Convention is Rape and Ecocide: Why Process Matters

“Brock Turner, Brett Kavenaugh, Donald Trump and the Culture that Rewards Rapists”

I wish someone would write a book with that title.

It is no accident that a sexual predator is the head of state of the United States of America, which also happens to be the largest historical greenhouse gas emitter and the possessor of the most destructive military on the planet.

What may be an accident, or a “simple twist of fate,” is the irony that the United States, and its global influence, may also be the fertile ground upon which the end of patriarchy and rape culture is ignited. As a citizen of this great country, and it is unquestionably great, I hope that this spark becomes manifest.

If there is any redemption possible for the abuse of greatness, it is certainly up to us in this most powerful and wealthy nation to find it, for there will be no history to tell if we do not.

The first step toward redemption is always acknowledgement of truth, usually a truth that has been buried by the false authority of power. The “authority of power” in itself is a falsification of truth, for authority resides in truth, not in power. This is a self-evident fact.

The only force great enough to bury truth in favor of power is culture, and the only force great enough to change a culture of falsehood is a counter-culture of truth.

The path of truth leads to love and creation as surely as the path of power leads to denial and, ultimately, hate and destruction. The ability to discern the difference is a matter of character and will.

Justice is the process by which mistakes of character on the journey toward truth are reconciled.

Liberation is the process by which unity is striven for in the expression of justice and truth in human culture.

Liberty, on the other hand, simply exists. It cannot be granted nor taken away. Liberty is merely a description of an individual’s freedom to choose to go against truth or not. Liberty is a fact of being human. It is arguably the fact that defines the paradoxical nature of what being human is.

Matters of character, will, truth and reconciliation are challenging, even for pairs of individuals, families, clans and neighborhoods. For nations and tribes, even more so. For confederations, there is an even greater order of magnitude of complexity. For a whole planet including billions of souls, the complexity is unfathomable.

In this context, forging a counter-culture of truth is a daunting task, one far beyond the ability of any single human mind, or even group of like-minded individuals, to plan for and execute. There is no Little Red Book or Green New Deal that will fix everything. This is a good thing (even though it can be frustrating.) It does not mean that we should not fight for a Green New Deal. It does mean that while what we do matters, its cultural impacts may matter much more!

The degree to which we sacrifice truth to get things done is the degree that we sacrifice culture. If we sacrifice culture we sacrifice liberation, justice and now, at this point in history, even survival, to power. In today’s struggle, process and content both matter completely and inseparably. This is an anti-male-supremacist, pro-justice, earth centered countercultural stand.

What we do is engineering, economics and policy. How we do what we do is culture. What we do is content. How we do it is process.

Process matters. Culture matters. Truth matters.

Only a culture of truth can bring us justice. And only a culture of justice can solve the human crises we face globally.  We must not only stop business as usual. We must also disrupt culture as usual.



Hard Times For Men: Why men who care about women should consider wearing skirts

In the wake of Kavanaugh and the #MeToo movement, Mr. Trump and others have said that these are “Hard times for men.”

He’s right, but not in the same way that times have been hard for womxn living in male supremacist societies for the last 10,000 years. After millennia of getting away with it, men are finally being pressed to own up for the ways that we prey upon, degrade and disrespect womxn. (“x” includes trans women.)

We males did not choose to be members of a privileged class. We are not personally responsible for all the horrible things that men have done throughout history. Yet we reap unearned benefits from that same history on a daily basis.

Rape culture exists at the core of modern patriarchy. Because we enjoy privileged status in a male supremacist society, men are being expected to account for our conduct with the highest degree of integrity. We are also being challenged to do something about the conduct of all males.

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Patriarchy’s institutions and cultural norms rob women of their power, labor and dignity worldwide. Corporations owned by men and governed by patriarchal values and agreements ravage the earth for raw materials and exploit the vulnerable. Overall, this concentrates obscene wealth in the pockets of a tiny minority, mostly men, while destroying our planet’s ability to sustain life.

Men like to be heroes. We are proud of doing hard things. It is often not too challenging for us to take courageous action under extreme pressure and danger. Yet when it comes to male supremacy, rape and gender justice, we most often act defensively. We feel confused and exposed. We wonder how culpable we actually are. We experience “male fragility.”

I empathize with men at this cusp of history. It is no fun to pick at the Gordian knot that centuries of supremacy have tied up inside us. We mask our gender insecurity with bravado but then suffer the consequences of our emotional illiteracy in isolated silence. We express chauvinism and privilege without knowing we are doing it.  Homophobia is tangled reflexively within us. It is hard to show our commitment to “liberty and justice for all” having been trained culturally, socially and psychologically to perpetuate male privilege. That is why I agree with Mr. Trump that these are hard times for men.

But that is where my agreement stops. He encourages men to see themselves as victims of feminism and longs for the good old days when women weren’t challenging men.

When I say it, I’m calling for men to tear down patriarchy forever, inside and out. That is something truly hard to do.

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Seating Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court is a last straw for many wxmen. I hope a lot of men are searching their souls at this moment in history.

Womxn are not soul searching, they are mobilizing. And it must be our first priority as men of conscience to show up among the mobilized. This is our moment in history to lead by listening, following and being of service. Put more bluntly, it is time to “Show up and shut up!” Our soul searching is important, but it cannot be done without our feet in the street with the womxn who are demanding change.

We men need to learn how to handle being emotionally and mentally uncomfortable with grace and dignity. It is not dignified to act defensive. It is not dignified to act ashamed or guilty. It is not graceful to shut down or run away from emotional intensity. We need to dramatically raise the level of discomfort we can handle and keep intact our composure, compassion, self esteem and ability to listen and show respect for others.

Women want men to be able to listen attentively to what they have to say, in the way they need to say it. Everyone deserves this, yet few modern men are capable of delivering this basic need to radicalized womxn.

Women are not always right, nor are they always respectful. We do not always need to agree with women or like how they express themselves. But still, at this point in history, we must listen without arguing, commenting or attempting to correct. As a group, men have lost our authority by abusing it for millennia. When we demonstrate support and respect for long enough to pehaps we may gain mutual reciprocal authority with women. Until then we must practice dignified support for womxn’s power, leadership and mode of expression.

Few men today have done the work required to cut deeply into the knot of our inner patriarchy. Fears, prejudices, beliefs and reactions remain tangled up inside us. We justify our entitled behavior with rationalizations, urgency, flat denial or “good intentions” and march on, privilege as usual. This is the pandemic drama of Kavanaugh.

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It is as if at the core of modern civilized male identity lies a tangled nest of wounded but mostly sleeping dragons. As long as patriarchal baseline is maintained they are happy to slumber.

Inside this sleepy tangle, gender insecurity and homophobia are really big beasts. Race and heterosexual bias and fear keep close company. Alienation from nature, and from our own true natures, are anguished beasts.

We modern men don’t really know who we are or what we are supposed to be doing. How could culturally uninitiated men possibly know who they are? But we think we do. And we have clear instructions never to admit that we do not.

When a threat to patriarchal normalcy arises, such as a woman expressing rage and pain and demanding change, or, heaven forbid, a man interrupting and shutting down the use of the word “pussy” or “gay” as derogatory adjectives, these dragons awaken and take the helm of consciousness without consulting us. We then behave fearfully, irrationally and offensively.

Men don’t like to admit we are privileged or irrational and we don’t like to admit mistakes. We rarely admit that we feel threatened or “not in control” of ourselves. Then, if we do admit privilege or disrespectful behavior, we tend to crumble under guilt or shame. This is “fragility” is immature and undignified.

Feelings of shame and guilt are understandable. Perhaps they are even necessary for the growth that we need. But the helpless, undignified behavior that guilt and shame encourage is just another dodge of accountability.

If you want to see what it looks like when men dodge accountability, go back and watch Kavenaugh. He lays out the whole spectrum of behavior women are so familiar with. Unfortunately there may not be any good examples of men admitting their mistakes with dignity and accountability, this author included. It is a tough thing to do.

I learned more than three decades ago that the best way to change my interior world was to change my behavior. Respectful, attentive listening without reacting, commenting, criticizing or proposing solutions is very much needed at this time.

