Kendra Smith | The Disappearing Art of Living

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Kendra Smith | The Disappearing Art of Living

from 'Early recordings' (1989)
from Opal -Early Recordings, features a young Kendra Smith and David Roback frolicking on the beach.
Kendra Smith presents The Guild Of Temporal Adventurers 1992
Kosmos Playlist
DREAM SYNDICATE with KENDRA SMITH | "Too Little, Too Late" 12/16/17

If you’ve never heard of Kendra Smith no one would be surprised, but listening to her enduring music from decades ago, you cannot help but to feel the reverence in Kendra’s lyrics, be captivated by her haunting melodies and lulled by soothing drowsy tempos. Her music remains a fresh, timeless, psychedelically tinged trip.

As a reclusive artist, she’s a mysterious figure, revered, mythologized, and missed with a fervor that most artists would marvel at.  

She began making music in 1979 as a bass player in a short lived punk outfit called The Suspects, quickly moving on to form a new band in 1981 called The Dream Syndicate. Their brand of infectious jangle rock immediately caught the ear of record labels and positioned them at the epicenter of a west coast music scene known as The Paisley Underground. Just as the accolades began, Kendra Smith abruptly left the band. In 1985 she re-emerged with Dave Roback, former frontman for another Paisley underground group, The Rain Parade.  Initially calling themselves Clay Allison, they eventually settled on the name Opal. The album, Opal –  Early Recordings, is a shining example of Kendra’s artistic scope and sway with 12 songs that highlighted her emerging artistic sensibilities and song stylings. Songs like ‘Strange Delight’ ‘Fell From The Sun,’ ‘My Only Friend,’ and ‘Grains Of Sand’ are timeless, haunting and immediately memorable. When it was released, suddenly we had a sense of Kendra Smith as an experimental artist with realms, sounds and instruments to explore.

Early on, during the promotional tour for their brand new full length LP Happy Nightmare, Baby, Kendra had misgivings and creative differences, so again she and the band parted ways. Her next release didn’t appear until 1992 and it came in the form of a mini – LP dubbed Kendra Smith Presents The Guild of Temporal Adventurers. It was 6 songs (and 3 brief sonic ‘interludes’) that built on Kendra’s dreamy, sense of beauty, mysticism and experimentation. Shimmery songs like ‘Iridescence’, ‘Stars Are In Your Eyes’ and the meditative dirge- like ‘Earth Same Breath’ seemed to pick up where Opal – Early Recordings left off.  It delineated Kendra’s power to make her music in her own way and on her own terms just as it marked the time of her near complete disappearance. By 1992 Kendra had left city life and had begun to live more deliberately and simply. The release of her one solo LP called Five Ways of Disappearing in 1995, post-dated her departure. 

Kendra had long since abandoned life in Los Angeles for a remote, off-grid cabin she built in Northern California. She has been there for three decades now, living off of solar power, pumping her water, growing her own food, tending to her dog, cats, and a donkey. 

Late in 2017, surprisingly, she reappeared with The Dream Syndicate for two live shows, singing a song that she had penned the lyrics to. That song is called ‘Kendra’s Dream.’ Perhaps even more surprisingly, last year she was featured on a film soundtrack with a new song called ‘Moon Boat’, a custom piece she wrote for director Debra Granik. It plays liltingly over the end credits of Debra’s film Without A Trace

Kendra’s voice has deepened, much like Marianne Faithfull’s, and these days her lyrics are filled with wonder and awe. In her own words below, Kendra Smith tells us of the deliberations of her daily life and artistic choices.  


Kendra Says:

If you get intimate with a piece of land you get super attached to it’s well-being. Part of the culture I experienced here is having this large piece of land, more than 30 acres of wooded hilly stuff and a very small part of that is dedicated to humans, the rest is dedicated to whatever life belongs there – from owls to salamanders to whatever Earth Spirits you might believe live in nature. Old gods retreat to places that are uninhabited so we leave most of it alone except to walk it. It will always have a huge effect on what I think and create along with my isolation which is not complete! I have a circle of friends here but even in the city I was a solitary person. I’m slowly building things up here. I just got my first refrigerator 2 years ago. I lived on 80 watts of DC power for 20 years. There’s no hot running water. Everybody says “That must be horrible! It would be easy to change it.” Well yeah, it’s easy to change but you change one thing, other things change. Not having a refrigerator was no big inconvenience, as I ate mostly out of my garden. I’m getting a bit more open-minded about change but I don’t see there’s ever going to be a city style house here.

Since 1995 I’ve gone through periods where I didn’t do any music at all. Then I went through a period where I was mostly studying Central Asian and Persian classical music and working with instruments we made here and all along I’ve had my pump organs which I keep getting more and more of. They’re cumbersome obviously. It seems in the last year or so that I’ve entered a new era in my existence and fate keeps tossing projects in front of me. I said what the hell and then I saw how easy it is now. Technology has changed so much. I love strictly analog music and have friends who have analog studios but now I can set up in my solar powered cabin. I’m just now acquiring the tools. I’ve got good musicians and we call ourselves The Magician’s Orchestra. We’ve done a lot of stuff some of it on weird found instruments. I believe in keeping it primitive. I’m determined to just use the technology I need.

I’m aware that people wonder about me. I’m really happy to see new generations of people who enjoy what I’ve done. I’ve always felt that my fan base was very special and dedicated in a strange way, as I’m not everybody’s taste. I always consider it an honor that I’m playing for those people who I always assumed are kind of unusual in their own way too.

Reprinted with permission from UNCUT Magazine
Deusner, Stephen. “Catching up with Kendra Smith”, Oct. 2017: 83. Print

It’s a beautiful dream… Kendra returns to the stage with The Dream Syndicate, El Rey Theater, LA, 12/15/2017 – photo © Deb Frazen


MOONBOAT

MOON BOAT | Kendra Smith, The Magician’s Orchestra

I wandered this world green and wild
and the things in my mind are
like a red sun go down.
Oh and I, I know you must go.
And I think I know why…
but I don’t know why.
Still I am thinking we both share a moon and a star.
May you be safe, may we both find a place with a heart.
Here, where treasures a-bound
in the things I have found, a leaf, a song come from a-bove…
In the wood, where secrets crawl
the Earth so small, a place, a home, a dream my own…
There’ll be a tree that joins you and me from a-far.
And I am certain we all share a moon and a star

KENDRA'S DREAM

KENDRA’S DREAM | The Dream Syndicate feat. Kendra Smith

…Like a memory of music fled
I see three giants mount the hill.
They first reveal their massive heads
then stride as kings before me still.
In frozen awe I watch them near;
A stag
An ox
And rampant bear.

Find the others
meeting there.
Creature guise in
dreamer’s lair.
Where Dreamers dream a
dream of dreaming.
Rewrite a fate of
random weaving.
And bright self dreams with
every breathing.

I keep having the same dream.
I keep having the same dream.
It’s a beautiful dream

About Kari Auerbach

Kari Auerbach is Music Editor at Kosmos Quarterly. She grew up all over the world learning about music and working as a jewelry designer. Currently living in New York City, she is social media director for several recording artists and a jewelry instructor for the New York Institute of Art and Design. She enjoys her many roles as a teacher, artist, mother, mentor, as well as advocating for artists, children, and a better, cleaner world.

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Burning Man | What We've Learned

Gallery Culture

Burning Man | What We’ve Learned


Sisyphus is a mythological figure, an ancient Greek king who was so clever that he was constantly fooling and tricking the gods. Long myth short, eventually he died, because clever only gets you so far, and was given a special punishment in Hades: he was eternally condemned to roll a giant boulder up a steep hill, and every time he was about to reach the top, the boulder would slip from his grasp and roll back to the bottom, and he’d have to start over again. All his labor was in vain, all his best efforts futile.

In 1942, French philosopher and novelist Albert Camus wrote an essay titled The Myth of Sisyphus in which he used Sisyphus as a metaphor to describe the absurdity of the human condition. We are searching for truth and beauty and clarity in a world that is empty and devoid not just of God but of any truth and value at all. 

Camus concluded his essay by saying that even though we are all Sisyphus, we can be happy anyway. We can embrace the absurdity, and make our choices, and find satisfaction in the futile struggle to raise that boulder up the mountain, again and again. 

The evidence from the experiment of Burning Man is conclusive: we can do better than this. Burning Man is a better offer. Even if Camus’s basic description of our existential condition is correct, we don’t want to live that way. Burning Man shows how we don’t have to. It is a prototype demonstrating how we can live very different lives than the myth of Sisyphus allows. 

Paying attention is the very minimum qualification for doing this. The place where you have to get started individually. There is no replacement for it. There is no hack for it. It is where participation begins, and culture only belongs to those who participate in it.

GALLERY | Scott London Photography, Best of Burning Man

It doesn’t matter what you know; it matters whether you are learning. It doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor, but whether you are giving. It doesn’t matter whether you are good, but whether you are being good. Doing good.

This activity is not to achieve a specific outcome; it is to keep practicing skills that are unconditional—things we value and do for their own sake—rather than transactional. Learning unconditional skills is fundamentally different from learning transactional ones. As we all have discovered in this life, you can’t make someone care. You can’t force someone to love. You can’t compel someone to be curious or conscientious. You can only make them go through the motions of these things, which is far less effective and just as likely to cause resentment and resistance. You can force someone to learn how to do arithmetic, but you can’t make them be interested in math. 

The only way you can actually encourage someone to practice unconditional skills, rather than practicing the appearance of having such skills in front of an authority figure, is to give them the opportunity to practice authentically, which means putting them in an environment in which this is possible. This means putting them in an environment in which one can discover and experiment with one’s own unique intrinsic motivation. As they discover and explore what matters to them, as they practice doing what they care about and achieving mastery with it, they internalize the unconditional skills that make it possible for them to truly participate in a culture. They seek out expertise, they find communities of shared passion, they pool resources to create more interesting projects, they contribute and give. People whose primary motivations and skills come from extrinsically motivated tasks have no reason to stop the world from sinking if they’re able to profit from the waves. People whose primary motivations and skills come from intrinsically motivated goals have practiced sacrificing the needs of the moment for something greater than themselves. 

Burning Man is not a noun, it’s a verb, because really all culture is a set of verbs. So we do not get to stop. We keep going, improving, making things better, recognizing that there will be imperfections and trade-offs and still working, with no end point in either sight or mind, to practice being the people and communities we want to be. No matter how good you get, you will always be an amateur, trying to learn new ways to do it better. 

Burning Man is a proof of concept demonstrating that a culture that tries to keep people in their place is far less effective and unifying than a culture that tries to put people in a position where they can find their own meaningful goals and make choices that are meaningful to them. This is what we have demonstrated. Burning Man is supported by an army of volunteers, tens of thousands that we know of, around the world, representing every income level and station of life, liberal and conservative and apolitical. It has donors ranging from the superwealthy to people struggling to get by. Burning Man has thrived because this dynamic works. People who discover what is important to them when they work with you, who can make meaningful choices as a result of your presence in their life, and who feel that there is still room for them with you as they grow and change as a result of these choices, will stand by you through hell.

You often get more from people, much more, when you engage in unconditional relationships with them than you ever do from transactional ones. We overlook that in our default world because we do not practice the skills that lead to unconditional relationships. We are bad at them.

Happiness, let us remember, is found in working at your capacity toward a goal you find meaningful. Burning Man culture spreads because we have more fun, because that fun is good for people in ways that are meaningful to them, and because anyone can play. These things are all that it takes to develop the skills in people that are, as they are mastered, the essence of a thriving culture. 

But let’s not discount the competence of artists to do this work. Art, like laughter, like love, is the epitome of something we do for its own sake and thus has unconditional value. Art is also the epitome of creative tension. Often it is possible to use art to practice vital cultural skills that are not yet imagined, let alone understood, anywhere else. Of course Burning Man started out as an art experiment; what starts out as art becomes culture.

We don’t need a blueprint, we don’t want a master plan, we just need to practice the skills and create the kind of spaces we want to live in, and share them. And if you don’t know what those skills and spaces are yet, make art and give it away to find out. That’s how Burning Man started. Then find someone doing something interesting that you do not understand at all, and ask: “How can I help?” That’s how it grew. Out of these simple acts, individuals and cultures can place themselves in creative tension and grow together.

Above all, do not be Sisyphus. Don’t let the role you are assigned isolate you from others.

Don’t accept the need to manufacture plastic happiness out of meaningless, passionless pursuits. Don’t turn yourself into a commodity. Practice reaching out to the world around you. Develop skills that create conditions out of which things you and others genuinely care about, deeply and passionately, can emerge. Over and over again.

