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How to cope with the ecological degradation of our planet, with news about climate change, pollution, extinction of species and disappearance of ancient forests reaching us on a daily basis? Is it possible to find courage and hope amidst this global crisis?
“Coming back to life: The updated guide to The Work that Reconnects” by Joanna Macy and Molly Brown is one of the essential guidebooks for our times: a collection of group practices to assist us in navigating through this turbulent period in human history. These practices are designed to help us become aware of and honour all of our emotional responses to the current state of the world, such as grief, pain, fear, anger, numbness, apathy or hope, which often remain unacknowledged. The Work that Reconnects (WTR) encourages us to look within and stay present with our experience, to be witnessed by a supportive group, and to bear witness to what is shared by others. Through this process of reconnecting to ourselves and each other, we are able to move through challenging emotions, rather than becoming stuck. This then allows for releasing new energy to act, considering novel perspectives, and developing “active hope”: hope not rooted in naivety or wishful thinking, but in meaningful, creative actions.
I know I will not be alone in saying that the current state of the world brings me down at times. While the human race has achieved amazing things – from walking on the Moon, through creating music and art, to carrying out life-saving surgeries – we still have a lot to learn on how to respect and care for our natural environment and for one another. Before discovering the world of informal education, I had spent over a decade in the field of social sciences, first as a student, and then academic researcher, trying to understand the problems that haunt our society and our planet. Over time, I became increasingly disheartened by observing how slow and reluctant we were to act, despite the mounting evidence that we were overexploiting the Earth’s resources and reaching the limit of our planet’s capacity to support us. I was beginning to lose hope, seeing how we carried on with “business-as-usual”, not only undermining the ecological balance necessary for our survival, but also perpetuating immense suffering on countless species and people around the world.
As I began to deepen into my meditation practice and exploring other solutions to the environmental problems, I got an opportunity to attend a series of WTR workshops, which took place during a gathering that brought together green activists, Buddhists and members of the public concerned with the state of the environment. Over the course of four days, we took part in practices from all four components of this approach. We began with gratitude: by reflecting on the evolutionary journey that brought us to this moment and on the strength, resilience and vulnerability of the human form. We tapped into a sense of wonder for being alive as sentient beings and shared stories of the feelings of awe and beauty we experienced in nature in our lives. Strengthened by this experience, we were ready for day two, which brought a practice called “the Truth Mandala”. I was able to connect, for the first time with such clarity and intensity, with a whole spectrum of emotions that I feel in relation to the environmental crisis – and to witness the emotions of others. Later, we discussed how this shared experience allowed us to develop a sense of connection and collective power, feeling moved and comforted by each other’s sharing. Day three took us to the third component of WTR: “Seeing with new eyes”. We reflected on how the future generations may look back at this moment in history, through writing an imaginary letter to ourselves from a human of the future. This “Deep Time” perspective brought greater clarity and acceptance regarding the tasks put in front of us in this lifetime. Another exercise involved putting ourselves in the shoes of someone who holds opposite views to us, e.g. a CEO of a company responsible for the clearing of the Amazon rainforest, and imagine their point of view, considering their needs, feelings and likely concerns. To me, this is a particularly crucial aspect of WTR: the invitation to empathise with everyone, to discover our interconnectedness and shared humanity with all, in the Buddhist spirit of never casting anyone out of our hearts. Finally, on the last day, we considered how we can use our individual talents and skills to contribute to the healing of the world, through a number of practices that made the steps ahead seem less daunting and more manageable.
WTR allowed me to feel a spark of renewed hope for the future. It helped me realise that there is a sea of ever-changing emotions that arise in us in response to what is happening to our world, including fear, sorrow, anger, hope, confusion or numbness/apathy. For some, these feelings go largely unacknowledged at the conscious level, for others, they may be overwhelming. Little by little, I began to recognize and develop compassion for these emotions, both in myself, and in others. I believe that as long as we stay present with our experience and try our best to empathically connect with each other during this time of crisis and transformation, we can begin to live up to our full potential as a human family endowed with self-reflective consciousness. WTR showed me the power of giving space to voicing emotions that we experience at this turbulent moment in human history, and perhaps here lies one of the keys to ensuring a sustainable future: rather than excluding feelings from rational conversations and political debates, let’s invite them to the table with kind curiosity. Perhaps creative solutions and ways out of old conflicts will emerge, when we start to embrace the fullness of human experience. Practicing meditation, mindfulness and compassionate communication techniques, such as Nonviolent Communication, can help assist us in this process. In my personal life, I discovered that talking about the environment in a way that includes needs and feelings tends to be more effective, and less contentious, than conversations limited to facts. As Jane Goodall, the famous British primatologist, once said: “Only when our clever brain and our human heart work together in harmony can we achieve our true potential.”
What are some of the things that you love about being alive on Earth? What are some of the places in nature that are special to you? Why?
What is it that concerns you most about the world today? Spend some time writing down your thoughts and feelings about this issue. Then use your imagination to consider other perspectives, as best as you can, and write them down too, in the first person, using the pronoun “I”: 1) a perspective of a person who holds opposite views on this issue; 2) a perspective of a nonhuman being affected by this issue; 3) the voice of a future human whose life is affected by the decisions made now on this issue.
Remembering that you’re unlikely to solve the global problems alone, and that sometimes even the smallest act of courage and kindness can make a big difference, what natural gifts and skills can you contribute to the collective healing of the world?
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