charles eisenstein

a world without us?

It’s not an uncommon speculation these days: wouldn’t the world be much better off if human beings just disappeared one day in a puff of smoke?

Seemingly intractable conflicts, impoverished communities, runaway viruses, marine dead zones, corrupt leaders, depleted aquifers, crises of financial systems and of the climate … there seems to be no end to the mess we’ve made of every life-sustaining system under the sun.

 

Planet Earth – how to thrive

While every other organism on Earth appears to know its place in the web of life, we are the only ones who don’t seem to have read the Earthlings’ Manual on How to Thrive:

  • Principle number one: everything is connected … and no, you are not actually independent or separate;
  • Principle number two: everything cycles … and no, the Universe is not linear and hoarding isn’t cool;
  • Principle number three: cooperation rules … and no, competition is not the only game in town.

 

Sacred Economics

SAFCEI’s[1] recent workshop on Sacred Economics facilitated by Charles Eisenstein[2] was an opportunity to take a quizzical look at many of the assumptions upon which we have built the now crumbling edifice of the dominant global ‘civilisation’.

charles eisenstein
Charles Eisenstein & his book Sacred Economics
http://newparadigmdigest.com/category/compassion-in-action/

 

In a financial system that creates money out of debt, growth can only continue while there are so-called ‘resources’ to exploit and ‘under-developed’ (or self-reliant) communities to transform into consumers. As we scratch the bottom of the barrel for toothfish and shale gas, and as the scramble for markets drags small-scale farmers into debt and into ghettos, so we inch ever closer to being consumed by the cancer of our own consumerism.

As I write this, a newsletter arrives from WWF. It tells me that Earth Overshoot Day[3] was marked on 19 August this year. For the rest of 2014 we are living beyond the planet’s means. We truly are in debt.

A social system built on individualism and competition becomes fraught with loneliness, comparison and fear. Our shrinking family units can no longer rely on extended family or community support. It’s every person for themselves. The fear that nobody really cares enough to be there for us when we are in need, demands that we spend ever-more hours at the office so that we can afford to insure ourselves against every imaginable risk.

Our reluctance to share requires that each suburban garden shed houses its own lawnmower. And in order that our children are able to out-compete the opposition and one day also insure themselves against every eventuality, we work even harder to give them the best education credit can buy.

And so we find ourselves nearing the end of another 5,000-year cycle of civilisation.

 

aldo_leopold
http://www.unique-design.net/library/seperation.html

A new and ancient story

Charles Eisenstein is a story-teller. More than that, he is story advocate. Leaving his workshop, I felt the need to start co-creating with those who also sense the urgency, the chapters of a new story; a story that can inspire and enable us to live and thrive together with all of Creation.

This story is not altogether new. Many traditional and intentional communities, ecologists, permaculture practitioners, transition-towners, grandparents and good neighbours are already living the experiment. There are many whose everyday lives reflect the principles of connectedness, cycles, and cooperation.

 

Alert to the language of complicity

Charles alerted us to the fact that, even within the environmental movement, our language and behaviour belie how deeply we remain embedded within the tired old story of separation. Perhaps we don’t believe that we will be heard unless we translate our deepest longings into the language of commerce.

So we speak of ‘natural resources’ and ‘natural capital’, as if nature were simply a source of materials and experiences to be extracted and consumed. We desperately seek an economic justification for nature, unwittingly buying in to the myth that ‘if it pays, it stays.’

And our belief that we are somehow separate from, and superior to, the rest of nature paves the way for a managerial relationship between us. We are in charge, and we know what’s needed.

 

separation
http://www.unique-design.net/library/seperation.html

 

We are not separate

If we think of ourselves as separate and in charge, then the idea that the earth would be better off without us makes sense. We’ve failed in our responsibilities to Earth’s shareholders, so let’s de-list from the stock exchange, fire the board, and retrench the management team.

But we are not separate. We are an integral part of the Earth system.

Perhaps, after centuries of believing in the myth of rational materialism, we have simply forgotten what all our ancestors once knew: that the Earth is sacred, and that we, like the rest of the Earth community, are ensouled.

We may feel that we have lost the facility to engage humbly with the rest of the Earth community, but this is only temporary. We can all ‘return to our senses’ and, through closely observing nature’s lawfulness, remember how to listen, learn and live.

 

What is our gift to the Earth?

A natural ecosystem exists by virtue of the reciprocal relationships between its members. This is what allows systems to flourish and remain relatively stable over long periods of time.

As human beings, we have seen ourselves for far too long as standing triumphantly at the pinnacle of the ecological pyramid. All of nature has lain at our feet. The arrows representing matter and energy have all pointed upwards. Our appetites have been insatiable.

energy pyramid 1
Ecological pyramid image from:
http://www.seafriends.org.nz/enviro/soil/depend.htm

 

But what have we really given in return?

When I hear people exclaim that it would be better for nature if humans were no more, I wonder. If we did all disappear, what would the rest of Nature miss?

Certainly, the Earth does not need us to garden, to neaten and tend her incomparable beauty. There is no garden more ravishing than the wild. And she does not need us to tame, domesticate or ‘improve’ her. Those are our fantasies.

I do believe, though, that were we all to disappear Nature would yearn for what are (possibly) our unique human gifts of witnessing, appreciating, loving, and standing in awe of her.

I believe that Nature would feel bereft were we no longer present to witness the rising sun; were spring to pass without deep appreciation being given for the flowers of the field; were human hearts no longer to beat their coherent vibrations of love and compassion; and were we no longer to stand in awe of what we identify as Nature’s power and magnificence.

