These are my comments presented at the The 2011 International Conference on Sustainability, Transition & Culture Change: Vision, Action, Leadership at Shanty Creek Resort in Bellaire, MI, 11/11/11, delivered in three parts.
Part 1: The River of Vision
“Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.” So begins the novel Ishmael, published in 1992 by Daniel Quinn, now residing in Houston. Through the course of more than a dozen books and countless speeches and essays, Daniel Quinn has served as a strong and poetic guide for the human journey. Whether speaking in the voice of a talking gorilla, an itinerant teacher, or one of our animist forebears, Quinn’s love for the Earth, and his concern for the future of life on this planet, are palpable and clear.
I must admit, the task of figuring out what to say about Daniel Quinn and his work kicked my butt. My attempts to summarize his ideas, and I made more than one attempt, ended up dense and lifeless. And rendering Quinn’s work lifeless is the last thing I would want to do. When I read his Ishmael stories, my heart pounds, and my eyes mist with tears. It’s as if I’m sitting in the presence of the whole of life on this planet condensed into a single gorilla. He speaks to me firmly, yet lovingly, of my long and destructive journey into disconnection and domination, of my bad behavior and mistaken ideas, and invites me to come back home. And I follow him where he leads me. When I read the words of the teacher in The Story of B, I’m listening to a missionary from the living world, a speaker of such clarity, such wisdom, and such commitment, that my heart and mind break wide open. The normally unseen stories and assumptions of our culture, and our history, come to life before my eyes like an epic poem, or a grand piece of theater, and I can see what is all around me with new eyes. Daniel Quinn’s greatest genius, I think, was to put his insights into the mouths of characters that I could love. Because I loved them, I could open up to what they were saying, even when what they were saying was new and strange and unbelievable. I have no wish to take such magic and render it dense and lifeless.
And yet Daniel Quinn’s ideas could inform us here this weekend. And as I cannot read to you out loud a half dozen of his novels in 18 minutes, I shall simply have to do my best to see to the heart of his insights without killing them. Aaron wished to speak of vision this weekend, and Daniel Quinn certainly has something to offer us in that regard. Ultimately, I think, all of his work boils down to matters of vision and culture and paradigm, words which I will use rather interchangeably here to speak of the web of assumptions, beliefs, values, expectations, and stories upon which our society is founded.
Quinn speaks explicitly of vision in The Story of B and Beyond Civilization where he writes: “If the world is saved, it will not be saved by old minds with new programs, but by new minds with no programs at all.” Let me repeat that: “If the world is saved, it will not be saved by old minds with new programs, but by new minds with no programs at all.” In order to tease this apart, I shall have to grab and briefly sum up a select few of Quinn’s many ideas and observations, in order to set the foundation. I will simply have to trust that this will be enough
In Quinn’s view, to “save the world” does not mean to save our current cultural system, a goal that he regards as both impossible and undesirable. Instead, to “save the world” means “to save the world as a human habitat,” which means “saving the world as a habitat for as many other species as possible.”
To that end, Quinn works to uncover the deep roots of the confluence of crises we now face. He focuses on matters of vision, and outlines how our present world-spanning cultural system has been enacting a story that tells us that the world was made for us human beings, to conquer and rule as we see fit, using our power to control the world around us to take both our survival and our destiny into our own hands. He explores the origins of this urge to rule the world, how it rose out of our culture’s invention of a new style of food production that claims the Earth’s productive capacity for human consumption, at the expense of all other species. He traces how the food surpluses of this style of agriculture led to our increasing power to shape the world around us, and to the exponential rise of human population levels. These, in turn, fueled the steady rise of a myriad of environmental and social problems, bringing us to the point where many now claim that we are living inside of the planet’s Sixth Great Mass Extinction Event, and foresee the possibility that this event may include the extinction of humanity itself.
As this impulse to conquer and rule spread around the planet, we began to think that our culture was the whole of humanity, rather than just one culture amongst many. We took our power to control as sure evidence that the world had been given to us to dominate and tame, and that our way of life was the one right way. Even as the side effects of trying to rule the world became clear, as war, disease, pollution, and a host of social ills, appeared on the stages of history, even as we began to imagine that there was something fundamentally wrong with us, we saw little else to do but continue on this path. If taking control of the world was not working, it was because we hadn’t yet taken control of EVERYTHING. The only way forward was to do even more of what we’d been doing.
