It's another beautiful day in Cambridge. I woke early and meditated and did a home yoga practice.
Later, I looked at the news: In the wake of more shootings of unarmed black men, and a Presidential candidate—Trump— who says in response that "maybe" officers who "choke" in their job (i.e. murder people) should be doing something else, I've been thinking again about violence, our responses to violence, and about how important it is to stay centered, whole and engaged and working towards positive change.
This past weekend I went to New Hampshire to canvass for Hillary Clinton.
It was a good experience and eye opening.
We were supposed to be talking to Hillary supporters, but most of the people we talked to turned out to be undecided. They wanted change, and Trump, for that reason, seemed appealing.
It was a beautiful day like today: a blue sky and still quite warm for September. Many of the people we talked to were quite friendly. They were self respecting people who were happy to talk. They had their own opinions. They cared about their families, their neighbors. They wanted to live a good life. In many ways, it was a pleasant day.
But when I got home, I was exhausted.
I was tired not only because I had been on my feet for much of the day, but also because I was emotionally tired. I’ve seen images of the Trump rallies and know what violence and hatred Trump is unleashing. I’ve seen the way he manipulates the media with lies. I’ve heard his hate, and have read his platform, whose policies would make the world a more dangerous, unequal, environmentally devastated place.
I’m scared of what a Trump presidency would look like and what Trump would enable both home and abroad.
I also felt sad, because I know that good people can do bad things, and it seemed sad that from so much that is positive, we can create so much negativity.
But I also know that a good system can bring out the best in people, so while I came home feeling tired, I also committed to doing more and asking my friends to do more in these next few weeks.It really is up to us to take responsibility for the direction we want to see our country go and the message we want to send both at home and abroad, and this is such a pivotal moment!
That said, I also came home wondering both how I can step up my own engagement in the next eight weeks and how doing what I'm already doing can make a difference and be worthwhile in a world potentially on the brink of yet more violence and hatred and divisiveness.
I found myself asking the question that I've often asked: what is an appropriate response? What is enough? Am I living in sync with the requirements and challenges of our contemporary world? Am I doing the right work?
I've felt these questions acutely a few times before in times of big potential change (elections, the run up to the war, when global environmental decisions are about to be made).
But if I'm honest, to some extent I live with that question all the time: we know that there is the threat of violence all the time; we know that there is violence and injustice all the time; that dozens of species are going extinct every single day.
In the face of this, what can we do?
I sometimes worry that when I talk about these things, I'm just being a downer, farther depressing people who are already stressed out. And I don't want to play that role. I want to be a force of positivity and healing in the world. But deep down I also believe that our positivity and healing, for it to be real and effective, cannot come from denial, from turning away. Instead it comes from looking with wide open eyes at our whole world. True transformation comes from a state of awareness; from being able to find and act from our own balanced center even in that state of awareness and to choose to be open to sorrow and happiness, anger and wonder.
Finding a strong center and voice in a state of awareness is what I hope to do through my writing and spiritual practices, and it is what I help my students and clients do in their writing, their practices and their lives.
We need to learn to quiet, to calm down, to come out of a state of horror, to find our centers and our voices.
This is a life-long practice. It's never finished, and life will continue to throw curves so that it's a practice we need to return to again and again.
But when we do not do this, when we don't know how to come into a state of quiet or center, and when we suppress our voices, we lose ourselves.
And yet, these essential tools are ones that almost none of us have been taught. So perhaps it is no surprise that the world is so often out of balance, that voters can't really quite see what is in front of their own eyes, that messages of fear lead to acts of violence.
When I reflect in this way, it seems to me that the work I do, helping others stay find their own path to say centered and to speak from their true selves and visions is necessary work. It might not change the world overnight, but if each of us can be the change we want to see in the world, we will have a better world.
And while none of us alone can change the world, each of us can work to make ourselves as whole as possible, and give voice to our unique vision with conviction and clarity and even joy.
Please reach out to me if you'd like to get more engaged and want some guidance about how to do that. I'm happy to try to hook people up with volunteer opportunities, share my experiences, etc.
And please, also, reach out to me if you have other ideas about how to stay engaged and what else I can be doing--I think it's so important to build community and to work together.
How do we prioritize how we spend our time? How can we find ways to go with natural rhythms—both externally and internally-- instead of against them in an over-scheduled work week?