And so, on the material level, perhaps we have very little to offer the more-than-human world, beyond trying to tidy up the mess that we have created. But what if we could admit that we are not in charge – that in fact we have no clue how to go on from here – and offer to Nature that which is most deeply human about us: our humility, our creativity, and our love?

summer of peace

Image from: http://summerofpeace.net/spirituality-peace/

[1] SAFCEI – the Southern African Faith Communities Environmental Institute

[2] http://safcei.org/sacred-economics-money-gift-and-society-in-an-age-of-transition/

[3] Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity’s footprint in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate. The date is moving progressively earlier from 1 October in 2000 to 19 August this year. http://www.wwf.org.za/media_room/news/?11662/Earth-Overshoot-Day-2014

 

spiral

Self-care for Earth carers

The path of caring

To be human is to belong, and care is both the expression and the gift of our connectedness. Heart-felt care motivates us to make our best contributions in life. And expressing care not only feels good but is actually good for us, having been shown to strengthen the immune system!

The environmental movement is made up of millions of people who dedicate their lives to caring for every conceivable facet of life on Earth. In responding to the ‘call of the world’, we envisage a better future, characterised by values of sustainability, wholeness, beauty, peace and respect. Living into that vision gives our lives meaning.

earthhugSource: http://www.co.whatcom.wa.us/publicworks/solidwaste/events/kids.jsp

For some of us, though, the caring path leads to a place of disillusionment that feels very different from the vision of wholeness that first inspired us. Issues loom ever larger, and our impact feels insignificant. We can end up burned out, even cynical, feeling that our efforts have been in vain.

Care or over-care?

Doc Childre, the founder of the Institute of HeartMath® [http://www.heartmath.org], explains that it is not care, but rather ‘over-care’ that leads us to this dark place. Over-care happens when care becomes laced with worry and anxiety, and when we over-identify with our particular vision of how the world should be.

Over-care feels to me like the cause of a condition that is well recognised in the healthcare sector, namely ‘compassion fatigue’. Many people working with trauma victims experience a reduction in the feeling of compassion over time. They experience stress and anxiety, emotional numbness, and feelings of hopelessness and negativity. People who are particularly conscientious, perfectionist and self-giving are most at risk of developing compassion fatigue and experiencing the negative impacts of the resultant chronic stress.

Environmentalists have much in common with healthcare workers. Both face daily reminders of trauma and loss – whether to people or the planet. And much of this trauma and loss could be avoided if only we behaved differently. Perhaps it’s time that we who care for the Earth learn from our healthcare colleagues about recognising the signs of over-care, so that we too can avoid falling prey to compassion fatigue.

anxietySource: http://www.edmontonjournal.com/health/Anxiety+rooted+area+brain+previously+thought+curb+stress/9472153/story.html

One feature of over-care is over-identification with the object of our concern, and fixation on a particular outcome. We live in an outcomes-based world, where it is common practice to set a goal, work hard to achieve it, and then evaluate how closely we have come to realising that goal. This linear thinking may be helpful when developing an operational plan, but in everyday life many outcomes are beyond our control. It can be devastating to hold ourselves personally responsible for achieving goals like ensuring the happiness of a partner, the longevity of a patient, or the survival of a species. While the caring response motivates us to do all we can for the good of another, it is over-care that demands that our intentions for the other are fully realised. Being attached to a particular outcome sets us up not only to fail, but also to be blind to the wisdom and possibility inherent in an unintended outcome.

The other feature of over-care is that it is tainted with anxiety and worry. Of course we are affected emotionally when we observe suffering and loss. But dwelling in this state will actually undermine our ability to continue caring. In order to address over-care so that we can again care with resilience, determination and compassion, we need to make time for self-care. In addition to looking after our physical bodies and having a social support system, one of the most effective things we can do to become more resilient is to acknowledge our feelings (or our lack of them), and to commit to a regular centring practice.

Neutralising over-care

In this regard, HeartMath offers one of the simplest practices of all, called ‘Neutral’. It is a process of ‘heart-focused breathing’, which takes only a few minutes, can be done anywhere, and consists of just two steps:

  1. Heart focus: if you find yourself getting irritated or angry, or ruminating about some environmental issue, take a few minutes to turn your attention to the centre of your chest, to the area of your heart.
  2. Heart-focused breathing: once your attention is focused in your heart area, start breathing deeply, regularly and evenly. Imagine that the breath is entering and leaving your body through your heart. The ideal rhythm for heart-focused breathing is to breathe in for five seconds and out for five seconds, but find a rhythm that feels easy for you. Continue with heart-focused breathing for three to five minutes, and then check how you feel.

This simple technique helps us to shift our attention away from our busy, anxious, judgmental thoughts and towards the heart – that place in the body that we recognise as the seat of love, wisdom and courage. As we continue to practise, we become ever more familiar with the peace, security and non-judgmental nature of the present – and can escape the trap of past regrets and future fears.

On a physiological level, Neutral helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the body’s relaxation response) and to regulate our heart rhythms. A regular heart rhythm pattern informs the brain and body that it is not under threat, and this decreases the production of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, resulting in an increased sense of calm (did you experience this?). When the system is calm, the thinking and creative centres of the brain can operate more effectively, making us more likely to come up with wise, innovative solutions.

The rhythm of conscious love

It is interesting to understand the impact of Neutral on the body, but the practice of regular, heart-focused breathing may be even more valuable as a model of how to care. Breath is the essence of our earthly life: our first and last breaths bracket our experience of life. Between them lies the constant ebb and flow of out-breath and in-breath. Like the interplay of yin and yang, each requires the other for completeness. Observing our breath we learn how to shift from over-care to resilient care.

breathe in … feel the pain of those who suffer … breathe out … release the pain …
breathe in … make your plans … breathe out … relinquish control …
breathe in … take action …breathe out … be still …
breathe in … take time to care for yourself … breathe out … take time to care for others …

The path of Conscious Love (Agape) described by Cynthia Bourgeault [www.contemplative.org] follows this rhythm too, being the product of both passion and longing (Eros), and non-clinging relinquishment (Kenosis).

