The war in Iraq continues longer than World War II. Estimates are that over 1.2 million Iraqi’s have died as the result of the war and that number continues to grow. US causalities exceed the deaths resulting from the bombing of the World Trade Center. Depending on what costs are attributed to the war, some reports project over $1 trillion dollars in spending. And yet we beat the drums to go to war with Iran. Israel erects walls to keep their neighbors separate from themselves and the United States does the same with Mexico. Terrorism is evoked to instill fear at every attempt of dissent or opposition to the policies of those in power. The unquenchable thirst for oil and its profits fuels aggression and exploitation of peoples and of Earth.
We weep as we read the news and stand in numb incredulity. We know that solutions rooted in violence, fear of the other and power over don’t work. They won’t solve these intractable issues. The causes are multi-layered and imbedded in the circumstances of place, of history and of time.
We need to imagine new ways of approaching our future. We need to learn habits, attitudes, values that will turn us around so that we will act in right relationship and in the best interest of all of us and Earth.
For many of the Engaging Impasse Circle participants the pain of injustice throughout our world and of Earth itself forms the experience of impasse. We wonder how this can happen? How can we be so uncaring and violent? Why do we feel so impotent and powerless?
This anguish for our world is gift for it invites us to see these realities differently. Entering the anguish through communal contemplation clears away the layers of thinking that have us believe that our experiences of impasse are singular and isolated from each other. Rather we begin to see that we are in this together. That what we each experience is really a part of the whole. We begin to see the larger picture—the forces that are shaping the world we live in and moving it toward this crisis moment–and we begin to see the power we have collectively to be and act in new transformative ways.
Joanna Macy, a Buddhist teacher and deep ecologist, might see in this Circle experience elements of what she calls the Great Turning. In Macy’s writings she explores how what we are experiencing today is the industrial-growth society spinning out of control. Its belief in the limitless increase in corporate profits is leading to a systems collapse. In order to shift this direction toward sustainability for our planet we need a Great Turning.
The Great Turning helps us see the direction we are going in and to view our collective efforts as part of a vast enterprise, a tidal change commensurate to the crises we face. This she calls the third revolution of the human journey that is not only a possibility but is present already. The Great Turning is like a lens through which we can see what is happening. All around us there are initiatives to minimize the destruction, create alternatives, and begin the crucial stage of transforming our consciousness.
What is becoming clear is that science alone will not enable the Great Turning. We need to draw on ancient sources of wisdom informed and shaped by the insights of science and other disciplines developed over these past centuries. We need to access our spiritual depths, our inner wisdom, which invites us at once to a simple yet more complex transformed consciousness.
Prayer, spirituality, are ways by which we can access our spiritual depths. The challenge is to go beyond the formal prayers one learns to recite and to reclaim for ourselves the ancient form of prayer of contemplation. We must reclaim contemplation as our natural organic spiritual path.
Contemplation is becoming attentive to the Divine within. English mystics describe contemplation as a “long, loving, look at the real.” It is slowing down sufficiently to get in touch with one’s illusions, biases, assumptions, and worldviews. It is getting in touch with reality—the world’s and our own.
Constance FitzGerald, OCD, a cloistered Carmelite, says “…contemplation is not a validation of things as they are…but a constant questioning and restlessness that waits for and believes in the coming of a transformed vision of God….a new and integrating spirituality capable of creating a new politics and generating new social structures.”
It is in the contemplative experience that the necessary transformation of consciousness can occur that is so urgently needed to address our current planetary crisis.
So what must our response be?
To become Mystics!
As I’ve written in the reflections on Contemplation, we are all called to be mystics. Too often, mysticism is seen as something for the privileged few. I am more convinced than ever that today entering into the space where one encounters the Divine within is critical if the transformation we so need is to happen.
This is not cause and effect. Rather I understand the call to be a mystic, to be a contemplative, involves both a spiritual practice and a gift which awaken one to take a long loving look at the real; to embrace the Divine within oneself, within each other and within all of creation.
Such an awakening transforms who I am and why I exist. It frees me from the fears of separation and division and invites me to see my life intimately connected with the entire web of life. Such a transformed consciousness holds the seed of bold action and creative response to our world. It invites me to be part of the Great Turning.
As with engaging impasse, the Great Turning comes with no guarantees. Macy writes “that its risk of failure is its reality. Insisting on belief in a positive outcome puts blinders on us and burdens the heart. We might manage to convince ourselves that everything will surely turn out all right, but would such happy assurance elicit our greatest courage and creativity?” As I think about the Iraq war I wonder if our desire as US citizens to believe that it will come out alright and our great reliance on politically feasible responses might be keeping us from being creative in how to courageously imagine another way to bring an end to this immoral war. And whether the creative and courageous response to oppression by the monks in Burma was born from deep contemplation detaching them from any outcome except from doing what they knew to be right.
Macy continues…”the Great Turning …helps me live with radical uncertainty. It also causes me to believe that, whether we succeed or not, the risks we take on behalf of life will bring forth dimensions of human intelligence and solidarity beyond any we have known.”
In the Christian tradition we have a witness to the truth of those understandings in the person of Jesus. Jesus was a mystic. He understood himself to be intimate with his Abba God. The Gospel story attributed to John speaks to how Jesus and God are one and that God and Jesus will come and dwell within each of us. Jesus acted from this place of deep contemplation and transformed consciousness as he lived in the way that spoke to him of right relationships, justice, non-violence and compassion. He began a Turning when he spoke to and befriended women and Samaritans, healed on the Sabbath, welcomed outcasts and sinners to his table of communion and forgave those who were his enemies. He could act in no other way. At the end he died betrayed, condemned and tortured as a common criminal not knowing if anything he did would be carried on. He risked on behalf of the fullness of life and “brought forth dimensions of human intelligence and solidarity beyond any we have known.”
We are at a critical point. We need to see more clearly. To take the contemplative, long loving look at the real. The future is calling to us to assist in the Great Turning. To imagine anew how to be and do at this time, I believe we need to cultivate that place, that space within where we meet the Divine and then live boldly and radically because we became who we are called to be–mystics.
1 FitzGerald, OCD, Constance. “Impasse and Dark Night”. Living with Apocalypse, Spiritual Resources for Social Compassion. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984.
2 Macy, Joanna. “The Great Turning as Compass and Lens.” YES! A Journal of Positive Future Summer 2006: 44-46.
Written by Nancy Sylvester, IHM
© 2008-2012 Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue
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