If we men can overcome our gender and race insecurity, we can stand powerfully with womxn as they become an unstoppable force for change. To accomplish this we must insist on our own respectful, empathetic, dignified and compassionate behavior at all costs, even when it doesn’t feel authentic. Perhaps even more so when we feel conflicted inside.

No man I know can succeed at the practice of “show up and shut up” without outside support. Feelings which come from the trauma of our gender indoctrination need a place of safety to be explored, unraveled and extracted so that we can become authentic masters of our own behavior.

This is simply a fact of nature. Healing trauma requires safety and the ability to cry and to grieve under the loving witness of others. Yet our patriarchal training judges and rejects the need for safety as “weakness.” Tears of grief are “unmanly.” Dragon says, “I don’t need a sissy support group! I’m fine! . . . . .” Isn’t that clever?

But we have to talk and we need to grieve. Both loving support and an intellectual framework that honestly deconstructs patriarchy, oppression and colonialism are necessary for us to change.

Patriarchal masculinity only permits emotional vulnerability with women. That’s ironic. How can we find safety with the people who are rightfully demanding greater accountability, fueled by rage over generations of violent oppression?

Women don’t have any desire to help us do our inner work, even though they desperately want us to do it. It is re-traumatizing and frustrating for them to watch us. We must resolve to talk to one another as men to get our inner conflicts about privilege and oppression worked out. We need to find the courage to do this work among sympathetic men committed to becoming culturally mature and socially radicalized, and out of the direct line of sight sight of women.

Womxn are angry right now, and we must not interfere with their rapid and effective mobilization for change. Drawing attention to ourselves and our struggles as men is undignified. We must use our resourcefulness to keep listening and keep showing up no matter how conflicted we may feel inside.

If you really want to help womxn, organize your brothers to show up with dignity and respect beside you! Patriarchal male identity needs to be broken down. Become conscious and willful participants in its deconstruction. Start with listening to radicalized womxn then move on to offer support: childcare, cooking and house-cleaning for example. Help to free up womxn’s energy, time, voices and activism.

Then escalate to wearing skirts.

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This has become a practice for me. I like the experience of wearing a skirt. It is freeing, comfortable, swishy, twirly and beautiful. But growing up male in North America, it is an insult to manhood to wear a woman’s garment and enjoy its wonderful qualities.

If you want to root out the patriarchal dragons that have been installed inside you as a man, consider this. Wear skirts or dresses in public with dignity and without explanation. Not with silly, mock-fem affect. That is offensive. And not like a deer caught in the headlights. Not a kilt, but a skirt.

Go about your ordinary day. Do this and you will bring out other people’s dragons, too. Many people close to you will be uncomfortable and express their discomfort in interesting ways. You will find yourself thinking about what every trans woman lives with every day. It is dangerous for a person with a male body, or who once had a male body, to dress in women’s clothing and go out alone. Like all womxn, you will find yourself profiling people and situations constantly for safety.

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Wearing skirts is as potent a practice as “Show up and shut up.” But it isn’t “quiet.” It gets people’s attention. It stirs the pot of patriarchal training. Unpacking the reasons for the phenomena that wearing skirts arouses inside us and around us can take men on a deeply decolonizing journey. Homophobia is at the root of misogyny and male supremacy and it is deeply implanted.

Even the consideration of wearing a woman’s garment can act as a catalyst. There is no rational reason why it should be difficult or unusual for a man to wear a skirt or a dress. Women fought and won the right to wear pants a hundred years ago. I encourage every men’s support group in existence in America to take up this conversation. Use it to cut through the knot of culturally implanted directives, both inside and out, that perpetuate male supremacy. We men really must change our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and behavior to the very core.

To commit to ending patriarchy is ultimately a commitment to universal equity, social and economic justice and and to protect and restore the earth. It is a commitment that reaches from the darkest places within us to the furthest reaches of our social institutions and our technological behavior on our planet. Time has run out for anything but an all out effort to meet our social and ecological challenges with a radical rejection of male supremacy and all of its derivatives.



Part 4 – Finding a New Unity – Points of Origin: Ancestral Loss as Common Ground

Those of us who have enjoyed the cultural privilege of being born into respect often find the process of earning trust and respect from people of historically oppressed backgrounds very challenging. Most of us just stay away. “What’s the point? Why should I have to earn anyoneʻs respect? Doesnt everyone simply deserve respect as a natural birthright? I didnt do any of those horrible things from the past to the native people or African slaves! Why should I have to make up for what my ancestors did? Cant we just move on?” We justify our absence from this uncomfortable conversation with various excuses, judgements and rationalizations, but this discomfort is precisely the place where a deeper unity must be cultivated.

Many problems are encountered when we attempt to build unity across differing historical and cultural vantage points. As I explained in my previous blog, we have come a very long way forward in the process of negotiating “provisional unities.” These provisional unities are alliances that we build around protecting the lands and waters of our communities and around common goals of economic and racial justice. These alliances are becoming more and more effective. In many progressive arenas, genuine political respect and solid working relationships are growing across racial and cultural divisions. This is positive. These unities are “provisional”, however, because significant tension remains over the more subtle aspects of intercultural, race, gender and class trauma. We have found provisional ways to interact and build unity in spite of deeply seated hurts and the resulting fears. But, in general, we have not cleared the mistrust or settled into a place of deeper and more authentic mutual understanding. Clearing mistrust in personal relationships is often one of the most challenging things we do. Cultural and historical mistrust can be orders of magnitude more difficult to clear, but just as proportionally important for generating peace and understanding at an intercultural level.

It is possible to move beyond our truces to authentic reconciliation, peace and trust. The value in that effort is inherent. With deeper levels of unity and understanding, we become ever stronger in our ability to act for the protection of the land and the advancement of justice. However, this requires a measure of real healing from the traumatic wounds of history, not just protocols of political correctness that allow us to work together in common acknowledgement of those wounds. The harm that has been perpetrated against vulnerable communities and cultures goes back for generations and generations. Unpacking and healing the layers of hurt embedded in what’s become “normalized” in modern dominant cultures requires an innovative perspective, that can see beyond the assumptions and norms of modernity.

In earlier blogs, I explained how it is near impossible for those raised in literate cultures whose conceptual and ideological framework revolves around modes of thought made possible by the written word to imagine the consciousness and point of view of those from oral cultures. Similarly, it is extremely challenging for a person born into advantage to imagine and understand the point of view of a person born into poverty, disenfranchisement and on the receiving end of bigotry. Likewise, one whose family has prioritized “upward mobility” and individual career achievement would be stretched to imagine the world of a person who has lived within a culture committed primarily to kinship and place where relational caretaking for the well-being of future generations is of first importance. To the person who’s family of origin moved homes based upon career opportunities, it is hard to understand the perspective of a person raised in a context of multi-generational stability in one beloved sacred landscape. The value systems of cultures representing these two extremes, the modern and the indigenous, share many things in common but they completely miss each other on the most fundamental values and points of view. Exploring the polarity represented by the indigenous versus the modern is helpful in unpacking the dynamics of oppression from an ancestral perspective. And this perspective is particularly helpful when it comes to genuine healing and reconciliation. We all carry complex ancestral legacies, both the persecuted and the privileged.

The primary orientation of modern civilized (city oriented) culture is vertical. We have a class structure that awards privileges to a relative few at the top and rests upon the labor and sacrifice of the many at the bottom. The systems run upon the competition of the masses to advance themselves toward the middle or the top of the pyramid of comfort, wealth and power. Individual or family advancement is the primary motivating force of normalized adult members of modern industrial cultures and their agricultural predecessors. The “middle class” is not really in the middle of the pyramid, if one views industrial systems globally, from resource extraction to finished product: it is more accurately located from the midline of the pyramid to near the top. We are consuming well past the earth’s capacity to sustain us already. If we raise everyone to the “middle class” standard of the developed world (in terms of consumption), we will more than quadruple the extraction and pollution pressures upon the earth. This is impossible and thus suicidal. Yet advancing everyone toward the middle class is the economic goal that is most often expressed, even by progressives, in the modern political arena.

