Solstice is the Stillpoint

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In the northern hemisphere, we know winter solstice as a time of low light and long night. It’s a time when the Sun clings to the horizon, arcing low. There’s clearly a retreat at work. Since the autumn equinox, the Earth has appeared to draw its energy within as growing darkness and cold are felt by all of nature. The northern pole is the farthest away from the Sun it can be, and we feel this distance daily. For all of Earth’s creatures, the Sun is a profound source of life and warmth. It is the fire of outer nature. It’s no surprise then, that since time immemorial and everywhere on Earth, spirited celebration marks the return of the light.

The solstice is the still-point, the turning point. It’s the deepest, darkest part of the year. And it is a time of transition. The solstice marks the lengthening of days and the flush of renewed life. Simultaneously, it symbolizes death and rebirth. In Celtic and Pagan traditions, this process was known as the ‘Cauldron of Regeneration’, wherein roots and seedlings grow in darkness and from death; as do our own personal seeds, plans and dreams. The algae and plants will again receive their solar nourishment and live, feeding the web by producing oxygen and becoming more and more, themselves. We too have the chance to bring forth our depth.

OUT OF SYNC WITH THE SEASON

The other-than-human world knows these regenerative seasonal shifts instinctively. Human beings, like other animals, are also seasonal but a strange estrangement is afoot in our technologically-oriented age. We are living further away from our bodies, the Earth’s seasonal rhythms and the darkness of the solstice time, perhaps than ever before. This way of living is working ‘against the clock’ in an attempt to transcend these natural cycles and rhythms; and the regenerative needs of our bodies and the Earth. But without the necessary periods of slowing down, quiet, reflection and assimilation, how can we biologically, psychologically, socially and spiritually, rejuvenate? The winter solstice, it seems, offers what is desperately needed – the invitation to slow down, integrate and listen deeply within. I am reminded of a quote by social reformer Octavia Hill:  we all need space, unless we have it we cannot reach that sense of quiet in which whispers of better things come to us gently. 

What is it like to embody this Winter’s Solstice with it’s longest night and rich darkness, more deeply than we can recall? Can you, can I, live this soulful time, like the birds and creatures of this world, “unutterably themselves”, with our bones and our choices, for our own wellbeing and that of the world?

Light in the Dark - Solstice

INNER FIRE

The time of winter solstice invites a turn inward and thus away from the outer world. Outer nature’s warmth has waned and we are called to seek warmth within:  the inner fire of the heart and hearth. The Sun’s outer absence becomes the presence of the inner fire of the heart. I am reminded of an experience I had last summer while on a long walk in rural Southwest England. Following a muddy trail out of a small woodland, I stopped to rest in an adjacent field. Spreading out my jacket on the ground, I settled onto my back and gazed at the sky. Clouds puttered across its blue expanse and occasionally blocked the Sun’s rays. Without the Sun’s warmth, the cool undertone of the air felt positively chilly. I was annoyed at the absence of warmth and desired the heat on my skin again. As the clouds continued their movements and this cycle repeated itself, I realized that I could not summon the Sun’s warmth. I needed to heat myself up.

The Earth and the Sun, and their living cycles manifest on Earth, teach that we must turn inward to receive what is not available outside. Love, like warmth and light, too must be generated from within by the inner fire of the heart. In my experience, retreat – like the kind of retreat that the winter solstice invites and the Sun symbolizes – has always been a time to assimilate experience, incubate ideas, process grief and remember what I love into action. From retreat, love has emerged more alive and poignantly real for me than before.

We give thanks for the Earth for this period of rest and regeneration in the dark. We give thanks for the deep wisdom inside ourselves that has helped to guide us. We strengthen our roots and create our stability. We anchor ourselves in our hearts and in our love. As the Sun is reborn, we begin to make ready for a new part of the cycle. We ask that we stay grounded and connected to the Earth. We ask that we grow well with love and care for our Earth-home.

Glennie Kindred, Sacred Earth Celebrations

Winter solstice is just one point, a tiny part, along the orbital path of the Earth – the Earth’s revolving life, it’s cycle. This precious dark time is a pattern of and on Earth, revealing our planet’s life and temporality. To me, it speaks assuredly about the need to look inward. This is an innate capacity of being of Earth. To recognize this calling to slowness and inward looking is to recognize we too are nature. Within this movement is a quest: can we live these days more deeply than before to know ourselves as nature? What winter solstice asks of us is to be attentive, more than ever, to participation with and belonging to an inconceivably great web of life and being; and to include light and dark, dying and rebirth within our conscious knowing. We are invited to learn again to live simply, to let go of what is no longer needed. We are invited to accept what we must.