PHOTOGRAPHY | courtesy, Scott London (www.scottlondon.com) 

EXCERPTS | from The Scene That Became Cities, by Caveat Magister
published by North Atlantic Books, copyright ©2019. Reprinted by permission of publisher.

About Caveat Magister

A member of Burning Man Project’s Philosophical Center, Caveat served as the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca from 2008 – 2013, and the lead writer/researcher for Burning Man’s education program from 2016 – 2018. Caveat is the author of the the forthcoming book The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities., which is now available for pre-order.

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About Photography, Scott London

Scott London is a San Francisco-based photographer whose images have appeared in books, newspapers and magazines worldwide. His publishing credits include Rolling StoneVanity FairNewsweekThe AtlanticGQArchitectural Digest, the New York Times and National Geographic Traveler. His work has also been the subject of features in Wired magazine and on CNN and the Discovery Channel.

Scott is perhaps best known for his images of Burning Man, a series spanning over a decade of work. The photographs appear in the bestselling coffee-table book, Burning Man: Art on Fire, a collaboration with writer Jennifer Raiser and fellow photographer Sidney Erthal. It first appeared in 2014 and is now available in a new and expanded Second Edition.

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Fourteen Recommendations When Facing Climate Tragedy

Article Interbeing

Fourteen Recommendations When Facing Climate Tragedy


Editor’s addition: The concept of Deep Adaptation to impending societal breakdown due to climate disruption is spreading around the world. It was first coined in a speech by Professor Jem Bendell in December 2016, but spread rapidly since his Deep Adaptation Paper went viral. His paper has influenced climate thinkers worldwide, including Extinction Rebellion. It is recommended reading. In his lengthy post, After Climate Despair – One Tale Of What Can Emerge, Dr. Bendell reflects on his personal journey. This is an excerpt, reprinted with his kind permission. 

 

…Come the summer of ‘17 I knew I had not given myself space to explore the “deep adaptation” agenda as much as I had wanted to. Within that, I had not developed the kind of equanimity – or peace of mind – about climate chaos that would mean I could work on it directly. I realise many other people must be in this situation.

I see equanimity as important if we are to respond to changing realities without fear, anger or sadness clouding our judgement. I see equanimity as a means of usefulness rather than simply coping emotionally. Where might that equanimity come from? In the past few months I have been in discussions and correspondence with people as I explore the spiritual or metaphysical perspectives that might make some sense in the face of our climate tragedy. I was fortunate enough that my University agreed for me to take a year unpaid leave from September 2017, and this has allowed me time to reflect, read, discuss, as well as participate in various meditative practices. In particular, I have been exploring the idea of “interbeing”, a term from Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn and popularized by author Charles Eisenstein. Being asked by Charles for feedback on a first draft of his book on climate change also prompted me to clarify some thoughts. So here goes…

Interbeing is a word describing a conscious experience of being more than our physical body and separate mind. It is another way of describing higher consciousness, so as to emphasize its more embodied form. The idea is fairly well established in non-Abrahamic spiritual traditions, as well as within the more gnostic threads of Abrahamic religions. The idea is that although we experience ourselves as separate due to our senses, consciousness is not limited to our brains or bodies. Rather, it is like a field of magnetism or gravity. Moreover, it may be like a field that is not limited in time and space as magnetism or gravity are, instead encompassing all of existence. From this perspective it can be said that consciousness is having an experience of itself through us.

How might interbeing raise you from the threat of depression if you sense the end of everything one can contribute to due to near-term extinction of the human race and the majority of species? Not by making us feel more as one with all humans who will be born to die young. Or more as one with all dogs and cats who will starve to death. Nor by feeling more as one with all the birds in the trees who will die of heat exhaustion. Or more at one with those landscapes we most enjoy seeing and experiencing which will transform out of recognition. Or more as one with the wonderful culture of ideas that we have enjoyed learning and contributing to, but that will vanish into ruins like other lost civilizations. The more we experience interbeing with all these deeply important things, the more we may suffer. An answer may lie in our sense of what there “is” to inter-be with. There are no half measures with interbeing. All is one, as that great phrase explains.

OK, you might say, “We are at one with everything. And if we are lucky we might experience states of consciousness where that feels real to us. But how does that help us deal emotionally with the loss of civilization, the mass extinction of other species and potentially even human extinction?”

I think the answer lies in whether we see that greater consciousness as a source. In particular, does consciousness exist as an original phenomenon that gave rise to matter (and so lies within it, finding new forms through it), or does consciousness arise out of matter (which logically would imply randomly). There is a lot of support in the history of human thought for the former view of consciousness giving rise to matter. Now there is a lot of new scientific evidence for that view, including the latest in evolutionary biology and in quantum physics (which I will summarize elsewhere). If we have the view that consciousness gave rise to and works through matter, then we see how it gave rise to species, all humans and all civilizations. Therefore we are one with the potential for all things.

Many Maya cities were abandoned in the 9th century AD, bringing an end to the Classic period.

Thich Nhat Hahn has suggested we take time to reflect on the number of civilizations that have collapsed in the past. We could walk around the ruins, or watch a video of someone doing so. Imagine the thousands of lives, with the joys, heartaches, intense discussions, hopes for the future and stories of the past. All so intense at the time and all now gone. Then consider how these civilizations have kept arising again and again in different places and times. There appears to be an underlying impulse towards them. Or let’s go a step further. Take a moment to reflect on the way our planetary ecosystem has kept producing hominids, most of which never evolved into humans but went extinct. They were bipedal large brained animals with opposable thumbs and in many cases the desires to draw and to burn. Therefore, some scientists are beginning to consider whether evolution is entirely random. That doesn’t imply an anthropomorphic God that designs species, but a field of consciousness that gives rise to similar patterns of life.

In one ancient tradition this is called the Akashic Record. It means that who we are and what we do now is both influenced by and will influence an eternal record that pervades all time and space. If a collective consciousness is understood and experienced in this way, the pain of the passing of life as-we-know-it may be lessened. Because we are one with the source consciousness that gives rise to all life and will do so again and again.

Many people who are troubled by climate change are “environmentalists” and many such people are interested in reconnecting with non human “nature” as a means of sensing our interbeing. While this can be a useful first step, it may extend the awareness of self only partially in both time and space and could lead to new waves of pain, anger, sadness, distraction, and therefore distorted thinking on what to do now. Therefore, the climate tragedy invites us to see interbeing as all or nothing. You might rightly point out that I am at risk of proposing a worldview because it makes one feel better. This subjective distortion is the root of confirmation bias as well as the flaw of so many religions. “It must be right because it feels wonderful.” I currently have no answer to that problem, apart from that I know in my own life I have not arrived at this perspective quickly as a means of tranquility. Indeed, I think the more I embrace it and bring it into my daily consciousness, the implications may not be so easy after all.

The pain associated with an awareness of climate tragedy may be deadened with this perspective on total interbeing, but there remains a question of meaning for our individual lives. Given that our previous ideas of purpose and meaning have been shaken with the awareness of impending collapse, most people would seek a new basis for the meaning of their lives. That is something I will need to spend more time on this year, perhaps always. But I am already wondering whether our meaning can be found within a purpose of approaching this moment with as much awakened connection to universal source consciousness as possible. In that way, contributing to the Akashic memory of that source consciousness at an unusual time in existence. I have a feeling that such an approach would involve heightened compassion and wonder. I also sense that the positive “vision” for what we can work towards while accepting a coming collapse will be about communities that nurture that compassion and wonder. But it is something I need to reflect on and discuss some more.

The perspective I have just expressed assumes some “free will” within us. Or to put it another way, some ability for original phenomena to be created by us, within us, to then add back to the source consciousness. How is it possible for there to be any agency in a part of a whole if all is one? How would we know if our view that we have free will isn’t actually determined for us? We don’t. But if we didn’t have free will to exist in ways that create novel input into the akashic record, then what is the consciousness within individual organic lifeforms for? Perhaps nothing. Or perhaps simply to express the intention of the whole. And that is what I have to conclude at this time: I do not know if there is any individual agency. Nevertheless, the implication is that to approach life from from a heightened connection to source consciousness will more likely align with the purpose of source consciousness, if there is one. Now is when we begin to speculate. It appears that source consciousness tends to diversify the complexity of matter. It appears it creates sentient beings who wish to avoid pain and experience pleasure.

It appears that the process of unfolding complexity leads to new forms of reflective consciousness. Therefore, I could choose a purpose to reduce suffering, promote joy, enable reflection, and unleash emergence. This does not sound so different from the great wisdom traditions, as well as the common sense knowledge of most people I know, if not deluded by obsessions over race, nation, politics, status, wealth or religious correctness.

I am currently in Ubud, Bali, which attracts many spiritual seekers from around the world. It is a Hindu island, with an animist flavor, and many religiously observant families. Many of the foreigners participate in what some would call “new age” spiritual practices, such as shamanic breathwork or cacao ceremonies. Despite that, I have not yet discussed any of what I have written above with the people I meet here. Because I have often felt lonelier with people who are overtly on a spiritual path. When I hear of their focus on positive thinking, visioning, and being in touch with one’s body and emotions, I wonder if this is naive and self-serving. Yet the effect is nice enough and I don’t want to upset them. It is a cliche that some of the people with the most needs and fears gravitate to either religious devotion or new age spirituality. I do not think the worldview I have described in my writing today is an immediately self-serving one. It would be far easier to dismiss climate tragedy as hype and block it out as one does a warrior pose while breathing incense. I am discovering, therefore, that I may need to be proactive if I want to be part of a community of “spiritual” people, approaching life in full awareness of the climate tragedy.

Fourteen recommendations when facing the possibility of climate tragedy

Here are fourteen recommendations based on what has been helping me, or what, in hindsight, I think could have helped me!

  1. Return to, or explore afresh, the idea of a divine or a spirit or a consciousness or a God that is prior to the Earth and moves through the Universe right now and forever more. Do so without seeking a simple story of explanation but a sense of faith that there is an existence and a meaning beyond our culture, our species and our planet. Such ‘faith’ helps anyone to experience and process the inevitable difficulties and traumas of life.
  2. Listen to those stories from people both past and present who tell us that despair is not the end and therefore does not have to be avoided. Recognise how many spiritual traditions see despair as a gateway to our growth.
  3. Beware when people are promoting their views on what they think the implications of information will be, rather than views on the information itself. The impacts of certain information about climate on other people’s motivations are not certain, and in many cases the darkest analyses have triggered a new level of creativity and boldness. Instead, look at the information and analysis directly for yourself, without second guessing what some interpretations might lead to.
  4. Recognize that any emotional or intellectual resistance you may experience to information which implies catastrophe may come from what you have been consciously or subconsciously telling yourself about your own self-worth, purpose and meaning. Then remember how your views of yourself and the world have evolved through your life and still can.
  5. Don’t panic. Give yourself time to evolve both personally and professionally in response to your emerging awareness, but ensure you stay connected to a group or an activity which keeps reminding you of the basis for your emerging awareness.
  6. Recognize there is much work ahead for you to reconstitute concepts of meaning and what’s good and to align your life with those. It will not happen overnight, yet it will not happen if you do not give time to this work. There may be some time needed to bridge your existing life with the way you will want to live in future.
  7. Plan more time and resources for you to do things which inspire wonder at life. This could be more time in beautiful environments, or with uplifting music, or in contemplation, or through creative writing, or being with loved ones and close friends. That means freeing up time from other activities such as TV, social media and mainstream news. It may also mean downshifting from your workload.
  8. Look for opportunities for supported self-reflection and sense-making. This is because your worldview and self identity will undoubtedly transform overtime as you process the new information and analysis.
  9. Expect a catharsis, both personal and professional. This will occur because the subconscious or conscious limits that you placed on yourself until now will be lifted. Go with that rush of energy and creativity, but be vigilant that those new activities don’t become so consuming they distract you from the personal work you still need to do.
  10. If you are a mission-driven professional in fields related to environment or social justice then expect that you may be driven to rebuild a sense of self worth and that this need of the ego, while natural and potentially useful, could become a frantic distraction.
  11. Expect a change in your personal relationships and how you spend your spare time. Some forms of small talk and light-hearted social interaction with acquaintances may seem pointless, while you may wish to spend more time with close friends and family. While for some this could be a welcome rebalancing, for others this can become a vector of reclusiveness and loneliness. Therefore it is important to find new ways of connecting with people on the new levels that feel meaningful to you.
  12. Create a positive vision of people sharing compassion, love and play. It may feel that an eco-tragic outlook means you cannot have any meaningful vision of a better future for yourself, your community, or humanity. An absence of something positive to work towards can be destabilising and limiting. Some people will think you are depressed – or depressing – and need some “positive thinking”. For a personal vision, the answer may lie in developing a vision for how you will be approaching life, rather than imagining attributes of a lifestyle. This may parallel the dimensions of a collective vision. A future full of love and learning, rather than flying cars and fancy robots, could be a way to imagine a more beautiful world. And remember, the future will still be beautiful in its own way, no matter what life forms are in it – or if your favourite town is under water!
  13. Don’t get dogmatic and avoid those who do. That comes from recognising that our terms for phenomena are not the same as the phenomena themselves. The words we use imply things which may have effects on us but aren’t necessarily so. Words like nearterm, civilisation, collapse, and tragedy, are our words, and may trigger ideas, images and emotions which aren’t inevitable consequences of the phenomena being described (more on that “social constructionism” later).
  14. Do not prioritise maintaining your own mental and physical situation at the expense of the need to act in solidarity with future generations who will live with the future we are creating for them.

