As many of you know, I was a student of Thomas Berry whose perspective provides a framework for transforming our dysfunctional relationship with the planet. The ‘great work of our time,’ he has said, is to reinvent the human in a way that will foster (or recover, perhaps) mutually enhancing human-earth relations and apply this to everything we do from the personal to the societal and the planetary.
When he died in 2009, four of us who had studied with Thomas, formed the Berry Forum for Ecological Dialogue as our way of contributing to this great work. One way we do this is by convening conferences that explore Berry’s vision in the context of the various aspects of human life. A recent such gathering, called ‘Hope and Healing in the Anthropocene,’ addressed formal healthcare as well as healing in a more general sense.
Anthropos is the Greek word for ‘human,’ so the ‘anthropocene’ is understood as ‘relating to or denoting the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.’ The challenges that this period presents to all of us is clearly impacting health on many levels from individual stress to declining populations of pollinators.
We began the conference by laying out our desired outcomes for the gathering that included an understanding of what is really going on beneath all the rhetoric around climate change and its impacts. Bro. Kevin Cawley – the Executive Director of the Berry Forum – set the scene by quoting from the powerful Encyclical (Laudato Si) of Pope Francis who remains one of the few world leaders to offer direction on this unprecedented challenge:
‘…the urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development (13).
Berry Forum co-founder, Dr. Brian Brown, showed how Thomas Berry’s vision is at the heart of any true response:
‘The glory of the human has become the desolation of the Earth and now the desolation of the Earth is becoming the destiny of the human. From here on, the primary judgment of all human institutions, professions, programs and activities will be determined by the extent to which they inhibit, ignore, or foster a mutually-enhancing human/Earth relationship.’
Sr. Kathleen Deignan – co-founder number three – pointed to the kind of resources that we have in our various religious and philosophical traditions, while co-founder number four – myself – spoke of the essential importance of coming together to form ‘communities of possibility’ in order to take on this amazing task of reinventing the human.
The keynote speaker, Professor Mary Beth Morrissey, a phenomenologist who has explored the phenomenon of suffering, described our present situation of fragmentation, polarization, confusion, chaos and violence, as caused by the loss of the maternal ground that enables us to live in the face of the mystery of existence. In other words, we suffer because we no longer feel connected to the world we live in or to each other. Instead we feel a loss of home which makes our crisis an ecological one in the deepest sense (Eco or oikos means ‘home’). The only real resolution of this challenge then lies in remembering our maternal roots and returning to a sense of home. Elements of this response include fostering experiences of interconnectedness through holding (nurturing) environments, characterized by empathic listening, that enable us to access our indigenous (in the sense of innate) wisdom. Implied is a new way of being together that will enable us to thrive as well as survive: to ‘flourish’ in the sense that Aristotle gave to the word of doing and living well.
Professor Morrissey clearly reflected the vision of Thomas Berry, adding to it the reality – the phenomenon – of suffering that is involved now in the collapse of an old order and in the emergence of a new one. The other speakers took up the task of reflecting on what this – being together in a new way – entails.
Dr. Orla Cashman spoke of the power of connection for shifting the sometimes overwhelming energy of anxiety and enabling us to find balance, inside and out. She led us in an exercise of listening to our bodies – to the stress and anxiety we feel and the thoughts they engender – and then to take a ‘flash inventory.’ She then asked us how we felt which, of course, was nervous, enervated, depressed, etc. She continued by inviting us to find a stranger and to share with them something we are anxious about. When we had finished this exchange she asked us once again to take a quick inventory of our feelings and thoughts. This time, the responses were positive: like curious, excited….
What had caused the change she asked? People suggested things like: getting out of my head; being listened to; being vulnerable. Concerning the latter, someone spoke of tears, and how her partner’s crying had caused – or allowed – her to cry. Another added that there was actually power in the vulnerability.
Orla noted how the energy in the room had shifted from tense to relaxed, and from low to high energy – even joy. It was as if, she added, oxytocin – the so-called ‘love hormone’ – had been released in us. Connecting to another actually enables me to connect to my own deep wisdom and the power it brings. The heart of addressing anxiety and panic, which emerge from the uncertainty (angst) of the vast unknown (pan), is connecting: with others, with the world, and essentially (through these) with oneself.