But Daniel Quinn has good news. Modern scholarship, he says, allows us to see that WE OF THIS CULTURE ARE NOT HUMANITY, but just one culture out of many on this Earth. We now know that humans lived on this planet for hundreds of thousands of years without bringing the world to the point of mass extinction, which means that humans are fully capable of living in balance with the rest of the community of life. We can see that our ancestors, and the few remnants of these ancient cultures still alive today, enacted a very different vision from our own. If the story of our culture is that the world was made for and belongs to human beings, the other story is this: human beings were made for and belong to the world. If the intent of our vision is to rule the world, the intent of the other vision is this: to live in a dynamic, creative conversation with the rest of reality, trusting that the world has no need for humans to either conquer or rule it. We can see, then, that it is primarily a culture, a vision, a set of stories and beliefs and assumptions, that is taking us toward catastrophe. If we are the inherently greedy, destructive, or violent creatures many think we are, there is no hope for us. If we are, instead, wonderful creatures who are simply trapped inside a greedy, destructive, and violent culture, and if such a story can be changed, then we have a chance. This is the good news.
With this foundation in place, let me return to Daniel Quinn’s thoughts on vision: “If the world is saved, it will not be saved by old minds with new programs, but by new minds with no programs at all.”
Quinn likens a culture’s defining vision or story to a river, and observes that our culture’s river of vision, our dream of ruling the world, is carrying us toward catastrophe, and always has been, as our lifestyle has us grow and consume at the expense of all other species, and makes of us the enemies of Life. Programs, Quinn says, are like sticks planted in the river of vision in an attempt to stop it, as we can now see clearly the catastrophe toward which this river is taking us. But the sticks succeed only in slowing the flow a little. Programs are essentially reactive, and focus on making bad things less bad, rather than on creating new things.
Programs, these ineffective sticks, are invented by what Quinn calls “old minds,” minds that are bound by the limits of the current dominant vision. When you find programs, you find old minds, thinking inside of the current river of vision and trying to impede its flow. But programs never stop what they are intended to stop. “Programs,” says Quinn, “make it possible to look busy and purposeful while failing.” We’ve now had centuries of programs. Millennia of programs. If programs did what we say we expect them to do, human society would already be a heaven on Earth. Government, education, economy, law … these systems would already work for the greatest good of all. If the world is saved, then, it will not be saved by people who remain stuck in the vision of ruling the world, and who, in an attempt to stop the effects of that vision, simply invent new ways to exert even more power and control. A river taking us a bit more slowly toward catastrophe is still taking us to catastrophe. We now have centuries of data to show us the truth of this.
If the current river of vision is taking us to catastrophe, and if old minds and their programs will never suffice to stop this river, then what will suffice? The answer, says Quinn, is this: a new vision, held by new minds. Rather than try to stop the current river, what we must do is divert the river to a new vision, a new way of being on this planet, a new story of who we are and why we are here. A new river of vision will need no programs to carry it along. Programs are about stopping a vision. A new vision will be self-spreading and self-sustaining. “Vision is to culture what gravity is to matter,” says Quinn. It is the force that pulls us now toward catastrophe. It is the force that can pull us back to a sane and sustainable human life on planet Earth. If we wish to be free of the river that is dragging us toward catastrophe we will have to find a new vision.
Notice that Quinn’s words echo those of Albert Einstein, when he said “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Einstein was also speaking of new minds and new visions, though even he himself was trapped in the cultural programming, since, in some very real ways, the paradigm of “problem solving” IS the level of thinking that has created our present predicament. Approaching every situation as a problem to be solved is what conquerors and rulers of the world DO, after all, and many now see that most of the “problems” we now face stem from previous “solutions” to earlier “problems.” It may be fair to say that “problem solving,” as it is understood in our culture, is largely a matter of placing sticks in the river.
Notice also that the defining cultural visions Quinn outlines – of ruling the world or of belonging to the world – are deeply foundational in nature. These are not visions about how we might reorganize our urban areas, or how else we might grow our food, or what sort of decision-making process we will use in our meetings, though those may all be worthwhile discussions in which to engage. The stories Quinn reveals are stories about who we are, where we came from, why we are here, and where we are headed. These are visions about what it all means, our place in the Universe, and how we relate to the rest of creation, what Thomas Berry would call cosmologies. These stories are primary and fundamental, and they determine the basic direction of the river of vision which carries us along. Such defining visions shape all of our other visions. We can grow food as a ruler of the world, or as a member of the community of life. We can organize politically to conquer the world, or to live in harmony with the rest of creation. In the end, it boils down to why we are here, and if we have no clarity on that point, nothing else will be clear.
