Wow, so last week Joanna Macy surprised me with the honor of placing my writing on the front page of her website. The two paragraphs, alliteration-heavy but hopefully gem-containing, are from my final paper of the Fullness of Time class she co-taught with Sean Kelly a year ago, and can be read here: http://workthatreconnects.org/the-aliveness-of-not-knowing-by-josh-halpern/
But I want to post the entire paper, which is actually pretty damn good. So here. And I’ll post the rest of my graduate degree writing soon. All in good timing…
We’ll Time This Too: Trust in Timing, Sensitivity Towards Scales,
and Other Modes of Soul Service Through the Great Turning
It’s a strange question, “What will serve you in the Great Turning?” Ever since my conversation with Gaia at Ka Lae, the green sand beach in Hawaii, I have considered myself in service to the Earth. This pledge is the closing line of the film I made about my travels visiting sacred sites and volunteering on organic farms around the world. To frame the probing question of this essay around what serves me seems backwards, based in the atomistic ego-consciousness that got us into our current mighty mess. If, however, what serves me flows, everything at it’s own pace, back out into the greater whole, oriented through me towards love and understanding and justice and transformation, than perhaps alright, I can get behind this “What will serve me?” inquiry. It is in this spirit that I lay out here for the first time the most important gifts of the Great Turning from my particular vantage point of Josh – and by gifts I mean those experiences through which the Universe most fully and uniquely manifests within me and which when passed along (as gifts must be) most fully and uniquely lead to healing and growth for the Earth Community. My soul’s purposes. My sole’s porpoises. These are orientations and ways of participating with others (like drawing attention to homophones) which I have always and will always choose, circumstances allowing, and as it turns out these ways of life are in profound alliance with the Great Turning.
Trust in Timing
Paradoxically, one of the reasons the ways of life I choose here are so in tune with our unique and special planetary moment, is how universally applicable they are to any situation throughout the course of time. If things are going well, if things are going badly, if you’re contending with a small affinity group or a major global planetary presence, all of these orientations can help. Those of us living in Northern California could bear the reminder, as we must be some of the absolute most comfortable people on the planet. A year round growing season, always temperate weather, liberal-leaning politics, and though queerer and weirder perhaps than most of our nation, we are indeed Americans, and so our disproportionately easy lifestyles have been built on the backs and blood of bodies unlucky enough to live near the extractive sources of our Earth raping economic system. As well, our comfort as we’ve grown used to it is based on that same system, set up to commodify so many of the basic needs and relationships we would have known how to provide for ourselves a generation ago. Perhaps finally, we forget it is a fragile system, prone to disruptions of a cascading nature, a supply chain break here, a contamination there. Food policy analyst Wayne Roberts (6) reminds us that civilization as we know it is “nine meals away from anarchy.”
Though I might wrap my mind and stomach around it, several of the knots in my back are still attempting to get a grip on the question of urgency. Based only on the persistence of pain that asserts itself again and again behind my heart – not even taking into consideration the abundance of science and analysis continuing to reveal the heartbreaking truths of our time – only the shortest pause of attention pulls the veil off that profound and resonant and recurring feeling: we are now living inside the most important moment of our species’ time on the planet. Just that. Vitally, critically, unfortunately, neither our most cutting edge scientists, nor our most well tuned oracular mystics can reveal how things will go. In the dark expansiveness of not knowing the hows and whens, trust patiently abides. Trust proved the main gift of my vision quest in the Four Points region of Utah after my trip around the world, and I struggle to return to it again and again. Trust doesn’t preclude devastations, nor is it passive or naive hope. Trust in this case is an active faith, welcoming whatever comes and trusting we’ll be up to the task. Which collapses or new creations, both occurring simultaneously, will prevail? It’s down to the wire. The number of beings swept up in our cascading waves of consciousness and crisis grows daily, nightly, and so does the entrenchment into fear and fury of great swaths of misinformed individuals and communities. Death overwhelms us all, asleep and awake alike.
Hospicing the Holocene
While aware and active folks everywhere attempt to live into the Great Turning as fully as possible, there are so many beings on our planet experiencing the Great Unravelling, as illuminated in the work of eco-activist elder Joanna Macy. This global arising and falling away are of course inseparable and interwoven, or as Joanna put it in class, “…woven on the warp and woof of the tapestry of time.” (5) This generation could stand to learn some skillful loom work.
