21st Century Leadership: Learning to Love in the Digisphere

Life in the digital age is accelerated up to speeds that previous generations (say, anyone born before 1900) would have found incomprehensible. The demands on our time are more intense than ever before, and decisions made in the blink of an eye or the tap of a finger can continue to reverberate for months or years, spinning out of control if caught up in the wild eddies of cyberspace.

We all know about cyber-bullying by this time—how it can drive some people, especially vulnerable young people, to despair and suicide.

We’ve also learned how dangerous random tweets and photo messages can be in a digital world where nothing on the Internet is really private.

This environment calls for leaders of tremendous personal strength and integrity—but it is not an environment that creates such people. Digital life–with its endless distractions, easy avatars and a million ways to cheat–seems to breed a kind of aimless cynicism. Even people who are motivated enough to attend retreats on “finding your purpose” are likely to be surfing through their lives, perpetually seeking the next answer or thrill or coveted consumer item.

In such an environment, how can we mentor people of all ages to become the leaders the world so desperately needs now?

We might begin by discussing the qualities we’d like to see in our leaders, and thus in ourselves. Although we still cling to a heroic ideal of leadership, enjoying the feeling of following a charismatic, forceful and self-confident leader, the truth is that leadership in our time is becoming much more decentralized.

The saying “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” attributed to the Hopi, has never seemed more apt than now, when each of us has the potential to assume a leadership role in our digital and real-world lives.

For example, are we going to join a digital mob assault of someone who is vulnerable? Or will we refuse to join in the feeding frenzy, or even take a stand in defense of the person who’s down?

How can we use the power of the World Wide Web to enhance thoughtful, in-depth communication, rather than allowing it to serve as a platform for name-calling and threats?

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There is a world of difference between movement-building through the media, as in the #BlackLivesMatter movement or One Billion Rising, and vicious personal attacks on individuals that can quickly escalate into the digital equivalent of terrorist attacks.

The technology that enables this behavior is so new that we have not yet had time to establish codes of conduct or to fully weigh the ethical considerations of a Twitterized world.

Giving children access to the Web without the guidance of their parents or teachers is the equivalent of letting a teenager get behind the wheel of a car without having any learner’s permit or driver’s ed.

We have a whole structure for training young people about the dangers of alcohol, drugs & sex…but next to nothing in place that mentors and supports them–or us older folk either–in becoming responsible citizens of the digisphere.

And since this is where all of us spend a vast proportion of our waking lives, and where, increasingly, the collective human consciousness is being developed, it certainly seems like an essential place to begin a discussion of ethical, responsible, and purposeful leadership.

Ironically, to understand the digisphere and our place in it, we need to take the time to disconnect. Like a mental cleanse or fast, time spent untethered to the Web is time that allows us to reconnect with our own internal voice, our own inner guidance that has always been there for us, since we were the tiniest of infants.

IMG_9158Human babies know instinctively that they like warmth, gentle touch, smiling faces, eye contact and gentle, friendly voices. These human preferences do not go away as we age. Humans, like other mammals, are hard-wired to love and to enjoy being loved.

This is the kind of experience that it’s very hard for the digisphere to conjure up. For all the online dating services, the Skypes and Google hang-outs, the endless news feeds, there is still nothing that beats personal, real-world human connection.

Of course, any leader today is going to have to be an adept user of the media. But the primary values behind the use of media by a leader worthy of that title must be true to the ancient and ageless human value of love.

Leadership, in essence, is putting oneself forward in loving service to others and the broader community. There is no formula for it, and it will look different in every specific context. But at the base, at the bedrock, a good leader acts out of love.

Can loving leadership be taught and practiced in the digisphere? In the 21st century, this is seeming like an increasingly urgent question.

Justice is the Public Face of Love

“Justice is the public face of love.”

I read this on Facebook a few days ago and it’s been resonating with me ever since.

Yes, how true: collectively, as a society or a world, we show our love by granting justice. But what do we mean by justice? This is a question that always comes up quickly in the classes I teach on social and environmental justice. Justice for whom? By whom? Says who?