Know that Quinn made clear that both of these visions arose out of long periods of experience. The first members of our dominant global culture did not one day decide to conquer and rule the world and then invent a new style of agriculture to achieve that end. At some point, the practitioners of this new style of agriculture noticed the great power to control that this lifestyle gave them, and began to fancy themselves the rulers of the world. In a like manner, the vision of being made for the world grew out of long millennia of a lifestyle that kept people in intimate balance with the community of life around them, and which gave those who enacted that vision largely happy and fulfilling lives. In both cases, the thing to notice is that these visions arose out of long periods of experience.
Contrast that with our situation now, a time of such urgency that it seems we must invent and word-craft a new vision, type it up, post it, forward it, link it, frame it, brand it, explain it and get it out there, with bulleted talking points and a neat, three-color logo, ASAP or WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!! And we have to do this all knowing, in the back of our minds, that it may be too late in any event, that it may never work, and that we may have no future in which that new vision can manifest. We who live today have a unique and seemingly impossible task, like none who preceded us. These are truly unprecedented times.
Know, also, that, in Quinn’s view, “no paradigm is ever able to imagine the next one.” In fact, “it’s almost impossible for one paradigm to imagine that there will even be a next one.” He says that “for all our blather of new paradigms and emerging paradigms, it’s an unassailable assumption among us that our distant descendants will be just exactly like us. Their gadgets, fashions, music, and so on, will surely be different, but we’re confident that their mindset will be identical – because we can imagine no other mindset for people to have.” Using Richard Dawkins’ concept of the meme, which he calls “the conceptual building plans for our culture” and of which he says “memes are to cultures what genes are to bodies,” Quinn answers the question “How can we achieve a vision we can’t imagine?” this way: “one meme at a time.”
And know, finally, that, in Quinn’s view, this matter of finding a new vision is not a matter of ease or difficulty. As Quinn said in The Story of B, “The relevant measures are not ease and difficulty. The relevant measures are readiness and unreadiness. If the time isn’t right for a new idea, no power on Earth can make it catch on. But if the time is right, it will sweep the world like wildfire.”
For myself, the experience of reading Quinn’s work is summed up by one of his own characters, who said of the teacher Charles Atterly in The Story of B, “Everything Atterly was saying was obvious, and all of it was new.” Quinn made conscious for me the cultural stories that surround us, the stories in which I was raised, the stories that masqueraded as “just the way things are.” Cultural stories are to humans like water is to fish. We swim in these stories without even knowing that we’re swimming in anything. But once somebody points out the water, we realize that we know it intimately, as we’ve been swimming in it our whole lives. Daniel Quinn points out the water. And once we see the water, it becomes difficult to not-see it. And once we see the water – the stories, the culture – we may be gifted instantly with the ability to swim consciously. And swimming consciously, we can begin to swim away from the default stories that are taking us toward catastrophe, and to imagine new stories, a new vision, that might take us toward life.
Daniel Quinn gives us new tools with which to respond to our collective predicament. His simple, moving prose touches me deeply each time I read it, and I have read it again and again. I see the water quite clearly now. I can’t not see it. And I shall be forever indebted to Daniel Quinn for that. The notion that a culture is a set of stories we tell ourselves, that these stories shape our lives in the physical realm, and that we can question and change these stories, has impacted every layer of my life, from my relationship to Sally to my work in the world. I question everything I can now, every aspect of the culture in which I was born and raised. And questioning it, I have found a measure of freedom apart from it. When I speak to you again, I will tell you more of that freedom. Until then, I will leave you with this question to ponder, if you will, a question that might open up new avenues of thinking for you:
How are you still trying to rule the world?
Part 2: The Vision Quest
I spoke last time of Daniel Quinn, of the old vision of ruling a world that was made for us, of programs that fail and the need for new visions. What if he is exactly right? What if it’s our defining stories of meaning, purpose, and destiny that most determine our course from here on out? What if we humans are not deranged, flawed creatures at all, but instead belong here as much as butterflies and bison and birch trees? What if it’s mostly just a matter of deleting a suite of stories that has occupied our heads?