About Jem Bendell

Dr Jem Bendell is a Professor of Sustainability Leadership and Founder of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS) at the University of Cumbria (UK).

He focuses on leadership and communications for social change, as well as approaches that may help humanity face climate-induced disruption.

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Shut It Down: Stories From a Fierce, Loving Resistance

Article Grass Roots

Shut It Down: Stories From a Fierce, Loving Resistance


Many of us [who participated in actions at Standing Rock] drew from years of grassroots organizing experience, including a model of horizontal networking. In more recent years, with the rise of the nonprofit model, it has been difficult to get people to understand the power of small self-organized groups as an ongoing structure for our movements—yet this model has been a vital part of some of the most successful people-powered movements in recent years, including the climate justice movement, Occupy, and Black Lives Matter. The model [we] used at Standing Rock was similar to how some of us organized in Ferguson in advance of the non-indictment of Michael Brown’s murderer. It was a combination of mass meetings/assemblies and mass trainings to gather folks together, build affinity groups, and share a common language, analysis, and organizing strategies. 

Standing Rock water protector defies militarized police. Photo | Rob Wilson

As a white person participating in these movements, it has been helpful for me to think of this type of organizing as both conscious and transformative. By conscious organizing I refer to the intentional, day-to-day work of building a culture that restores our humanity. Our movements can’t only be about the practical outcomes. If we don’t succeed in stopping the pipelines, or Black Snake (the desired practical outcome), the movement is still important because we have organized ourselves according to a different vision of how the world can be. 

To be conscious, organizing needs to understand the roots of the Power Over mentality of the empire we are living in. We have been colonized, colorized, capitalized, and gendered, and those same dynamics continue today in all sorts of groups, including groups within our social justice movements. Conscious organizing acknowledges these realities and is deliberate in practices of decolonization, undoing white supremacy and patriarchy, healing trauma, and redistributing resources. All of this creates the patterns for healthier relations and living conditions. 

Conscious organizing addresses the most fundamental need we have as humans to belong to a community. We need to be wanted, accepted, nourished, included, loved, and secure in knowing that we belong and that we are good enough. When we have these things, we can feel fully present, curious, and engaged. Our connection and love for one another give us the courage to take incredible risks. We have all been raised in a culture of violence and hate, propagated by a country that values guns over people, that has the highest incarceration rate in the world, that invades, bombs, and spreads war, death, and destruction. Conscious organizing is how we fight and transform this oppression and trauma into life-feeding energy. 

To accomplish this, we must understand that we have differences, and that this is a strength. We are not all starting in the same place, and we cannot all take the same risks. We need to shift the dynamics of power and space to prioritize the leadership, vision, and voices of those who have been most impacted, ensuring that their agency is paramount. We must also understand that within our difference we are all the same—we are human. 

Organizing that is transformative allows people to experience their power, Power Within. Once they embrace their power, it’s so much easier to imagine different realities. We first imagine, and then actively transform ourselves and the world as we know it by manifesting our dreams. 

These truths about conscious, transformative organizing aren’t just abstractions; they guide my strategies as a horizontal direct-action organizer and help me understand how to welcome people into our movements. Organizing is all about relationships, and building relationships builds trust. Conscious organizing allows people to experience and express their anger, pain, and fears, as well as love, compassion, and courage, as we create new patterns and practices. Our fears, rooted in separation, lead to judgement. Fear is a powerful obstacle to overcome. Organizing starts with simply having a conversation, listening, asking questions, and then agitating or guiding into commitment and action. When we cross lines of divide, whether it is race, gender, sexual preference, class, age, or ability, there is enormous power. This is how we heal separation and fragmentation. 

Table 10.1 How Organizing Transforms

UNORGANIZED PEOPLE MAY FEEL . . . ORGANIZERS CAN . . . ORGANIZED PEOPLE FEEL . . .
Confused Interpret Understood
Apathetic Motivate Active
Scared Challenge Confident
Divided Unify Unified
Unmotivated Plan Purposeful

Ron Chisom, co-founder of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, says that an organizer is simply anyone who brings together two or more people for a collective purpose. An anti-racist organizer knows it’s not just about how many people you’re organizing, but the way you’re organizing—uprooting and undoing the inequities and injustices as we work. 

Photo | The Natural Resources Defense Council | Flint, Michigan’s ongoing water crisis left its residents solely dependent on bottled water.

White people are not taught about colonization or racism, what they are, how they work, or how you can undo them. Nobody is taught this in school, really. We can bridge this divide, and it starts with learning our history, then developing a shared analysis and a common language. Chisom says that “issues are tissues,” meaning that people with privilege can choose their issues, but front-line communities often don’t have a choice because for them fighting for “issues” is literally a matter of saving their lives. In either case, if we don’t have a humane organizing process that builds power and community instead of fear and dependence, we are missing the boat. 

Conscious, transformative organizing requires courage because it means going against the grain of how things are typically done. For a white organizer, this means understanding our unearned power and privilege and the way we have been indoctrinated into believing we’re superior and therefore entitled—the legacy of settler colonialism, which taught that Indigenous land was for the taking. For people of color, this means transforming the generational trauma of violence and of being taught you are inferior. Becoming conscious means keeping the dynamics of internalized oppression transparent and having relationships that are healing and can hold you accountable in a loving way. 

Most people see accountability as a negative thing, like you have done something wrong. I see it as a gift and a process of sharing what we’re doing and learning, especially from our mistakes, for the benefit of the whole group. 

In our Power Over society, people believe democracy is about representation. We think that somebody else is in power, and therefore our problems are somebody else’s responsibility. If something is wrong, we feel powerless to fix it, always waiting for someone else to solve the problem, leading to resentment, weakness, apathy, or anger. Organizing is the process of inspiring people to look within and find the power they need to take action and make decisions about their lives.

The ongoing process of conscious, transformative organizing typically includes: 

Moving people from indifference, powerlessness, rage, or victimization into a clear identification of the problems and solutions. 

Asking people questions and listening. This often leads people to the information they need to know. 

Getting people to identify their vision for the future and then developing a realistic and collective plan to get there using simple, achievable steps. 

Remembering that organizing is not about “helping” people, it’s about laying down the challenges and making the choices clear. It is working with, not for. 

Organizers can create situations, or “containers” (such as participation in direct actions), that allow people to experience their power and to take action despite their fears. Anger directed is a key to change; it arises out of what we care for, what we love, and what has hurt us. Unconscious fear can stop all action. 

In her talks about revolutionary love, the civil rights activist Valarie Kaur says that joy is the gift of love, grief is the price of love, and anger is the force that protects love. 

In my experience, conscious organizing can happen only within a nurturing community structure with authentic relationships. The Pledge of Resistance taught me the importance of relationship building in organizing, and everything I have experienced has only deepened my belief that organizing is only as powerful as the relationships in the network. This is where the affinity group model comes in—small groups of individuals making a commitment to one another for emotional support, exploring our hopes and fears, strategizing, and making plans and decisions together. All of this requires intentionality and a shared understanding that staying connected as humans is how we transform the empire. 

I’ve always loved the simple framework of the United Farm Workers (the labor union for farmworkers in the US) whose acronym about the basics of organizing is AHUY! I think about it often because these four words really capture the spirit of conscious organizing: 

AHUY!

ANGER. Righteous anger that exposes injustice and propels action. 

HOPE that another world is possible and that together we can make 

things better.


URGENCY. Knowing that injustice has existed for hundreds of years, 

yet we still need to act in the now, continuously, to mitigate damage 

while creating alternatives.


YOU can make a difference. Not tomorrow, not when you are braver, but 

today. You already have everything you need! You have gifts; you are a gift. 

Organizing is a process of emergence where things percolate from the bottom up. The more interactions we get going, the greater the potential for change. Organizers power-map communities, meet new people, connect others, and identify and recruit people who are willing to become more active. Organizers must be inclusive, welcoming, and purposeful. Organizing provides the glue that moves us from individual agents to collective actors working together as a potent force for change. People Power is what it is called, and this is sacred work. 

 

 

The above excerpt is from Lisa Fithian’s new book Shut It Down: Stories From a Fierce, Loving Resistance (Chelsea Green Publishing, September 2019) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.
And, here are several purchasing links for you to choose from:

Wordery (free international shipping)

Chelsea Green 

Indiebound

 

About Lisa Fithian

Lisa Fithian is an anti-racist organizer who has worked for justice since the 1970s. Using creative, strategic, nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience, she has won many battles and trained tens of thousands of people while participating in a range of movements and mobilizations, including Occupy Wall Street, anti-WTO and corporate globalization protests all over the world, the climate justice movement, and more. She lives in Austin, TX.

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Thich Nhat Hanh's Code of Global Ethics

Article Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh’s Code of Global Ethics


Editor’s note | At the turning of the Millennium, the United Nations chose Thich Nhat Hanh’s code of global ethics, the Five Mindfulness Trainings, as the foundation for a non-sectarian ethical path for humanity. Along with several Nobel Peace Prize laureates, he helped to create Unesco’s Manifesto 2000 which includes the sprit of the five trainings and has been signed by 75-million people. 

 

Pause, Breathe, Smile

the golden rule

We’re ethically motivated when our intentions are based on conscious values. But where do our values come from? Often, we learn our values through role models, our family, our ancestry, and society. I can also explore values in daily interactions, such as when someone asks me questions about myself. I listen deeply, as what people choose to ask reflects what they value. 

Actually, many sets of ethical guidelines might all be boiled down to one: The Golden Rule. From Christianity to Islam, from Baha’i to Zoroastrianism, and from indigenous spirituality to humanist existentialism, this is like a golden thread running through civilizations, like a single figure in a complex carpet interwoven by the diverse cultures on our blue planet. 

The Golden Rule is a tenet that advises us to treat others as we would want them to treat us. Its nondual wisdom of seeing others as not different from ourselves clears our view. And it’s an agreement: we are all in this together. This reintroduces us to our relationality. Our personal experiences of it will vary, of course. For instance, anyone routinely mistreated could have more experiential insight into it than me. Yet the value of the Golden Rule doesn’t vary. It’s one truth, with multiple applications. Its value becomes bankable when we realize that it begins with us. Setting intention from such an active, awakened perspective surely results in our becoming better people. 

To identify with other beings as closely as you do yourself . . . world peace, as simple as that. 

 

mindfulness trainings 

With vigorous motivation as a base and the Golden Rule as our pole star, we look for training. How can we clarify and apply our intentions in daily life? Fortunately, we inherit classic precedents. For example, all three Abrahamic religions teach ten primary precepts.* We might boil these down into five themes: 

1 Reverence for life 

2 Generosity 

3 Love 

4 Communication 

5 Sobriety 

 

Some mindfulness practitioners review these every morning, perhaps from a sheet of paper by the bathroom mirror that might read something like this: 

On behalf of myself and all beings, I intend to refrain from consciously hurting anyone. 

I intend to refrain from overtly or covertly taking what is not mine. 

I intend to abstain from sexuality that is exploitive or abusive. 

I intend to be sure that my speech is kind as well as true. 

I intend to refrain from addictive behaviors that confuse my mind and lead to heedlessness. 

 

Such mindfulness trainings outline a gold standard against which we can measure truth, and our responsibility to it, for regular review. I’d like to share a version as envisioned and revisioned over the years by Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village community. They’re invaluable for studying, observing, and realizing our aspirations to become warm, trustworthy, authentic human beings, for ourselves and others. I consider them as my universal survival kit. As you’ll see, they’re quite contemporary. They serve as sturdy, dynamic, daily points of departure for awakening mindfulness. 

My weekly circle reads and discusses them every full moon. Thousands of mindfulness practitioners engage them regularly. Please offer them your serene mind, your open heart, and a reflective ear, open to what resonates within. 

 

The Five Mindfulness Trainings of Thich Nhat Hanh

THE FIRST MINDFULNESS TRAINING Reverence for Life 

Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life. Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, nondiscrimination, and nonattachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world. 

