REINVENTING THE HUMAN

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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.

9 Comments

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    • Danny  - November 9, 2017 - 6:08 am

      Dear Birju, congratulations to you and Anne-Marie. You are already blessed and will bring blessings to your new baby and to us all.
      Danny

  2. Hans  - November 8, 2017 - 1:10 pm

    “Reinventing the Human” is a big challenge; maybe too big for many. I personally prefer the concept of waking up from a self imposed slumber, or even better, releasing ourselves from our imprisonment in a narrow materialistic worldview.
    Irrespective of which semantics we apply, I am in full agreement with the need for dramatic change if we want our species to survive, and I am also thoroughly convinced that a new and amazing, holistic, higher consciousness is available to us through reflection, prayer and intuition, just like the mystics in all the major world religions have assures us through the ages,….and I am even optimistic to trust that such change is already well under way. May it be so.

  3. Danny  - November 9, 2017 - 6:11 am

    Hans, one of the poems I quoted, the piece by Christopher Fry – ‘Thank God our time is now…’ – finishes with the words:
    The enterprise
    Is exploration into God.
    What are you waiting for? It takes
    So many thousand years to wake,
    But will you wake for pity’s sake!

  4. Sue Wootton  - November 9, 2017 - 9:21 am

    What a re-invigorating & happy experience to read your summary of the most recent Berry Forum! It must have been “magic” in all the very best ways – touching mind, body, heart, and soul. Temporarily, the gloom that usually attaches to my perspective of our world today has lifted,thanks to reading your post ( and also to some of the election results this week which do seem to indicate change is possible!!) I know there are many places that would love to adopt this model for a program, but we would need “magical” leaders (and supporters) to make it happen…What about adding a video component next time like Richard Rohr does for his “Conspire” conferences every year? That way, the magic & the message oould reach so many more people!!

    • Danny  - November 11, 2017 - 12:58 pm

      Thanks Sue for your suggestions about web development, like video. Others have suggested Podcasts of the Blogs.
      I suppose it’s fair to say that change happens (the pendulum swings, as we say); so it’s really about being ready and able to respond to it. At this stage of my life, I feel less inclined (and less able, perhaps) to push and push, as I tended to do most of my life, and more inclined to look for the opportunity or opening…The conference IS a good model – I could see it being applied to education or economics as well as healthcare or the environment which is where we typically focus – but I have come to see that it takes a convergence of things to initiate a movement….

  5. Barbara Sarah  - November 10, 2017 - 2:54 pm

    Thanks,Danny, for this inspiring review of the Conference which I was sorry to have had to miss.
    I look forward to ways that we can continue this very important exchange. The Meditation/ Dialogue groups that you have initiated in our community are a very useful format where those conversations can emerge.
    Blessings….I look forward to continuing the thread.
    Barbara

    • Danny  - November 11, 2017 - 1:01 pm

      I just responded to Sue Wootton in terms of looking for convergences. Perhaps, indeed, the meditation-dialogue approach is a possibility. We’ve talked about doing an in-depth session or two as part of the training that is already happening by participation in the monthly sessions. Maybe these are (0ne form of) the ‘Communities of Possibility’ I spoke of at the conference….Thanks Barbara

  6. Diane J. Abatemarco  - November 14, 2017 - 12:07 pm

    You really captured the content and spirit of the forum. I am so grateful to have been invited to participate in this wonderful day! The folks who spoke were inspirational, caring and their was such a sense of connectedness.

    The conference for me personally was sort of a transport to help me move on to even more centered and mindful work. As I am transitioning through a difficult life stage I was comforted in meeting new friends at the Forum who I believe I will continue to connect to and would be happy to work with as well.

    Mindfulness is a way of increasing our ability to use our brains differently and more expansively, more creatively, and most importantly more compassionately. During this time of the “Hope and Healing in the Anthropocene” we need to reestablish neuro-pathways to parts of the brain that enable an orthogonal shift in perception as Jon Kabat Zinn has found. The ability to look through and around a problem, difficulty, or challenge- seeing a situation in a 360 degree view. Allowing us to see solutions that accompany that challenge may, in fact, be essential to rescuing our planet and enhancing the quality of our lives. Mindfulness has been shown to create alternative neurological pathways and it builds an ability to be present and divest ourselves of our egos. And isn’t that helpful to the enable the complex dialogues we need to have with one another?

    Thank you Danny for Dialogue for Life and for helping me to expand my perspective to feel hope for the present and the future.

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