As we step steadily into winter and the day’s light lengthens, the cycle continues.

EVERYTHING IS WAITING FOR YOU

Your great mistake is to act the drama

as if you were alone. As if life

were a progressive and cunning crime

with no witness to the tiny hidden

transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny

the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,

even you, at times, have felt the grand array;

the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding

out your solo voice. You must note

the way the soap dish enables you,

or the window latch grants you freedom.

Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.

The stairs are your mentor of things

to come, the doors have always been there

to frighten and invite you,

and the tiny speaker in the phone

is your dream-ladder to divinity.

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease

into the conversation. The kettle is singing

even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots

have left their arrogant aloofness and

seen the good in you at last. All the birds

and creatures of the world are unutterably

themselves. Everything is waiting for you.

David Whyte 

Yew

Top picture: Day and night sides of Earth, December 2015 solstice –(2015 December 22 at 4:48 Universal Time). Image credit: Earth and Moon Viewerhttp://earthsky.org/earth/everything-you-need-to-know-december-solstice

Bottom picture: This mature yew is purported to be nearly 2000 years old, and it has undoubtedly witnessed great changes, ceremonies and events over the centuries. Long-living and evergreen, yews were a pagan sacred symbol of new springing from old, death and rebirth.

 

In Sync with the Season:  Reflecting on the Past and Envisioning the Future with SSSEA

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It’s mid-November and autumn moves quickly now, descending in the decaying fruit of plants and fungi, and evident in the growing darkness. It felt good, at this time of falling and unraveling and transition, to gather, reflect and to creatively envision our work together as the people of the Salish Sea Spiritual Ecology Alliance. Autumn as a season, with its ecological and astronomical signs, as a soulful being expressing the life of the Earth, is a time well-suited for harvesting what’s past and seeding what will grow in the coming months and beyond for SSSEA.

Reflecting on the Past – SSSEA’s Forest Day, 2015 Convergence

In preparation for that gathering and visioning process last Thursday evening, I reflected on what’s past, specifically one day of our 2015 Convergence. Several themes emerge from that event that may resonate and feed our shared vision.

SSSEA’s 2nd event of the 2015 Convergence happened on the unceded, traditional and ancestral territory of the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ speaking Musqueam people at Spanish Banks West and Pacific Spirit Park. It was a privilege to have sχɬemtəna:t Audrey Siegl, who serves as an advocate and activist for indigenous sovereignty, indigenous women and the Earth, welcome us to her peoples’ territory and speak and sing from her heart.

It was a delight to share that blustery time where the forest and ocean meet, in conversation together and with the surrounding forest. Those teachings, as you may know, were diverse and holistic, including storytelling with poet and storyteller Nadine Pluzak; contemplative forest school skills with Roland Campbell of Soaring Eagle Nature School; foraging with ethnobotanist Bryce Watts of the Forager Foundation; forest ecology with forester and community builder Robin Clark; nature-based meditation with actor and meditator Matthew Spears; forest gardening with permaculturist Laura Walker and ancient forest activism with forest conservation expert Ken Wu of the Ancient Forest Alliance. To close the day, Emily Townsend facilitated a community dialogue about the dualism/nondualism of the human-nature connection. It was our good fortune to have a truly invigorating mix of teachers and topics. Here are a few of the themes that emerged from that day:

Nature Connection

One of SSSEA’s intentions for the 2015 Convergence was to embody Joanna Macy’s Spiral of the Work That Reconnects, and our Forest event was a day of skill-share workshops exploring the 3rd component of the Spiral: Seeing with New Eyes. To “see with new eyes” is to awaken to the reality of our “inter-being” (as Thich Nhat Hanh calls it), our intimate and living connection to all that is. Through activities like identifying and learning about medicinal and native plants, doing contemplative practice like meditation and yoga outside, we connected with inner and outer nature. Nature (re)connection, according to many ecological thinkers, is one key to the individual and collective transformation required to bring about an ecological society.