THE SECOND MINDFULNESS TRAINING True Happiness 

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others, and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering; that true happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion; and that running after wealth, fame, power, and sensual pleasures can bring much suffering and despair. I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy. I am committed to practicing Right Livelihood so that I can help reduce the suffering of living beings on Earth and reverse the process of global warming. 

THE THIRD MINDFULNESS TRAINING True Love 

Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. Knowing that sexual desire is not love, and that sexual activity motivated by craving always harms myself as well as others, I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without true love and a deep, long-term commitment made known to my family and friends. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. Seeing that body and mind are one, I am committed to learning appropriate ways to take care of my sexual energy and cultivating lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and inclusiveness — which are the four basic elements of true love — 

for my greater happiness and the greater happiness of others. Practicing true love, we know that we will continue beautifully into the future. 

THE FOURTH MINDFULNESS TRAINING Loving Speech and Deep Listening 

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening in order to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic and religious groups, and nations. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope. When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak. I will practice mindful breathing and walking in order to recognize and to look deeply into my anger. I know that the roots of anger can be found in my wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in myself and in the other person. I will speak and listen in a way that can help myself and the other person to transform suffering and see the way out of difficult situations. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord. I will practice Right Diligence to nourish my capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness and gradually transform the anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in my consciousness. 

THE FIFTH MINDFULNESS TRAINING Nourishment and Healing 

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will practice looking deeply into how I consume the Four Kinds of Nutriments, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products that contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing, and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past nor letting anxieties, fear, or craving pull me out of the present moment. I am determined not to try to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or other suffering by losing myself in consumption. I will contemplate interbeing and consume in a way that preserves peace, joy, and well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society, and the Earth. 

 

trainings for a creative, fulfilling, beneficial lifestyle

Mindfulness trainings are voluntary, pragmatic, and relational. They resonate harmoniously with equivalents found in a range of spiritual traditions. Yet they’re bottom-up, rather than top-down. Lived experience rather than dogma or decree is their standard. They’re not motivated by punishment or reward but by self-improvement. 

Each training is titled with a primary virtue, an aspiration for the best within each of us. Then each begins in recognizing how suffering is always present from the get-go, implicitly, to be understood and transformed. Each also points us toward what’s beneficial and steers us away from what’s harmful. In reality, wholesome and unwholesome are marbled together. So there’s healthy wisdom in maintaining a nondual perspective that sees how one implies the other, as two sides of the same coin. 

Of course, situations are not always clear-cut. We may not always know what to do. Still, we have models to draw upon. We can apply our natural goodness as recognized in previous situations to current similar situations by extension. What’s useful in a traffic jam (patience, for instance) may also apply at an office meeting. This process implies ethics can be a lifestyle of continual creative discovery. 

 

look around

Mindfulness isn’t necessarily about awakening within our interior life only. Otherwise it might be considered merely navel-gazing. Awakening wisdom teaches me how my exterior and interior life are not separate. What happens in the world is happening within me, and vice versa. A committed, engaged practice of mindfulness invites me to observe and work with the imbalances implicit in social relations. Social conditions often require proper study for skillful observation and practice to take place. Independent scholar Ed Ng has deftly articulated some of these conditions as “personal exposure to vulnerability, uneven material conditions, power relations, and my position in all of it.” Mindfulness practice provides a safe space of refuge in which I can awaken, and stay woke, to such themes in my lived world. 

And mindfulness shows me how hope need not be just an emotion or belief, but a conscious course of action, for confirmation. Without such hope, I don’t know how I would survive. 

 

a path with a heart

Awakening mindfulness takes courage. And in the root of the word courage we can hear the French word for heart: coeur. So mindfulness trainings encourage us to listen fearlessly to our heart. In setting intention, I ground myself in my breathing to be in touch with my body’s heart, where I feel my intentions usually connect from; my actions tend to connect from my physical center, below my navel. Awareness of vital body centers leads me away from the concept that everything’s happening in my cranium. 

Sincere and truthful, heartful and wise, mindfulness trainings open us to healing and transformation, for ourselves and our relations. For instance, the trainings encourage us to notice where we hurt. Too often we flinch and look away from our suffering or hide it under a bandage or medicate it or fill it up with stuff. Easy ways out. They’re the status quo of a mass culture of entertainment, which discounts true virtue and preys instead on greed and fear, cynicism and despair. Yet it’s our soft spots of vulnerability that reveal to us our heart, our core capacity for true goodness. If we don’t resist confronting our hurts but recognize and even contend with them, here’s where we “build our humanity and keep it alive,” as author Maxine Hong Kingston puts it. 

If these trainings don’t provoke questions, listen deeper. For instance, what does “reverence for life” say about war? Abortion? Vegetarianism? Might “being made known to family and friends” compromise a gay relationship that doesn’t want to be outed? Is a recreational drug alright if it doesn’t contain toxins? And so on. Mindfulness trainings are to be wrestled with, tested through action, then viewed in the mirror of life’s continual, creative feedback. This means to study, observe, and practice being human. No more, no less.

 

speaking from personal experience

I’ve incorporated mindfulness trainings into my regular routine formally since 1996. I can attest to their being one of the most concrete ways I know of practicing mindfulness. I never fail to marvel at how closely integrated their guidelines are for the development of both my moral values and my consciousness, and how powerful this can be for overcoming suffering. I might add that Thich Nhat Hanh uses “trainings” as another word the Buddha used besides “precepts” to describe these practices. 

I’d like to give the last word here on precepts, in general, to my dear contemporary Frank Ostaseski, who defines his own five precepts for service as “invitations.” (That works too.) Cofounder of America’s first Buddhist hospice, he’s gone on to become a world-class teacher for all of us wanting to know what death can teach us about living fully. Leading retreats, he often begins with traditional precepts. He explains: 

Mindfulness does not set us free . . . wisdom does. So it’s helpful to have a basis for wisdom, and ethics can be such a support. Also the mindfulness develops our understanding of the precepts, and so there is this symbiotic exchange between precepts and mindfulness practice. Finally there is power in a vow, which is what the precepts are . . . a way of living by vow. They strengthen commitment, which gives rise to faith, which generates increased energy, which supports mindfulness, which deepens calmness, which allows for the cultivation of insight and developing wisdom. 

 

*The Hebrew for the “Ten Commandments” is Aseret HaDibbrot — the ten sayings, utterances, or statements. The word dibbrot itself bears no connotation of punishment or reward. You could say it’s the way the Beloved has of showing us the way things are (so follow the Way). 

 

From Pause, Breathe, Smile: Awakening Mindfulness When Meditation Is Not Enough by Gary Gach / Sounds True / September 2018/ Reprinted by permission of publisher.

“A lovely offering of wisdom, practices, and kindness to help foster a mindful life and a compassionate heart.”  – JACK KORNFIELD author of No Time Like the Present

 

 

 

 

About Gary Gach

Gary Gach has been hosting Zen Mindfulness Fellowship weekly in San Francisco for ten years now. He’s also author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buddhism and editor of What Book!? – Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop. His work has appeared in Atlantic, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, In These Times, Lilipoh, Mindfulness Bell, The Nation, Utne, Words without Borders, and Yoga Journal. Currently inviting community for those interested in amplifying the conversation around regenerative economics among religious, faith-based, and spiritual communities. Please visit his author page [ http://GaryGach.com ] or contact him at Gary.Gach@Gmail.com 

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Decoding the Trump Virus

Essay Media Literacy

Decoding the Trump Virus


“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” – James Baldwin

Last summer, while traveling in Europe, I noticed that every newspaper and most television channels carried images and statements of and by Donald Trump. I could not help thinking it was probably the same in most parts of the world. Here was Trump as U.S. President, former reality TV star and master twitterer, dominating the international news cycle again. He has clearly become a global meme, capturing humanity’s attention and drawing psychic energy from millions of people hanging on his every word and action. What impact does this have on us and what power does it give him? I think it is safe to say that few individuals in history have had such a broad impact on global consciousness.

A media virus is an image or act which is so outrageous that it bypasses our ordinary rational filters. The mass murders in El Paso or the threat of a nuclear attack on North Korea by Trump in a 140 character tweet, grabs our attention and lames our critical faculties. As Douglas Rushkoff, the media critic, states in Team Human:

the amazing thing is that it doesn’t matter what side of an issue people are on for them to be infected by the meme and provoked to replicate it. “Look at what this person said!” is reason enough to spread it. In the contentious social media surrounding our elections, the most racist and sexist memes are reposted less by their advocates than by their outraged opponents. That’s because memes do not compete for dominance by appealing to our intellect, our compassion, or anything to do with our humanity. They compete to trigger our most automatic impulses.”1

This, the ‘Trump meme’ most certainly does, generating great loathing or fierce adulation – and seldom much in between.

For some years I have attempted to be a conscious witness of our times, attending to how I work with local, national and international events and reflecting on how those events effect my soul and spirit. This journey has both an outer and an inner dimension. The outer dimension includes how I work with the news, which news sources with what frequency I attend to, and how I spend my time and resources as a citizen, activist and donor.

The inner dimension involves balancing the forces of withdrawal and engagement that live within me so that I am not overwhelmed by the tragedies of the immigrants at our southern border or the African migrants drowning in the Mediterranean. Nor am I pulled too much in the direction of fleeing the world altogether and focusing exclusively on my friends, my reading, or my garden.

It also entails sifting my life experiences and inner soul moods as important sources of insight into the morality and truthfulness of news sources, political and economic elites, and governmental pronouncements. By this conscious practice, I sensed that the Bush administration and Colin Powell were not telling the truth about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq prior to our invasion of that country in 2003, and I had a sinking feeling in my stomach when James Comey announced a renewed FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton’s e-mail servers eleven days before the election of 2016.

I think that a feeling for truth lives deeply within each person if we learn to listen to it and that all human beings have a sense of conscience and morality which ultimately offers the only true basis for political, social and spiritual discernment at a time of severe media manipulation. Learning to listen to this inner voice of discernment, however, requires that we create moments for quiet contemplation and reflection every day. The experience of inner development through the practice of mindfulness and meditation supports our truth-sensing.

When I inwardly listen to our President’s pronouncements or see his blue-suited image on the news, (in short when I am attending to the Trump meme), I discern quite different levels of response and insight in my soul. At the most obvious feeling-level there is my annoyance and irritation with this blowhard. When I push a little further I begin to come in touch with something else, which I will call the ‘Trump in me’; my vanity, my distortion of the truth, my desire for the approval and adulation of others, my desire for power and wealth, my lingering racism and misogyny as a straight, well-educated, elderly white male. This part of me is of course only one aspect of my being, part of my shadow, activated by the Trump meme.

We either loathe him for revealing that part of ourselves and our society to us, or we might be drawn to him because he puts us in touch with this cruder, more passionate side of our lower self. At another level still, Trump is the perfect manifestation of the American shadow, distorting the open, idealistic, egalitarian, caring and democratic nature of the American spirit into its opposite persona: a power seeking, egotistical, narcissistic, lying, fear mongering, crude and highly manipulative salesman, who stokes our fears while seeking to dominate others. He is for many foreigners the fitting image of the Ugly American. Much of our recent history with its endless wars, its extreme inequality of wealth, its chauvinism, racism, and corruption of politics through dark money is an institutional expression of this shadow dimension of American life.

I see bringing these different dimensions of the Trump meme to my consciousness as a mindfulness exercise. In paying attention, I free myself from my automatic emotional responses, my gut reactions, and can choose when I pay attention to him and when not. I have, for the most part, disempowered the Trump meme in my soul, and am much more able to focus on the real damage he is doing to the environment, to our international trade and alliance structure, to immigrants and to race relations. Most importantly I seldom now expend much psychic energy on him, depriving him of the attention he needs to unfold his antics and to undermine our American experiment in democracy. If more people would disinfect their soul from the Trump meme we would all remember that “America is the fact, the symbol and the promise of a new beginning,”as the American historian and philosopher Jacob Needleman noted so eloquently.2)

 

____________________________________________________________

1) Douglas Ruskoff, Team Human, W.W. Norton &Co., N.Y. 2019 p.35

2) Jacob Needleman, The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, Tarcher/Putnam, N.Y. 2002, p.19

About Christopher Schaefer

Christopher Schaefer Ph. D. is a retired adult educator, community development adviser, and social activist living in the Berkshires. He has been on an inner journey for many decades and has had a lifelong involvement with Waldorf education. He is the author of a number of books, most recently, Re-Imagining America : Finding Hope in Difficult Times, available from www.hawthornpress.com, and from Amazon and Steinerbooks, after October 1, 2019.