These questions are not only personal; they’re not only a matter of personal preference and lifestyle. They’re also fundamental to the way we function as a society.
Our ideas about work are inextricably connected to our ideas about our place in the world. And a book I read recently, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, William Cronin’s 1983 classic, made me realize that our assumptions about work are inextricably connected, too, to our assumptions about and treatment of the land.
Here’s an article I wrote recently about the book, and rethinking our relationship to work in an age of environmental collapse.
I hope you enjoy the article. If you do, please share it with others. At the bottom of this email, as always, I have links to my upcoming schedule.
I always love to hear from you--
RETHINKING THE AMOUNT WE WORK IN AN AGE OF ENVIRONMENTAL COLLAPSE
As the lazy days of summer come to an end, and we have to head back to our jobs and to the busyness of American 21st Century life, I’ve been thinking about the nature of “work.”
So much of the work that we do in our world is misplaced. Think, for example, of the spray meant to kill mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus but that killed millions of honey bees. How much of our “work” to control things has unexpectedly counterproductive, even harmful, outcomes?
We live in a state of urgency and alarm most of the time, hurrying from this to that. But what are we in a state of high intensity to do and to accomplish? And what would happen if we took more time to pause and reconsider, from all angles, the short term effects and the long term outcomes of our actions? What if we took more time for leisure and wonder? How would our world look and be different?
I recently read Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, by William Cronon (I highly recommend it.), and it gave me new insight into the history of our relationship to work and a better understanding of how, in our age of environmental collapse, we might begin to re-orient ourselves to work and to the land again.
Cronin’s book concentrates on the difference between the Indians' and colonists' use of the land. But underneath that story is another story about the two different cultures' assumptions about work.
When the colonists first came to New England, the Indians appeared not to work very much. They lounged around much of the time. The natural world seemed to be a kind of garden of Eden to the colonists, providing the Indians with everything they wanted. The bounty of the natural world seemed almost never-ending.
The colonists looked at the Indians and instead of following their example and learning from them in this new land, they deemed the Indians “lazy.” After all, in a world of such abundance, why weren’t the Indians working to create even more comfort for themselves? The Indians, after all, didn’t have the nice houses and tangible things that Europeans had, and this made them seem poor to the Europeans. It was paradoxical, because on the one hand, the Indians almost never died of starvation, needed to work very little to get their food, and did not experience anything like the cold that Europeans were so accustomed to, not only because the Indians had more wood, but also because they used what wood they had sparingly, and they lived close together to share the warmth of the fire. The Indians, unlike the Europeans, already lived in a world of abundance. Yet a few early settlers looked at the Indians with admiration.
Why was this?
The Protestant/Puritan worldview was one in which humans were born in a state of original sin, out of joint with the world, and needed to work diligently and with difficulty to achieve salvation. According to this worldview Indians were not only lazy, but out of touch with God’s will.
However, the Indians had a totally different philosophy. They believed in a world that supported human life along with the lives of animals and spirits in a pluralistic worldview, without a judging God, in a landscape of abundance. They did not need to “work” all the time because they had what they needed.
In this early encounter between two different cultures, we see how what we believe dictates how we live.
Perhaps some of you are thinking that the Indians could only live in sync with the land, because they had such a small population. Perhaps, but I want to suggest that the mindset—the stories we tell ourselves about our place in the world—comes before the population explosion, not the other way around.
After all, when the colonists first arrived in Plymouth, their population was tiny; they could have chosen to live more like the Indians, but they didn’t want to. They could have used more of the Indian’s farming methods, moved away from monoculture and used more nuts and fruits from trees and plants that required little cultivation.
But instead of learning from the Indians, the Europeans imposed their ideas of work onto the new landscape. They used monoculture farming practices, cultivated crops that were foreign to the natural landscape, introduced livestock and in a short time, the land of abundance that the Indians had cultivated for themselves, turned into a land of endless labor.
“The Garden of Eden” that the Europeans first saw had not just been an untouched state of nature--and this is the main point of Cronin's book. The Indians were not just lazy. The land of abundance that they Europeans first saw had been carefully created by the Indians. The Indians had used practices similar to current permaculture practices, and a method of controlled fire to encourage mature tree growth, plentiful wildlife, and abundant nuts and berries that created abundant food and cared for the land in sustainable and productive ways.