I remember how Quinn’s good news filled my heart and mind and soul with some new possibility. I know I don’t feel flawed and deranged. And most of the people I encounter feel like good souls doing their best in a mad situation. We were all just born into a culture that is clearly harmful to the community of life, and to ourselves. I know in my own life that I’ve slowly learned to enact a very different story from the one in which I was raised. I know that it’s possible.
But whether possible or not, I’m not sure how this generalizes out to whole populations. And I’m not sure how it can turn into actual, on the ground change in the physical world. A few weeks back, in preparation for this conference, I did an informal survey, asking friends and readers what they thought about whatever “movement” they saw happening in the world, and how that movement was succeeding, or failing, or both. While the responses I received were all over the map in terms of whether there even IS a movement, whether there should be a movement, or what the movement was up to, there was a fair amount of agreement that, while this “movement” has succeeded in raising some awareness, we have yet to see that translate into large-scale preparation for what’s coming, let alone a large-scale effort to stop the destruction of the living planet and “save the world as a habitat for as many other species as possible.” As Michael Brownlee wrote, “I don’t know if there will ever emerge a coherent and robust and truly viral Transition movement in this nation… For many, it just seems too difficult, too big a challenge.”
We in this room feel the catastrophe looming and have self-selected as some of those who will attempt to meet it consciously. We see the limitations and consequences of our old cultural vision of ruling the world. But it seems we’ve yet to find and speak the new vision that will catch on like wildfire. And time, it seems, is running short. Methane is now boiling up from lake bottoms in the far north. The Great Barrier Reef is dying. Radiation continues to spew from Fukushima, and oil from the Macondo Reservoir. Global CO2 emissions increased by 6% in 2010. And our leaders appear to be largely insane.
What Quinn said about vision and timing and readiness for change resonates inside me. We need a new defining vision of who we are and why we are here. And we need it by yesterday at the latest. But defining visions, Quinn said, grow out of long periods of experience, and shift “one meme at a time.” If we’re staring at a 9% oil depletion rate and 6% CO2 increases, it doesn’t look to me like we HAVE long periods of time. When I look at the world through Quinn’s eyes, I see lots of programs, lots of sticks in the river, but very few new minds. I see bootstrapping and problem solving and yes-we-can-ing and get-‘er-done-ing. But it feels to me that if the world is telling us anything right now, it’s telling us that THAT STRATEGY IS NOT WORKING. If “no paradigm is ever able to imagine the next one,” and “if the time isn’t right for a new idea, no power on Earth can make it catch on,” then what are we supposed to do?
A new vision? How ARE we going to get from here to there? Or are we? Even though ruling the world appears to have come at the cost of catastrophe, I don’t know how we STOP ruling the world. How do we free ourselves from ten thousand years of cultural conditioning? How do we let go of the idea that the world was made for us? The dominant culture, an operating system that has been installed in our hearts and minds does not wish to be uninstalled. That urge to control will fight us and fool us at every turn. Even were we to manage to break free of that programming, what else IS there besides ruling the world?
At this point, it feels like the truest thing I can say to you is this: I don’t have the answers to these questions. I don’t know where we’re headed, or how we’ll get there. I don’t know how to create a new vision that will spread like wildfire, and some days I’m pretty despairing that such a thing is even possible.
I know that my personal attempts to uninstall the dominant culture from my own being are not yet finished. I still get caught in my own identity as a tall, White, American male who knows the one right way. It happened yesterday. It will happen today. Just because this thing called “saving the world” may require both new minds and a new vision, it does not necessarily follow that my work is to go around trying to change minds and invent a new vision. I question my own work of “waking people up,” – the blogs I’ve written, the articles and essays I’ve posted, the documentary we made, all the convincing and explaining and persuading and even frightening people into consciousness and action. While it was all done with the heartfelt intention and desire to contribute something good to the world, it has also carried a strong whiff of covert domination and control and one right way. My right way. Despite my good intentions, I wonder if trying to solve the problem of creating a new vision has actually kept me trapped in the old one. Clearly, confronting one’s own cultural programming is not for the faint of heart. This can be challenging and subtle work. But it’s my experience that the work is worth doing.