And so may our love and care for the Earth grow ever more conscious and resilient, as we learn to dance between our determined desires for the planet, and open-hearted acceptance of a deeper and unexpected wisdom.

nature rainbow

know sorrow, find joy

You who love this miraculous Earth, will you allow yourself to grieve?

It’s a Friday morning and I’m at another workshop, hungry for insights and skills that I can integrate into my life-coaching practice. I tell myself that I’m only here because I may learn something that could help my clients. I don’t really need a workshop on Grieving and Healing Loss. Or so I think.

It’s been a while since I have lost anyone close to me. So when we’re asked to explain what brought us to the workshop, it’s not the loss of a person that comes to mind. Instead, I find myself speaking about the Earth. So many losses … the daily erosion of wild places and people’s traditions, the whittling away of diversity, the poisoning of air and water, the fraying of nature’s web. The group listens quietly and attentively. I begin to cry.

Others also describe their losses – of loved ones, long careers, self-respect, and more. Our vulnerability sanctifies the space and allows us to face emotions we can’t even remember having buried.

Experiencing loss can be traumatic. And often in modern society we experience this trauma alone, without family, community or rituals to support us. So we do the best we can – we stiffen the upper lip, dissociate, rage, blame, justify, numb – anything to save ourselves from drowning in the fullness of our grief.

I realise that I have reacted in many ways to avoid falling into the pit of environmental grief. I have intellectualised environmental issues and sought rational solutions. I have resorted to feverish effort, which certainly helped to distract me from the pain of loss. I have experienced anxiety, frustration and anger at our apparent reluctance to live simply on a finite planet. And having seen, felt and reasoned too much, I have also withdrawn. Seeking the safety of bland emotions, I have experienced the numbness of depression. In truth, until this workshop, I have not felt ready to face and honour my grief about the Earth. But I am ready now, prepared by many quiet hours alone in nature, and by practices that have brought my attention back to my heart.

The facilitator asks us to write a letter to that which we have lost. After writing, we read our letters to the group. In expressing how important my relationship with the Earth is to me, how much I value it, and how much I miss what is being lost, I finally recognise that beneath all the fear, anger, rationalising, activity and numbness lies a deep pit of grief.

I fall into that pit. I fill it with my tears. But I do not drown. Instead, I float in a pool of compassion – in the shared humanity of all of us in that group who have known loss, who have done what we could to survive, and who now experience the unexpected gifts of grief – the experience of our own courage, and an expanded capacity for joy.

Many years ago, my mother shared with me a quote from Kahlil Gibran. It comes back to me now: The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. So this is what she was talking about. We don’t experience joy by avoiding pain. We can’t numb our emotions selectively. If we want to fully identify with this Earth, then our hearts need to open wide to both the grief and the joy of belonging.

I feel that I have had a taste of what Joanna Macy writes about in her book Coming back to life – practices to reconnect our lives, our world. She points to the profound existential changes that occur when we own and use, rather than repress, our pain for the world.

For years I was not able to face my grief about the despoliation of the Earth. I retreated into my head where it felt safer. I thought that I could work things out rationally. But it was not enough. I am one with the Earth. This is a relationship of love – and like any deep love it will both fill my heart with joy, and devastate it with sorrow.

There is a stirring in my heart. Such is the mystery of love.

 

Image

http://www.sages.ac.uk/sages/studentships/image_gallery/general

A letter to the Earth

Dear Mother Earth

You mean everything to me. You are my home, the source of my life, my hope for the future, my muse. The picture of you hanging in the emptiness of space enchants me. That paper-thin atmosphere, held close by the attraction of your gravity, is my breath, my food. I love you, I value you, I thank you.

Your body is infinitely complex and beautiful – and I am part of that – a unique piece of that fractal experience. Being part of the community of life is an exquisite experience of liveliness. Oh, how I love you!

Yet I fear that our collective life is under threat. I see your beauty overtaken by dullness and ugliness; your diversity reduced to banality; opportunity and possibility diminished as innumerable connections are severed.

I grieve that children are no longer able to enjoy nature, playtime, creaturely friends and imagination outside their back doors. I fear that we are becoming an indoor species, no longer able to access the wisdom of the wind, the water, the soil creatures, the birds; no longer aware of the changing tides, the cycles of the moon, the seasons, or how day transmutes into night.

You, oh Earth, are part of me and I am part of you. We are one. When you are depleted, desecrated, disrespected, so am I. And yet, you are mighty. It is we who are puny … these tiny bodies scratching around on your surface, invisible to the gaze of satellites. We are here by your grace, and one day, we may be gone.

But you, oh Earth, will remain. Your resilience is miraculous. Life will flourish once again, as after all previous mass extinctions. You have your great cycles – your long breaths, in and out. We see traces of other civilisations that built proud monuments before learning humility … and returning to the soil. Their bones, their ashes, their ancient exhalations are within us now. The eternal cycle turns.

Death is certain. Rebirth is certain. When my bones, my ashes, my final exhalation, have been given up into the care of your warm lap, may you receive me and embody me once more in the Great Web of Being.

Angeles tree

For Angeles – honouring a fallen elder

On 24 April 2014, Dr Angeles Arrien passed away. Angeles was a cultural anthropologist, whose research into the symbols, myths and practices of indigenous people drew attention to the high degree of commonality between the values and beliefs of cultures around the world. Her book, The Four-Fold Way, distils elements of the spiritual wisdom of these cultures and presents it in a form that is relevant and inspiring to contemporary society. Angeles invites us to find strength and balance by walking in the ways of the Warrior, Visionary, Healer and Teacher – ways that are grounded in the four cardinal directions and informed by Nature’s cycles.

To learn more about Angeles Arrien, see http://www.angelesarrien.com/

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Relating to Nature

There are many ways of viewing and relating to Nature. For centuries the dominant Western view of Nature has been a mechanistic one. Just as a machine can be assembled from smaller components, so the natural world is made up of interconnecting parts. We have learnt much about ‘how the world works’ by subjecting Nature to the analytical gaze of Science, which has uncovered many of her secrets and increasingly enabled humanity to harness and benefit from her bounty. A shadow of this particular way of viewing the world, however, is that it tends to turn Nature into an object or resource to be analysed, controlled and exploited.