The Indians had worked with the land to help it be more productive. They had not worked against it and thus had created for themselves a life of leisure and ease.
Only a few Europeans could appreciate this accomplishment, but here is one from the 17th century writing about the Indians: “For their days are all nothing but pastime. They are never in a hurry. Quite different from us, who can never do anything without hurry and worry; worry, I say, because our desire tyrannizes over us and banishes peace from our actions.” ~ Pierre Biard
I think we can recognize ourselves in this description of people who are always in a hurry, full of worry and desire for more. But what if we tried to become more like the people who “are never in a hurry?” What if we also worked with nature instead of against it?
For the past 500 years, we have lived at odds with the natural world.
Because we are afraid of the Zika virus, we spray poison and kill thousands of bees, whose activity we need for our own survival. Because we believe that the world is not hospitable to us, we fail to see or respect the ways in which the natural world does support us. We plant mono-crops and use inorganic fertilizers and deplete the soil, and we often don’t even bother to plant native crops or to plant crops that support each other and the soils health. And at the same time while 14 percent of Americans (48 million) live. We create more and more “smart phones,” bigger and bigger houses, more and more cars, and we are facing the greatest environmental crisis of human history. We spend our energy creating space probes to find another planet that might support life, while we disregard—and kill off—the life-supporting qualities of the amazing planet where we live.
Homo sapiens sapiens—people like us—have been around for roughly 200,000 years. Agricultural practices in which people live in a sedentary manner are only roughly 7,000 years old, starting in the Middle East (an area that is now, not coincidentally, largely desert).
Although we often are asked to imagine pre-historic people as living in a state of perpetual hunger, cold, danger, and fear, perhaps instead, they lived with a sense of greater leisure and abundance than many of us live with today. Evidence of sleep patterns, bone and teeth health, of full grown height, and evidence of family planning in cultures that are not bound in place by agricultural practices suggest as much.
Our “civilized” life style very well may make us “worry” more and “work more” than we need to as a species.
So what do we learn from this?
Obviously, we can’t rewrite history, but we can—and must—learn from history, and from the wisdom of our ancestors, especially during this time of environmental collapse. And understanding the origin of our ideas can help us shift them and re-orient ourselves to the world and to ourselves.
I suggest that individually and collectively we re-examine our assumptions about work and our place in the world. Do we believe that the world is an inhospitable place that will only support us if we dominate it and earn our place here or can we believe that we can live in synch with the natural world?
And if we believe that we do not always need to work endlessly to ensure our salvation, if we can relax a bit into our lives, then how will that change the decisions we make?
None of us alone can alter the culture of work, but here are some areas that we can begin to make changes:
1) Reconsider your own relationship to work. If you pay attention to your assumptions about work, how many of these are inherited and how many are your own? Which do you want to keep, and which do you want to get rid of?
2) When you are making a new purchase, ask yourself whether you really need the new item: in an age of environmental collapse, consider all the material and human resources that have gone into making the items and ask yourself if you really need them. Entertain deeply the idea that less-- or fewer-- material things might lead to more health, enjoyment, and sustainability.
3) Look for ways to support permaculture instead of monoculture growing practices.
4) Make a practice of pausing before you make a decision—and encourage others—on every level, from your friends to top government officials—to do the same. Let’s consider not only the immediate consequences of actions but also the far-reaching ones.
5) When you are making decisions around your job, be comfortable placing equal emphasis on leisure and personal time—remember your worth is not dependent on how hard you work or how much you earn.
6) Take time to cultivate your own creativity and the arts in general in our society—and make art accessible to all.
7) Advocate for more vacation time/sick time/parental leave at your workplace and on the national level.
8) Rediscover the emotion and health benefits of more sleep.
9) Spend time in nature, and get comfortable with it—after all, it’s our world that alone supports us.
10) Advocate for protecting our natural environment, and for learning from it. From the amazing cleansing power of marshes to the medicinal power of plants, the natural world has great wisdom and abundance and the capacity to support human life, if we allow it to.
published first on elephant journal here:http://www.elephantjournal.com/2016/09/rethinking-the-amount-or-time-we-work-in-an-age-of-environmental-collapse/