In the time that Sally and I have worked together to face into our collective predicament, the process or journey known as the Vision Quest has resonated with us both as a helpful lens through which to view our situation. There’s nothing really mysterious about the basic process, I think. We use it in our daily lives, every time we meet a challenge that causes us to shed an old story or idea or behavior and open up to something new, some new guidance or information from the world around us. The vision quest, as practiced around the planet and across the ages, simply adds ritual, intention, and tradition to that process, and focuses on the matter of our core sense of identity, the questions of who we are and why we are here. There might be a death lodge ritual, for instance, in which we let go of our old sense of self and identity and empty out the feelings, beliefs, and stories that no longer work in our lives. And there might be a three-day fast in the wilderness, during which we open up to and listen to that which is outside of us, the elemental forces of the “natural world,” perhaps, or the voices of what some call “spirit.” In all cases, the vision quest is exactly what it says it is, a quest for a vision to guide us. We push ourselves beyond the limits of who we have been thus far in order to connect with our true selves and to hear the truth of the Universe in which we live. If we are lucky, we will receive a new vision, a new story, a new direction, something we can bring back into our own lives, and to our communities, to bring healing and connection for all.
I said earlier that I can feel lost and despairing, if our task is to invent or concoct a new vision for ourselves. But when I step into the notion of the vision quest, I remember that the initiate does not go into the quest with a vision already in hand. That would just be more control. I begin to see that I am doing the work exactly as I need to, sitting for long days and months, and sometimes even years, in the death lodge, passing slowly through the messy and sometimes excruciating process of letting go, burning through my impulses to control and dominate, my attachments to knowing the one right way, my fear of feeling helpless and out of control, and my stories of who I am and why I am here.
Then I go out into wilderness of our current culture with no vision at all. It is humbling, to open up, to listen, to connect with the world around me. But it is my experience, and the experience of many others, that it is only with empty hands that I can receive the vision that is given to me. So I slow my breath. I get still and silent, and simply watch and listen.
All of a sudden, my burdens melt away. I don’t have to struggle to wake people up. I can sense that new minds are already forming, walking the streets beside me, ready to shine out once the time is right. I don’t have to invent some new vision out of whole cloth. I can trust that new visions are already coming to us as we walk this wilderness, rising right inside and underneath and beside the old vision, hidden in plain sight in the landscapes of our lives, ready to spread like wildfire when the time is right. Perhaps, the first signposts, the first new memes, are already visible. Where might we look for such signposts? What visions are now arising from our long experience of trying to be the rulers of the world, and of failing so gloriously? How is the next paradigm already peeking around the corners of the present one?
I can tell you where I’m looking. I’m looking at the wild and woolly Occupy movement, at what Paul Hawken calls our “blessed unrest,” at the Deep Green Resistance movement, the Zeitgeist movement, the Wayseers movement, at the various risings up around the world, at the crowds in the streets, and the more quiet, less noticeable work being done behind the scenes. I’m looking at people’s attempts to form new cultures, from the co-housing movement to permaculturists to biker clubs and street gangs and religious groups, from the hippies and slackers to the anarchists and anti-civvers. I’m looking at our use of various mind-altering substances, at the rise of extreme sports, extreme makeovers and extreme self-expression. I’m looking at the movies people watch, the books they read, the music they listen to, the wild and intriguing dreams and visions that come to them through the media, from Middle Earth to Pandora and beyond. I’m looking at how these media have put us in touch with cultures, lifestyles, and worldviews from around the world and across time. I’m looking especially at how these media view our collective future, the dystopian visions, the imagined futures, the approaching singularity. I’m looking at people’s fascination with the so-called “fringes” of science, spirituality, and consensus reality, from UFOs, crop circles, and the near-death experience to lost civilizations and the quantum/ holographic/chaotic universe, the alternate worlds, the alternate explanations, the anomalous data. I’m looking at our fascination with conspiracies, with a hidden ruling elite, hidden technologies, hidden plans, hidden agendas. I’m looking at our television series, these windows into the intimate lives of people real and imagined living lives fully felt and fully expressed, where people try and fail and grow and try again. I’m looking at the internet, the cell phones, the webs, the connections, the interactions, the constant contacting, messaging, texting, poking, the direct line to information and analysis, the endless hits of love and like, the constant calling out of “here I am.” I’m looking at our multitude of human addictions, the unceasing attempt not to get what the addictive behavior or substance provides, but SOMETHING MORE than the substance provides.