Perhaps it’s the Saturn-Pluto conjunction in my natal chart, signifying an innate willingness to grapple whenever necessary with death and the dark side of life. Perhaps it can be found in the names of the first good guy and bad guy I ever invented for a story when I was 3 years old, named Light and Dark Dread, one of the few dichotomies still informing my worldview today. It’s significant that the most powerful and profound initiatory experience of my life was my father’s death the week after I turned 19, which set me on the path towards the most important moments of my life ever since. And it’s significant that I’m entering adulthood just as the real ramifications of the planetary death cycle currently underway roll into view.
Neologian Andres Conteris (2) calls us cataclysoptimists. He says we are to be life affirming during the death cycle, pointing towards periods like ours in Earth’s great history characterized by spiking graphs of exponential population rise, waste product rise, resource use rise – rapid, unsustainable, and almost always a sign of the approaching end. It seems worth being present – while spreading compost on my blossoming Berkeley garden – to the great deal of our planet’s systems, communities, and individuals who are experiencing escalating collapses. Death will find us here as well, soon enough.
Of course we all have our own relationship with death, pain, and suffering. For me – throwing up every morning of my junior year of high school, the places in my back that want to hold the weights of the world with all of their gripping strength, all the parts of me that want to give to a partner in love without that person around – these continue to be my most important teachers, and they allow for deep solidarity with the suffering of all beings. The responses I’ve had to undertake in relationship with these personal pains, in order to move things around and thru and out and let new openness and expansiveness and space for love in, have been a commitment for half my lifetime now. My own shares of post (and pre) traumatic stress provide me empathy for all the struggles and breakthroughs, small and large, occurring around the globe. Suffering – indeed pervasive torture – surrounds us, through our factory farms, through our extractive economy, through our perpetual war machine. If any of us are able to be present with not only sweet potential but serious pain, not turning away when it arises, attempting to get out in front of it before it erupts, but welcoming every opportunity for growth that arrives including the hard ones, we might have some chance to get through this together.
Joanna Macy was the first figure from PCC I encountered years ago in my work with grief, and she was responsible (via a Facebook photo with my old friend Lydia Harutoonian) for my arrival in the program. Her recognition that real psychological and spiritual responses to the ecological crisis included the most intense feelings known to humans – despair, rage, fury, paralyzing fear and doubt – and that it was only in going towards and through these emotions that we could arrive at healing and integrated strategy on the other side, struck an immense chord during my emergence from the period of mourning following my father’s death. This was the only way to create myself again after my world had been torn open. Not suppressing, not denying, neither holding onto false hope, but looking with honest and unwavering eyes at the difficult truths and including them in balance with the light. Also, having mercy for the times when our eyes do waver, as they must from time to time. This commitment to the work of our time, of hospicing what is dying and midwifing what is being born, was instilled in me through the crucible of sharing my father’s death so closely with him, before I knew the relationship with death that was unfolding across the rest of the planet. Now that I recognize the spectre hidden under that nauseous feeling creeping up into our collective psyche, I know that my comfort with the uncomfortable will come in handy. Hospicing the Holocene is something I was born to help with.
Sensitivity Towards Scales
Sensitivity towards scales may prove one of our most salient saving graces, in at least two ways. Surrendering ourselves to the scale of the task at hand is huge. If changing the planet were up to me alone, I would fail. I am slow and soft and occasionally self absorbed. What needs to happen is so much more than I can do. On the one hand this lets me off the hook. Only in cahoots with community may I be able to affect change, so there’s no need to hold the whole of responsibility for healing Gaia all upon my own shoulders, broad though they may be. I’ll address community further on in this paper, but I draw attention here to this notion of responsibility because it holds an an implication about scales. If someone like myself – with the privileges into which I was born, the education for which I’ve indebted myself, and the wonder of celebrating Spring Equinox today in a place that’s felt like Spring since late January can come into knowledge of the scale of what’s happening on the planet today, than I bear a real responsibility for trying to do something about it. We are giving birth to a global consciousness. We are blasting past the 11th hour of runaway capitalism. These two situational realities both carry the implication that everything I do now does something about it. Every choice I make ripples out into the cosmos of continuous creation around me, most often in ways I will never know, nor even be alive to see. The equinox reminds us of balance, in this case balancing the desire to create great change with the necessity of making small changes every day.
And this notion of every day is worth shining a light on here as well, because it is an understandable scale for a great many beings large and small, mobile and seemingly stationary on this planet. But the rotation of our planet may have less active significance if you scale up to the perspective of a grandmother tree or a mountain range, less significance if you scale down to a bacteria or an atom. Surely the planets in our solar system have some use for the concept of days, but our neighbors in the local galactic cluster probably worry little about how long our Earth day is. Likewise, quarks, constantly flashing in and out of minuscule existence don’t likely have time to enjoy sunrises and sunsets.
