I spent Easter Sunday attending a retreat at Spirit Rock with Joanna Macy – she’s the godmother of Earth-based spiritual activism. It was a beautiful and moving day.
Macy reminded us that we are at an unprecedented time in the history of mankind – a suicidal time, in which we are “devouring the physical, natural, ecological basis of our own existence.” As we come to recognize this, the system begins to lose its coherence and starts to unravel. Thus we are witnesses to the “Great Unraveling” – which then gives rise to the “Great Turning” – when people devoted to the health of the planet come together to create a massive revolution – a revolution in which we transition from an economy of growing industry to an economy of sustaining life.
While she was speaking, I thought about the great majority of Christian churches, and certainly the vast majority of Episcopal churches, that continue on with a "business as usual" approach. I was reminded of the Romans who, even as the barbarians approached the gates, were convinced that the "Eternal City" could never fall.
During a meditation, Macy quoted the 8th Century Buddhist monk Shantideva: “Let all sorrows ripen in me.” She explored the Buddhist notion that compassion means not being afraid of suffering; that mindfulness involves the ability to face into suffering without fear or denial. She talked about the pharmaceutical companies that have “pathologized suffering” - making vast profits on the illusion that suffering must be avoided at all costs - whereas meditation practice can help us bear suffering with open hearts and open eyes.
“Blessed are those who mourn,” she said, quoting Jesus in the Beatitudes. “At times like this, it’s good to have a big messy heart. And anger too.”
As many times as I’ve sat with the Beatitudes, I’ve never heard that interpretation before. It struck me as such a healthier spiritual practice than what Christians are typically offered. It’s a psychology of living in reality; of moving through sorrow into compassionate, fearless action – rather than the psychology of magical thinking that pervades so much Christian tradition. The story of the resurrection, as powerful as it is, also teaches the illusion that all tragedy ends happily. From the Exodus to the final Revelation, the Bible is replete with stories of God intervening to save the day.
Our commitment to the illusion of happy endings is so deep within us that when we see a movie in which the good guy does not win in the end, we feel cheated and disturbed. Only recently, as we enter the Great Unraveling, are we seeing shows, such as “Game of Thrones,” that feature “good guys” getting killed as often, if not more often, than the “bad guys.” As our fundamental notions about hope and heroism shift, we are finally opening ourselves to the notion that our story may well end in defeat, not victory - and that can't stop us from acting heroically.
Humanity as we know it may very well come to an end, on our watch. It is clear that God is not going to come down from on high to rescue us. We know there have been mass extinctions before, and we know we are not exempt. We need spiritual communities that help us face the reality our situation while sparking our capacity for hopeful action.
Thus the title of one of Joanna Macy’s books: Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In without Going Crazy. About this, she said, “Hope is not something you have. Hope is something you do. You can act without hope, in a hopeful way. Hope is what you choose to put your attention to.”
Quoting a 12th Century Tibetan prophecy, Macy is hoping, without illusions, for an army of “Shambhala warriors” to rise up. “Now is the time for Shambhala warriors to go into training. They carry two weapons: compassion, and insight into the interdependence of all phenomena. You need both. When you’re not afraid of the suffering of the world, nothing can stop you. Compassion gives you that. But the insight of interdependence is needed to prevent burn-out. You need the heat of compassion and the cool of insight/wisdom.”
I wonder if our churches can learn from these great spiritual traditions, so that we can finally get over our hysterical denial and become Shambhala warriors. Can we develop the tools of insight and compassion the earth so desperately needs? I am hoping, without illusions, to do my part.