People have not always viewed Nature in this way. Indigenous and agrarian cultures lived much closer to Nature’s presence, unlike we who spend most of our lives indoors contemplating screens. Nature and culture were interwoven, with the natural elements, cycles, directions and creatures being integral to the activities, ceremonies, stories and rites of passage of our ancestors. Experiencing both her bounty and her terror, communities viewed Nature as god-like, responding with rituals of gratitude and appeasement. A sense of the sacred infused the sense of place.

It was the works of Angeles Arrien that helped me to start retrieving a sense of Nature as sacred. Her writings helped me to find a different way of entering Nature – with humility, a sense of not-knowing, and a curiosity to learn ‘from’ rather than ‘about’ the natural world. In honour of Angeles, I dedicated one of my weekly nature solos to her.

 

Honouring Angeles

I set off with no particular destination in mind. It is a grey day with intermittent drizzle, and I find myself drawn to our local arboretum. Taking an unfamiliar path, I come upon a magnificent dead tree with five thick branches forming a powerful gesture of gratitude – a central branch cupped by four others. This is the place.

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A circle of branches at the foot of the tree marks the honouring response of previous visitors. I remove my shoes. Circling the tree, I pause at each of the four directions to reflect upon the impact of a life … of Angeles, of this tree, of each of us who lives and one day will die.

Approaching from the West, the place of the Teacher, I give thanks for Angeles and her gift of Wisdom. She gathered, processed and shared a lifetime of learning, and was respected around the world as a wise elder. Her diary may now be quiet but, like this tree, her presence is undiminished.

In the North, the place of the Warrior, the rough flank of the tree has been drilled by beetles and carpenter bees seeking shelter for their young. I have heard that the difference between the warrior and the soldier is that the warrior must have loved deeply and known compassion. This towering, warrior-like tree, offering hospitality to soft grubs, is being consumed and transmuted into hundreds of tiny winged creatures. In time they will inject their eggs into other trees, eternally weaving the spirit of this tree into the evolving forest. Similarly, what Angeles taught has become an integral part of millions of lives, inspiring us to stand in our power and act with compassion.

In the East, the place of the Visionary, I marvel that this tree witnessed more than a century of sunrises. Those dawns represented so many new beginnings, so many hopeful hearts: the oppressed longing for freedom, the woman waiting for her lover to return from the war, the activist believing in a just and sustainable world. Angeles taught that to walk in the Way of the Visionary requires that we tell the truth without blame or judgment. Let me therefore not dissipate my energy in blame or judgment, but trust the inevitability of change and live each day as an expression of my vision.

Finally I reach the South, the place of the Healer. What strikes me about this dark side of the tree is a cascade of tiny orange mushrooms – and where the bark has been stripped away, the white threads of their mycelium coat the sapwood. The gift of the South is Love. In death, the tree continues its generous work of nourishing the forest community. Eventually, having given life to a myriad of other creatures, it will slowly soften into soil.

Angeles is no longer with us, but her writings will continue to nourish generations with the ancient wisdom of the four-fold way. This powerful, visionary, loving, wise elder will continue to encourage us to develop into the fullness of our own natures through the re-enchantment of our relationship with Nature.

forest reflections med

another gift from mother earth

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Poised between Earth Day and Mothers Day, my heart is full of gratitude to the Earth, the ultimate Mother. There is no end to the blessings we receive from our precious blue-green home. Perfectly positioned in Space, our Goldilocks planet is neither too hot nor too cold, but just right for the three phases of that magical substance H2O (ice, water and vapour) to occur naturally. And this makes possible the water cycle, that huge planetary process that draws on the power of the sun to turn sea water into fresh water, drive climate systems, bring rain and mild temperatures, and allow life to flourish.

So far, we’re the only place we know of in the Universe where life just happened to happen. As gifts from Mother Earth go, Life is one pretty profound reason to give thanks. Each individual cell is a miracle of complexity, in which exquisitely delicate organelles carry out all the functions of the body as a whole, from providing structure, to communicating, absorbing food, burning fuel, voiding wastes, and maintaining an environment conducive to life. And then trillions of these cells get together and interact in countless ways to create a body that might score in the Olympics, dance the tango, plot sedition, and give – or even take – the gift of life.

However miraculous human life may be, I’m submitting an application to be a plant in my next incarnation. I’m in awe of plants. For one thing, they’re seldom in a hurry. Just to spend time with plants (especially trees) is calming. Imagine standing for 5,000 years in contemplation as a bristlecone pine! More than their presence though, it is the magic trick of photosynthesis to which I aspire. How delicious is the design that allows one to be nourished by basking in the sun! And how elegant is the chemistry that combines almost intangible air, with a dilute solution of minerals in water, to create a being as substantial as a giant redwood tree, or as delicate as a maidenhair fern. Unlike our chemical industries that manufacture products by subjecting raw materials to huge temperatures and pressures, plants produce wood, fibre, food and beauty at the temperatures and atmospheric pressures of everyday life. And instead of producing noxious by-products that pollute and sicken, as a by-product of producing food, plants spew out life-giving oxygen!

Patriarch Bristlecone Pine

Bristlecone pines – the oldest living species on Earth

http://www.northwest-landscapes.com/html/mountains/patriacrh_bristlecone.html

Our position in Space, the water cycle, photosynthesis – what magical and miraculous tales! I know these stories well, but far from becoming blasé about them, the more I contemplate the significance of these and other gifts of the Earth, the more I experience awe.

I also love to learn something new! So it was with great delight this past month that I heard about one of Earth’s gifts that I had not known about before. This gift is known as Earthing [see http://earthinginstitute.net/ and http://www.earthing.com/], and authors of the book[1] by this name suggest that it could be one of the most important health discoveries ever.