Indigenous cultures that value the health of the land and the well-being of future generations as their primary care and purpose have a horizontal orientation. They hold a broader definition of a “good life” that prioritizes the development of all of the capacities of being human as the purpose of individual life: character, awareness, skill, creativity, humility, wisdom and service. The common purpose of community life is to advance and protect the conditions that foster the individual’s ability to express their creativity, wisdom and qualities of character to the highest degree as the root of vibrant and healthy social culture. This is a mutually reinforcing system that puts care-taking and peacemaking at the center of its priorities and develops sophisticated eldership as the core repository for culture and wisdom. Such societies weave the meaning and value of the individual within the integral web of community and nature. Individual achievement and technological innovation that does not advance the people generally and their understanding and ability to care for their place of habitation has little worth in this horizontal value system. (Side note: Obviously these “horizontal values” exist within modern culture as well, and vertical aspirations exist within indigenous cultures. Still, the fundamental orientations are different and worthy of comparison, as is inherent creative tension that exists between them.)

“Upward mobility” and the operating value system of the middle class prioritizes conventional education and career advancement choices over relational connection to extended family and generational place of birth. With upward mobility comes the assumption of physical mobility. One moves ones home, sometimes to places completely foreign, in order to advance ones career. This has become a fact of life that the middle and the owning classes take for granted in modern times. Then, as one becomes more successful, one gains the power to choose a desirable place to live rather than moving in accordance with career advancement necessities. Relationship to place becomes a thing of choice for personal gain, rather than being limited by lack of resources or by the cultural priority of generational connection to ancestral lands and extended kin.

The modern experience within which place of home is considered a matter of choice has, until very recently, been reserved to the very elite members of the social order. For most persons on the planet, even a handful of decades ago, ones home was ones place of birth, no questions asked. And, very likely, was also the place of birth, life and death of ones parents, grandparents and ancestors of many generations. The idea of moving by choice to improve one’s individual life was a foreign concept before the colonization of the Americas, except for the very elite or for the mythically adventurous. “Moving” is a relatively modern concept for the common person. And yet personal career advancement and choice of place have become integral parts of an American Dream that inspires the whole modern world.

The growth of cities, labor specialization, sophisticated trade and technology, empire building warfare and other phenomena of mass civilization have prioritized occupation and position within the social hierarchy over connection to place and kin. But colonization and industrialization have dramatically increased this trend. It is considered by most modern people to be the natural positive evolution of things. Persons living by the old ways of kinship and place are considered to be relics of an irrelevant past…if they are considered at all.

Generally speaking, if a people were forced to move or chose to migrate in the more distant past, they migrated collectively as a people, not as individuals or individual families. Ethnic groups have been displaced and forced to move all throughout civilized history. But usually they moved in culturally self-identified groups, as a people. In circumstances like this, one would give up the deep and sacred connection to a homeland with one’s kin, and would share the memories and the sadness of that loss within a cultural home, at the very least, while making a new home in a new place.

In the colonial and industrial age this changed. Pressures of poverty, famine, slavery and war shattered extended families and severed their cultural connections with kin and clan as well as the connection to their place of origin. What most people don’t realize is that this primal severance, of deeply rooted cultural bonding to a place and a people, lies in the ancestral past of all Western persons. First European tribal peoples were suppressed, displaced, killed and assimilated under a series of invaders and empires. The Romans were followed by feudalism and then the militarized Church. Then during the rise of the industrial and colonial age poverty and famine drove many people from their beloved homelands to join the working classes in the colonies. (Asia, as a rule, has been more adaptive and integrative due to the less aggressive nature of its dominant spiritual traditions. The same forces have been at work in Asia at the same time that many of the old values of connection to nature, place and kin have survived more intact in many Asian cultures, Maoist Communism not included. The communist genocide against the Tibetan people and the suppression of tribal culture in China has more in common with western patterns of cultural domination throughout history.)

The widespread underlying uneasy feeling of homelessness that manifests in the psyches of so many modern people has its roots in the colonial and industrial diasporas, and in the assault on the indigenous and peasant cultures of Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa over the several millennia that preceded modern colonialism. How can a person or a family grieve the loss of homeland or the destruction of ones kinship culture alone or with just a handful of ones people, while suffering the humiliation of slavery, indentured servitude or genocide? It is almost impossible to fully grieve under such circumstances. And yet the insufferable loss of land, kin and culture lies at the ancestral foundation of civilization itself. Indigenous tribal people have been killed, displaced, enslaved and assimilated to satisfy the resource needs of class-based, civil (city oriented) societies since they first appeared on the trajectory of human historyon every continent. This original cultural wound lives ungrieved, unhealed, hidden and festering in the shadows of the heart of civilization itself.

Grief has always been a collective journey; community gathers to support one another through their pain. Getting to the other side of loss, even traumatic loss and violence, is part of being human, but it is not an individual journey. All relatively intact oral cultures have sophisticated ritual and ceremonial practices and protocols to assist and mark one’s passage, from the overwhelming grief of loss back to full engagement with life and community. Being stuck in grief is an illness. In order to truly pass through it, love, acceptance and attention from oneʻs community is required. When one’s community is shattered by the aggression of a conquesting empire, grieving becomes impossible within the urgency of survival. Entering grief fully requires social support and physical and social protection. And until the advent of professional therapists, it was one’s community and the cultural protocols developed over countless generations that provided this protection, understanding and assistance.

When the grieving process is not completed, which it can not be in isolation, it is passed on to the next generation and becomes entwined with self-destructive and family-destructive habits. Buried intergenerational grief becomes much more complex and difficult to heal than the original trauma, had it been addressed close to the time of the incident. Alcoholism, drug addiction, family violence, depression and suicide are the natural consequences of the destruction of culture and the severing of the deep human connection to kin and home, place of origin. Humans evolved over countless millennia within kinship cultures integrated intimately within nature and place. To have this torn away abruptly and violently and replaced with subjugation is an unimaginable loss. It is not surprising that a host of social ills dramatically confront most modern indigenous communities daily and around the world today.

As generations move further from the original traumas and survivors are assimilated into dominant cultures, new social norms are established that drive the overt symptoms of grief even further underground. For most modern people, the original trauma that broke our connection with our ancestors and our homeland lie out of reach of conscious acknowledgement. The unhealed grief of the loss of connection to nature and kin, the loss of integrative cultural practices and the loss of the functioning elder wisdom of our indigenous roots lives on in us as an unconscious spiritual hunger and uneasy homelessness. This “dis-ease” is the new normal. It makes us prone to low self esteem, external manipulation and denial. It creates an industry of self-help books and personal therapies, fuels consumerism and motivates social and career competition in attempts to fill the unexplainable emptiness we feel. The buried craving for connection to nature and kin sets the stage for so called “functioning” addictions to drugs, alcohol, sex, porn, prepackaged “entertainment” and cycles of unhealthy interpersonal drama—things that take our minds and attention away from the unconscious pain of our long lost connections. The fundamental individualism and competitiveness that drives the hierarchical nature of modern industrial culture is rooted in the ancient loss of land and culture. But because this alienated condition has become the “new normal” of human conduct, much of what would be considered ill or pathological and dangerous by indigenous standards and values is considered to be “human nature” in the modern world. The inherent conflict of values and view toward human purpose that lies between indigenous and modern cultures will be explored in greater detail in future blogs.

We all suffer from ancestral trauma at the hands of civilization, even those of us whose family lines have been at the top of civilizations pyramid for many generations. In the western world, somewhere in everyones ancestral past, there are direct survivors of genocide against an original oral-indigenous culture. There may be no direct story of this survival or conscious memory of it, but it lives on inside us as unconsciously motivated cultural norms, thought patterns, fears, judgements and hatreds. As a white skinned person of European ancestry, it was striking at the 2016 COP 21 in Paris to be in the presence of the indigenous blond, blue-eyed, fair-skinned Sami people. They are a traditional, nomadic, reindeer-herding tribe from homelands claimed today by Finland and Russia. They are some of the few surviving reminders…my European ancestors did follow the old ways, even though there is no conscious memory and very little historical acknowledgement of that in my cultural upbringing. That part of my history is dismissed as irrelevant. “Sure, we were all natives once, so what?”