Professor Diane Abatemarco who spoke about her work with addiction, specifically addicted mothers, at Jefferson Memorial Hospital in Philadelphia, pointed to mindfulness as her core tool for helping the mothers rediscover what Professor Morrissey had earlier called their ‘lost maternal ground.’ Addiction to opioids is now the biggest killer in the country, Diane began, while, among mothers, addiction of this nature has increased 500% within a couple of decades. She reflected on how this has happened: how, after the booming economy of the 50s and 60s and the development of the various elements of a strong safety net for the vulnerable, deregulation and the myth of trickledown economics, initiated by Ronald Reagan, caused the economy to shrink in the 70s and 80s and undid the social safety net that had taken years to establish. The result was an increase in alcohol and drugs among young parents that resulted in increased neglect of and trauma for the children who are the adults – and addicted mothers – of today.
Diane’s program – Maternal Addiction Treatment Education and Research (MATER) – focuses on Mindfulness as its essential approach, with the methadone that assists withdrawal from the addiction, seen as a support rather than a solution. She noted that Mindfulness allows the mothers to access their executive function and the choices it enables in order to counter the limbic – ‘fight or flight’ – response that otherwise drives their actions. She spoke of how many of the women who went through the intensive 30 day program spoke of rediscovering their lost capacity to mother from the mindfulness-inspired experience of the maternal ground that underpins all life. They felt a sense of coming back home where they could find themselves and access their innate mothering wisdom.
The conversation that followed touched on how addiction of all kinds is part of our (lack of) response to the enormous challenges that the Anthropocene has brought us. Mindfulness is a critical component of accessing the capacity to address these challenges in a way that can get to the heart of the matter as Berry describes it.
Other speakers described how people were doing this in real life concrete situations: for example, with ‘small acts of kindness’ in places that range from Fukushima, where a Tsunami caused a nuclear accident whose proportions are only partly appreciated, to local communities in this country where citizens are participating in programs like the Zero Waste products we used for our conference lunch.
Dr. Karen Killeen described what she called ‘resilience tools’ that can help us find internal balance by awakening ‘the intentional field’ and the ‘energy of centration’ that Teilhard deChardin described in terms of ‘love.’ Dr. Killeen spoke of this period – the Anthropocene – as a transition space when the veil between worlds (or dimensions) is thinner making it easier to access this energy. As the English playwright wrote:
Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to face us everywhere,
Never to leave us till we take
The longest stride of soul we ever took.
Dr. Vin Maher added what he called ‘modern beatitudes’ that we need to regulate and direct our actions in this complicated period of our journey.
In Berry’s words, the tools for doing the Great Work of reinventing the human are story and shared dream experience. He is referring to the story of the universe that provides the framework and foundation for our lives, and the energies of the universe that empower us to dream new possibilities together. In other words, we can only address the challenges of our ‘anthropocene’ epoch by orienting ourselves within the coherence of the Universe Story. While this seems a daunting mission to say the least, the longer I live and the more I experience the effects of our present human systems and institutions, the more it becomes clear that this indeed is the only way forward.
Throughout the conference, which was truly a conversation, we used music and poetry and art, and silence and mindfulness to help us experience what we were discussing. We finished our sharing in this fashion with a ritual of anointing each other for the work we must undertake for ourselves and for our children.
I had used a poem by Rilke as a kind of thread for weaving our words and experiences together throughout the day.
I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.
I want to free what waits within me
so that what no one has dared to wish for
may for once spring clear
without my contriving.
If this is arrogant, God forgive me,
but this is what I need to say.
May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back,
the way it is with children.
Then in these swelling and ebbing currents,
these deepening tides moving out, returning.
I will sing you as no one ever has,
streaming through widening channels
into the open sea.
This, I suggested, is the spirit we need to bring to our efforts: the realization that we have what we need to survive and thrive, if we could get out of our own way and become more like the creative children we are at our best. Then we can move through this present transition in a way that allows us to be more alive, more human, more beautiful expressions of the One whose children we all are.