What may look like “justice” to an ISIS operative intent on burning “heretics” in cages may look like gruesome barbarity to me. What may look like justice to me—say, the imposition of a hefty fine on Chevron for polluting pristine rainforest in Ecuador—may play quite differently in a U.S. court of law.

Justice is slippery. It has more shades of gray than clear blacks and whites. But I think we can agree that when justice is invoked, it is called upon with passion, with love, with commitment.

I want to imagine a world in which it would be inconceivable that justice would not align with a powerful commitment to the flourishing life our planet has always provided. Think about it. Gaia, our planet, is totally invested in abundance. Using the incredible energy provided by our Sun, Gaia gaily makes life in a million billion different guises.

Photo c. Jennifer Browdy 2015

Photo c. Jennifer Browdy 2015

Even death is just fodder for more life, the death of one living component of the Earth providing a fecund ground for the production of a million more living beings.

In a court of Gaian justice, love and life would be synonymous. I know that on Valentine’s Day, most people just think about bringing roses to their sweetie. But how about thinking a little bigger this year? How about bringing some roses, symbolically speaking at least, to the sweet planet that gives us her all, year after year?

Justice for Gaia would mean love, commitment and care for all of the life on our incredible planet. Is that too much to ask? Planet_Earth_by_saker10

Pay Attention! Listening to Angels on Superbowl Sunday

On Superbowl weekend, I was visited by an Angel.

Or rather, an Angel appeared to me in a dream, a fragment of which I remembered upon awakening. In the dream, the Angel stood on a soapbox in a darkening, rush-hour city street, surrounded by hurrying streams of people moving with determined strides, heads bowed against the cold wind and shoulders hunched beneath heavy coats. The Angel was trying to say something important to the people, but nobody was listening, or even aware she was there. As I awoke, I felt the Angel’s sense of dejection, failure and sorrow. It was as if her wings were broken.

Later that day, in a writing workshop with playwright Winter Miller, the Angel surfaced again. I saw her standing on her box in the midst of the hurrying, unthinking masses, aware of the darkness engulfing them and trying to summon up enough strength and power to shine a bright light, a beacon that would make them pick up their heads and see.

But the Angel does not have enough force, enough spark to reach these people. Despairing at having failed in her mission, she steps down off the box, her wings dragging in the dirty water in the street gutter, and immediately begins to be buffeted by all the impatient passersby, who are focused on catching their trains or buses, not wanting to be bothered with a crippled Angel slinking off.

Then suddenly a piercing blue-green ray of light shines out, as a little girl turns around and sees the Angel. She tugs on her mother’s hand, shouting, “Mommy! Stop! Look! An Angel!”

“You’re the only one who has been able to see me,” the Angel says, looking at the girl’s bright blue eyes in wonder.

The girl succeeds in stopping her mother’s dash across the street, and while they wait for the light to change, she and the Angel have a wordless communion, souls mingling through the beams of their shared gaze, each taking courage from the other.

When the street light changes, the girl is jerked almost off her feet by her mother, who is intent on catching the express bus she can see waiting on the corner. She throws one last eye beam over her shoulder, a flash of blue as brilliant as the gleaming wing of a quetzal bird in flight.

The Angel drinks it in like nectar, feeling its pulse traveling through her like a tonic. She straightens up, pulling her wings up off the ground, and suddenly she has no need of a soapbox any longer. She towers above the crowd like an alabaster statue illuminated by clear white light.

Without having to say anything—no more pleading for attention—suddenly her intention and meaning permeate the entire scene with the resonance of a gong that the people can feel vibrating in their bodies, penetrating the thick layers of clothing, the dense wrappings of habit, the brittle armor of indifference.

“Did you hear something?” one man asks another.

“I felt something,” he replies. “It was like an earthquake, maybe, or a tremor. I felt something shake.”

“We need to slow down,” the first man says. “Everyone needs to slow down and pay attention.”

The Angel gives her wings a shake and then, tentatively at first, gives a few powerful thrusts. Whatever had been hampering them is gone now; they are miraculously whole and powerful enough to take her up into the sky. As she wheels up and away, she smiles to hear the little girl say to her mother, “Mommy, look! Up there! It’s the Angel! She can fly again now!”