This attitude toward our ancient indigenous ancestors (and by extension, surviving indigenous tribal peoples) is typical of the arrogance of modern cultures. “We have moved on from all that primitive superstitious stuff. It is colorful and nice to watch and all, but it is a thing of the past with no practical or spiritual relevance in today’s world.” From my point of view, nothing could be farther from the truth. In other blogs, I have explored how the detailed ecological knowledge of indigenous cultures outstrips that of modern scientists by orders of magnitude. The wisdom of traditional elders concerning the development of human capacities of observation, social coherence, the concentric rings of nature, healing practices, spiritual development, storytelling and the practical care-taking of creation are more nuanced, sophisticated and effective than most, if not all, of their modern equivalents.

Yet modern conventional thinking dismisses the indigenous animist, ancestral, shamanic, nature-sacred way of life as an extinct thing of the past that has no relevance to modern life. I believe that this bigotry, in both its conscious and unconscious forms, is the root disease from which racism, sexism, classism and homophobia all derive.

No one is hated more by modernity than native people (except perhaps homosexuals and transgendered persons.) Indigenous communities are on the front lines of industrial hatred. I’m speaking about “evidence-based” systemic hatred here more than consciously expressed (or even felt) feelings of hatred. If a community has high rates of youth suicide, substance addiction, absent fathers, family violence, poverty, diabetes, malnutrition, infant mortality and a shrinking or nonexistent land base then they are definitely on the receiving end of industrial hatred. These are the directly correlated and universal symptoms of the loss of land, broken culture and oppression of sacred ancestral values and way of life. Unquestionably, indigenous communities qualify for the most extreme and widespread examples of this condition. These communities also happen to be suffering disproportionately from the disastrous impacts of climate change and the ecological impacts of escalating industrial resource extraction upon their ever-diminishing land base.

“Evidence-based hatred” is a deeply systemic socioeconomic phenomenon. This kind of hatred is an unconscious cultural expression of hate. It is largely denied by the individual members and spokespeople of the dominant culture that expresses it. This is because it lives outside of the conscious feeling and thinking domains of individuals in the pattern of modern culture itself. It is hatred that is largely unintended, but is nonetheless effective for its lack of conscious sentiment. It is much more insidious than sentimental hatred, which is directly felt and expressed. Modern dominant culture in the west has succeeded in marginalizing sentimental hatred but has made little progress against its shadowy sibling, the “new normal” that has established itself as the unconscious basis of modern industrial culture. Modern people, and those striving to become modern, live lives whose fundamental habits, thoughts and aspirations revolve around a universal unconscious complicity in a culture whose normality expresses hatred. The economic poverty, political marginalization and social dis-ease of indigenous communities around the world is the natural consequence of modern cultureʻs unconscious denial, anger and sublimated grief over the ancestral severance our original connection to nature and kin.

To most people living comfortably inside industrial normality, the actions of the Water Protectors at Standing Rock make no logical sense. They simply do not compute within their limited world view. Some modern persons react internally, the way the police force of industrial culture reacts outwardly, with fully rationalized violence rooted in conscious or unconscious racism. Many people are just confused or donʻt want to look at what is happening because it is too disturbing. Some are sympathetic but fearful. Some are sympathetic or inspired and want to be helpful. And still some sympathetic people, with the intent of being helpful, have adopted cultural practices of indigenous cultures without going through the established cultural protocols and are participating unconsciously in cultural appropriation. Some have done a tremendous amount of authentic personal work to reprogram their industrial consciousness toward a deeper connection to nature and a renewal of kinship bonds with family, community and ancestors. These allies are showing up to help from a grounded place. And a very few have committed to the languages and cultural paths of indigenous peoples and been formally adopted into the old ways through established cultural protocols. From my point of view, this represents the full spectrum)  of responses from non-indigenous people raised in modernity to the stand being taken by the Water Protectors.

On the indigenous side of things there is a spectrum as well. And the variability of responses within these spectrums makes the forging of unities very challenging. People of more recently traceable indigenous ancestry come from backgrounds ranging from full assimilation within industrial modern culture, to being raised by traditional elders with their tribal language as their first, or only, language. Both of these spectra, the modern and the indigenous, also span a range of ages from youth to elder, as well as a range of gender expressions from heterosexual male and female, to homosexual, bisexual, transgendered and those who refuse labels altogether. Then throw in the racial, religious and cultural cards. What a party when we all come together!

Each individual story within these sets of possibilities has its wounds, its unique perspectives and its gifts. Yet none is without grief and ancestral loss. Our pain has the same roots. In the forging of the provisional unities we see expressing themselves powerfully in the Climate Justice, Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock movements, we have found ways to show respect and express acceptance and understanding for both the contemporary and historical wounds that live in the background of our alliances. This level of unity has taken decades of challenging work to achieve. It is still “provisional” unity though;  the healing still to be done at the personal, cultural and societal levels still far outweighs the amount of authentic healing that has actually occurred. Yet it is evident that authentic healing has taken place, as we witness leaders and elders stepping toward one another with a sophistication of understanding, conduct and patience that is permitting deeper intercultural reconciliation. It is up to each one of us participating in these new political unities to honestly assess our position on the spectrum of ancestral healing, nature connection and practical compassion. We must act with the appropriate humility and boldness to move these unities toward greater and greater reconciliation.

Finding a New Unity – Part 3: “Provisional Unity” is Good Enough for Now

Climate change, desertification and mass extinctions represent the culminating ecological crises that are the natural consequence of globalized oppression and conquest. The acceleration of the extraction of wealth from the earth by elite ruling classes has been going on for a very long time.


This pattern of social organization, given the name “civilization” and assigned the positive spin of “progress” has been spreading for several hundred generations. (See my blog: The First Principle of Being Human: Seek Kindness in all Relationships – Part 2) Over time, and focused in many different places on the earth, the charge of “civilization” has been advanced by expansionist regimes led by people of every race. Under colonial and industrial expansion the European capitalist brand of “civilization” reached every corner of the earth and is now considered to be both “normal” and “inevitable”, a natural extension of human greatness at the top of the evolutionary pyramid. Go us!

In every single “civilization” (differentiating from culture, tribe or nation), society is segregated into horizontally organized classes. Some version of an elite minority controls economic resources and the social  and political culture of its empire or nation. The elite class resides at the top of the social pyramid. A useful majority resides below. They perform the work, provide the manpower and economic resources to make the elite rich and to support the army and the police that serve the elite. Usually there are tiers of classes in the middle. They are on the ground and manage the interests of the elite in exchange for privileges unavailable to the lower classes of workers or slaves. This is the basic pyramid.

Additionally, it is necessary to cultivate warfare between varying empires in order to maintain the fear of imminent  conquest from outsiders. “Organized crime” is also a necessity—a more ruthless version of civilization that lives within a larger empire, feeding parasitically and justifying civil control and a militarized police force. Not a pretty picture, but accurate in a general way. Obviously there is a range of overt brutality that different nations, political ideologies and religious and ethnic versions of civilization express. Some are less abhorrent than others if one does not look too deeply into the shadows.

As a natural consequence of this hierarchical state of affairs, some of us—few on a global scale, by no fault of our own but simply by the condition of our births—have access to rights, privileges and resources that others, the vast majority, do not.

For most people on the relatively privileged side of this global equation, much of lifeʻs activities are related to maintaining or increasing oneʻs upper social and economic position for oneʻs self, oneʻs family, oneʻs business or oneʻs nation. “Security” is the greatest conventional concern for the upper and middle classes. (As well it should be because the system is inherently top heavy and thus unstable.) At the same time, for some members of the “educated owning and middle classes”, global inequality, war, civil rights abuses and the pillaging of the earth generates a crisis of conscience. This crisis of conscious, or Awakening of the Privileged is of a completely different nature than the Awakening of the Oppressed.

For most people on the other side of the global, economic and social justice equation—the side to which the vast majority of people belong—lifeʻs primary activities are related to survival in a system that is stacked against them and wants to keep things that way. Awakening on this side of the equation usually comes not from a crisis of conscience but from anger about injustice.

Both kinds of awakening want to take us to an authentically better world for our children and our future generations. Building unity across these two differently positioned stances is necessary in order to address the global crises we are facing. The poor represent the vast majority of the human resources on the planet. The privileged control the vast majority of the economic capital and the economic and social infrastructure. Both sets of resources must be mobilized effectively and massively if we are to deal with the catastrophe that we have been cooking for the last several thousand years. The non-indigenous elite have been advancing paradigms of conquest and extraction for so many generations that most of us cannot even remember that the bulk of human history happened before agriculture, writing and standing armies emerged.