Contemplative Practice

Deep connection with nature can be cultivated through contemplative practices which develop sensory awareness, concentration and deep listening. Seeing, feeling, hearing and experiencing what is present outside and what emerges within us – the very ground beneath our feet, the feel of wind on our cheeks, our sense of self in relation to the elements – feeds the sense that “we too are nature”. But neither nature connection nor contemplative practice is not about connecting with nature as a ‘wild’ and unpeopled place.

Allying for Decolonization

While the “purpose of SSSEA is to facilitate a deepening of our spiritual connection to place, landscape and ecology”, this cannot be done honourably or justly without – to barely even begin – acknowledging the original peoples of these lands and waters, who have lived here since time immemorial; who have had/have an epistemology and identity woven with a sacralized and animated sense of place, land and ecology (see Kovach). But as Musqueam elder Jeri Sparrow writes,

Our traditional territory has been taken from us according to European settlement and colonization. Part of the teachings people need to know is how vast our territory was. It’s not this little 450 acres that we have now. It’s much, much larger and it meant so much more to us.

While acknowledgement of Musqueam serves to bring a decolonizing lens to a geography that otherwise continues to colonize through repression of the natural-cultural history of place, it is surely just a beginning – an absolutely necessary one – in allyship.

To be a settler, according to UBC professor David Gaertner, is to “perennially be aware of guesthood and to guard against the complacency and entitlement that comes with “making oneself at home” in Indigenous space (physical, ideological and epistemological)”.  According to Gaertner, a settler-professor at UBC, the foundation of good protocol in Indigenous territory is self-identification. He cites Joy Harjo (Creek) who writes, “protocol is a key to assuming sovereignty. It’s simple. When we name ourselves… we are acknowledging the existence of our nations, their intimate purpose, insure their continuation.” On Forest Day, SSSEA was welcomed to the territory by sχɬemtəna:t Audrey Siegl, but I know that I did not identify my self in the way Gaertner suggests. There is much to learn.

What does it mean for the diverse group of settlers that make up SSSEA to ally for decolonization? As settlers on these lands, how do we consciously participate in reparation and solidarity? In their striking article Decolonization is Not a Metaphor, Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang state strongly that decolonization is a process that involves the repatriation – that is, giving back – of land to Indigenous peoples. Decolonization as a process is “not a metonym for social justice”, it is “incommensurable” – it does not fit and it is not comfortable.

Activism for Forest and Biodiversity Conservation

SSSEA’s Forest Day was also focused on connecting with the forest of the Salish Sea bioregion, one of the most significant ecologies we inhabit – and of which much has been lost. The work of Ken Wu (https://www.ancientforestalliance.org) and Douglas Tolchin (http://www.salishsea.org) – both present at this event – inspire action on behalf of old-growth forest conservation and the restoration of Salish Sea native biodiversity. Ken Wu’s call to protect 2nd growth forest so that it may become old-growth weaves into Douglas’ vision to return natural animal populations to 50% of their historic levels. Douglas is currently working to ensure that the interests and leadership of the  Coast Salish peoples’ of this region are forefront in the Salish Sea Bioregional Marine Sanctuary.

Forest Day was just one of the four event days of our 2015 Convergence. Each held its own rich thematic elements and each may guide our visioning. Additional reflections were offered from the group gathered at the Kits Neighbourhood House last Thursday.

Back to the Season, and the Visioning

As we began our small visioning gathering with a centering prayer-space and practice to enter the here-and-now, the contemplative character of the autumn season seemed to guide and ground our vision for creative engagement. Suresh Fernando shared his heartfelt description of the human search for widening circles of family and belonging, and the need for love to be the ground of action. Several poems were read.

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If we surrendered
to earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees

  • Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours: Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God 

This road demands courage and stamina, yet it’s full of footprints!
Who are these companions?
They are rungs in your ladder. Use them!
With company you quicken your ascent.
You may be happy enough going along, but with others 
you’ll get farther, and faster.

  • Rumi, Selected Poems

The character of these poems speaks to the group’s core values, which became distilled through the process of reflection and brainstorming. While we did not explicitly identify our vision and values in the form of a group mandate, we largely emphasized the confluence of spirituality and ecology, represented well by the terms “interpath” and “earth-centered”. But the core value and intention of our coming together, our most basic value, revealed itself as friendship. Thanks to Fleurette for drawing this up in her stories,  Anam Cara, the spirit of our visioning meeting and the thread we at SSSEA may follow forward together.