This time, instead of tugging her daughter on, the mother pauses and follows the direction of her daughter’s pointing finger. “I see it! I see it!” she cries. “Bless us all, we have been visited by an Angel! Pay attention, everyone!”

As if on cue, the last rays of sunshine suddenly break through the thick dark clouds, down low by the horizon line over the river. The dirty gray water glitters with gold.

angelic sky

Photo J. Browdy

Pay Attention! It’s interesting that this message emerged for me on the very weekend when America’s attention was so powerfully focused on one thing, and one thing only: the Superbowl.

I have often thought, if only a fraction of the energy, creativity and money that we spend on our sports programs and events could be diverted to developing new ways of living sustainably, healthily and harmoniously on Earth, what a wonderful world it could be.

I imagine that the meaning of the Angel’s gong would be slightly different for each individual hearing it. What I heard was this: it is time to pay attention, and look to the youngest among us for direction.

Children are often far more open than adults to a broader range of perception and awareness. I worry, though, that even childhood is being polluted with mindless media, as I see little children with their eyes constantly glued to a screen, instead of looking up and about them at the big beautiful world.

The mother in me wants to slow down and drink in the gold glittering on the river, together with my children. The Angels may be among us more often than we can imagine. We just need to pay attention.

Photo J. Browdy

Photo J. Browdy

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?

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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.

Orionid-shooting-star

“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.”

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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

Cosmic Honey for Robin Williams

Robin Williams

Robin Williams

The death of Robin Williams has lain heavily on me since I heard the news. I echo what all my friends are saying: he was so talented, he brought so much brilliance and joy to the world, how could it be that all his laughs and charm hid such deep reservoirs of pain and despair?

People as creative as Williams are often sensitive and discerning; and if you’re sensitive these days, you can hardly help but be overwhelmed by all the pain we are forced to contend with in the world on a daily basis.

I wince every time I listen to the world news, bracing myself for the inevitable onslaught of violence, disease and misery suffered by human beings—not to mention the destruction of the environment, the extinction of millions of innocent animals, insects and plant life and the ever-accelerating pace of climate change. It’s enough to drive anyone to Prozac.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., with some 40,000 suicides a year, 70% of them middle-aged white men. Most cultures and religions condemn suicide; we are asked to live our lives to the fullest, going towards death only when our bodies totally give out. Certainly this is true in the U.S., where death has been demonized and medicalized, seen as an ending to be feared and evaded as long as possible.

But what if death is actually more like a transition, mirroring birth—the emergence into another state of being?

What if death is a release, as some religions would have it, where we rejoin our ancestors and our spiritual families in a non-physical realm free of pain?

I don’t believe in the Christian idea of heaven and hell, but I am certainly not willing to rule out the possibility of an afterlife, in the sense of a spiritual reconnection with the Source energy that animates the physical realm on our planet.

With the advent of quantum physics and the recognition that 95% of the universe is made up of “dark matter” and “dark energy”—i.e., with stuff we know absolutely nothing about—science is beginning to make friends with metaphysics.

You won’t find many scientists willing to go as far as Jungian philosophers like Anne Baring, who talks about “the soul of the cosmos” as a kind of divine intelligence immanent in everything—but at least scientists are beginning to admit how much they don’t know about the way our universe works. And in that opening of humility lies the possibility that there could be a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to one of the greatest unknowns: death.

For Baring (writing with co-author Scilla Elworthy), “The life we know is an excitation on the surface of an immeasurable sea of cosmic energy that is continually surging, dancing, flowing into being. In every galaxy, every star, every planet, every cell of our being the universe is bursting into existence from this womb or sea of being.

“What does this mean for us? It means that when we are in touch with this incredible idea, each one of us becomes a co-creator with that mysterious process, at one with our starry source” and conscious “the sacredness, oneness and divinity of life.”

HubbleSpaceTelescope_N90

Baring and Elworthy offer the image of a fully conscious human as “a cell in a limitless honeycomb of golden light. Imagine,” they say, “this luminous network of honeycomb cells connecting people in every part of the world who are trying to lift humanity out of the dark place we are in now. Imagine that through this powerful network of relationships a new consciousness is coming into being.”

