in their ears—and eat three beautifully prepared and served meals a day, a routine few Americans still maintain.

frittataWhen I first arrived here three weeks ago, I thought this focus on meals took an awful lot of time and effort. But once I slowed down enough, I remembered something that my own grab-and-go existence had made me forget—just how worthwhile it is to take the time to prepare delicious meals, set a lovely table and eat in leisurely fashion, talking quietly over the day’s events. My entire body, aching and stressed when I arrived in Nova Scotia three weeks ago, is grateful.

Here on the island, where the most important questions are whether the tide is up or down and whether the fog is expected to blow out by lunchtime, life returns to its elemental rhythm, and it’s possible to feel how much is lost by the speed of our technology-dominated 21st century existence.

It’s possible to take a deep breath and remember that only 20 years ago, there was no Internet. There was no email. There were no cell phones, no smart phones, no texting. There were no digital music or video files, no VCRs or ipods, let alone streaming capabilities.

Remember what that was like? Everything moved a heck of a lot slower, that much is for sure. We wrote letters on paper and mailed them. We read books and big print newspapers that we had to schlep around with us in knapsacks. When we needed to look up a fact, we had to go to the library and look in the—get ready for it—card catalogue.

This was only twenty years ago, a mere flicker of time in the scale of human history. Imagine what a strain it is on our poor homo sapiens brains and bodies to keep up with the breakneck pace of modern digitized life, especially for those of us born and bred before the Great Digital Coming of the 1990s.

gorgeous NS copy

The brains of children born into this brave new technologized world are being wired differently. For many it is pure torture to slow down to ordinary time. Life without a screen and a wifi connection is unthinkable.

As we advance into the 21st century, I can see in my students the signs of smartphone addiction—the same nervousness and agitation, halfway through a 90-minute class, that smokers used to display in a previous generation. They have to get up and wander off to the bathroom as a pretext for checking in with the virtual world they crave.

I too get addicted during the course of the school year. I check email constantly and Facebook several times a day; I spend more time on the screen than I do out in the garden or walking in the woods or preparing meals and eating them with friends and family.
Only now, when I’m on a media holiday with my email vacation message set, can I appreciate the toll this society-wide digital addiction takes on each of us as individuals, and on human society writ large.

Yes, I love the power and reach of the Internet as much as the next person. I love being able to write my blog, send it out over wifi and have people all across the world reading it in a moment’s time. When my blog readership surpassed 100,000 visitors from more than 200 countries last month, I was thrilled.

But for deep thinking and sustained writing, I need to get away from that kaleidoscopic virtual reality and get in tune with the more primal rhythms of sunset and moonrise, tides flowing in and out again, seagulls soaring over the mermaid dive of a seal fishing quietly by the rocks.

eye of the hurricane 2014

Even if the closest thing to nature you can get is a city park, try spending a couple of hours there without your smart phone, and see what you notice. Watch how your breathing slows down and your tired, overworked brain relaxes when all it has to focus on is trees and bushes, maybe a sparrow or pigeon or two.

We don’t need expensive meditation retreats, yoga classes or far-flung vacations. We just need to give ourselves permission to unplug for a while.

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