In the Celtic tradition, there is a beautiful understanding of love and friendship. One of the fascinating ideas here is the idea of soul-love; the old Gaelic term for this is anam caraAnam is the Gaelic word for soul and cara is the word for friend. So anam cara in the Celtic world was the “soul friend.” In the early Celtic church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called an anam cara. It originally referred to someone to whom you confessed, revealing the hidden intimacies of your life. With the anam cara you could share your inner-most self, your mind and your heart. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam cara, your friendship cut across all convention, morality, and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the “friend of your soul.”

Check out John O’Donohue’s book, Anam Cara:  A Book of Celtic Wisdom

 

In Sync with the Season: Reflecting on the Past and Envisioning the Future with SSSEA

Deep Roots, Entwined Branches: Reflections on the Parliament of the World’s Religions

Laying on cured grass just outside of a closed Forest Service campground in the foothills of the Idaho panhandle, cool air condenses into dew on my sleeping bag. I shiver between sleep and wakefulness. The stars keep me company. I watch Cassiopeia slowly swing around the North Star, and around 4:00 am, Orion becomes visible. It is strange that only when we sit still do we realize just how constant is our motion. There are dozens of other constellations whose faces I do not recognize, and whose stories I do not recall. Then, in the east, an almost imperceptible glow begins to put the trees and hilled horizon into dim relief. Venus, Mercury and Jupiter line up to greet the day. Morning is approaching.

I, along with five other members of the Salish Sea Spiritual Ecology Alliance are on our way to the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions supported by a small grant from the Sisters of Charity Halifax and we have stopped to camp for the night after a long day of driving.

The Parliament of the World’s Religions was first convened in 1893 in Chicago to coincide with the World’s Fair. This year it is being held in Salt Lake City, Utah the Axis Mundi of my first religious tradition, Mormonism, and the place I lived and taught World Religions for two years before I moved to Vancouver. In 2014, I attended the Society of American Foresters annual conference in the very same venue, and when I heard that the Parliament was coming in 2015, I felt a pang of synchronicity. I studied both forestry and theology in graduate school, and though it was a small coincidence, it felt like Life reassuring me that I was on the right path.

Arriving in Salt Lake City, we found the Salt Palace Convention Center packed with about 10,000 people, representing at least 50 faiths, from 80 countries. The first Parliament excluded Native peoples, Mormons and Atheists, but this year just about every possible belief and practice was present. We began by going through a ‘smudge’ purification ritual officiated by a kindly Paiute elder, and then making an offering of tobacco to the sacred fire. It was good to start the Parliament by acknowledging the Spiritual Ecology of the First Peoples of this land.

The Parliament was a veritable smorgasbord of spiritual and religious diversity: mandalas, labyrinths, spontaneous dance parties, flash mobs, meditation gurus, chanting, even a procession of people dressed like angels. Exhibitors hawked every kind of spiritual ware from prayer beads and Native American jewelry, to sacred texts and icons. It was a cacophonous mosaic of the world’s spiritu-diversity. Overwhelming at first, I settled into the rhythm of the Parliament, and to try and drink from its convention-shaped wisdom.

The mission of the Parliament is “to cultivate harmony among the world’s religious and spiritual communities and foster their engagement with the world and its guiding institutions in order to achieve a just, peaceful and sustainable world.” This mission was on full display throughout the Parliament, as most sessions focused on issues of poverty, cooperation, women’s rights, violence, terrorism, climate change, ecology, and more. I attended dozens of the concurrent sessions –from Pagans respond to the Pope, to Vedic Cosmology. I was even lucky enough presented a few myself.

In ‘Religion and Ecology in the Anthropocene’, I looked to the future religion in an ecological context of human domination. I presented Spiritual Ecology as an emerging and increasingly popular orientation that transcends religious affiliations. Our Panel headed up by Suresh Fernando, Maya Graves-Bacchus and Alysha Jones then defined spiritual ecology and presented the vision and mission of our organization. It was a wonderful conversation! In my second presentation ‘Trees, Forests and the Sacred’, I started with a poem on Sacred Groves, and then rushed through a PowerPoint on the types of sacred trees and forests. Then I invited participants to leave the air-conditioned convention center and spend time with actual trees in Temple Square. We reconvened in front of the LDS Temple and discussed our experiences. It was a very powerful way to bring home the importance of trees in our spiritual lives. My third presentation was as a short guided meditation on cosmology. Wandering through the phases of cosmic evolution, we meditation on the 5 elements focused on each in our bodies and in the earth. But enough about that!