This is understandably problematic.

The hundreds of thousands of years that we lived in relatively horizontal societies with sophisticated and usually balanced economic relationships within nature, form the bulk of our genetics. This statement often incites the “we canʻt turn back the clock” reaction people who assume that this is what I am advocating. I am not. I agree that there is no going back, technologically speaking. But the essence of my thesis is that we cannot move forward without renewing the practice-based skills and the embodied understandings that allowed our indigenous ancestors to live in horizontal societies with sophisticated, ecologically integrated skill and awareness sets. What we have lost and forgotten in modern conventional society is at the root of our global crisis, not what we have invented.


People from all races, nationalities, ethnicities, religious and spiritual traditions and economic and social classes are waking up to issues of injustice and ecological decline. However, even as allies working to address global and local problems, we can not expect to come together in true unity, with authentic equality of participation, mutual respect and shared leadership without addressing the legacies we inherited from history. We have absorbed the patterns of thinking and the habits of action and reaction of the culture of conquest without realizing how deeply these patterns control our words and behavior. This is true of both the privileged and oppressed sides of the social equation of contemporary, modern, industrial society. It is nearly impossible to come together in authentic unity when our stances toward social and cultural transformation are so diametrically opposed. Privilege stands on one side and oppression on the other. (Of course it is not as clear cut as this. In reality, most people in the United States and Europe embody both sides of this history in our blood.) Awakened persons of privilege and awakened persons of disempowered classes want the same things, but we often find it very uncomfortable to be in the same room with each other. Working through our historical and personal discomfort is usually trumped by the urgency of action for the “cause”. This setting aside of discomfort often leaves allies in a cause with buried feelings of resentment, frustration, anger, guilt or shame.

These negative feelings, in turn, reinforce attitudes, stories and judgements that divide and separate people who could be working closely together on our common interests. Instead, resentment simmers beneath the surface until it reaches a boiling point or something triggers an outburst. Unfortunately, this usually precipitates even more resentment, anger, guilt and shame. The cycle continues.

(Finding a New Unity – Part 4: Parallel Play in the Cauldron of Ancestral Reconciliation will address these dynamics and some of their solutions.)

The movement for environmental justice has been struggling with this problem for three decades or more and making tremendous headway. This headway is expressing itself in the “Occupy” movement, the Climate Justice movement, the Black Lives Matter movement and in Hawaii’s Aloha `Āina Unity Movement. Most recently this new unity is expressing itself at the Standing Rock Camp earth protectors actions, opposing the Dakota Access pipeline.

We are now creating provisional unities that reflect a significant shift in consciousness and the ability of persons with very different historical relationships to privilege and oppression to work together respectfully. These unities are by no means perfect and are frequently uncomfortable on all sides of the cultural spectrum. Transition requires transition strategies. The kind of provisional unity we are currently forging is capable of great power and posses the capacity to achieve the kind of results we desperately need at this time.

For the first time in United States history, a broadly supported mass action is being led by the descendants of the first nations. Genuine support is showing up en masse from non-native citizens from all over the country and world, while news reports featuring the faces and voices of politicized Native Americans are going viral on the internet. The spiritual and cultural leadership of the tribes is now framing the debate over the risks that the extraction economy poses to the water, the land and the people along the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline. Native spokespeople are naming the global dangers we are all facing from climate change due to a runaway economy of greed and selfishness. All of this is framed by a deep understanding of the sacredness of nature and its desecration, within a historical relationship to cultural genocide against indigenous peoples. Even a recent mainstream editorial by Lawrence OʻDonnell of MSNBC that has gone viral addresses this issue head on, calling Native Americans our “Original Environmentalists.  He goes on to describe the Dakota Access Pipeline as an extension of genocidal history against the original inhabitants of the land of North America. The struggle is about standing up for the inherent sacredness of the earth and water, for the sanctity of the peopleʻs cultural relationship to their tribal lands, with special emphasis on the places their ancestors used for ceremony and burial. This is a unique and potentially pivotal historical moment.

People of privileged ancestry are bringing respectful and passionate support to the leadership of the tribes that are banding together to stop the pipeline. In spite of the awesome show of unity and broad support, I can only imagine that things inside the action camp are not “all good”. But authentic mutual respect and gratitude are showing up in a profoundly new way. This is a “provisional unity” or a “transitional unity”. We have made enough progress that we can fight together and, to some extent, vision together. We are reaching a place where our expression of unity is “good enough” for effective action. This is huge!


The placard saying “Bulldoze Your Own Temple” says it all. This slogan comes from another example of a “first nations led action”, the successful earth protection movement that has halted construction of a multi-billion dollar, internationally funded telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawai`i. The slogans saying “We Are Water!” at Standing Rock and “We Are Mauna Kea!” in Hawai`i emphasize clearly both the sacred connection of people to the earth and our dependence upon the health of nature for our very existence. This core message is the one that unifies us from a place of common truth and common self-interest, regardless of cultural background. People from all walks of life are showing up with resources and a passion to protect the sacred in ways that are reminiscent of the Civil Rights Movement in the sixties.

If you look at the language and mixed leadership of the climate justice movement that stopped the Keystone Pipeline you will see the “new unity” at work there as well. The “Black Lives Matter” movement is another example. In these two examples the political message is being articulated by a entirely different leadership model than social movements of the past. It is much less vertically oriented and not dependent on charismatic oratory. There is no equivalent to Dr. Martin Luther King, the global and prophetic voice of inspired speeches that propelled the Civil Rights Movement so far forward. The leadership voices in these new movements are greater in number and there are many more women leaders and spokespeople. These “new unity” movements have a more gender diversified and horizontal quality. Interestingly, these two qualities alone reflect and harmonize with indigenous cultural influences. In addition, there is a powerful new emphasis on showing genuine cultural respect within these diverse activist communities. Again, this is due, in large part, to consciousness raising work around the cycles of oppression that have been incubating for the last three decades in the environmental justice, LGBTQ rights, Black Lives Matter and “Occupy” movements, among others.

These new expressions of social action are not perfect in their call nor their practice of “unity.” But they are effective. In crisis, effectiveness is much more important than perfection. Again, we must remind ourselves that we are in a period of transition. Metamorphosis looks really messy and confusing inside the chrysalis. In the long run, we will fail to progress through transition to emergence if we do not each address the ancestral legacies at work below the surface. Even if we temporarily set aside this awareness so that we can MOVE effectively forward, much pain and grief remains hidden in our social and mental habits as well as our cultural assumptions. The contexts wherein we can heal the wounds of history are very different than the contexts wherein we are organizing for unified, urgent and dramatic political action.

It is very important not to fall in love with fighting the disease. There is an excitement and an aliveness that comes from battling injustice and taking heroic and sacrificial stands for the benefit of future generations. It is fine, perhaps even necessary, to engage with that excitement wholeheartedly and ride it for what it’s worth. But there is a danger in it, too. All too often political urgency can be used as an excuse to avoid personal responsibility. I have been down that road myself. It takes difficult and nuanced personal and cultural self-examination to move out of the excitement and chaos of transition toward authentic, lasting, mutual respect and equality of participation. We all long for a genuine experience of unity that truly understands and honors diversity.

So what do we do with that longing? How do we mature our fledgling unities?


Finding a New Unity – Part 2: Kapu Aloha: Reflections on the Aloha `Aina Unity Movement in Hawai`i

Part 2 – Kapu Aloha: Reflections on the Aloha ‘Āina Unity Movement in Hawai’i


There is another problem that lives in the realm of education and stands in the way of new social unities. It comes from the complex residue of thousands of years of ethnic, racial and gender oppression, embedded in dominant conventional cultures. These are historical wounds that affect whole social classes, races and cultural groups. While modern bigotry and oppression is often of a less dramatic nature than its historical precursors, it is no less effective at dividing common people who otherwise have essentially the same sets of interests when it comes to the environment and social and economic justice. To borrow from the previous blog, “we are all on a global industrial train heading for the same ecological cliff”. But globally our nations, religious sects and independence movements are fighting and bombing one another instead of working together to redirect the damn train.