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Big Lazy | Music for Unsettling Times

Music Soundscape

Big Lazy | Music for Unsettling Times


Cover Photo | Marco North

Stephen Ulrich is a guitar player, composer and leader of the band Big Lazy. Big Lazy is an instrumental trio from New York City. Their music dwells in the unmistakable landscape of gritty yet gracefully crafted American music. Simultaneously noir and pastoral, gothic and modern, Big Lazy conjures images of everything from big sky country to seedy back rooms. With sparse instrumentation—electric guitar, acoustic bass and drums—the trio creates richly evocative soundscapes with a distinctly narrative quality and an undeniable sense of place.  

Stephen composed music for the HBO series Bored To Death and more recently, the film Art and Craft.

Filmed in Brooklyn, NY and Moscow, Russia | Director/Camera/Editorial - Marco North

Kosmos | Stephen, what did you want to be when you were growing up?

Stephen Ulrich | Music was always a natural place that I thought I might end up. When I was a little kid, I remember looking at the Beatles’ album, Rubber Soul, and thinking they made it for us personally, that there was one album and it was for our family. I also loved the album cover itself. It could have been shot in our driveway, the pine trees, it just felt like a family portrait or something. That’s the connection I had to music. Playing music started relatively late, at 13. I thought about being an anonymous studio musician because those are the kind of people I studied with. Guys like Sal Salvador, legendary guitarist in New York, part of the RCA Orchestra. Not a rock star, but just earning a living playing music.

Kosmos | What influenced you to focus on instrumental music?

Photo | Matt Carr

SU | I studied and played jazz, and that’s where I was headed. My mentor, Sal Salvador, taught in a dusty back room in the Ed Sullivan Theater and instrumental music became part of my DNA. I listened to Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery, classic stuff. I got into punk rock because I felt like jazz was somebody else’s music. Punk was the music of my generation. The incident that turned us into an instrumental band was a gig at CBGB’s Gallery in 1998. We had been working with a singer, Dino Ray, again reinventing by putting words to these dark, atmospheric tunes. The singer didn’t show but we went on anyway. Suddenly, it just felt natural. Within the first song, the crowd came right to us. It was a random act but it wasn’t an accident. Playing strictly instrumentals felt like a bit of a curse at first but it evolved into more of a blessing because now I license music and I write for films. 

Kosmos | I’ve heard listeners describe your music as ‘the soundtrack to my life’. It connects at a visceral level with people who are experiencing turmoil in their lives. There is a raw honesty at the core of your work.

SU | Thank you. Yeah, the music is not consoling. It’s saying, ‘everything’s open and everything’s gray, not black and white’. The songs don’t have a happy ending. They don’t have a sad ending. You get to make up your own ending. I also get the description ‘good driving music’. It’s about the trip – telephone poles passing – not necessarily the arrival. There’s an element of human resistance and the power to act when you can actually write your own script.  

Kosmos | There’s a yearning in the music, and also in your performance of it.

SU | There is an unresolved quality to the music which gives it a sense of danger but also sadness. Most of the tunes are in minor keys and to our Western ears the minor key lacks resolution. That quality of danger attracts film makers to use the music in dramatic situations. What I love about composing music is I’m using math – music theory – to affect people’s emotions. 

We’ve gotten much better at performing this music over the years. It’s not exactly party music, although people do dance at our shows, but it does celebrate life and a has a how-goes-the-struggle? element. 

Kosmos | Who are your fans?

SU | We have this new generation of punky kids that like the band and come to shows. They remind me of myself, approaching bands in 1980. When we were on NPR years ago, 1999, or thereabouts, on the show Weekend Edition which aired on Sunday mornings, I received thousands of letters. Thousands. I still have them, – they’re in boxes. The letters were from a whole variety of people. NASA people ordered the CD. Farmers, cops, film makers, skate punks, just the craziest mix of people. Maybe that’s NPR but I felt like the music struck this chord with people, and it just went across the whole spectrum. 

Kosmos |  That is archived at NPR.  Here is a link 

SU | Ooh thanks – I need this.

Kosmos | What is the role of the artist in these precarious times?

SU | People have told me this music enabled them to write their own script. I suppose that could sound like escapism, but it could also be about taking control. In that sense, there is an element of understated compassion to the music. The world’s just held together with duct tape right now. It’s hard to not be political personally, but in my music, it’s more of a crusade to stay free and not be beholden to these powers. The word noir is used a lot in our music. What is noir and what does that mean? It literally means darkness. It could be guys in trench coats but actually, I think the music has an underdog quality to it that appeals to people. 

Big Lazy (Stephen Ulrich, Andrew Hall and Yuval Lion): 03-27-15 Jalopy

Kosmos | The licensing of the music and the work you do scoring television and film, is that a solo project of yours, or do you do that as a band?

SU | Originally, it started out with the band licensing material. We put out a six song EP, Amnesia, and the entire album was licensed by NBC for use in the crime drama Homicide: Life on the Street. We also appeared performing onstage in an episode. Later, I wrote the music for the HBO series Bored to Death. The director, Alan Taylor, was a fan of the band and he used a bunch of songs in the pilot. HBO was like, “Let’s just hire this guy whose music we are already using.” It led to some odd moments where HBO would want me to copy ( industry term: ‘knock-off’) my own composition! The initial interest in licensing came from the band, but as far as scoring for film and televison, I’m a one-man operation. I do however bring the guys in to play on them.

Kosmos | Is scoring different than making songs for records?

SU | Totally different. When composing for an album I’m relatively free, but film composing is all about being in service of the film and director. At times you’re writing not so much what the actor is saying but what they’re thinking, or linking the scene to an earlier action. There’s a whole underlying structure that the viewer will sense but might not be fully conscious of. The best film music pulls you into the film emotionally; you don’t always keep track of what the score is doing. I once sent in a piece of music, and the director was having trouble with it. He commented, “This character is about to be in danger, but he’s not in danger right now. Okay, go. Send us something.” There are so many layers as opposed to writing music for an album where you’re just free.  When I’m writing for a film, they’ll say, ‘We need a tango by 4:00 p.m.’ Done! 

Kosmos | To what degree does licensing your music keep the lights on and the Big Lazy machine rolling?

SU | That’s where the money comes from, and that definitely keeps things moving, especially for me because I have a very large catalog of music that is used in a lot of different places.

Kosmos | As leader of Big Lazy, do you feel like the business guy, the conductor, the producer, the artist, the guitar slinger or all of the above?

SU | It’s more like cheerleader, cab driver and production designer. I’m constantly the one that says things like, “We’re going to drive 400 miles, but it’s going to be an amazing transformative night.” We’re a band of good friends. They love what we do, but I have to sell them on stuff. The music is obviously front and center but there’s also the presentation, the aesthetic, how everything’s defined, the fonts, just crazy detail.  

Kosmos | It’s funny because on the cover of that early EP you referred to, is a picture of you wearing a bunch of hats.

SU | That’s funny, yeah. I never thought of that!  

Kosmos |  As part of a group, was it difficult to define and refine your low-fi film noir style?  Was this something you had to sell them on or did the band members contribute to that?

SU |  The original band was called Mild Thing, it was me, Paul Dugan on bass and singer Mark Rounds. This was 1990. We played despairing but humorous drinking songs. We added drummer Willie Martinez, Mark left us and we became Lazy Boy, playing moody instrumentals with too much reverb. We started dabbling in writing music for films and touring. The touring experience made us into more of a rock band, I was just feeling the need to make a racket instead of playing music that made people stare into their drink. The music became less theatrical and more visceral. In 1999 we were sued by the La-Z-Boy chair company for copyright infringement and with the addition of drummer Tamir Muskat, we became Big Lazy. We cultivated a kind of raw, bluesy sound full of fire and recorded 4 albums. After a hiatus starting in 2007 I reignited the band with Yuval Lyon (drums) and Andrew Hall (bass). The lo-fi film noir style was a slow and painful evolution!    

Kosmos |  Growing up in the punk rock era, we used to plaster the town with our DIY  posters to create a visual and a band awareness and announce gigs. Has social media made things different for getting the word out now as opposed to how we did it back in the day?

SB |  I’ll never forget that feeling of having a big stapler and an armful of flyers, and making Xeroxed artwork. I did that in early Big Lazy. Nowadays, with social media, everyone’s posting pictures of their sandwich. I use it sparingly. It’s really helpful if you have a gig in Nashville and you need to contact people. On the other hand, I feel like I’m taking part in the Evil Empire. It’s supposed to be about reaching people but there’s all these strange limits to it.  

Kosmos | Do you feel like social media is helping you to build a community of fans?

SU | Yes, but in a way, email feels a little more respectful. “Here, we’re playing. If you want to come, you can come. You don’t have to respond.” A lot of what we do is completely done on our own. It’s just another tool. 

Kosmos | To what degree has crowdfunding and crowdsourcing provided artistic freedom for your band?

SU | It’s not that different for us. We’ve never been beholden to a record company in terms of what we do artistically. What I did with both crowdfunding campaigns was, I individually emailed 2,000 people. Each time, it took me a month. That’s been the most connective thing I’ve done in terms of social media. I actually had hundreds of conversations with people through email, sometimes on the phone. In that way, it was a transformative thing, connecting to everybody directly. 

Paul Dugan, Tamir Muskat, Stephen Ulrich | Photos ©Jen Fong
Photo | Ramon Martinez

Kosmos | Where do you go when you perform music. Can you describe your inner landscape at all? 

Stephen Ulrich: When I write a tune, I almost always have this sense of place where the tune the piece lives. It could be my mother’s attic, or a parking lot that I was in once but somehow, the piece dwells in a specific location that haunts the song for the rest of it’s life! So I have a faint sense of that place when I’m performing. On a great night I just walk off stage and think to myself, “Where was I for the last hour?” 

Kosmos |  Nice. You have a new album coming out too, right? 

SU | We do!  It’s called Dear Trouble. It’s coming out in mid-October and we’re really excited. We brought in a bunch of New York luminary musicians as featured guests; Marc Ribot, Steven Bernstein, Peter Hess and woman named Marlysse Rose Simmons who’s a keyboardist.  Checkered Past Records in Chicago is putting it out. It’s actually the first time we’ve used a label.

Kosmos |  What about touring or gigs in support of that?  Any immediate plans?

SU | Initially, we’re doing Northeast states; Philly, Boston, New York, New Haven, Connecticut. We just did a southern tour and we have plans to go to France in the spring.

Kosmos | Thank you Stephen. Just to leave you with a thought regarding the power that you wield, I found a quote by Ludwig van Beethoven. He said, the guitar is a miniature orchestra in itself. I thought, ‘Wow. That sounds like Stephen.’

SU | That’s great!  Thank you!

VISIT | http://www.biglazymusic.com/

About Kari Auerbach

Kari Auerbach is Music Editor at Kosmos Quarterly. She grew up all over the world learning about music and working as a jewelry designer. Currently living in New York City, she is social media director for several recording artists and a jewelry instructor for the New York Institute of Art and Design. She enjoys her many roles as a teacher, artist, mother, mentor, as well as advocating for artists, children, and a better, cleaner world.

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Restoring the Housatonic River Walk

Article Stewardship

Restoring the Housatonic River Walk


How many downtowns have a native habitat component, buzzing with pollinators and the soothing voice of a river? A few may come to mind, but how many have been restored to an indigenous ecosystem without a single drop of herbicide or fertilizer, while also maintaining their place in human history, both industrial and social, all the while receiving over 12,000 visits per year? The Great Barrington Housatonic River Walk is a feat of vision and restoration. Where there was once an impenetrable tangle of bittersweet atop centuries of debris and neglect, forming a wall between life in Great Barrington and the River that runs through it, nearly 200 species of native plants now thrive alongside an accessible walking trail. The ongoing creation of River Walk also speaks to the human element. It marks the confluence of ecological renewal, environmental and social justice, the underpinnings of the industrial revolution, and the vitality of a downtown. Few, if any, ecological restoration projects can say the same. River Walk is a prototype for awareness on many levels.

                    

The River Walk Ecosystem

In order to understand the ecological processes that are alive and well at River Walk, and what makes this piece of the Berkshires remarkable, we will start with the question: what is an ecosystem? Ecosystems are communities of species interacting with the physical components of a distinct area. Nutrients cycle through the animal, plant, fungal, microbial, and non-living features of an ecosystem. “Ecological processes” are the pathways by which energy flows between these “trophic levels”—the levels of the food chain.

An ecosystem can be large or small. For example, we can broadly describe the ecosystem of the forests of western Massachusetts. Or we can differentiate between the suite of species along ridgelines, those inhabiting floodplains, and the various communities in between. To illustrate further, the ecosystem of a particular pond is different from that of the stream that feeds it, which itself is ecologically distinct from the surrounding forest; and yet, these ecosystems are linked and interdependent.