Along with the hundreds of concurrent sessions there were six plenaries sessions spaced throughout the week which addressed Women’s issues; Emerging Leaders; Income Inequality; War, Violence and Hate Speech; Climate Change and Indigenous issues. The speeches and energy in the massive plenary hall was electric, and I was deeply moved by most of the speeches and speakers. The diversity of voices were not there to convince us of their beliefs or doctrines, but to challenge us to live up to our best moral teachings. Not that their beliefs and doctrines did not come through in their talks, or that they needed to check them at the door, but that the Parliament was simply not the place to debate the metaphysical truths of religious belief. It was a place of convergence in common cause, and a space for sharing the unique perspectives each tradition brings to the works of justice, mercy, poverty and ecology.

I was particularly inspired by the number and diversity of women leaders. Eco-feminist Vandana Shiva, writer and Course in Miracles enthusiast Marianne Williamson, Ayurveda teacher Mother Maya Tiwari, theologian Dr. Serene Jones, Indigenous Grandmother Mary Lyons, Rabbi Amy Eilberg, indigenous youth activist Ta’Kaiya Blaney, Primatologist Jane Goodall, writer Karen Armstrong, evangelical climate activist Katherine Hayhoe, religion and ecology scholar Mary Evelyn Tucker and so many more. The Parliament was a welcome place for those who sought to advance the equality of women. There was also a surge of energy focused on the reemergence of the Divine Feminine.

On the role of women, it was stated plainly, the world’s religions have a mixed record with respect to treating women with dignity. Parliament Board member Phyllis Curott reiterated,

“The dignity, safety and equality of women is the global human rights struggle of our time. The world’s religions can no longer contribute to or allow the denigration of half of humanity…Women, and men, of faith and spirit are gathering in Salt Lake City to fix this broken moral compass and call upon the world’s religions to stop the deprivation and violence against women and girls; to stop harmful teachings and practices that justify discrimination and abuse; and to ensure that women are fully involved in decision-making within religions.”

It was humbling to once again realize how much privilege I carry in the world as a white, cis-gendered male, Christian; and to realize that my place of privilege has led to the suffering of bodies that do not look like mine. Speaking of the recent attack on a Gurdwara in Wisconsin where a white supremacist killed six people and wounded four others, Sikh woman Valerie Kaur lamented that:

“100 years after my family has called this country home, and 14 years after 9/11, our bodies are seen as perpetually foreign, and potentially terrorist. Just as black bodies are seen as criminal, brown bodies illegal, trans bodies immoral, indigenous bodies savage, and women’s bodies as property.”

It is always a hard reality to face; that my demographic has caused so much suffering to women, to immigrants, to blacks, to indigenous communities, and to the LGBTQ community. It reminded me of something Jim Wallis said in relation to the violence facing so many African Americans in the US: “If white Christians in America acted more Christian than white when it came to race, black parents would be less fearful for their children.” These are hard words. The Parliament was a call to repentance. I am trying not to internalize guilt, but to channel it into the energy we need to build a better world, and the energy I need to continue to strive to be a better man, a more conscious white person, and the kind of Christian that takes God’s love seriously, for myself and for the other.

There was no illusion that religion is often tangled up with this discrimination, violence, terror and hatred around the globe. Fundamentalism, extremism, patriarchy, terrorism and capitalism were all called out for their negative consequences, faults, flaws and mistakes, but there was very little bitterness, vitriol or blame. For all its faults, religion was overwhelmingly embraced as a force for good in the world, a force that is capable of acting out of a deep and Divine source of love toward those that we might otherwise fear. Each speaker drawing from their own traditions and experiences, in the face of insurmountable problems, was able to expose the center of love and compassion at the core of all our religious and spiritual traditions. They admonished us to access this core with the intention of serving our human siblings and the earth community. Each speaker was grounded in respect, love and hope for the possibilities present in this remarkable gathering.

