“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” T S Eliot
On Friday we celebrated the summer solstice, the turning point of the year, the longest day, when we appreciate the warmth and fulfilment of summer, and count our blessings, after which the days grow shorter and the nights longer, until the sun is reborn at the winter solstice. Solstice means ‘standing of the sun’ because the sun appears to rise and set in the same place for three consecutive days.
I invite you over the next few days to find some moments of stillness, to give yourself permission to pause and to become aware of the inner light shining in the heart of your being. Perhaps take the opportunity to do your own standing still – to take stock, to reflect on the year so far – how did you come to be where you are now and how can you open yourself to what lies ahead? Ask yourself, what do I love, what makes my heart sing? How can I make space for them in my life going forward? Listen to your inner wisdom and see what emerges.
As well as reaching a turning point in the wheel of the year, we have also reached another turning point for the earth, a point at which the future of the earth’s wellbeing hands in the balance. Some people think we have already gone too far, that human society is on the verge of collapse, because our addiction to burning fossil fuels has led to irreversible climate catastrophe. Ralph Waldo Emerson prophesied, “The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilisation.”
There can be no doubt that the way we are living on the planet is unsustainable, from deforestation to over-fishing, from fracking to polluting the air with noxious chemicals. We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction of life on earth and the first to have been caused by humans. How do we face up to this without becoming overwhelmed?
A recent article in the Guardian caught my attention. It was an interview with social scientist and senior fellow emeritus of the Policy Studies Institute, Mayer Hillman. It was a sobering read. “We’re doomed,” he says, “The outcome is death, and it’s the end of most life on the planet because we’re so dependent on the burning of fossil fuels. There are no means of reversing the process which is melting the polar ice caps. And very few appear to be prepared to say so.” Hillman believes that accepting our civilisation is doomed could make humanity like a terminally ill person. Such people rarely go on binges, but rather do all they can to prolong their lives. He concludes, “We’ve got to stop burning fossil fuels. So many aspects of life depend on fossil fuels, except for music and love and education and happiness. These things, which hardly use fossil fuels, are what we must focus on.”
Hillman mentions the Dark Mountain Project, a collective of writers who publish a journal and have embraced the end of “civilisation” in environmental catastrophe. The Dark Mountain project manifesto includes the following statements:
We live in a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling. All around us are signs that our whole way of living is already passing into history. We will face this reality honestly and learn how to live with it.
We reject the faith which holds that the converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set of ‘problems’ in need of technological or political ‘solutions’.
We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilisation: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature’. These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths.
Environmental Crisis as a Spiritual Crisis
While neither Hillman nor the Dark Mountain Project writers mention the word, perhaps they would agree with my analysis that the environmental crisis is a spiritual crisis. It is a crisis of disconnection, of separation. This crisis has been a long time in the making. As the Dark Mountain Projects points out, it has been fostered by the stories we tell ourselves, the myths in which our society and our religion are grounded.
Even Unitarianism has been culpable in promulgating these dangerous myths. In a sermon in 1886, US Unitarian Minister James Freeman Clarke gave “Five Points of the New Theology: The fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and the progress of mankind onward and upward forever.” These were the basis of Unitarianism until after the First World War. Most of us would probably regard this statement as outdated now, yet we must recognise that it is still the basis of the prevailing philosophy underpinning the economic model of the West, neo-liberalism.
Thankfully Unitarianism has evolved since the nineteenth century! One of the principles embraced by Unitarians today is, “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” It seems to me that this emphasis on interconnectedness is the key to healing the spiritual crisis of our time.
My shamanic teachers, Jason and Nicola Smalley of The Way of the Buzzard, talk of fostering the five Cs in their work: community, connection, celebration, creativity and ceremony. A similar list to the one Mayer Hillman says that we must focus on. These are the things that give our lives meaning in the midst of chaos. These are the things I find in our spiritually nourishing Unitarian community.
The approaches of Hillman, the Dark Mountain Project and the Smalleys all have some similarities with that of Buddhist and Deep Ecologist Joanna Macy, and Psychologist Chris Johnstone in their book Active Hope. The premise of their work is that we can choose our response to whatever situation we face. Active Hope is a process of three steps we can apply to any situation. First, we take a clear view of reality; second, we identify what we hope for in terms of the direction we’d like things to move in or the values we’d like to see expressed; and third, we take steps to move ourselves or our situation in that direction. Active Hope doesn’t require our optimism – we can apply it even in areas where we feel hopeless. The guiding impetus is intention; we choose what we aim to bring about, act for, or express. Rather than weighing our chances and proceeding only when we feel hopeful, we focus on our intention and let it be our guide.