The new collective and individual consciousness they imagine would be one that respects all life, generating a mode of living in which humans act as the stewards of our planet, rather than as the greedy, destructive despots we have become in the past few centuries.

“When we are prepared to become but a humble servant of life, devoted to caring for it and healing it, we become free from all fear,” they say. “We are then able to resonate with life, harmoniously and ecstatically.”

I wish Robin Williams had been able to receive this message; to see himself as a bright spark tossed out by the loving flame of our cosmos. I wish he had been able to read Baring and Elworthy’s small gem of a book, Soul Power, which ends with this striking injunction:

“Live life as an opportunity to transform the nectar of experience into the honey that can heal the world.”

As a creative genius, Robin Williams surely was making that honey for us. He just needed to hold more of it back to heal and salve his own sensitive, wounded soul.

Taking the risk to feel the pain of the world, and the love that can change it

Sometimes I wish I just taught math or physics—something dry and formulaic that would not require wading publicly into the messy, unclear, painful areas of life and interpersonal relations. My current mantra is “the personal is planetary.” If this is so, what does it mean for the planet that such a high percentage of my students over the years have revealed such terrible pain and suffering in the classroom over and over again?

Lately I’ve been reading Bill Plotkin’s magisterial work Nature and the Human Soul, in which he argues that human civilization has been stuck for too long (since Gilgamesh, I’d say) in an adolescent stage of development, where young men are encouraged in their shallow enjoyment of violence, sex and glory, and young women are encouraged to be pretty, compliant and deferent to authority.

The students at my institution are generally trying very hard to resist this overwhelming cultural message.  They try to think outside the box.  They have an earnest desire to be politically correct and intellectually sophisticated. It’s all very well on the purely academic front.  But what happens when the cracks in that academic façade appear and reveal deep emotions—anger, grief, fear, desire—that go way beyond the bounds of the merely academic?

Sometimes these emotions can be so frightening that the only sane response seems to be to numb out on drugs (licit & illicit) or get distracted by media entertainment & competition & the race to keep one’s economic head above water. Somehow in my classes these tumultuous, unruly emotions often come leaping into the foreground.  I allow and sometimes even encourage our class discussions to “go there,” to go into that dangerous gray zone between the purely intellectual/theoretical and the deeply personal lived experience. I believe that this is the zone where the most productive new thinking happens, the kind that can shift paradigms and change worlds.  So I’m willing to risk the discomfort of venturing outside our collective comfort zones, in the hopes that a spark set off in one of our class discussions or activities will ignite a fiery passion that goes well beyond the narrow confines of this class, this semester, or any one student’s career.

But in the aftermath, as I think back on the tears shed, the furrowed brows of the listeners, the potential for aftershocks to occur outside the relatively safe space of the classroom, I can’t rest easy.  I feel deeply, myself, the responsibility of leadership, even in the relatively small scale of the classroom.  The ripples of our conversations on any given day may spread out for many years, affecting those of us who listened and bore witness to his pain in ways we cannot yet imagine.

Some believe that we human beings are the consciousness of the planet. If the personal is planetary and vice versa, then it could be that these young people are in some sense channeling the pain of our planet itself. We owe it to our youth, to ourselves, and to the great planet we call home, to—at minimum—listen with respect, try to understand, and consider how our choices and actions can contribute to or lessen the pain.

It’s risky to do this active listening and thinking aloud, in the moment, rather than waiting until we are sure we “have it right,” “understand it all,” or “know what to do.”  But we don’t have the luxury of time now to get it all perfect.  The best we can do is continually check in with our own emotions, and try to be sure that whatever we say or do is rooted in compassion, concern and a sincere desire to make things better.

“In a voiced community we all flourish,” says Terry Tempest Williams.  Blowing with love on the shaky fires of these suffering voices, bringing them into a nourishing, respectful community, will help ease not only human suffering, but also, potentially, as the ripples spread out, the suffering of so many living beings on the planet.