While the problems we face were certainly front and center, the good we have accomplished was also with us. Discussion of the transition from the UN Millennium Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Goals cited that fact that globally, extreme poverty has been cut in half since 1990. Eboo Patel discussed his work with Interfaith Youth Corps, which works with campus groups around the USA to build interfaith relationships and to make it known just how much interfaith cooperation has succeeded in the past. New Thought Minister Michael Beckwith talked about the potential of moving the economy from a model of Success 1.0 and 2.0 with an emphasis on personal profit, or personal profit tempered by philanthropy; to what he called Success 3.0, which focuses on the impacts our enterprises have on other people and the planet before personal profit. Jane Goodall spoke to the evolutionary origins of violence, and how human beings, unlike chimpanzees face a choice. We can act on those evolutionary impulses or we can transcend them. The Parliament was a pep-rally for actively choosing goodness over evil, forgiveness rather than revenge, and hope rather than despair.

One thing I noticed at the Parliament was that young people were a minority. This really hit home when I sat around the table with old friends from Utah and we realized that though most of us had attended BYU (the LDS owned College in Provo, Utah), most of us had left the Mormon Church. Few had transitioned to other faiths as I had, and most were still carrying the wounds of lost belief, residual guilt, and bitterness. My friends have left for many reasons, but I wished that they could have heard the plenary speeches which called us to forgiveness and hope. Yet, for most young people, the damage has been done, and the thought of returning to the religions of their upbringing is near impossible. I do not blame young people for leaving organized religion, as I said, there is plenty to point fingers at, but it makes me sad none the less. Especially at a time when their voices and creativity are so desperately needed to address these mounting global issues and problems. If religion wants to survive, it must find a way to engage young people in ways that are authentic, meaningful, and hopeful.

Yes religion can be insular, exclusive, moralistic and violent, but at the Parliament of the World’s Religions I realized that we were part of something much greater than a collection of religious institutions in dialogue. We are part of a global Interfaith Movement that is predicated on the assumption that we have something to learn from other religious traditions, and that the problems of the world are a test of how well our traditions serve humanity and the earth. Some predict that religion will go away. I am not convinced of this. Yes, religion will have to change as it always has—as I realized in the wet grass of the Idaho Panhandle, it is only when we sit still do we realize just how constant is our motion. As we continue to dialogue, to seek understanding, to cooperate on global projects to combat climate change, poverty and discrimination, the roots of our faith may deepen, but our branches will become more entwined. This is the religion of the future.

Deepening our Connection to Place through Spiritual Practice

During this year’s Convergence, we tried to connect two threads: The places we call home and the spiritual practices that ground us in those places. The purpose of spiritual practice, for many of the world’s religious traditions, is to facilitate a personal encounter with the Divine, with our True Selves, with the Absolute.

Place is not a bounded or static entity. It is a portal through which we are led. I like to think of it as one of those paintings you have to stare at for a while, before you can see what is hidden. A place becomes sacred when we begin to see what is really there. On our maps, there is often just a large monochromatic green patch for parks and protected areas. This is the hight of abstraction, and colonial hubris. Places are full of the memories and particularities of those who dwell and have dwelt in them. Spiritual practices can facilitate a deep connection to places, and thus to an ethic of care. During the Convergence, we learned to sit still in a place and listen.

What else can we do?

  • Mark the seasons, and solar cycles
  • Learn to ethically forage edible foods
  • Learn to meditate
  • Listen to First People’s stories of the land
  • Eat mindfully
  • Learn the names of plants and trees
  • Gardening
  • Yoga
  • Walk a labyrinth
  • Go hiking
  • Dance
  • Attend a worship service, or sit in a quiet church/temple/synagogue
  • Engage someone you don’t know
  • Find like minded people to talk with
  • Allow one’s self to grieve for loss

What other spiritual practice do you do to connect with place?

2015 Convergence Reflection

DSC_7733 (2)Last year we held a powerful conversation about ecology, cosmology and spirituality. The energy from that gathering turned into the Salish Sea Spiritual Ecology Alliance when a handful of us gathered in small circles with mugs of spruce tip or nettle tea and told our stories, expressed our fears, and wondered what we could do to effect real change. We each took deep breaths of relief when we realized that we were not alone in yearning for deep connection to each other, the earth and the Divine. Most of us, but not all, had left conventional religion behind, and were doing what we could to fill the void left in our souls by one of humanity’s most ancient institutions.

