If you’re familiar with The Work That Reconnects, you know Joanna Macy’s model for dealing with the reality of our time. There are four phases spiraling in sequence: gratitude, acknowledging our grief for the world, seeing with new eyes and going forth. This spiral is the structure of every workshop, the structure of every talk she gives, every meeting she conducts.
In this time of Covid, economic upheaval, the climate monster bearing down upon us, unrest and uncertainty, a time when many are suffering and especially when many, both citizens and entire foreign nations, are watching in horror as American democracy is dismantled by the madman, abetted by his entire party. This spiral approach is not playing out in our imaginations or in private retreats or zoom gatherings. There’s no abstraction here. It’s playing out in real time every day as we struggle to grasp the pace of change, how to stay grounded and engaged and not overwhelmed by circumstances beyond our control.
The pace of change draws us more deeply into the present moment. The past disappears like a volatile liquid disappearing as quickly as it is exposed to the atmosphere. The future is ever more uncertain. We are left awash in the feelings and sensations of the immediate moment. And that immediacy demands a response. On one hand we can dwell on loss. There are many reasons to do so because so much is being lost–or at least temporarily suspended. Lives are being lost, biodiversity is being lost, polar ice, human trust.
Rilke says it best in one of Joanna’s favorite sonnets:
Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower
Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.
In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.
Sonnets to Orpheus II, 29
We are losing our resolve to address the advancing disaster of climate change. We are seeing our political agency being undermined or incrementally destroyed by the day. We are seeing dissent being suppressed, the promotion of outrageously bizarre versions of truth. All the trappings of fascism are building into a wave that threatens to sweep away all we hold dear.
Every day I am drawn into that loss, perhaps only for moments; but at least daily, at times even hourly. Sometimes I descend into agony, beating back and forth from grief to passion, from annihilation to liberation, each fueling the other. Maybe it was Martin Prechtel who said ‘grief is the womb of art,’ or maybe it was me, I’m not sure.
Each day is a transition, swinging from regeneration to the soil of grief, being tenderized and motivated to go forth once more with new eyes, an awakened and softened heart, being able to listen and feel what is right on the surface in moments of rededicating myself to possibility.
……but when I lean over the chasm of myself,
it seems my god is dark
and like a web: a hundred roots silently drinking.
This is the ferment I grow out of.
More I don’t know, because my branches rest in deep silence,
stirred only by the wind.
The creative moment is right in front of me. I have left behind any need for urgency. I am operating in a different time where urgency no longer exists. I am dying. And I have all the time I need. To hasten is to be overcome by a fantasy that may never appear. The fullness of this time is what Tibetan Buddhists call the bardo of everyday life in which we embody life and death in equal measure, living our dying in every moment, embracing life and being open to the awakening potential of each.
Another Rilke reference:
I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.
I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?
If I could choose, I would be that great song, the one written while standing in the eye of the storm we are living through right now.