Before explaining more about Earthing, I need to mention that over the past couple of years, I have become aware of the critical role that stress and inflammation play in the onset of chronic disease conditions in the body. We all know that prolonged stress is bad for our health – but it was only recently that I learnt why this is. Simply put, poorly managed stress leads to elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn causes inflammation in the body; it is inflammation that promotes chronic diseases (e.g. cardiovascular, asthma and autoimmune diseases). In addition to chronic stress, inflammation is also caused by injuries, allergens and pathogens like viruses or bacteria.

Acute inflammation is an important stage in the healing process: we all recognise the swelling, redness, pain and heat caused by the body’s immune system responding to an infection or a cut. Part of this immune response involves molecules called free radicals, which are responsible for destroying invading pathogens and dead cells. Once they have done their work, free radicals need to be neutralised by anti-oxidants (e.g. Vitamins A, C and E). In the absence of sufficient anti-oxidants, however, free radicals run amok, causing a chain reaction of oxidation which destroys healthy tissue.

So if chronic inflammation is such a problem, what can we do to reduce it? Two things have helped me. Firstly, a regular mindfulness practice has enabled me to shift my default emotional state from chronic stress to a state of ease. My cortisol levels are no longer unnaturally elevated, so that takes care of one potential source of inflammation. Secondly, I have changed my diet to eliminate foods to which I am sensitive. I no longer suffer from inflammation of the gastro-intestinal tract – a condition I have lived with for most of my life.

Now, back to this thing called Earthing …

Just as our electrical appliances need to be earthed, so do we! Earthing occurs when we make direct contact with the Earth by walking barefoot, sitting, or lying on the ground – and it puts us in touch with the biggest anti-oxidant source there is – Mother Earth herself. You see, the Earth’s surface has an overall negative charge, which means there is an excess of electrons. And these electrons are just what our bodies need to neutralise the oxidative stress caused by free radicals, and thus to reduce inflammation and our chances of falling prey to chronic diseases.

I found this two-part YouTube video fascinating: it shows how the Voltage of the body is influenced by being indoors or outdoors, upstairs or downstairs, or in contact with electrical fields. It also shows how earthing, either by direct contact with the Earth or via an earthed conductor, reduces this voltage to a more neutral state: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnZjY_q2WQk; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVDSzu9M9hw.

In the past, most people walked barefoot or in shoes with leather soles, and were therefore in direct electrical contact with the Earth’s surface. Today most shoes have plastic or rubber soles – and these effectively insulate us from the Earth and her healing gift of electrons. Similarly, many people used to sleep on the ground on simple grass sleeping mats. All night long they would be in contact with the Earth, and during this time they could literally ‘de-fuse’ their oxidative stress into the Earth. Today we spend most of our lives indoors, insulated from a healing connection to the Earth by plastic furniture, synthetic carpets, and multi-storeyed building design. And with our ever-increasing dependence on electrical and electronic appliances, we are exposed without respite to electro-magnetic frequencies, which also have an electrical impact on our bodies.

So, how do we receive this free gift of healing from the Earth? The simplest is to make time each day to sit with your bare feet in contact with grass, earth or concrete paving (not asphalt), and to walk barefoot, or swim in the sea (salt water being an effective conductor). And while it is probably not practical to move your office or bedroom outside, Earthing pads and sheets are available [www.earthing.com] – although not easily sourced in South Africa – to ground you while you work and sleep. For the practically-inclined, you can find step-by-step instructions to earth your bed on the internet [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8wPqh4DNfwg].

In his book The Prophet, Khalil Gibran writes: “And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.” So, let’s kick off our shoes, lie on the grass, and snuggle up to Mother Earth. The feeling of delight is mutual.

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[1]Ober, C., Sinatra, S.T. & Zucker, M. 2010. Earthing: the most important health discovery ever? Basic Health Publications, Laguna Beach.

 

Haemanthus sm

celebrating equinox

One of the benefits of spending solo time in Nature each week is that I feel increasingly tuned in to natural processes and cycles. Quality of light, shortening of day, direction of wind, emergence of Haemanthus – these and many other signs have been announcing the arrival of autumn in Cape Town.

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Haemanthus lily announcing autumn

And so it was that, when looking for an excuse to gather together some of the friends we’ve been longing to spend time with, Pat and I realised that the autumn equinox was approaching – and that this was something we could celebrate. While Christmas may awaken, through its trees, lights and parcels, a distant memory of winter solstice celebrations, few of us still mark the turning of the other seasons. We’ve forgotten the symbols and the rituals that once graced these times with significance.

So, how to celebrate the autumn equinox? Just put the question to Google!

The most obvious quality of the equinox is the balance between light and dark: twice each year, the day and the night are of equal length. That balance is not static – it represents a point of turning in the cycle of the year, and reminds us that it is natural for us too to fluctuate between seasons of expansion and contraction, confidence and doubt, effort and rest. Celebrating together would provide an opportunity for rest and nourishment in our busy lives.

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Honouring the soil and its gifts, and the balance of light and dark

Living in twenty-first century Cape Town means that we can easily hop in the car and visit friends all through our mild winter. But for thousands of years in many parts of the world, people were cut off from friends and family for months on end by snow, flood waters, grazing availability, or the allowances of trade winds. How special it would have been for my ancestors centuries ago to have gathered to celebrate the autumn equinox by sharing food and stories, knowing that it might have been their last opportunity to socialise before drifts of snow kept them apart for the cold, dark months of winter. One ingredient in our equinoctial cocktail would have to be an opportunity for story-telling and the sharing of reflections on the significance of autumn – a season that many of us have reached in our lives.