LOVE—the one emotion that trumps all others, on both the personal and the planetary scale.  The one emotion we can never have too much of, and the one out of which new potentialities continually spring. 6a00d83451c79e69e2015432a3f0e2970c-253x300May the tears we shed as we think about the pain of the world water the dry, numbed-out hearts of those who profess not to care about the links between the health of humans and of the natural world.

May we take the pain born of love, and channel it into personal and planetary healing.  May we be wise enough to see the connections between our actions and their ripple effects in human society and the planet writ large. May we learn to feel all the love we’re capable of as humans and to act out of that deep wellspring of emotion. Let it be so.  Let’s make it so.

Love is all we need

Most people I know don’t pay a whole lot of attention to Valentine’s Day.

In its pop culture guise, it’s pretty trite, after all—candy, flowers, champagne perhaps, aimed at seducing the beloved into bed at the end of the evening….

Eve Ensler has tried hard to put a harder, more political edge on V-Day.  She’s got thousands of women dancing for freedom—rejecting the pervasive violence against women that forms the backdrop of so many of our lives.

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But for most of us, well, we’re just here in the trenches, and we may or may not have a loved one to honor as a Valentine this year.

Me, I’ve got no particular human Valentine at present. Such love as I have to give, I want to dedicate to the forests and the birds, the butterflies and the flowers that are, to me, the most beautiful manifestations of LOVE on this planet.

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Any expression of love is far and away more potent than expressions of hatred and violence.

If you love someone, you should, by all means, shower them with kisses and caresses.  You should be extravagant in your appreciation.

Likewise, if the object of your affection is a tree or a landscape or a bright, joyful living thing—say, a tadpole or a fish or a magnificent coral—go ahead and shower that being with the love it deserves.

The only meaningful counter to the hatred, disrespect and violence that has become the norm in Western culture is the intentional distribution of LOVE.

Love is all you need, crooned the Beatles.  Maybe they were on to something.

It’s Up to Us Now: Carrying on the Work of Pete Seeger

Unknown-1When I heard the news that Pete Seeger had died, my first thought was “oh no!” and my second thought was “now there goes a man who lived a good life.”

At 94, he had accomplished so much and lived so fully.  Even during his final months and weeks on the planet, he was still playing concerts to packed houses and inspiring people everywhere with his unwavering dedication to using music as a means of raising awareness and fomenting social change.

The New York Times obituary quotes him as saying in 2009 (the year he sang at President Obama’s Inauguration): “My job is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet.”

Pete’s gift was for making music and getting others to sing along with him, and he used it not for fame, fortune or glory, but for the good of those who most needed him.

Whether he was singing in support of the Civil Rights Movement or the anti-war movement, singing for freedom against the red-baiting of the McCarthy era, singing against apartheid or singing for the environmental movement, he was always out in front leading the charge and showing others what true courage and conviction looked like—in a joyous register.

Image: File photo of Pete Seeger and his grandson Tao attending the We Are One - Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington

That upbeat, “we-shall-overcome” personality probably played a big role in Pete’s longetivity—research shows that people who think positively tend to live longer, happier lives than those who tend to see the glass half-empty.

When I saw Pete play, at one of his last concerts last fall, there was a joyous glow about him that lit up the whole stage, and those of us in the audience would have followed him anywhere.

Well, it’s up to us now.  Pete has moved on, and we are left to carry on his legacy—to keep singing his songs and working for the positive social change he believed in and created.

Unknown-2Pete was so deeply engaged with humanity during his lifetime that in death he will still stay lodged in our hearts.

His is the kind of soul that will rise into heaven showering sparks and spores of bright beckoning energy, encouraging us to carry his tune, to keep his good spirit alive.

Today I start a new semester of classes, and I am excited to be teaching two classes that will enable me to do just that: “Women Write the World” and “Writing for Social and Environmental Justice.”

Pete, I’ll be thinking of you with love and admiration as I go to greet my students this morning.  I hope a little of your sweet, positive, hardworking energy will carry us forward this year, and forever.

 

If you get there before I do

Comin’ for to carry me home

Tell all my friends I’m comin’ too

Comin’ for to carry me home.

 

Swing low, sweet chariot

Comin’ for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot

Comin’ for to carry me home.

 

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