Macy and Johnstone agree that our perceptions are shaped by which story we identify with and identify three stories being enacted in our time –
- Business As Usual – this story assumes that there is little need to change the way we live and that economic growth is essential for prosperity.
- The Great Unravelling – this story draws attention to the disasters that Business as Usual is taking us toward and those it has already brought about. It is the story of the collapse of ecological and social systems, the disturbance of climate, the depletion of resources, and the mass extinction of species.
- The Great Turning – this story is embodied by those who know the first story is leading us to catastrophe and who refuse the let the second story have the last word. Involving the emergence of new and creative responses, it tells of the multifaceted transition from an industrial society committed to economic growth to a life-sustaining society committed to the healing and recovery of our world. The central plot is the gift of Active Hope.
They identify three dimensions of the Great Turning:
- Holding Actions, which aim to protect what is left of our natural life-support systems and counter the unravelling of our social fabric. Holding actions are essential; they save lives. But by themselves, they are not enough for the Great Turning to occur. Along with stopping the damage, we need to replace or transform the systems that cause the harm. This is the work of the second dimension.
- Life-Sustaining Systems and Practices, which involve a creative redesign of the structures and systems that make up our society. Through our choices about how to travel, where to shop, what to buy and how to save, we shape the development of this new economy. Social enterprises, micro-energy projects, sustainable agriculture, and ethical financial systems all contribute to the rich patchwork quilt of a life-sustaining society. But by themselves they are not enough. These new structures won’t take root and survive without deeply ingrained values to sustain them. Cultivating and sustaining these values is the work of the third dimension.
- Shift in Consciousness, which nurtures and develops our connected self, deepening our sense of belonging in the world. Like trees extending their root systems, we can grow in connection, thus allowing ourselves to draw from a deeper pool of strength and courage. By strengthening our compassion, we give fuel to our courage and determination. In the past, changing the self and changing the world were often regarded as separate endeavours. But in the story of the Great Turning, they are recognized as mutually reinforcing and essential to one another.
Tide is Turning
I believe that the tide is turning. The Great Turning is gaining momentum. From Greta Thunberg’s school strikes for the climate to Extinction Rebellion to the launch of the New Zealand government’s wellbeing budget, which puts health and life satisfaction rather than GDP or economic growth at the centre of its economic policy, the voices calling for our transition to a life-sustaining world are multiplying.
Our awareness of the interconnectivity of all life underpins this movement towards a life-sustaining society. To take sustainable agriculture as an example, practices such as organic farming, permaculture and especially rewilding, where we understand ourselves as part of nature, not above it and separate from it, are our best hope of a sustainable future for life on earth.
So let us stop telling ourselves the old stories of how humans are above and beyond nature. Let us stop telling ourselves the old stories of the necessity of progress. These stories no longer serve us. Instead, let us tell ourselves the story of interconnection, the story of how we are an integral part of the whole, which flourishes through co-operation not competition. Let us stop telling ourselves the story of the pyramid = the story of hierarchy, of patriarchy, of man at the top and all else below. Let us begin again to tell ourselves the story of the circle, the sphere, the earth, the sun and the moon – the story of cycles, of inclusion, of wholeness.
When we inhabit the circle story we act from love and compassion. We understand that, in the interconnected web of being, all acts of love and compassion make a difference – if I pick up a piece of plastic litter, thus preventing a mouse, say, from becoming trapped in it – my act of love and compassion may not affect climate change, but it makes all the difference in the world to the mouse.
I am reminded of the story by Loren Eiseley of the star-fish on the beach. Thousands of star-fish have been washed up on the beach after a storm and a girl is throwing them back into the sea, one by one. People watch her. A man asks her what she is doing and points out that there are far too many star-fish for her to make a difference. She picks up another star-fish, throws it back into the sea and says, “I made a difference to that one.” So the man joined the little girl in throwing starfish back into the sea. Soon others joined in and all the starfish were saved.
The Dark Mountain project manifesto concludes, “The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we will find the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.”