Opening Our Hearts to Life

After a Challenging Year, It's Important to Form Life-Affirming Communities

By John McIlwain

But with all our contemporary tough-mindedness the question is still to be answered: what does man live for? Control of nature, mastery of the cosmos, which is what our world is mainly up to, fails to satisfy the longings of the human heart. It may be that we must in the end redesign and remake the heart.

—Between Wind and Water, Gerald Warner Brace, 1966

As we begin a new year, it is with a great sense of unease. 2017 was officially the third hottest year on record, and the costliest ever in the U.S. The total damage was over $300 billion, and at least 362 people were killed as the U.S. experienced the worst forest fires and hurricanes on record, to say nothing of extensive drought and flooding. We also know that regardless of whatever actions are taken this year internationally, nationally, and locally to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the climate will continue to warm and its impact will intensify for years to come.

The situation we face is not hopeless by any means (see, for example, the fine work of Project Drawdown, and this interview with Paul Hawken) and it is encouraging that most new energy projects underway worldwide are renewables and not carbon-based. That said, the old worldview of scientific materialism and the attempt to master and control nature is still deeply rooted in our collective consciousness. Like any powerful worldview, it takes decades to awaken to the deeper truths of our interconnection with and dependency on all of life and nature.

There are signs of this awakening; signs of what the Buddhist teacher Joanna Macy calls the Great Turning, the “transition from the ‘industrial growth’ society to a ‘life-sustaining’ model.” To fully achieve this, Macy says, requires three pillars, including “Holding Actions,” actions that slow the steady march of our carbon-based consumerism; and “Structural Change,” where new forms of social and economic engagement are being developed. The third pillar required, according to Macy, is a “Shift in Consciousness,” a transformation without which “these structural alternatives cannot take root and survive.” Both Holding Actions and Structural Change need “deeply ingrained values to sustain them.”

Macy writes that these values should “mirror what we want and how we relate to the Earth and each other. They require, in other words, a profound shift in our perception of reality—and that shift is happening now, both as cognitive revolution and spiritual awakening.”

She is not the only one who sees this awakening happening. But as Father Richard Rohr OFM points out, “transformation more often happens not when something new begins but when something old falls apart” and “usually includes a disconcerting reorientation.”

“Change of itself just happens,” he says. “Spiritual transformation is an active process of letting go, living in the confusing dark space for a while, and allowing yourself to be spit up on a new and unexpected shore.”

It is an inward journey of the soul, a journey in which we discover our individual uniqueness as well as our common humanity, as well as experience our intimate interdependence with nature. It’s a journey each person takes on their own, says Father Rohr. In the silence of meditation and prayer “contemplation [that] helps us see ‘beyond the shadow and the disguise’ of things (as Thomas Merton reflected)… so as to perceive reality at its depths.”

In this way we each have a role in the Great Turning. As important as our individual spiritual journeys are to our own awakening and well being, these individual journeys cumulatively add to the growing critical mass within the collective consciousness. As we sit in silent presence, opening our hearts to life, we bring about a subtle yet powerful shift in the collective human heart.

To support this individual work it is important to come together with other internal explorers and join into what Dr. Richard Tarnas, author of The Passion of the Western Mind, calls “Heroic Communities.” These are groups working at the edges of our culture to turn us towards a life-affirming and sustainable path. Before we can build Martin Luther King’s “Beloved Community,” we need many small Beloved Communities that, in time, will form the core of our new culture. Sanghas, prayer circles, and gatherings of all kinds where people come together committed, each in their own way, to the Great Turning, are essential to leverage our individual efforts.

As 2018 begins, and despite my disquiet as we hang on the razor’s edge between hope and despair, I feel great gratitude for the Garrison Institute community and for each of you. For the Garrison Institute is indeed a Heroic Community, one of many that are working to open the human heart and bending us toward the Great Turning.

John McIlwain is an advisor to the Garrison Institute’s Climate Mind and Behavior program.

Photo courtesy of Mario Purisic on Unsplash

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