The autumn equinox occurs during the season of harvest – the time of year when our natural response is to be thankful for the many blessings in our lives. This year, the arrival of our five red hens has dramatically increased the productivity of our vegetable garden. And with this, our sense of gratitude has expanded proportionately. What a blessing that here, in the midst of suburbia, we can harvest vine-ripened tomatoes, plump aubergines, sweet carrots and orange-yolked eggs – all in their natural seasons. We decided to rekindle childhood memories of harvest festivals by inviting friends to bring home-grown produce to add to the harvest display around the fireplace. Squashes, granadillas, mushrooms, flowers, and a jar of pickled olives from George’s one olive tree all represented the potential of suburban gardens to sustain us and to rekindle aspects of our agrarian past – including seasonal celebrations.

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Our harvest festival display

There has been a resurgence in recent years of individual thanksgiving practices, with gratitude journals and meditations becoming part of many people’s daily rituals. But unless one is part of a religious or spiritual community, there are few opportunities for the collective expression of thankfulness. So, just before serving dinner, we invited our friends to form a circle, and in turn to light a candle and give thanks for one special blessing in their lives. Listening to everyone honouring their partners and children, expressing their sense of privilege at living in South Africa, sharing their love of Nature, and appreciating their friends, I was struck by the way in which gratitude both deepens our connections with one another, and elevates the quality of sharing. As one friend observed, starting with gratitude dispelled much of the pessimism that often characterises dinner party conversations these days!

Fuelled by Pat’s famous fish curry and a salad from the garden, dinner-time conversation ebbed and flowed around the table. As we tucked in to two scrumptious home-made tarts and coffee, it was time for the whole circle to form again.

Friends had been invited to bring “an item or something you have created that embodies the significance of autumn in your life.” Already delighted by the harvest display and contributions to the meal, we were now inspired, moved and entertained by the sharing of images, poems, the first paragraphs of a nascent novel, and some hilarious stories. Sandra and John’s witty adaptation of Keats’s ‘Ode to Autumn’ – recast as ‘Ohdear of aging’ – presented, in their inimitable style, the challenges and gifts of this ‘Lifestage of glaucoma and wealth of reflections.’

Knowing how busy people’s lives are, we felt honoured by the time friends had invested in preparing their unique contributions on the significance of autumn. Gathering with gratitude and sharing our creativity deepened our appreciation for one another and for life. I sense that co-creating our own autumnal ritual of celebration brought a touch of the sacred to the evening.

I hope that you too will be encouraged to consider the possibility of breathing new life into old rituals. Making time for the observation of nature, and for nature-based observances, can bring a richness of meaning and connection to our individual and collective lives, and re-enchant the experience of suburban living.

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An equinox prayer

 

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murmurs of love

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A murmuration of starlings
Picture from http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/20299004

 

Murmurs of love

In celebration of Valentine’s Day, my husband and I went to the Labia Theatre in Cape Town to watch Occupy Love, a documentary by director Velcrow Ripper. In this film, interviews with activists, philosophers, elders and everyday lovers punctuate footage of peaceful protests from around the world: the first murmurs of the Arab Spring in Tahrir Square; a walk to protest the destruction caused by mining the Alberta tar sands; and the week-by-week development of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York.

Politics, environment, economics … three fundamental aspects of our collective lives as human beings. Three aspects that – like the horsemen of the Apocalypse – are galloping full-tilt towards the edge of the ultimate precipice, dragging humanity and nature along with them. What the film makes clear is that increasing numbers of people around the world are realising that the models we have developed to explain and manage our relationships with people and nature just aren’t working. Not for people, not for nature. We need to find a new way.

According to the ‘Occupy’ placards, the dominant narrative of our time serves the interests of only one percent of humanity. The rest of us – the 99% – cannot thrive in a system based on individualism, competitiveness, domination, greed, and relentless, unreflective growth. We need a new story that more accurately explains ‘how the world works’ … a story that can inspire us at this time of unprecedented challenge. Ripper envisions this narrative as a love story.

After the movie I heard a few people comment that they were disappointed that it had not provided clearer advice about ‘things we can do to save the world’. That wasn’t my experience. I left with something that felt a lot more generative than a list of things to do … the question Ripper asked many of the people he interviewed:

“How could the crisis we’re facing become a love story?”

This is a question to conjure with. A question to discuss around dinner tables, coffee tables, fireplaces  and water coolers. A question to awaken our creativity, and set us on a new trajectory.

A perfect planetary storm is brewing. It has already grown too big to be diverted by rationally-devised solutions based on the assumptions that created the crisis in the first place. It is too complex to be addressed by techno-fixes and endless conferencing. This crisis is bringing us to the ends of our tethers – to that point of grace where we finally surrender to Love.

Love is the urge that created the Universe, the energy that enlivens all that is, the bond that connects us. Surrendering to Love allows us to rest from our strivings, and to awaken to wisdom and intuition – qualities we require in order to live responsively.

Living through this perfect storm can easily overwhelm us and cause us to want to give up. When issues coalesce and reach global proportions, we may feel that nothing we do as individuals will have an impact. Yet, during the movie a short sequence focusing on a phenomenon called a ‘murmuration of starlings’ encouraged me not to despair.

During the winter months in certain parts of Europe, flocks of birds called European starlings come together just before roosting time, and merge into mega-flocks of sometimes tens of thousands of birds. For about twenty minutes they participate in an astonishing display of coordinated flight – soaring, swooping and undulating – almost as if for that brief period they formed a single organism.

Fascinated to discover the secrets of this exquisite dance, scientists have looked closely at footage of murmurations and discovered that each individual bird manages to respond to the twists and turns of the whole flock (and indeed to influence the movement of the whole) by monitoring and responding to just the seven birds closest to itself. When each individual bird keeps in its sight its seven nearest neighbours and responds to them, the entire flock moves as one. One article described murmuration as an example of a system, well known to physicists, in which collective phenomena emerge from short-range interactions.

And this is what gives me hope. In this hugely challenging time, with so many enormous issues and causes vying for our attention, and with our egos pushing us to make a significant difference in the world, we may feel drawn to work at a scale that we cannot sustain. The humble starling suggests another way.