River Walk is a “riparian” (riverside) ecosystem, delineated by its physical boundaries: the paved, human footprint along one side, and the Housatonic River on the other. River Walk, in its current restored state, cycles energy and nutrients through a thriving community of native woody and herbaceous plants. Like any ecosystem, it receives input from the sun, as well as the river, precipitation, and the animals that move through. Inorganic elements are taken up by the living layer and assimilated into organic molecules. Eventually they return to the soil and water in inorganic forms, available for another round through the biota.

From Neglected to Vibrant

Before settlement of the Town of Great Barrington, what is now River Walk was a floodplain, absorbing the River’s changing water levels and movements. Today, much of River Walk exists on artificial fill, debris deposited by townsfolk over the course of hundreds of years, well before River Walk’s creation. The fill expanded the town’s buildable downtown area but left the River without the room it needs to expand and contract naturally. This constrained path accelerates the River’s flow speed and increases the bank’s vulnerability to scouring. River Walk depends on experts who are skilled in shoring up the banks organically, using fibrous “logs” and native vegetation. In this way, River Walk pushes the concept of “ecosystem” into a new realm: its restored, native riparian habitat depends on bioengineering.

Once the Town of Great Barrington was established, the banks of the Housatonic continued to receive debris. As W.E.B. Du Bois famously said at a local meeting in 1930, the Town had “turned its back upon the River.” Thirty years later, Du Bois wrote: “the town had made a sewer of the beautiful Housatonic River, instead of the park it might have been.”

In 1988, although the wall of bittersweet obscured the River, and the riverbank was unrecognizable as a resource, 16 volunteers took the leap of faith. They began by removing 15 tons of garbage and demolition rubble. They unearthed an array of items: plumbing parts, tractor tires, and roofing materials, to name a few. The following year, 70 local eighth graders, their school adjacent to the River, continued this extraordinary feat. By 1990, the number of volunteers had grown into an army of 109 gloved and determined townsfolk. They removed another 82 tons of debris and garbage, mostly consisting of the torched remains of Melvin’s Prescription Pharmacy, which had been pushed over the bank after burning down in 1978. Similar efforts continued, year after year, and annually to this day.

“Rescue the Housatonic and clean it as we have never in all the years thought before of cleaning it…” Du Bois said in 1930. It took a while, but today, the cumulative number of volunteers for River Walk exceeds 3,100, and the removed debris totals over 400 tons. Neighbors no longer live adjacent to a “sewer.” Now, thousands of townsfolk and visitors have a view of the River and easy access to a walking trail through native habitat.

Life downstream from Great Barrington has improved as well. River Walk has transformed the way runoff is delivered to the River. Rain and snowmelt once ran directly into the Housatonic, picking up road salt, rubber and metal deposits from tire wear, dust and sand, antifreeze and engine oil, pesticides and fertilizers, and litter. Now the runoff has a chance to stop and rest, allowing the sediment to settle and the oil to separate out. The walking trail is composed of a permeable mix of gravel and soil stabilizers. Drop inlets, a rain garden, increased permeability of the soils, flow forms, and a healthy vegetative layer have restored the rapport between the town and the River that gave rise to it. Every ecosystem and town downstream receives fewer pollutants as a result.

Benchmarks of Ecological Health

Like the transformation of the quality of water entering the River, species richness and diversity indices have changed dramatically since the creation of River Walk. A handful of invasive species—Japanese bittersweet, knotweed, garlic mustard—once dominated River Walk, outcompeting native herbaceous plants and adversely impacting existing trees and shrubs. Now, over 170 native herbaceous and woody plants are established at River Walk. The success of new plantings is no longer a struggle against impoverished soils and encroaching invasive plants, as it was for the first decades of River Walk’s creation.

Ecosystems often are evaluated by their “connectivity.” Any parcel of habitat is more ecologically valuable if it connects to other habitats, or to larger tracts of intact upland or wetland. Before River Walk, downtown Great Barrington fragmented the riparian habitats to the north and south. Today, River Walk provides a steppingstone between those habitats. Seventy-five species of birds have been observed at River Walk—a clear indication of its success as a stopover for foraging, nesting, or finding shelter.

Linking the large natural areas to the north and south can have a synergistic effect. Habitat connectivity gives rare species of the Housatonic a greater chance of remaining viable and maybe even increasing their populations. Species such as the Creeper Mussel and the Wood Turtle can move from one area to another and interbreed, increasing the likelihood that the gene pool remains robust and resilient.

By acting as a steppingstone where there was once a missing link, River Walk’s contribution to the Housatonic ecosystem is many times greater than its footprint. Imagine a Luna Moth, or a Little Brown Bat, or a Cedar Waxwing moving along the river corridor. Envision the difference it makes to find a contiguous stretch of perch sites, nectar, native berries, and prey. Now try to imagine the turtle’s perspective. Consider how a paved-over human imprint impedes migration and dispersal for non-airborne critters. Indeed, Snapping Turtles have nested successfully in River Walk’s now fertile soil, ensuring connectivity across time, between generations.

Human Ecology

River Walk is unlike other riparian ecosystems in many ways. In order to convey a complete and accurate picture of its interrelationships and energy cycling, we need to look beyond textbook ecological processes and include the human element. Educators, historical figures, removers of debris and invasive plants, installers of riverbank reinforcement, cultivators of native plants, and many others are all vital to River Walk’s energy flow. River Walk exists thanks to human feats of native planting, bioengineering, clean-up, persistence, and vision.

Then and Now: Images of the Housatonic River Walk

At River Walk, pollination extends beyond insects and birds. River Walk was founded by the seeding of ideas across time—by the words of W.E.B. Du Bois in 1930 landing with River Walk founder Rachel Fletcher, some 60 years later. As River Walk’s students, interns, and fleets of volunteers disperse into new fields and jobs, their ecological know-how travels with them and seeds ideas in other communities. Think of milkweed seeds riding the wind currents.

Cross-pollination at River Walk includes a relationship to human innovation and industrial history. One section of trail celebrates William Stanley, a founding father of the modern electrical age, whose experimental laboratory stood across the River. Stanley’s innovations, powered by the flow of the Housatonic, advanced electricity as we know it. However, the PCBs that would come to insulate his alternating-current transformers contaminated the River. River Walk incorporates this ironic confluence, so that visitors are reminded of our impact on the planet and the need for stewardship. Further, River Walk provides a laboratory for current issues of sustainability, where we can measure the success of eradicating invasive plants without chemicals, or monitor the recovery of depleted soils, among many other opportunities.

 River Walk expands our definitions of species richness and diversity to incorporate the human element and the span of generations. A memorial to W.E.B. Du Bois, engineer of the civil rights movement on a national and global scale, rests adjacent to a memorial to Monica Schultz Fadding, local architect of the planting and propagation schemes that brought the riverbank back to life.

River Walk pushes the concept of habitat connectivity into a new realm, uniting ecological concepts with urban planning know-how. Great Barrington’s Main Street is roughly parallel to River Walk, and a mere 800 feet away at the farthest point. In minutes, we can walk from sidewalks and storefronts to the solace of a river and its living bank. We can cycle back through downtown, and do it over again, like minerals traveling through the biota of an ecosystem, our souls nourished by the flow.

As you course through, stop to take in a layer or two, the buzz of insects on native plants, the settling turbulence in the rain garden, the mindset of inventors and visionaries past, or the comfort of a turtle nest buried in the soft bank.

…a Conversation with Rachel Fletcher and Christine Ward

Rachel Fletcher is River Walk’s founding Director. She led the project for 30 years before retiring in 2018.

Christine Ward is the current Director. She also serves as a board member for the Great Barrington Land Conservancy, which has partnered with River Walk in the past.

Kosmos | Rachel, can you give us a brief history of the Housatonic River Walk? How did it come to be, and how have you been involved in the project?

Rachel | River Walk began in 1988 with a small backyard clean-up behind the offices of a local land trust, where remains of a burned-out building had been pushed over the Housatonic Riverbank in the center of town. Over the next 30 years, the original crew of 16 volunteers grew to more than 3000. In exchange for more clean-ups, eight different properties granted permanent public access and permission to build a half-mile of hand-crafted trail.

Over time, people from all walks of life transformed the once devastated stretch of riverbank into a natural, healthy ecosystem. Together, they made a place where the remarkable stories of W.E.B. Du Bois, William Stanley, and others could be told. River Walk became a National Recreational Trail, a site on the region’s African American Heritage Trail, an outdoor classroom, a laboratory for assessing best practices, and a local treasure.

Thirty years may seem like a long time to build a trail, but we have learned that the complete and sustained transformation of a site such as ours takes time and requires persistent, but discrete intervention, rather than massive quick fixes. Like slow food and slow money, the slow place-making that occurs at River Walk ensures our improvements will last. That the work requires many hands guarantees the community’s enduring involvement.

I recently retired from River Walk, having kept the ball in play as its founding director for 30 years.

Kosmos | In regards to the general population of Great Barrington, can you explain how aware the community is of this project and the important role it plays in their daily lives?

Rachel | In the early days, on almost any Saturday, dozens of community volunteers could be seen hauling rubble from the bank or hauling in stone to build the trail. A visitor walking the trail could look a few feet ahead and appreciate the remarkable transformation taking place on the next new section. We strove to bring everyone to the bank, if only to pick up a single piece of trash, so the River would never be trashed again. We don’t turn our backs on the River anymore.

The massive work of trail building is largely complete, and the riverbank’s natural habitat is coming into its own, with guidance from landscape gardener Heather Cupo. River Walk’s new director, Christine Ward, is reconnecting the public with the natural world through dozens of educational programs and activities for families. River Walk remains a laboratory for testing new biotechniques in habitat reclamation and riverbank stabilization. We look for ways to deliver clean water to the River whenever we can. The volunteer workdays continue, but the trail’s daily maintenance is largely in the hands of Greenager interns. Mentored by Elia Del Molino, they are learning the skills they need to be our stewards of the future.

Kosmos | It was mentioned in Suzie’s essay that over 3,000 volunteers have assisted with the River Walk over the years. Do you have any ideas as to what motivators have played a part in calling the community to action?

Rachel | The most significant motivator is the call of the River itself. Besides that, River Walk offers all of us the chance to envision and shape what we want our River and its banks to be. Everything is designed to be built and accomplished by hand, using noninvasive, labor-intensive methods, so that young people and citizens from all walks of life can be a part of its making.

Kosmos | The essay also outlines the negative impacts of human activity on the River’s ecosystems. To others who are interested in starting similar projects in their own localities, what wisdom can you offer to assist them in their journeys?

Rachel | Human interaction with the natural world doesn’t have to be adversarial. We can learn to be aware of our actions, modify our habits, and seek ways to remedy the impacts of unconscious behavior. We can and we must.

Preservation often aims to protect a natural resource by removing it from human contact. River Walk takes the opposite approach. By reconnecting people to the Housatonic River and reclaiming a discarded natural resource, once abandoned to industry, we instill a new ecological ethic.

Rivers the world over invite us to appreciate their profound historic and existential meaning. They are places of wildlife habitat, native flora, vistas and views, avenues of transport, geological formation, wetland and floodplain ecology, historic and prehistoric patterns of human settlement, and local legend. Thirty years of ground truthing at River Walk have taught us that humans can learn to interact beneficially with the natural world, as we:

  • focus on discarded riverfront spaces, once the heart and soul of our cities and towns, while leaving nature’s untouched places to remain forever wild
  • create riverfront experiences uniquely our own
  • engage the community in determining the River’s fate
  • design riverfront trails with the health of the River as our first priority
  • provide meaningful interactions between people and natural places
  • develop new criteria for town planning with a nod to history, ecology, and healthy human encounters.

Kosmos | Lastly, what does the future look like for the Housatonic River Walk?

Christine | The work at River Walk is ongoing. Our now-thriving native habitat depends upon maintaining the continued effort needed to beat back invasive species challenging many sections of the River, and to continue to foster the conditions needed by our native flora. Our trail is a vehicle for community members and students to explore our many connections to the River and to join in its care and advocacy. Our work, as always, keeps the River’s health to heart and requires a dedicated community in order to be sustained.

Kosmos | Are there plans for expansion or other projects in the area?

Christine | Yes, River Walk is the premier project of Great Barrington Land Conservancy, and now, inspired and informed by this success, the Land Conservancy is moving ahead to bring a new trail that will connect to River Walk—The Riverfront Trail. The initial stages of construction of this new trail will begin this fall. This new trail will connect visitors to a long-inaccessible section of the Housatonic River. The route will bring hikers near important wildlife habitat, dramatic river and birdlife viewing areas, wetlands, and through historic agricultural and urban landmarks.