To make matters more complicated, there are always overlapping legacies of oppression and conflict. For example, in the Middle East, Suni Muslims face historical conflict between Suni sects. Extreme factions practice hatred against Shia Muslims. Depending upon majorities and minorities and which sect controls the government of a particular region, there are class struggles woven into the religious sectarian histories. There are cultural and language differences that make communication challenging, as well as gender oppression issues. Laid over all of that is the global hegemony of the “developed” nations over the “developing” nations. Other examples are: How corporate globalization asserts control over the resources that fuel the global economy; The historical conflicts between Jews, Christians and Muslims and how genocide and land theft of indigenous people is woven through all three cultural and religious histories; The persecution of non-heterosexual persons by patriarchal cultures. Each of these examples are tangled messes, fraught with violence, betrayal and mistrust that dates back generations and hundreds, sometimes thousands of years.

Every place on earth has its particular version of this story. Today, this is all cooking under pressure as the climate shifts and resources become scarce. To sort this out and make peace in such a situation is…not probable. Possible, but not probable. Where do we turn for historical examples that can help us? What kind of time-frames are reasonable? How do transition strategies apply in this situation? What is the current role of the “developed” (industrial) nations and global corporate interests in keeping these conflicts “hot”? How can we cool them? How do we apply our understanding of Natural Law, that everything is connected and that all life requires reciprocity, to apply water to these intense global fires? How can we infuse culture with the human principle that puts kindness, compassion and caretaking at the top of our social priority list?

These are the poignant questions of the global environmental justice movement as well as the growing indigenous rights movement. One thread is coming from the more modern cultural bias of social and environmental activism, with some leaders and spokespeople and many allies from educated middle and upper class backgrounds. The other thread is emerging as indigenous leaders are finding ways to make their voices heard and building connections with one-another, across cultures, in their struggle to protect or reclaim their land and sovereignty. These two movements are coming together to create powerful alliances. But even with shared goals, the histories of betrayal and oppression make these new alliances fragile and tentative, understandably so.

The efforts to build unity in the environmental justice movement, the indigenous rights movement and the global climate justice movement offer us great hope in the global political arena. This mounting global movement holds great promise for effective solutions to both the micro-local and the macro-global conflicts and industrial scale destruction of nature.

However, deeply entrenched historical conflicts have much social encumbrance. They are devouring the human and natural resources that we desperately need for addressing economic justice, ecological decline and climate change. Peacemaking at a scale never before imagined is demanded of us. The shrinking fossil resource base, global finances and human capital being wasted on war must be redirected to ecological restoration and the retooling of our failing carbon energy and agricultural infrastructure. Even to reach a state of transition toward a hopeful future would require a level of social and political will on the scale of a World War. There is much educating and organizing to do.

As hope hangs in such  a precarious balance I tell my  15 year old daughter, whoʻs deep sensitivity to the suffering in this world breaks my heart every day, “Honestly, success is not probable. You are not crazy when you feel hopeless. But success is possible. Where there is possibility, there is always hope. We must always be searching for the best possibilities and give ourselves to them. This is how hope is cultivated. Positive change has always felt hopeless from the point of view of probability. There is nothing new in that. But social transformation is not a mathematical equation. It always has something of the miraculous in it. Just like a seed, hope is the small thing from which great things grow when it is given the conditions that it needs to thrive.”

Again, from the slogan of the New School for Union Organizers that I attended some 25 years ago; “Agitate, Educate, Organize!” How might we apply the insights of the three principles of the New Old Way: 1) Interconnection, 2) Reciprocity and 3) Kindness to this concept of organizing? Where can we look for examples of successful peacemaking across cultures with conflicts that are generations old? Where do we see successful cross cultural alliances being made? Some emergent answers to these questions are sparking from indigenous land guardianship movements, from the deepening exploration of nonviolence, from the practice-based work of liberation educators in Latin America and from the global climate justice movement. The Peacemaker Story of the Iroquois Confederacy is a little known history  that offers our movement great instruction and hope. I think an intelligent weaving of these threads of history, experimentation and improvisation has the possibility to inform a New Old Way forward from this place in history.


A good place to start this exploration is Hawai’i. The principle of kindness would suggest that when we agitate, we must agitate from a place of exemplary kindness, connection and humility. This is something that has been brought forward by the Aloha `Āina Unity Movement. This movement has called for an upright tone and standard of conduct in their actions with a concept and practice rooted in Hawaiian cultural understanding: “Kapu Aloha”.

“A Kapu Aloha is a multidimensional concept and practice inspired by our kupuna. It has been used within a Hawai’ian cultural context for many years, but this may be the first time it has been brought out into a public sphere. It places a discipline of compassion on all to express aloha for those involved, especially those who are perceived to be polar to our cause. A Kapu Aloha helps us intentionalize our thoughts, words and deeds without harm to others. It honors the energy and life found in aloha — compassion — and helps us focus on its ultimate purpose and meaning. It is a synonym for ahimsa, non-violence, and peaceful consciousness.” Manulani Aluli Meyer, Indigenous Scholar-Practioner, Ed.D Harvard

From Wikipedia: “A Kapu Aloha is an order of restraint placed by Hawai’ian cultural practitioners, to act with only kindness, love and empathy. During the ceremonial period (enactment proceedings), alcohol, drugs and tobacco are prohibited. This separates the secular from the sacred and begins the ritual process collectively. Total purity is not attained but enacts a separation of ordinary life to mark the activities as sacred.”

The Aloha `Āina Unity movement has given careful attention to the language that it uses to describe itself and its actions. It refuses the label of a “protest” movement. In the words of Manulani Aluli Meyer, summarizing a story shared by Luana Busby-Neff from Molokai, “It is not what it (a movement) stands against that is important, but what it stands for and with.” In the case of Mauna Kea, it stands for and with the mountain and its sacredness. In general, as its name implies, the movement stands with love and respect for the land, “aloha `āina”. The “`āina warriors” are protectors of the land, who identify and align themselves with the greater sacred forces of nature from which we all derive and sustain our existence. They are following the culturally prescribed protocols, conventions and beliefs that have developed over generations of a carefully cultivated relationship with the Hawai’ian lands and waters. This movement is calling upon a “nonviolence” that reaches into the depth of its cultural connection with nature in a way that may be unique in history.

Traditionally, social movements have focused on issues of human justice and liberation. The land and nature have taken a second position (if they are mentioned at all.) Or, environmental movements have focused on issues of ecological degradation without addressing issues of social injustice as integral to their causes. This is shifting dramatically in the environmental justice movement. The Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, big international environmental organizations with educated middle and upper class leadership, are all making the connection between social injustice and the destruction of the earth. In the Aloha `Āina Unity movement the sacredness of the land and our human obligation to care for it comes first. Issues of human justice and sovereignty flow as natural consequences from our core connection to the health and sacredness of the land, mother earth. How we treat the earth, our mother, and how we treat one another are intimately related. We are all children of the same mother and the call to care with kindness and compassion is all encompassing in this regard. As Manulani Aluli Meyer points out, “Kapu Aloha is not a new stance or practice, it is simply being brought forward into the public sphere as a force around which to build political power and social will for the first time.”


This is a hugely significant development with global implications. The leadership of this movement, many of whom are women, is rooted in traditional Hawai’ian cultural practices and family lineages dating back hundreds or thousands of years. The call to unity is encompassed within the concepts of Aloha `Āina and Kapu Aloha. These are values and practices that anyone can embrace regardless of cultural background, but which inherently recognize and honor the first people of the land of Hawai’i. This creates appropriately tiered layers of support beneath the banner of the Aloha`Āina Unity Movement. People of more recent ancestral or personal connection to Hawai’i are welcomed as supporters and even co-strategists, as long as we show humility and authentic respect toward the cultural leadership and protocols and the traditional ecological knowledge and wisdom of Hawai’ian land stewardship.


For some people of European descent, taking what appears to be the “back seat” creates confusion and even frustration. From my perspective this is a perfect challenge to the hidden assumptions of literate, institutionally “educated” and historically arrogant European cultural influences. We relative newcomers must pay our dues and earn respect from the leaders of our host cultures, however long that takes and however uncomfortable it might make us in the meantime. I will go into how this earning of trust can look in future blogs.