We could start by attending with love and with care to those who are closest to us – to our families, friends, colleagues and neighbours (whether people, creatures or places). We could trust that, even if that quality of direct attention and care stretched no further than to seven others, if each of those seven, in turn, inspired, encouraged and supported seven others, it would not take long for the murmurs of love to ripple through our communities.

It would not take long to transform the global crisis into the greatest love story of our Age.

 

For more on the movie Occupy Love, see http://occupylove.org

To watch footage of a murmuration of starlings, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eakKfY5aHmY

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Each new breath …

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Mum’s abundant heart … 

 

Starting over

January 2014 – a new year – a new beginning – an opportunity to start afresh, to set new intentions, to start living that better life.

For years I’ve tended to wait for formal beginnings before making an effort to replace old habits with new practices. Next Monday morning … January the first … I’ve been tied to the calendars of my own construction. (Oh, goody, let’s have another helping of Christmas cake, for tomorrow we diet!) And when my New Year’s resolutions have petered out after a couple of weeks, I have secretly heaved a sigh of relief, knowing that it will be another year before I have to face up to myself and try all over again to make a new start.

HeartMath practices [www.heartmath.org] are teaching me that there is no need to wait for an auspicious date … each breath presents me with the opportunity of making a fresh start. Becoming conscious of the simple act of breathing in and breathing out (something I have to do anyway to stay alive) can stop a day that’s about to turn pear-shaped in its tracks, and allow me to begin again.

Shifting into Neutral

The simplest HeartMath technique is called Neutral. If you want to change gear in a manual vehicle, you first have to move into neutral and then shift into the most appropriate gear to take you forwards, or sometimes backwards. So when you notice yourself running out of steam and needing to change gear, you can use this simple technique to get into neutral yourself.

Wherever you are, whether sitting or walking, driving or busy with a task, take a moment to shift into Neutral. Keep your eyes open if you need to (like if you’re driving!), or close them so that you won’t be easily distracted.

  • First, turn your attention to the area around your heart in the centre of your chest. You can even put a hand on your chest to help you. We call this step ‘Heart Focus’. It helps to shift us out of our busy thoughts and into that place that represents love, wisdom and courage.
  • Then start breathing regularly and easily, and slightly more deeply than normal. Breathe in for the count of five, and out for the count of five. And as you focus on your breathing, imagine that the air is flowing into and out of your heart. We call this ‘Heart-focused Breathing’.

And that’s all it takes to get into a Neutral state, and to start balancing your Autonomic Nervous System.

Continue heart-focused breathing for just two or three minutes, and feel the difference.

The amazing thing about focusing on my breathing is that it anchors me in the present. My thoughts tend to drag me back into the past, causing me to analyse and mull over things that have already happened. Or my thoughts beckon me towards the future, inviting me to anticipate and fret about things that may never come to pass. Heart-focused breathing allows me to step out of my thoughts and into the present … where there are no regrets or fears, and where I can simply be.

Belonging through the breath

Attending to the breath also reminds me, in a profoundly embodied way, how deep my connection is to this world. Through the breath I am connected to all that is.

I breathe in … I take into the warm, dark moisture of my lungs air that has touched your face, blown across the south Atlantic, blasted out of an internal combustion engine on the freeway, popped out of a fizzy cool-drink, or been exhaled through the leaf pores of our new Mandela’s Gold Strelitzia plant in the garden …

I breathe out … I send into the world a breath that has been an intimate part of me. I have no idea where that breath will go, whom it will touch, what plant may build the carbon I exhale into its glorious green body, or whether it may rise into the atmosphere to add moisture and warmth to earth’s invisible blanket …

Breathing in, breathing out … in that gentle exchange I am implicated in, or folded into, the world. I belong.

A loving breath

Valentine’s Day clearly illustrates that people recognise the heart as the organ of love. Hearts are not just pretty pink symbols of affection, though. We actually feel love in our hearts – like the leaping-for-joy feeling when your loved one arrives home after being away. And recent physiological research confirms what we’ve always known: the heart is far more than a pump … it’s the body’s love generator. We now know, for instance, that the heart both produces and responds to the ‘bonding hormone’ oxytocin, which we once thought was only produced by the pituitary gland in response to childbirth. We also know that the electromagnetic field generated by the heart can influence people, animals and possibly even the Earth itself in beneficial ways.

So now when I practise Neutral, I shall remember that my responsibility is not simply to myself – to enjoy the restorative benefits of heart-focused breathing. My responsibility is also to infuse each new breath with love – to receive warmly all who arrive on each in-breath, and to send love to those who will be touched by each out-breath.

And if I forget, there is always the gift of a new beginning – this new year, tomorrow’s sunrise, my next breath … this very moment.

 

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Contentment and the end of Empire

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Thanksgiving month mobile …

Yesterday I nearly overdosed on internet videos. It all started when I received an e-newsletter with a link to The End of Suburbia[1], a documentary on peak oil that I’d wanted to watch for some time. Falling down the YouTube rabbit hole, I then watched What a Way to Go: Life at the end of Empire[2] and finally an interview with Derrick Jensen about his book Endgame[3]. These are all stories about the end of the myth of Empire, a way of living on Earth that has culminated in the perfect storm of peak oil, climate change, species extinction and population overshoot.

The culture of Empire is characterised by dissatisfaction – a belief that nothing is good enough yet. We are not yet healthy, wealthy, successful or comfortable enough. We certainly don’t have enough stuff yet, and worse still, as soon as we manage to obtain what we think we need, it will be out of date and the neighbours will have the upgrade already. We’ll need to replace what still works perfectly well with a newer, faster, better designed version … in this year’s fashion colours. Dissatisfaction creates a world of continual striving – a voracious culture, monstrously wasteful.