I’m looking at all of these things and seeing, not the deluded, dumbed-down, comfort-addled sheeple that my own angry, judging ego would want me to see, but good, essential souls trapped in thick crusts of culture and ego, doing their best in a mad situation, and acting out their deep animal longings and knowings in the only ways they know how, trying to challenge the limits of the current dominant global vision at every turn and, in the words of Jim Morrison, “break on through to the other side.”
How might these things I’m looking at, and many others, be signposts to a next paradigm? I’m not sure what to say here. I know for myself that, sitting quietly in the wilderness of no-vision with the cultural blinders largely removed, just observing the Universe as it presents itself to me, I’ve grown skeptical of the strict materialism of our culture, and am stepping into a view of reality more in accord with my felt experience of living in a chaotic, quantum world unfolding beyond the limits of my ability to predict and control. I’ve grown suspicious of the strictly rational, and am adding the non-rational and intuitive to my bag of tools. I feel sick unto death of ruling the world, of struggling to be in control of life, of having to know the answer and be in charge and pretend that I know what the hell I’m doing. Slowly I am learning to trust the callings and longings and excitements that arise in my own heart, rather than the voices of the culture that speak inside my head. I’ve lost my trust in Yankee ingenuity and problem solving. I hunger for intimate connection, shared feelings, and the honest expression of our true selves, for stories of meaning and purpose and belonging in a vast and mysterious Universe that’s as alive as I am. But I am hesitant to analyze and name what is arising, as to name it may be to limit it, and what I feel in my very flesh is that the new defining river of vision arising amongst us is way more powerful, way more uncontrollable, and will be way more surprising than anything I can wrap my words around.
What I can see is, if this is a vision quest, then we are in the midst of it, passing through the death lodge of this culture and just beginning to open up to what the living world is telling us. I can sense a new vision coming, and see some signposts, but I cannot speak that vision clearly, in tidy words that will, as Daniel Quinn wrote, “make the earth tremble and the stones weep and the skies open up.” That’s as far as I can go. What I feel in my heart is that, if we are to avoid complete catastrophe, it will be because the new rivers of vision that will take us somewhere else are already flowing around us. My job is not to invent or concoct, but to simply feel, and begin to see, what is already here.
Part 3: The Vision of River
Let me begin my last piece with something usually attributed to an unnamed Hopi Elder, and called, simply, A Hope Elder Speaks:
“You have been telling the people that this is the Eleventh Hour, now you must go back and tell the people that this is the Hour. And there are things to be considered.
Where are you living?
What are you doing?
What are your relationships?
Are you in right relation?
Where is your water?
Know your garden.
It is time to speak your Truth.
Create your community.
Be good to each other.
And do not look outside yourself for the leader.”
Then he clasped his hands together, smiled, and said, “This could be a good time!”
“There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are torn apart and will suffer greatly.
“Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above water. And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate. At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally, Least of all ourselves. For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt.
“The time for the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves! Banish the word struggle from you attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.
“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
If, as I suggested last time, the new rivers of vision are already arising amongst us, rising from the nightmare of our long experience of ruling the world, rising to take us, perhaps, away from complete catastrophe, then what I have left is an invitation: jump into the river that is already flowing, and let this river carry you. Never mind that you cannot know with your rational mind exactly where this river might take you. That, indeed, is the whole point. And this river may be taking us to a million different destinations. This is something very different from being in control. “Let go of the shore,” the Hopi Elder counsels. “Push off into the middle of the river, keep your eyes open, and your heads above water. And … see who is in there with you and celebrate.”
Feel the river as it pulls you along. Notice the map in your pocket, now soaked and falling to pieces. Let the river take it away. Your destination is not on that map. Feel the cell phone in your pocket, the watch on your wrist, now both dead and useless to you. Let them go, and find new ways to connect to the world. Feel your clothing of old assumptions and stories, soaked and cold, dragging you down. Shed them, and notice your natural buoyancy as a creature who belongs on this planet. It’s just you now, naked and wet, with others splashing nearby, the cold water rushing, the sky overhead, the calls of birds in the trees and the tickle of fish underfoot. You feel awake and alive now, in that cold rushing water. No more distractions. Nothing left to lose. Who will you be?
You can feel the river’s great force, the tug, the longing, the great re-balancing of forces. Your good, true, essential self, as covered with wounds and scars as it might be, knows what to do in this river. The river may pull us relentlessly, but we are not helpless here. So long as we don’t fight this river, we can swim.