References

W.E.B. Du Bois is quoted in Berkshire Courier, July 31, 1990, and a letter to George P. Fitzpatrick, 1961, courtesy of the family of the late George P. Fitzpatrick.

About Suzanne Fowle

Suzanne Fowle lives in Housatonic, Massachusetts, a small village named for the river that runs through it. She has also lived along the Clark Fork in Missoula, Montana, the James (North Dakota), the Potomac (Washington, DC), and she grew up in the floodplain of the East and Hudson Rivers, in New York City. Suzanne is a wildlife biologist, specializing in reptiles, amphibians, ecological restoration, and her two children.

Photo | courtesy The Berkshire Edge

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Seven Practices of 'Holistic Activism'

Essay Integral

Seven Practices of ‘Holistic Activism’


A basic understanding of the holistic orientation is that the body, mind and spirit are a unity, not separate from each other; they are ongoingly inter-dependently relating. Whatever is happening in our mind effects our body; whatever happens in our body effects our mind. Further, both mind and body are nourished and regenerated by the spiritual sources of life within and around us. Body-Mind-Spirit, All One. We can be unaware of or ignore this inter-connectedness, but our life experience will move us in the direction of waking up to it.

We appear to be at such a waking-up moment collectively as a result of 1) technological developments in our ability to move about and communicate, 2) the widespread dissemination of spiritual traditions that were previously limited to small groups, 3) the growing awareness of the devastating prospect that human activity is destroying our home planet.

One aspect of waking up is a movement towards a more holistic approach to the collective agreements we make as humans and the ways we go about solving problems socially and politically. We are called to a more humble approach recognizing that the collective human species and the whole organism of the Earth has self-healing, self-regenerating qualities. Gaia theory suggests that the whole of planet Earth, as a complete living system, is always working to bring itself into balance, regenerating and restoring life, demonstrating intelligence larger than that of the human mind.

Human beings are struggling in fits and starts to open to their own wholeness and higher intelligence and that of Mother Earth and the web of life of which we are part. Viewing humanity as a species trying to find its way towards balance gives us a less judgmental and more empathic view of the political struggles that polarize and separate us.

Important in the holistic approach is our conscious attention to and cultivation of our own state of consciousness. To begin with, there is a need for us to look honestly at our own reactivity. It is possible that some people can stand in the direct face of hatred and prejudice and not be thrown off balance.  I’m not one of them and for those of us who cannot, the important thing is to be aware of our reaction, however dark, and be able to return to center. Holistic activism puts great emphasis on this process which is often missing in activist work where the focus is exclusively on the external. When we first focus on our own heart/mind posture, it gives us an opportunity to practice empathy, non-judgment and non-attachment with ourselves for own sake and for cultivating a healthy attitude to our work in the world.

From a holistic perspective, our spiritual nature is the primary source of love and empathy for ourselves, our family, humanity, other species, or Mother Earth. It is this love, however lost from our conscious awareness in the moment, which is truly at the root of our reaction to injustice, war or damage to the natural world. It’s why we care. Our frustrated, impatient, justifiably righteous, egoic self may distort this, but at the source is generosity and love. Remembering this helps shift our felt/sense, bringing us back in touch with the healing force of that love. The focus of our attention becomes healing, healing ourselves and whoever or whatever we were reacting to. We shift towards the motivation to respond to the situation creatively and skillfully.

This is the personal spiritual work which teachers of the world’s wisdom traditions and disciplines have transmitted over the millennia. Just so, the heart of holistic healing practice involves clearing our own consciousness as we develop awareness of the greater whole and its healing attributes. From this awareness we can bring attention to any particular manifestation(s) of personal or collective imbalance, dysfunction, or disease.

Moving on from the focus on one’s own consciousness, here are seven possible forms holistic activism can take:

* Support self-care and personal processing among activists.

* Encourage methods of communication that foster empathy and dialogue within activist groups. Nothing is more off-putting to those who want to take part than witnessing chronic in-fighting and power struggles in “peace & justice” organizations.

* Help activist groups incorporate practices of non-violent or compassionate communication and active listening in reaching out to influence others.

* Make use of ritual and ceremony to affirm spiritual connectedness while addressing social justice, peace or ecological concerns. Some examples are: honoring silence, rhythmic drumming, circles of heart-felt sharing, honoring nature and the elements, and prayer ceremonies.

* Connect with and support indigenous people and open to their wisdom as carriers of traditions that honor the inter-relatedness of all beings.

* Apply teachings and practices of holistic healing to the collective and global. As an example: Tibetan teacher Tai Situ Rinpoche spoke of how acupuncturists carefully place needles in points along subtle energy pathways. He then led pilgrimages to various power points on the planet where people chanted and prayed for “active peace.”

* Expand awareness to include non-local or larger spheres of reality than one’s own mind/body. We are at the very early stages of learning (or re-learning) the possibilities concerning the inter-connectedness of the many dimensions of consciousness.

To summarize: we need to spread the message that the root cause of the problems we face, including the impending disaster of climate chaos, are caused by human consciousness. We need to prioritize a conscious shift in that, starting with ourselves. While activists can learn from and adopt the spirit and practices of holistic healing, holistic healers (acupuncturists, homeopaths, therapists, body-workers, yoga, meditation teachers, etc.) need to take time applying their tools to the collective body/mind of humanity and help restore us to sanity.

About Alan Levin

Alan Levin became licensed as a psychotherapist in1985, integrating the wide scope of his work with individuals and groups. His studies and teaching have included meditation and shamanic practices for over 45 years. In 1990, he founded Holos Institute, a California non-profit corporation, in which he trained and supervised intern therapists focusing on bringing together spirituality and psychology and the study of ecopsychology. In January of 2004 he moved from the Bay Area in California to the Hudson Valley, New York and married Ginny Brooke.

He has been on the faculty of the California Institute of Integral Studies, John F. Kennedy University and the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, teaching approaches to the treatment of addiction, group therapy, Jewish Mysticism, and the integration of psycho-spiritual development with social/political involvement.

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Every Act a Ceremony

Article Intention

Every Act a Ceremony


I met a woman a few weeks ago who works with a Kogi mama, or shaman, from the Sierra Nevada of Colombia. He came to California a few years ago and performed extensive ceremonies on a particular spot of land. He said, “You’d better do a ceremony here regularly, or there will be serious fires.” No one did the ceremonies, and the next year there were forest fires. He came back afterward and repeated his warning. “If you don’t do the ceremonies, the fires will be even worse.” The next year, the fires were worse. He came again and issued his warning a third time: “Do the ceremonies or the fires in this part of the world will be worse still.” Soon after that, the Camp Fire devastated the region.

By Dwayne Reilander – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63661639
A portrait of a Koguis shaman at Ciudad Perdida, Colombia.

Later the woman found out that the spot the Kogi shaman identified was the site of a genocidal massacre of the indigenous people who lived there. He was somehow able to perceive that. In his understanding, a horrifying trauma like that affects the land in addition to human beings. It will be angry, out of balance, unable to maintain harmony until it is healed through ceremony.

Two years ago I met some Dogon priests and asked them about their views on climate change. Like the Kogi, the Dogon have kept ceremonial practices intact for thousands of years. The men said, “It isn’t what you people think. The biggest reason that the climate is going crazy is that you have removed sacred artifacts from the places where they belong, the places where they were placed with great deliberation and care, and removed them to museums in New York and London.” In their understanding, these artifacts and the ceremonies that surrounded them maintain a covenant between humans and the Earth. In exchange for the payment of beauty and attention, Earth provides an environment fit for human habitation.

Cynthia Jurs and Lama Tsultrim perform the Riwo Sang Chod fire ceremony for purification of the land.

My friend Cynthia Jurs has been holding ceremonies for a couple decades now in which she buries Earth Treasure Vases, Tibetan religious vessels made in a monastery in Nepal according to a specific ritual procedure. She learned the practice from – this sounds like a cliché but it actually happened – a 106-year-old Lama in a Himalayan cave. She had asked him, “How can I best serve the healing of the world?” He told her, “Well, any time you gather people to meditate, that has a healing effect, but if you want to do more you can bury Earth Treasure Vases.” Initially, Cynthia was disappointed with this suggestion. She was a devotee of Tibetan Buddhism and quite sure that it was a beautiful ceremony and all, but come on, there is real social and ecological damage that needs healing. People need to be organized. Systems have to change. What good will a ceremony do?

Nonetheless, she accepted the gift of a batch of vases that the Lama instructed be made in a nearby monastery. Five years later she began traveling the world to places where land and people had suffered great trauma to bury the vases according to the ceremonial instructions. In some of those places, miracles large and small would occur, including the mundane sort of social miracle such as the founding of peace centers. From what she can observe, the ceremonies work.

Ritual, Ceremony, and Materiality

How are we to understand such stories? The politically correct modern mind wants to respect other cultures, but hesitates to seriously adopt the radically different view of causality they hold. The ceremonies I speak of are in a different category from what the modern mind considers to be practical action in the world. Thus, a climate conference might begin by inviting an indigenous person to invoke the four directions, before moving on to the serious business of metrics, models, and policy.

In this essay I will explore another view of what modern people can draw from the ceremonial approach to life, as practiced by what Orland Bishop calls “cultures of memory” – traditional, indigenous, and place-based peoples, as well as esoteric lineages within the dominant culture.

This alternative is not a substitute for the rational, pragmatic approach to solving personal or social problems. Nor does it stand alongside but separate from the pragmatic approach. Nor is it a borrowing or importation of the ceremonies of other people.

It is a reunion of the ceremonial with the pragmatic built upon a profoundly different way of seeing the world.

Let’s start with a provisional distinction between ceremony and ritual. Though we may not recognize them, modern life is replete with rituals. Swiping a credit card is a ritual. Standing in line is a ritual. Medical procedures are rituals. Signing a contract is a ritual. Clicking “I agree” to the “terms and conditions” is a ritual. Filing taxes is a complicated ritual that for many people requires the aid of a priest – initiated in arcane rites and rules, fluent in a special language that the layperson can barely understand, and distinguished by the addition of honorific letters to his or her name – to properly complete. The CPA helps you execute this ritual that allows you to remain a member in good standing of society. Rituals involve the manipulation of symbols in a prescribed manner or sequence in order to maintain relationships with the social and material world.

By this definition, ritual is neither good nor bad, but merely a way that humans and other beings hold their reality together.

A ceremony, then, is a special kind of ritual. It is a ritual done in the knowledge that one is in the presence of the sacred, that holy beings are watching you, or that God is your witness.

Those whose worldview has no place for the sacred, holy beings, or God will see ceremony as superstitious nonsense or, at best, a psychological trick, useful maybe to calm the mind and focus the attention.

Now hold on. In a worldview that does have a place for the sacred, holy beings, or God isn’t it true that He or She or They are always watching us, watching everything we do? Wouldn’t that make everything a ceremony?

Yes it would – if you were constantly in the felt presence of the sacred. How often is that? And how often would you, if asked, merely profess to know holy beings are watching, without actually in the moment knowing it through and through? With vanishingly few exceptions, the religious people I know don’t seem to act most of the time as if they thought God were watching and listening. The exceptions transcend any specific faith. One recognizes them through a kind of gravity they carry. Everything they say and do carries a kind of moment, a weight. Their gravitas permeates beyond solemn occasions to their laughter, their warmth, their anger, and their ordinary moments. And when such a person performs a ceremony, it is as if the gravity changes in the room.

Ceremony is not an escape from the messy world of matter into a hocus-pocus realm of spirituality. It is a fuller embrace of the material. It is practice in paying due respect to materiality, whether as sacred in and of itself, or sacred because it is God’s masterwork. At the altar, one places the candles just so. I have an image in my mind of a man from whom I learned the meaning of ceremony. He is deliberate and precise; not rigid yet neither sloppy. Paying attention to the necessity of the moment and the place, he makes an art of each movement.

In a ceremony, one attends fully to the task at hand, performing each action just as it should be. A ceremony is therefore a practice for all of life, a practice in doing everything just as it should be done. An earnest ceremonial practice is like a magnet that aligns more and more of life to its field; it is a prayer that asks, “May everything I do be a ceremony. May I do everything with full attention, full care, and full respect for what it serves.”

Practicality and Reverence

Clearly then, the complaint that all those days in ceremony would have been better spent planting trees or campaigning against the logging industry misses something important. Steeped in ceremony, the tree planter will attend to the proper placement of each tree and the right choice of tree for each microclimate and ecological niche. She will take care to plant it at the right depth and to ensure that it will receive the proper protection and care thereafter. She will strive to do it just right. Similarly, the campaigner will distinguish what really needs to be done to stop the logging project, and what might instead gratify his crusader’s ego, martyr complex, or self-righteousness. He will not forget what he serves.