It may appear to us that we are in the middle of the entire scale because we can measure so precisely in all directions. However it’s not so easy to pinpoint the middle among such unfathomable distances, even if we know the numbers. According to Dr. Richard Mushotzky (4) of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center “While there is, on average, only one supernova per galaxy per century, there is something on the order of 100 billion galaxies in the observable Universe. Taking 10 billion years for the age of the Universe (actually 13.7 billion, but stars didn’t form for the first few hundred million years), we derived a figure of 1 billion supernovae per year, or 30 supernovae per second in the observable Universe!” Geneen Marie Haugen, (2) PCC PhD candidate and soul ecologist Bill Plotkin’s partner points out that a corollary on Earth would be a medium-sized hummingbird, whose wings flap at the same rate of 30 per second. Could there even be quantum entanglement between supernova explosions and hummingbird wings? Just imagine how many hummingbirds and supernovas there might be in the unobservable Universe!
Place Based Play
One scale that seems like it will be particularly relevant to our human experience of the Great Turning is the bioregion. The area around your home defined by the watershed that flows into or out of it, the arable land available to grow seasonal food, the local customs and identifications that cohere community, these were all part of my childhood consciousness before I believed they were part of a life path. What may to some seem like topographical, geo-historical research or what place-based scholar Craig Chalquist (1) would call a Terra-Psychological inquiry – learning the interplay of stories that weave together into the fabric of a place’s soul and psyche – feel to me akin to play. Growing up I learned the ebbs and flows of the hills and rivers around my hometown not via some scientific attempt to classify them, but by playing all over them. They linger in my cell memory, curious how each next encounter will further our long and committed relationship.
It is useful to know the ecological and sociopolitical histories of where you live. Children today can identify hundreds of corporate brands and few if any of the plants and trees that grow in their neighborhood. The more solidarity you share with your region, the more resilience you and your neighbors will have if other structures collapse. If it can feel like play rather than disaster preparedness, that might be helpful. If it arrives as art instead of via property rights this might open space for creative use of the world around us. I have the river system I was born by tattooed on my back. I revealed it to everyone on my first day of PCC when integral philosopher Sean Kelly drew the river confluence where he was born on the board. Just today I’ve decided on my next tattoo. A map of the Bay Area with a spiral around it, in a globe, with the Milky Way behind it.
Our Bay Area lends itself easily to play. The way the largest estuary on the west coast of this continent, providing the only possible birthing grounds for the widest variety of species, continues to give birth to diverse new forms of unique culture and society. The way grand expressions of life – the old growth of Marin, the oak trees of Oakland, the grizzlies of Grizzly Peak – live on today in name only. The way the energies of the metropolis collect and circle around with only one portal into and out of the entire bay, namely the Golden Gate. The way the fog creeps into certain neighborhoods and not others, depending on the time of year. My first week in California I was able to arrive at the Berkeley marina in sunshine and stroll out onto the dock and into a thick bank of fog. I put it this way in my writing from that week:
“The dense grey cloud engulfed the city, the golden gate, the highlands, but breezed past the east bay, just out of reach. As I moved into the cloud, the air becoming dark, the wind flapping my hoodie, the people more scary and scarce, it reminded me of our frightening future. First week of school, a nondescript building downtown. Integral Ecology. We start with the state of the world and the story of the universe. The state of the world is depletion – water tables, topsoils, mass extinctions. The edge of the pier. The story of the universe, however, is glorious – vast and moving and creative and fueled by love. The song that comes to my head as I walk back towards shore. This is our reckoning, holding both realities, every day, every night. Holding and giving away – it’s in the sharing that we grow communities.” (3)
My mother keeps asking where I find hope. And I say that if you have community, a small group of friends who care about the same things and look out for one another, then you have resilience no matter what’s happening, how well or badly things are going from your perspective.
Because of what we’re facing together, and because of the unique blend we’re able to combine together in PCC, we are a community in more ways than most graduate programs could imagine. Especially in the ways we encourage each other’s unique magic to pour forth, our vulnerageousness as Andres calls it. We’re allowed to be as uniquely weird and diverse as our hearts and bodies can imagine. What an estuary in and of itself!