And I have another invitation: If we’re truly going to step away from domination and control, if we’re truly wanting to find some new, more co-creative relationship with the planet, if we truly desire, in the poet David Whyte’s words, to enter into conversation with the whole of creation, both speaking our truth AND listening to the truth of the rest of reality, then perhaps the perfect crucible for that work is in learning to speak with, and listen to, our fellow human beings, without trying to dominate and control each other. We can do that work here, now, in this room.
Listen to the Hopi Elder: Jump into the river. See who is there with you. And celebrate. This person is investing everything she has in growing food for her community. That one thinks all such attempts at local sustainability are pointless without a more global restructuring. How will these two souls learn to celebrate each other? This is the work the Hopi Elder encourages. This one wants to blow up cell phone towers. That one meditates on an image of golden light encircling the globe. How will these two learn to celebrate each other? One thinks we must power down to the Stone Age. Another believes that wind power and solar will play a big role in our future. One sees the challenges ahead in largely spiritual terms. Another operates from a much more on-the-ground materialist perspective. This one is filled with anger and despair, but does not find the safety she needs to express her feelings when that one insists on keeping things positive. That one fears that if he lets himself feel how all of this is impacting him he will sink into depression, or unravel in our midst, and cause harm to those around him. How will we all learn to celebrate each other?
The Hopi Elder does not say to see who is in the river and try to persuade them to your version of the truth, or argue with their vision, or ridicule the path they are on. As the Dalai Lama says, “just because they’re not on your road doesn’t mean they’ve gotten lost.” We can spend from here to extinction arguing over the one right way or how it all will play out, but that’s the same story that got us into this mess. It’s unlikely to get us back out.
A huge opportunity awaits us in this river, I think. We can learn to set aside our assumptions long enough to truly hear what the other is saying. That gift of deep listening will give others the room they need in order that they may hear us. We can learn to hold paradox, holding more than one truth at a time, sitting with the tension without having to resolve it. We can learn to examine every last thing our culture has told us, and to ask whether it serves who we are and what we want and the highest good for all of life. We can learn to embrace the outliers, those who seem to live at the far ends of the normal curve, those who see things very differently than us, and who may have pieces of the puzzle we don’t have. We can learn to overcome our tendency to get stuck in our own orthodoxies, seeing only the information that confirms what we already think we know. If our acculturated minds are inadequate to the task of facing insoluble problems and unanswerable questions, we can turn to our hearts, our bodies, our animal selves, and also to our best future selves, to lead us forward, following our loves and longings, our excitements, our callings, our wantings. We can learn to operate above and beyond the programs of culture and ego, not just new minds with a new vision, but new minds with a new vision of operating without story altogether. We can lay down our armor, and our weapons. We can become, finally, free of the cultural programs that separate us.
Jump into the river with me. See who is here. And celebrate. Let the vision we can currently only sense and intuit carry us along. Let it wash away the old, so that we can follow the signposts to the new. Jump into the river of new vision that is already here. See the new minds that are already awakening. And celebrate.
“Everything is waiting for you,” David Whyte says. The community of life is waiting for us, I think. We may not find our way in time. We may not, in the end, realize our worth, our potential, our belonging. We may not be able to slough off our impulse to dominate and rule. We may continue to take down huge swaths of the life of this planet in a futile attempt to sit on a throne that is not ours. We may take ourselves down. And if so, I believe there will be a great cry of grief in the Cosmos, at the loss of such beauty and potential.
But we MAY find our way. We may, against all odds, respond in a way that “saves the world as a habitat for as many other species as possible,” as Daniel Quinn wrote. We may survive this frightening time of initiation. We may find a new vision of who we are and why we are here and where we are headed, and bring this new vision back to the community of living souls. We may take our right and proper place as mature members of that community, and find the healing, intimacy, and connection we crave. We may find our cultural maturity and still not survive the catastrophe. But we might. And if we do, then I think the stars themselves will shout out in celebration, and the galaxies will dance with joy. It’s likely to be a near miss, but it’s a possibility worth surrendering to. As an uncle of mine used to say, “what else ya gonna do?”
I will leave you with the words of Elizabeth Kubler Ross: “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
It we get through this, if somehow we manage to survive this catastrophe, I think we will find that we have become beautiful people indeed.