Wolf Dancer with large articulated forehead mask. Curtis, 1910-14.

It is nonsense to say of an indigenous culture, “The reason they have lived sustainably on the land for five thousand years has nothing to do with their superstitious ceremonies. It is because they are astute observers of nature who think seven generations in the future.” Their reverence for and attention to the subtle needs of a place is part and parcel of their ceremonial approach to life. The mindset that calls us to ceremony is the same mindset that calls us to ask, “What does the land want? What does the river want? What does the wolf want? What does the forest want?” and then pays close attention to the clues. It holds land, river, wolf, and forest in a status of beingness – counting them among the holy beings that are always watching, and who have needs and interests entwined with our own.

What I am saying might seem contrary to theistic teachings, so for those who believe in a creator God, I will offer a translation. God is peeking out from every tree, wolf, river, and forest. Nothing was created without purpose and intent. And so we ask, How may we participate in the fulfillment of that purpose? The result will be the same as asking, What does the forest want? I will leave it to the reader to translate the rest of this essay into theistic language.

I personally cannot claim to be someone who knows that holy beings are always watching him. In my upbringing, holy beings such as the sky, the sun, the moon, the wind, the trees, and the ancestors were not holy beings at all. The sky was a collection of gas particles petering out into the void of space. The sun was a ball of fusing hydrogen. The moon was a chunk of rock (and a rock an agglomeration of minerals, and a mineral a bunch of unliving molecules…). The wind was molecules in motion, driven by geomechanical forces. The trees were columns of biochemistry and the ancestors were corpses in the ground. The world outside ourselves was mute and dead, an arbitrary melee of force and mass. There was nothing out there, no intelligence to witness me, and no reason to do anything better than its rationally predictable consequences could justify.

Why should I keep the candle on my altar positioned just right? It is just wax that oxidizes around the wick. Its placement exercises no force on the world. Why should I make my bed when I’ll just sleep in it again the next night? Why should I do anything better than it has to be done for the grade, the boss, or the market? Why should I ever exert any effort to make something more beautiful than it needs to be? I’ll just cut some corners – no one will know. In my childish imagination, the sun and wind and grass may see me, but come on, they aren’t really seeing me, they don’t have eyes, they don’t have a central nervous system, they are not beings like I am. That is the ideology I grew up in.

The ceremonial view does not deny that one can usefully see the sky as a bunch of gas particles or the stone as a composite of minerals. It just doesn’t limit the sky or the stone to that. It holds as true and useful other ways of seeing them, not privileging their reductionistic composition to be what they “actually” are. Therefore, the alternative to the worldview of my upbringing is not to abandon practicality for some kind of ceremonial aesthetic. The divide between practicality and aesthetics is a falsity. It stands only in a causal account of life that denies its mysterious and elegant intelligence. Reality is not as we have been told. There are intelligences at work in the world beyond the human, and causal principles besides those of force. Synchronicity, morphic resonance, and autopoesis, while not antithetical to force-based causality, can expand our horizons of possibility. Accordingly, it is not that a ceremony will “make” different things happen in the world; it is that it tugs and molds reality into a form where different things happen.

Living a life devoid of ceremony leaves us without allies. Shut out of our reality, they abandon us to a world without intelligence – the very image of modernist ideology. The mechanistic worldview becomes its own self-fulfilling prophecy, and we are indeed left with nothing but force by which to affect the world.

The transition that traditional people like the Kogi or Dogon offer is not to adopt or imitate their ceremonies; it is to a world view that holds us humans companioned in the world, participating in a colloquy of intelligences in a universe bursting with beings. A ceremony declares a choice to live in such a universe and to participate in its reality-formation.

Ceremony in Environmental Healing

Practically speaking – wait! Everything I have said is eminently practical already. Instead let me speak of extending the ceremonial mind to the realm of environmental policy and practice. That means to do right by each place on Earth, to understand it as a being, and to know that if we treat each place and species and ecosystem as sacred that we will invite the planet into sacred wholeness as well.

Sometimes, the actions arising from seeing each place as sacred fit easily into the logic of carbon sequestration and climate change, such as when we stop a pipeline to protect the sacred waters. Other times, the logic of the carbon budget seems to run contrary to the instincts of the ceremonial mind. Today forests are being removed to make way for solar mega-arrays, and birds are being killed by gargantuan wind turbines that tower over the landscape. Furthermore, anything that doesn’t easily exhibit an influence on greenhouse gases is becoming invisible to environmental policymakers. What is the practical contribution of a sea turtle? An elephant? What does it matter if I place my candle sloppily on the altar?

In a ceremony, everything matters and we attend to every detail. As we approach ecological healing with a ceremonial mind, more and more becomes visible for our attention. As science reveals the importance of formerly invisible or trivialized beings, the scope of the ceremony expands. Soil, mycelia, bacteria, the forms of waterways… each demands its place on the altar of our agricultural practices, forestry practices, and all relationships with the rest of life. As the subtlety of our causal reckoning deepens, we see for example that butterflies or frogs or sea turtles are crucial for a healthy biosphere. In the end we realize that the ceremonial eye is accurate: that environmental health cannot be reduced to a few measurable quantities.

‘Nature Is Our Temple’, notes of Ravi Shah

I am not suggesting here to abandon remediation projects that might be based on a coarser understanding of the beingness of the world; i.e., that might be mechanistic in their conception of nature. We have to recognize the next step forward in the deepening of a ceremonial relationship. Recently I’ve been corresponding with Ravi Shah, a young man in India who is doing breathtaking work regenerating ponds and their surrounding land. Following the example of Masanobu Fukuoka, he exercises the most delicate attention, placing some reeds here, removing an invasive tree there, trusting in the innate regenerative powers of nature. The more he minimizes his interference, the greater its effect. That is not to imply zero interference would be the most powerful of all. It is that the finer and more precise his understanding, the better able he is to align with and serve nature’s movement, and the less he needs to interfere to accomplish that. The result is that he has created – or more accurately, served the creation of – a lush and verdant oasis in a deteriorating landscape; a living altar.

Ravi is understandably impatient with large scale water restoration projects like those I described in my book: Rajendra Singh’s work in India and the loess plateau restoration in China, which come nowhere near to his degree of reverence and attention to micro-local detail. Those projects arise from a more conventional, mechanistic understanding of hydrology. Where is the sacredness? he asks. Where is the humbling to the exquisite wisdom of interdependent ecosystems unique to each place? They’re just building ponds. Maybe so, I said, but we must meet people where they are, and celebrate each step in the right direction. These mechanistic hydrological projects also carry within them a reverence for water. Ravi’s project can offer a glimpse of what might be, without indicting the work that represents the first of many steps to get there.

I would add to that, that for land to heal it needs an example of health, a reservoir of health from which to learn. The oasis of ecological health he has established can radiate outward through the social and ecological surroundings, transmitting health to nearby places (for example, by providing refuge and spawning grounds for plants and animals) and transmitting inspiration to other earth healers. That is why the Amazon is so crucial, especially its headwaters region, which is possibly the largest intact reservoir and font of ecological health in the world. It is where Gaia’s memory of health, of a past and future healed world, still resides intact.

Ravi’s earth repair work functions exactly as a ceremony. One could say, “Don’t make special ceremonies – every act should be a ceremony. Why single out those ten minutes as special.” In the same way, one could insist that every place on Earth be immediately treated as Ravi treats his. Most of us though, like society as a whole, are not ready for such a step. The chasm is too great. We cannot expect to undo our techno-industrial systems, social systems, or our deeply programmed psychology overnight. What works for most of us is to establish one oasis of perfection – the ceremony – as best we are able, and then to allow it to ripple out across our lifescape, progressively bringing more attention, beauty, and power into every act. To make every act a ceremony begins with making one act a ceremony.

Ceremony From First Principles

Bringing some part of life into ceremony does not cast the rest into the category of the mundane or unceremonious. In performing the ceremony, we intend that it radiate through our day or week. It is a touchstone amidst life’s sturm and drang. So also, we are not to merely preserve a few wild places, sanctuaries, or national parks, or restore a few places to pristine condition; rather, these places are lodestars: examples and reminders of what is possible. As people like Ravi steward such places, we are called to bring a bit of them, and then more and more of them, to all places. As we establish a tiny moment of ceremony in our lives, we are called to bring a bit of it, and then more and more of it, to all moments.

How do we reintroduce ceremony in a society from which it is nearly absent? I said already that it is not to imitate or import the ceremonies of other cultures. Nor is it necessarily to resuscitate the ceremonies of one’s own bloodline, an endeavor that, while avoiding the appearance of cultural appropriation, risks the appropriation of one’s own culture. Ceremonies are alive though; attempts to imitate or preserve them bring us just their effigy.

What option is left then? Is to to create our own ceremonies? Strictly speaking, no. Ceremonies are not created, they are discovered.

Here is how it might work. You start with a rudimentary ceremony, perhaps lighting a candle each morning and taking a moment to meditate on who you want to be today. But how do you light the candle perfectly? Maybe you pick it up and tilt it over the match. The where do you put the match? On a little plate perhaps, kept off to the side. And you put the candle back down just right. Then maybe you ring a chime three times. How long between rings? Are you in a hurry? No, you wait until each tone fades into silence? Yes, that is how to do it….

I’m not saying that these rules and procedures should govern your ceremony. To discover a ceremony, follow the thread of “Yes, that is how to do it,” that mindfulness reveals. Watching, listening, concentrating the attention, we discover what to do, what to say, and how to participate. It is no different than how people like Fukuoka learn right relationship with the land.

The candle may grow into a small altar and its lighting into a longer ceremony of caring for that altar. Then it radiates outward. Maybe soon you organize your desk with the same care. And your home. And then you put that same care and intentionality into you workplace, your relationships, and the food you put into your body. Over time, the ceremony becomes an anchor point for a shift in the reality that you inhabit. You may find that life organizes itself around the intention behind the ceremony. You might experience synchronicity that seems to confirm that indeed, a larger intelligence is at work here.

As that happens, the feeling swells that numberless beings accompany us here. The ceremony, which only makes sense if holy beings are watching, draws us into an experiential reality in which holy beings are indeed present. The more present they are, the deeper the invitation to make more acts, indeed every act, a ceremony done with full attention and integrity. What would life be then? What would the world be then?

Full attention and integrity takes different forms in different circumstances. In a ritual it means something quite different than it does in a game, a conversation, or cooking dinner. In one situation it might demand precision and order; in another, spontaneity, daring, or improvisation. Ceremony sets the tone for each act and word being aligned with what one truly is, what one wants to be, and the world in which one wants to live.

Ceremony offers a glimpse of a sacred destination, the destination of:
Every act a ceremony.
Every word a prayer.
Every walk a pilgrimage.
Every place a shrine.

A shrine connects us with the sacred that transcends any shrine and includes every shrine. A ceremony can make a place into a shrine, offering a lifeline to a reality in which everything is sacred; it is the outpost of that reality or that world-story. In the same way, a healed piece of ground is an outpost of those remaining oases of Earth’s original vitality, such as the Amazon, the Congo, and a scattering of undisturbed coral reefs, mangrove swamps, and so on. We look with despair at the new Brazilian government’s plan to pillage the Amazon and wonder what we can do to save it. Political and economic action is surely necessary to do that, but we can simultaneously operate at another depth. Each place of earth healing also feeds the Amazon and draws us nearer to a world in which it remains intact. And, strengthening our relationship to such places, we call upon unknowable powers to fortify our resolve and coordinate our alliances.

Day Schildkret creates a morning altar using leaves, petals and other items found in nature. (Photo: Day Schildkret)

The beings we have excluded from our reality, the beings we have diminished in our perception into non-beings, they are still there waiting for us. Even with all my inherited disbelief (my inner cynic, educated in science, mathematics, and analytic philosophy, is at least as strident as yours), if I allow myself a few moments of attentive quiet, I can feel those beings gathering. Ever hopeful, they draw close to the attentiveness. Can you feel them too? Amid the doubt, maybe, and without wishful thinking, can you feel them? It is the same feeling as being in a forest and suddenly realizing as if for the first time: the forest is alive. The sun is watching me. And I am not alone.

 

This essay appeared originally on Charles Eisenstein’s blog.

About Charles Eisenstein

Charles Eisenstein is a speaker and writer focusing on themes of human culture and identity. He is the author of several books, most recently Sacred Economics and The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, and the upcoming Climate: A New Story. His background includes a degree in mathematics and philosophy from Yale, a decade in Taiwan as a translator, and stints as a college instructor, a yoga teacher, and a construction worker. He currently writes and speaks full-time. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina with his wife and four children.

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