All contemporary people must take responsibility for our ancestral legacies. In the case of persons, like myself, a white skinned person in a male body of almost entirely European ancestry and European-American cultural heritage, the path of responsibility looks very different than for a woman of primarily Polynesian ancestry and Hawai’ian cultural heritage. My next blog will specifically address challenges that persons with ancestry and cultural heritage on the privileged and powerful side of history must face if we are to move toward true cross cultural unity. Obviously, I can only speak as an observer of the challenges of those on the oppression side of this equation, but this is what I see: We are all equally subjects of natural law, whether we choose to abide by this fact or not. We all depend upon the health of this planet to ensure a liveable and abundant future for our coming generations. This fact is the force that compels us to seek unity.

If we put the health of nature and the understanding of the natural laws that, 1) everything is connected and that 2) all life requires reciprocity, at the center of our conscious value system, then we are compelled to seek unity with our fellow humans. If we are compelled to seek unity, then we are compelled to seek peace. Peace only comes from reconciliation. Violence, even in its most subtle forms, never brings peace. At best, coercion sometimes brings a “truce”, a temporary cessation of hostilities, but never peace in the true sense of the word.

In order to achieve our goals for a beautiful, naturally regenerative planet governed by healthy, thriving cultures and societies that embody economic justice, democracy and cultural respect for all, we must all become peacemakers. The communist revolutions of the last century showed us clearly that the means do not justify the ends. A despot is a despot, whether he dresses up as a capitalist or a socialist, as a billionaire CEO or as a Party Commandant. And every person can become a peacemaker no matter what social class, gender or ethnicity.

The path to peacemaking is different for every individual. It is also different for every group of people who already share many points of cultural and political unity. The path to peacemaking is a path, not a destination. It is a process that one commits to, a Practice. And like all practices, the path to mastery is arduous. It asks much of us. And one of the arduous things that peacemaking asks is for each of us to take full responsibility for our ancestral and cultural legacy. There is no one else that can do it. Our forbears don’t have bodies to do it themselves. To the extent that we refuse to take up this responsibility and heal the wounds of history, we pass that responsibility on to the next generation. This has been going on long enough now. As the slogan of Maui County Council Candidate Alika Atay puts it, “Nuff Already!” Passing the buck looks like exactly what it is, global suicide.

Each one of us today carries a mixture of ancestral, cultural, social and personal legacies, some that we were born into and some that we have adopted or that have adopted us. Some of our strengths and wounds are personal and some are based upon class, gender, ethnicity and so forth. So there is no “one size fits all” recipe for responsibility, healing and reconciliation. What is important is that we commit to the path of peace and unity and that we support everyone else to commit to the peacemaking path as well. We can fight for our passionate issues, for economic justice, for cultural autonomy, for sovereignty and respect, to protect and restore nature, to end war, whatever it might be. But our current global condition demands that we must also make peace and build unity across cultures and across the historic divisions of gender, race, class and ethnicity. This is no small task. The further exploration of what this implies is an important intention of this blog.

Finding a New Unity – Part 1: You Canʻt Get There From Here

Part 1:   You Can’t Get There From Here     



Many people have heard the joke about a lost city person asking an old Vermont farmer for directions to their destination and he answers, “Yup, ya cahn’t get they-a from hee-ya.” This applies to the conundrum of modernity. Humans have a remarkable ability to continue using  strategies that don’t work. We tend not to go back to thoroughly examine why things aren’t working and possibly reevaluate our basic assumptions. Rather, we tend to push our failing solutions even harder, rationalize them, or more often, recreate them with a different spin. We have, after all, invested so much time and energy in our uniquely “clever angle” that it is difficult to give it up. It used to work (or we believe it did.) Or it is supposed to work, so we have been told our entire lives. But in a very real way we can’t get there from here. We can’t get to the future we want if we keep standing inside the conventional, literate, scientific, materialist worldview. We don’t want to be committed to perpetual war while riding an economic train that is headed for an ecological cliff. But we can’t seem to get off the train. In that sense, the wisdom of the Vermont “hick” is right on target. You can’t get to peace and sustainability without leaving the industrial war train.

Everything is connected.

Life requires reciprocity.

The purpose of being human is to generate kindness.

These three principles lie at the root of a free, just and sustainable human society who cares for the earth,supports diversity of culture and the unique brilliance of each individual. Societies governed by these principles could advance our individual and collective human capacities for care, awareness and creativity to ever higher levels of expression without exhausting our food supply or plunging us into war.

The first two principles are natural laws, operating on and around us whether we choose to recognize them or not. As Onondaga Elder, Oren Lyons says, “Nature has no mercy. None!” The third principle is a choice. Time will tell if a commitment to universal kindness can become a new convention. The same goes for the recognition of natural law. These values are choices any of us can make individually. I wonder though, can compassion become a root commitment of our social institutions as well? Can kindness and care for the earth become a strong enough force to change our trajectory?Can it change the shape of our technological and social infrastructure before the consequences of the natural laws of reciprocity and interconnection swallow civilization into the geological record without mercy?

How do we get there from here? How do we get where we all want to go from where we are standing now? Obviously, the joke is a joke because in the physical plane the answer of the Vermont farmer is nonsense. Of course we can get there from here. But the point should be well taken. If we insist on standing in our failing worldview, we really can’t move forward. The path forward is not to be found on the map of our current cosmology. Nor is it to be found on the old maps which plotted only very limited regional territories. We now need to locate the old, regional, oral, cultural maps and somehow apply them to the global territory. Unfortunately our world is not a healthy one. Industrial civilization has imposed a failing social and technological infrastructure on the planet which must be rapidly transformed.

Fortunately, forces of care, kindness and ecological repair are already at work. How much more force of social will is needed to bring forth a new world where the governing forces align with natural law and compassion? Perhaps not as much as we might fear. As I pointed out in the previous blog, the current of care-taking is already strong in human society. An ethic of ecological care and social justice is a growing global current. Thus the forces that need to be harnessed are already well-rooted and spreading. Paul Hawken has documented the breadth of this “under the radar” social movement in his best-selling book Blessed Unrest : How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World. The more consciously we understand and strengthen these positive forces within ourselves and our communities, the greater becomes the probability of general success. And the better we become at identifying the hidden dynamics of the Old Way woven within our modern lives, relationships, organizations and institutions, the stronger we become in our embrace of these dynamics in the world.

Make no mistake, the critical keys to the transformations we must generate lie in the realm of the Old Way and in the leadership of the forces represented by mothers and grandmothers. The keys are old and enduring, not new and shiny. They are subtle and nuanced and rooted in consciousness that can only be developed through practices, through experience. The change we need is not about ideas, though we must change our ideas as well. But ideological change is never enough. Ideas don’t matter as much as character, kindness and wisdom. If they did, the communist revolutions might have succeeded in China and Russia. Character develops only through Practice. Leaders can have a brilliant ideology, but if they lack character, what good are they in the long run?

This is true of nature connection as well. One can have a sympathetic or romantic appreciation for nature with very little actual connection. This is what I call nature sympathy. It is not a bad thing. One can feel an intense love and connection without actually being connected. Actual connection to nature is complex and paradoxical, gritty and extremely nuanced. It requires direct confrontation of the paradoxes of reciprocity and the taking of life to sustain life. It requires countless hours of “in-the-dirt-time”—time spent sitting on the earth listening to the birds and watching the movement of the animals, time harvesting and preparing fiber to make rope, tinder to make fire, leaves and roots for food and medicine. It requires the sharing of those activities and stories from the landscape with one’s community and kin. It requires being questioned by those with more awareness and skill and being pushed to expand past the boundaries of comfort. To know nature one must have relationships in nature, not just knowledge about nature nor just the experience of passing through nature as a sympathetic observer.