‘Place-based Activism and Spiritual Practice’ was not just the SSSEA’s next project, it was a labor of love gifted by countless hours of work by the organizers to its participants. I feel truly blessed to know each one of you. Thank you! Here are just a few thoughts in retrospect on the Convergence.

Starting on September 13, we embarked on a pilgrimage of body and soul. With our eyes to the sea, we accepted that the ocean is not always hospitable to our plans. Strong winds postponed our canoe trip. But gathered inside the Jericho Sailing Centre, we expressed our fears, ideas and possible solutions for the problems facing our oceans. It was difficult to acknowledge the pain without immediately jumping into fixing it. But we held the space. Douglas Tolchin shared a vision for a Bioregional Marine Sanctuary that would bring wild animals populations above 50% of historic levels. The room was buzzing with excitement. A livable future is within our grasp.

On September 20, we convened at Spanish Banks amidst the wind and rain that flapped our rented tents and tables and wandered in the woods. Workshops included foraging, forest ecology, forest play, meditation, yoga, storytelling, and building a forest defense campaign. At the end of the day, after much discussion and time in the beautiful Douglas fir forests of Pacific Spirit Park, we sat in a tight circle and talked about how the idea of nature had ironically further separated us from the world we live in. The sun finally decided to show up, and we craned our necks to absorb its light.

On September 26, we gathered at the UBC farm among new friends, rows and rows of kale, and intermittent clouds. Dawn Morrison challenged our assumptions about farms being the center of food systems, and we sat with the hard truth that colonial violence included agriculture; that food sovereignty meant restoring First Peoples rights to traditional food systems and practices such as gathering, fishing and hunting. We talked about the power of our food purchasing choices, and food as a locus for being an activist. We talked about our rituals surrounding food. We learned to slow down, to focus on each bite of food, to eat mindfully, to treat each meal as a kind of sacrament. We enjoyed a 6 course vegan meal prepared by local chefs from Maple Ridge. As the sun set, and we sat eating together, the bright almost full moon rose above the warm glow of the greenhouse. The night air was crisp with the coming fall. It was a perfect place to celebrate the changing of food into bodies.

DSC_8099 (2)On October 4, we gathered at Saint Paul Anglican Church’s labyrinth space. The labyrinth is modeled after the labyrinth at the Chartres Cathedral in France. We set up an altar in the center, and as participants entered each with given a rock to help them focus their intention for the gathering. We walked the labyrinth in silence. It was powerful to see so many walking together. Like an intentional city street where the chaos feels like a symphony of bodies. Then we gathered in a large circle, ritually setting our intention and placing our rocks in a bowl of water. The water was blessed and then our officiants used cedar branches to bless each of us. For the next two hours we were led by amazing facilitators of intentional dance Alicia Graham and Loretta Laurin.

It is hard for me to describe the beauty of this time. When we started the music, we were to sit or lay down on the floor, we were to enact each of the five elements: water, fire, air, earth and spirit. As a very self-conscious dancer, I started sitting down with my eyes tightly shut. Hoping to avoid any disappointed glances. But as the time and music went on, and I settled into stillness, and saw just how accepting and loving the space was. I was able to bring myself to my feet and dance around the outside of the labyrinth, slowly and cautiously at first, and then with more confidence. We did a number of amazing exercises such as partner mirror dancing and trying to keep between two people while dancing. During one exercise, half of us were asked to dance while the other half observed. We were to practice seeing and being seen, and to express in our dance something like our fears for the state of the world or sadness, or loneliness. Having just gone through a very difficult break up and consistently feeling the weight of the problems we face, this moment broke me open and I fell to the ground pounding the floor in rhythm to the pulsing music. I cried not just for myself but for the world. I was surprised by how powerful my reaction was. Then I felt the soft hands of another dancer on my back, and I was filled with a soft wave of comfort. I was not alone in my pain, in my loneliness, or in facing the problems of the world. I got up and joined the other dancers in an awkward but joyous dance of gratitude.

The SSSEA set out to create a sacred container for building community and deepening our connections to the earth through spiritual practice, and as the evening was wrapping up, I felt a wave of pride and joy as we performed and expressed those very goals. Not through academic papers, or even words, but with our bodies.

Thank you all who participated! It was a pleasure meeting you, and we hope that you will join us for our next visioning session in the beginning of November. Take care of yourselves, and don’t hesitate to reach out to any of us for a listening ear, support of company.

Jason B.