The most epic way I’ve been able to participate with community embracing our unique moment and special place on the planet was on December 21st 2012, celebrating the end of the Mayan Calendar and the close alignment of the solstice sun with the center of the galaxy, by spiraling around the entire Bay Area. From a sunrise ceremony in a magical volcanic park in the Oakland Hills, capturing the first solstice light to hit the West Coast and bringing into being a rainbow over the Golden Gate, to cider at Joanna Macy’s house, then out to an Old Growth Redwood midday Mount Tamalpais council, then across the Golden Gate to a spectacular Ocean Beach sunset, then into the heart of the city for feasts and dancing through the night, we, as we always do, wove the most exquisite magic I could have imagined. I like to say I just held space as a guide, providing opportunity for magic and just allowing for trust and love to manifest the sacred into being. And yes, praise Gaia, this is what happened. Gorgeously. Perfectly. But I also had a blast and was nourished by all the work required in the months leading up to the change in B’a’ktuns. Running around scouting sacred sites all over the bay and orienting to how we could most effectively channel a major prayer between our interpenetrating local bodies and the deep time of the galaxy was so much fun! It perfectly incorporated so many of my sole’s porpoises. May I have an experience as auspicious again. I suspect it will be an event I will be proud of across incarnations.
But a community can’t be built merely on once in 27,000 year events. The day I before I began writing this paper was our latest gathering as a community that finds reasons to meet regularly, to join our varied and brilliant resonances into yet another morphic field of the kind illustrated by theoretical biologist Rupert Sheldrake, in this case a garden party at my house. Combining our energies to be more than the sum of our individual parts. We harvested Kale and Collards and Arugula and other Lettuces, saved Broccoli seeds, built a whole new raised bed, and planted all kinds of beautiful edible and pollinator attracting natives all around my house. Then we ate what we had pulled from the ground and shared music and dreams and laughter, our hearts. Fortunately, this sharing of abundance can be accomplished even during meager times, when precious little prevails. The origin of the word “companion” combines the Latin roots “con” (with) and “pan” (bread) meaning someone with whom you break bread. If all you have left in your hearth is one last loaf of gluten free bread, you can still break some off for your friends.
Sharing the Sacred
Food is an exceptional example of a sacred relationship. Sharing life and nourishment with loved ones, the merging of bodies with the beautiful living beings surrounding us. Food is one of our most potent ways to exchange with spirit and life force directly, and we organize our schedules and lives around meals. If we also took the conscious time to rediscover gratitude for all the labor and powerful elemental forces of nature – water, sun, soil, human hands – that go into each complex bite of fresh food, we would feed more than our bellies. Indeed we share in sacred relationships, if not quite rituals, all the time, and though we may not name them as such, we could. Often sacred origins lie hidden in our language, as Sean Kelly pointed out in class with the word “orientation”, meaning to point towards the sacred capital, in the original case Jerusalem.
In my Goal Statement for CIIS Admissions three years ago, I identified the focal point of sacred relationships at the core of my life. “A primary artery of all my work has been orienting people to our Earth. Every day humans come into new, sacred relationships with the natural world. I would like to facilitate more of these engagements. Art is only one delivery system for a larger purpose – preserving and creating sacred space and relationship.”
My art has always shared certain themes – like sharing, and the sacred. These include my films about my family’s relationship with my father’s death (fertile ground for sacred relationship exploration), my films about organic farmers around the world (discovering the sacred through family and food once again) and the first film I made at PCC, Sacred Cycles, Grateful Grounds, touring sacred sites around the world, made with the intention not merely to preserve the sacred areas already in existence and often under threat, but to promote the creation of sacred space in all our towns and neighborhoods as we build alliances and orient towards a future together.
As I prepare to graduate, I accept a profound responsibility for sharing what I know now, and continually co-discovering the most effective and enchanted methods of education on an unexpectedly massive scale. I’ll keep doing little videos because it’s a language we’re all learning to speak now. I graduated from NYU film school in 2004. The first video upload to YouTube occurred in 2005. Now over an hour of video is uploaded to youtube every second, a decade’s worth of recording every day. Watching this explosion and trying to figure out how I could contribute became a process of winnowing down to the gems of what’s happening, moving from long-winded diatribes into short stories and then into poetry. This is part of a particularly Great Turningish poem I wrote in 2012 called
Waiting For Things To Get Worse
shatterers, scatter your fragments.
i see through wholes.
i merge the holy abyss.
when our lights fail
we’ll count stars.
when our aquifers empty
we’ll drink love.
it’ll probably be tomorrow morning.
i would wake up early just in case.
swallowed by the superstorms of gas giants
sea and sky coming at the same moment
moving from taupe to mauve to maroon
seeking sexual encounters
with similarly experienced
we’ll time this too.
doesn’t it feel good to grow peaceful?
like oil in a pipe.
Blending intensity and fun, seriousness and silliness, I’ve recently found our ecological and cosmological moment most wonderfully and directly relayed through music. Same ideas, but you can sing along and dance. As soon as I had all the instruments in place, the most enchanting music came erupting forth. My plans for post graduation now include an album’s worth of despair-work dance songs, a book of photographs and poetry, and a comedy show that takes place on a farm in the near future. As Joanna encouraged us during our weekends together, “Do not be afraid to speak for the future beings. People love it.”