Derrick Jensen’s life has been profoundly influenced by living in the American Pacific North West. He notes how a mere 180 years of ‘civilisation’ has destroyed the forests and the salmon rivers that sustained indigenous people for 12,500 years. In response he works to undo the civilisation that has caused such devastation. He defines civilisation as a way of life characterised by the growth of cities; and in turn defines the city as a collection of people living in numbers large enough to require the importation of resources. So, by definition, the local land base is unable to support the city. The inescapable conclusion is that civilisation as we know it (and remember that more than half of us now live in cities) can never be sustainable. And Derrick asserts that civilisation won’t become sustainable by tinkering with the existing model – our society needs a whole new set of assumptions to live by.

One good night’s sleep after my apocalyptic immersion, I awoke to the realisation that, somewhere in my dreams I had glimpsed an aspect of life beyond the myth of Empire. And it felt possible to begin living that way right now. The feeling into which I awoke this morning was contentment – a state of deep gratitude for what is. This is not just gratitude for what I have – it is contentment with the way in which my life is unfolding, and the knowledge that I am enough … already. This morning I felt a deep sense of relief when I realised that I didn’t need to acquire or achieve anything in order to be content.

I believe that two regular practices are enabling contentment to take root in my life.

At the beginning of November I made a commitment that every day during Thanksgiving month I would record something for which I was grateful. Today I looked back over that list. I realised that the things I recorded are the things I really value … and the practice of having noticed, focused on, and given thanks for each of them was a reason for my contentment.

Most entries in my gratitude journal describe qualities of love and friendship – in particular I recorded experiences of wisdom, courage, optimism, thoughtfulness, kindness, appreciation, recognition, encouragement, inspiration, connection, conversation, and the sharing of values and passions. Whether the friendship was with an intimate partner, old friend, member of a community group, or an e-mail correspondent, savouring these qualities gave me a rich sense of contentment and connection.

Another opportunity to experience contentment this past month was spending time in nature. I love my regular walks with my husband and friends; but it was spending solo time in nature each week that opened my senses and my heart to nature’s wisdom. The forest, streams and ocean have been patiently teaching me how to live according to the way of nature. A recurring lesson this month has been to sink into what is – to fully accept the stage in the life cycle where I find myself, and to know the gifts it offers.

The practice of gratitude, and the close observation of nature, have allowed me to glimpse what it might be like to live in a state of contentment. At the same time these practices have provided an escape from  dissatisfaction and compulsion. They have shown me that what is most precious to me is not stuff or success, but rather being able to savour the qualities of connectedness. And even more importantly, contemplating nature and the qualities of friendship has helped me to see that I am enough – just as I am.

I believe that contentment – the deep knowledge that we are already enough – is one of the keys that will enable us to evolve beyond Empire and its excesses.


[1] http://www.greenmedtv.com/the-end-of-suburbia/

[2] http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=h2em1x2j9-o

[3] http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=o9os1GFuWJ0

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A Thanksgiving month invitation

The tradition of Thanksgiving

Every culture brings special gifts to the world. Strangely, it’s not always the most inspiring ideas that spread the furthest. So while North America’s fast food brands are consumed in most countries on earth, their tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving as a national holiday hasn’t had quite the same reach (Puerto Rico, Liberia and Norfolk Island are a few disparate exceptions). And as global culture loses touch with the land and with ritual, celebrations of the harvest and religious calendars that call us to give thanks no longer structure (or touch) our lives.

Let’s celebrate Thanksgiving month

I was listening to a webinar yesterday. The speaker shared that, during November – the month when the USA celebrates Thanksgiving – her family compiles a list of 1,000 things for which they are thankful. This gave me an idea. I don’t have a big family, but I do have a wonderful circle of friends. So how about committing, as a collective, to starting or re-invigorating a daily Thanksgiving practice during the month of November. Let’s see how many different things we can give thanks for this month.

And November is a great month to do this. It’s late enough in the year that we can look back and reflect on the gifts of 2013, and there’s still enough routine in our lives before the holiday season arrives and makes a regular practice a whole lot less likely!

Why bother?

Not only does being thankful acknowledge both the gift and the giver, it is also really good for us! Research conducted by the Institute of HeartMath [www.heartmath.org] shows that sustaining a positive emotion, like appreciation or gratitude, helps our bodily systems to operate more coherently (with greater synchrony), resulting in less stress and greater physical and emotional resilience.

Rick Hanson [www.rickhanson.net], author of ‘Hardwiring Happiness’, explains that we need to implement simple daily practices to help rewire our brains from the ‘negativity bias’ that causes many of us, in this complex and pressurised world, to become overwhelmed. I figure my brain can do with some rewiring … and a month of giving thanks for the good things in my life feels like a most pleasurable way to do this!

Take in the good … deeply

Rick explains that this rewiring process requires us to ‘take in the good’ in a deeply embodied way. So rattling off a grace, or penning a quick and predictable list of things I’m grateful for, won’t be enough. I’m going to have to experience what I’m grateful for as if in glorious Technicolor and Surround-sound  – to sense it, savour it, feel its effects, and amplify it so that my brain really ‘gets’ the experience. Exploring goodness from the inside out will help me to give thanks in like measure.

Will you join me?

They say it takes six weeks to establish a new habit … here’s to the first four weeks! I hope you will join me this Thanksgiving month as we notice, savour, give thanks for, and rejoice in life’s many blessings.

Please share some of the things you are grateful for … and the ways you and your loved ones express your gratitude this month.

I’d love to share with you my first five …

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Family … one of life’s greatest gifts

  • The gift of living with my husband Pat Garratt, my greatest teacher and best friend;
  • My mother who, living with advanced dementia, has taught me more about how to live in the moment with grace and gratitude than any mindfulness article I’ve ever read;
  • A season of stillness in my life, during which I have learnt that it is also blessed to receive;
  • Friends, both old and new … and their gifts of love, wisdom, humour and solidarity;
  • And the internet, through which I’ve had access to a global community of wisdom-keepers and healers who enrich my life immeasurably every day.