Presence to Potential
Infinity as she opens before us encircles arms around us in a delicious deadly dance – we look for her everywhere, always in anticipation, temptation, the tease of end times. If you just watch flocks of birds land on tingling tree branches or lines of cars snake across overpasses and see into what stays and what goes and where you belong in between, this kind of observational landscape contains rich fertile soil for synchronicities and synkaironicities (our last neologism from Andres), which might push you just the next step further along your story, our story, the climax or the conclusion gratefully left unwritten.
Joanna related a story of prophecy passed to her by Choegyal Rinpoche about the Shambala Warriors, who move across the terrain of our time and space with the two “weapons” of compassion and awareness of interconnectedness, trying to heal all beings. Joanna recounted that when she first told this prophecy to her son Jack, he wanted to know why Rinpoche didn’t tell her how it all turned out. Joanna said that if Rinpoche had tried to tell her she wouldn’t have believed it. Joanna went on to encourage the class “So don’t believe anyone who tells you how it’ll turn out. It’s in our not knowing that we are most in touch with our compassion and our interconnectedness. Isn’t that so?”
It is so. It is in the profound unknowing of our time that unfathomable transformative power awaits. But it will wait no more for us. We will know soon enough what we’ve wrought. My guess is our knowledge of tipping points will be sufficient by 2020 to anticipate definitively what the centuries ahead will hold as a result of our hubris. Overlapping systems of omnicidal oppression are stacked devastatingly high against the life-affirming forces fighting for the planet. It ain’t looking good.
And so we commit ourselves to grief work, engaging beings from all available times in mutual aid. Confronting our own death and the death of whole species. There was more crying in this class, on my own part and others, than any class in my lifetime. Joanna, in her ability to shine a steady light to pierce the darkest dread helps frame what we’re feeling. “You can be committed and pessimistic. You don’t need optimism and hope. You can see the coming darkness and it doesn’t diminish the energy of your work. Being hopeful has more to do with what you had for breakfast or what someone just said to you. It comes and goes. Just keep living.”
And through my personal experiences of our powerful weekend workings with future beings, I received knowledge that confirms the possibility of continual caring choices. According to the future beings I encountered in class, we share the same potential of time, the same opportunity to do our best every single day, the same available scales as relatives from our past and those in our future. We share the intimacy of skin and hair and feeling. We may understand and access radically different kinds of connections at different times, but the opportunities for connection remain available across time. As my mother said while reviewing options with my father the first time he got cancer when I was 12, “As long as you’re alive, you have choices.”
It’s become bizarre, moving between this reckoning of the end and the seemingly mundane questions of everyone else’s everyday life, as though what people do with their time now is all already ashes, only dwindling heat from a fire extinguished while they weren’t looking. How are we all to handle ourselves in the death cycle? Joanna says clearly, her voice trembling with only the normal amount of Joanna tremble, “If we are to die together let’s do it well. Let’s not claw at each other. Let’s do it beautifully. We come from a great species. Let’s envision a world beyond and live like it’s already here.”
So it’s in the simple steps that we celebrate. Sowing seeds of soul service. We heed Joanna’s call to be continually astonished – by tastes and touches, in laughter and in love, through creativity and cosmogenesis. And we share gratitude for the greatness of our harvest and the imaginations of our home.
1. Chalquist, Craig, Terrapsychology: Re-engaging the Soul of Place, Spring Journal Books, New Orleans, LA, 2007.
2. Conteris, Andres, Personal Conversations. Spring 2013
3. Halpern, Joshua
Goal Statement for CIIS Admissions
First Begintegration Blog
Waiting for Things to Get Worse
4. Kazan, Casey “Thirty Supernovas per Second in the Observable Universe! Is the Red Giant Betelgeuse Next?” published 5/12/11 at http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2011/05/30-suoernova-per-second-in-the-observable-universe-is-the-red-giant-betelgeuse-next.html
5. Kelly, Sean and Macy, Joanna, Notes from Class. The Great Turning – The Fullness of Time. CIIS, Spring 2013
6. Roberts, Wayne, “Nine Meals Away From Anarchy”, UTNE Reader, January/February 2013: http://www.utne.com/environment/nine-meals-away-from-anarchy-zm0z13jfzros.aspx
7. Sheldrake, Rupert, “Society, Spirit & Ritual: Morphic Resonance and the Collective Unconscious – Part II” Psychological Perspectives, (Fall 1987) 18(2), 320-331