I have been an active and passionate environmentalist all of my adult life. At thirteen I attended a “junior” Outward Bound course in Aberdovey, Wales. I was hooked on hiking, backpacking, mountaineering and rock climbing after that. I organized clubs in my high schools. I went on long solo hikes in the Ventana Wilderness behind Big Sur. I became an Explorer Scout leader working as a camp counselor with younger scouts. I summited 10,000 foot peaks in the Cascade Mountains of Washington and British Columbia. At 18 I started working part time to support full time volunteer involvement with Greenpeace and other environmental and peace groups. I organized and led a 1200 mile “Walk for Survival” from Santa Cruz, California to the Trident Submarine base in Bangor Washington. Then for years as I learned the craft of organic farming I spent most of my free time backpacking in the Olympics and Cascades.

Yet in all of this time spent in nature as a farmer and an avid hiker and active environmentalist I was pretty much just passing through nature as a heartfelt observer. My connection was a felt connection, sympathetic, real and valid in its way and certainly a driving force in my life. I developed deep connections with plants and insects through my farming practice. It wasn’t until I was in my late 40’s when I started taking my nine year old son to the Wilderness Awareness School in Duval, Washington that I started having a more holistic and deeper connection to nature reawakened. How I grieve now all that I missed as a “pass through” hiker on all of those former wilderness trips, as wonderful and inspiring and renewing as they were at the time.

When I began learning tracking with Jon Young, the founder of the Wilderness Awareness School the animal stories of the landscape came alive for me. Like most through-hikers, I rarely saw wild mammals on my hikes. I noticed and could name some birds and knew what animals were out there. Working with Jon I began to learn what the behavior of birds can tell us about things we can’t see with our own eyes. I began to understand the disturbances that we ourselves are creating without being aware of them. I was taught to look actively for the tracks and signs of animal presence, to age these signs and interpret their meaning.  It is so much fun to connect the dots, put together stories from natural mysteries and test them out by checking for more tracks and signs.

All of a sudden the world became animated in a way it never had before. Places that I had hiked and camped for years took on a whole new dimension. The animal activity of the night left stories everywhere to be discovered and deciphered. The landscape became animated in the truest sense of the word. Wild animals fear humans and are disturbed by most of our behavior. They are very good at staying out of our field of awareness, especially if we haven’t learned to move and conduct ourselves in ways to create the least amount of disturbance possible. Groups of persons through-hiking, foraging and even “bird watching” are usually very disruptive to baseline conditions in nature. We unwittingly throw out a huge concentric ring of alarm to the birds and animals before we even get close, giving them ample warning to “disappear.” What we experience as campers and hikers is not what is really going on out there. How could I be almost 50 years old and not know this?

This kind of awareness and understanding requires mentoring. It represents a skill set that requires a culture that values and understands deep nature connection. To know nature, one must have one’s knowledge, connections, challenges, mysteries, marvels and stories received and reflected back by one’s community. One must have the boundaries of one’s awareness and skill pushed and challenged. It is not an individualistic thing, this kind of knowledge. And like character, it develops best through guided practice under the mentorship of those with greater mastery than oneself. In traditional oral societies these nature connected skill sets and awareness capabilities are “common knowledge.” They are passed from one generation to the next as the basis for the relationship with nature necessary for survival.

It would be convenient if one could read and gain this advanced ecological knowledge from books, but that isn’t the case. Books and stories can help. For modern persons, books and movies are important stimuli for change. They can help us redirect our compass and seek the mentors and experiences that we need. They can help us rechart the maps of our consciousness, so our new maps may lead us into the territories we need to explore. But they cannot, and never will be a substitute for actual experience, actual “in-the-dirt-time”. You cannot learn how to be in relationship with anyone or anything without a direct, full-sensory experience—without successes and mistakes. “In-the-dirt-time” is an apt expression, because the process of getting past our own limitations in relationship is always at least a little bit dirty.

The New Old Way is not about building an ideological movement. It is about supporting multiple currents of culture that express themselves in unique and diverse ways, yet still maintain a common basis in practices of kindness and connection to nature. The New Old Way is about taking what has always existed at the core of being human to a new level of conscious expression in a modern world which has become technologized. And we can turn to the mothers and grandmothers and trackers and scouts throughout history for guidance on how to do this.

The New Old Way is about standing up to the forces of domination, colonization and industrialization without becoming like those forces. This is not easy. Not only do we need to practice right living and build the culture and technology of care-taking; we need to become effective at saying “no” to the forces that are destroying our world without becoming hardened, angry, bitter and ideological. This requires a whole new understanding of guardianship and the ability to build authentic unity across cultural differences and through the deep historical wounds of our age. The forces that we need to effectively oppose are global, they cannot be stopped by uncoordinated regional actions. When a regional movement stops a corporate extraction, pollution or socially unjust activity a battle can be won. But in the global economy, the corporation often just moves its activity to a new, less activated location. A truly new kind of unity is being called for. Not ideological unity, but something deeper.

For this to happen, ideology as it usually expresses itself needs to become a thing of the past.  And that is a much more difficult challenge than one might think. Social movements throughout history have mostly been based upon changes of ideology. They have articulated changes of ideas and beliefs. Their foundation has been built upon truths that can be described by words on paper. We have come to understand social change itself in terms defined by ideological change. Ironically, the “idea” that ideological change is what leads to social change is one of the primary misjudgements that is causing failure in modernity. We tend to keep pushing our ideas more forcefully. Religious politics and religious war are extreme expressions of this assumption. Yet progressives are just as captive to assumptions about ideological change, only usually in a less hostile and violent way. What would happen if our social movement took on a whole new character by changing its practices, rather than just its ideas? What if we were to identify the “core routines” that generate the skills and awareness of the world we want to generate and support those practices as much or more than the ideas that go with them? Nature awareness and connection and compassion and non-violence are all aspects of human capacity that are developed through practice in a culturally supportive context.

Confronting beliefs around policies, laws, legislation and the like are important and must continue, but we must not fool ourselves into believing that winning these arguments is anything more than a transitional step in the right direction. One of the greatest quandaries we find ourselves in when we advocate for deep social change is that our vision for a possible future is too far removed from anything that can be achieved in the short-term. Most of our actual on-the-ground strategies are transition strategies, not intended as “solutions” in the long-term. They are necessary, however, to help buy time to get us through to the long-term solutions. It is very difficult to build consensus on transition strategies because they require compromises of our ideals in the short-term, with promises of better solutions in the future. The arguments for such strategies sound a lot like the neoliberal excuses for the status quo we are so fed up with. These debates are very important to engage in fully and thoughtfully because transition strategies really do need to be thoroughly examined. Debate can be a way to build a broad unity and a deeper understanding of the issues. Ideally, we cultivate social willingness and discernment of how to use transition strategies for transition only, rather than as a way to prop up the status quo.

For example, on the island of Maui the last sugar company operating in Hawaii is closing its doors. This is leaving over 36,000 acres of former sugar land without a plan. This land is still in the hands of the parent company that has been using large-scale industrial farming practices to try to keep its sugar operation profitable in a global commodities market. It has failed. Mechanization and field burning harvest practices ultimately could not compete with the global economics of cheap labor and less stringent environmental controls in the “developing” south. Alexander and Baldwin, the parent company of Hawaii Cane and Sugar, has said it is exploring diversified agricultural options for the land. Several citizen’s initiatives have sprung up with ideas about how A&B should move forward and the role of the public and the State of Hawaii in charting a course for these important lands. One bold initiative wanted to use Imminent Domain to commit the lands to locally oriented, organic agriculture. The ideas that are coming out of A&B are industrial agricultural concepts like GMO seed production, biofuel, palm oil and the like. There is high public scrutiny and heated debates about how these lands should best be used. This is good. Land-use politics, the GMO issue, the stream diversion issue and the Hawaiian sovereignty movement have mobilized a very large sector of the public.

The scene is ripe for practical transition strategies that can move these lands toward long-term, soil building, water conserving, ecological agricultural solutions that can employ thousands in the local production of healthy food. But the jump from industrial scale to family farm scale local production is not possible without a massive social investment of resources, equivalent to investing in a war effort. The economics of food production in the global economy, unfortunately puts farming at the bottom of the pay range. Hawaii is also one of the most expensive places on the planet to live. While conversion to local organic agriculture is a great vision, there are not enough skilled family farmers in all of Hawaii with practice in ecological farming techniques to manage these lands. Nor is there financial or physical infrastructure to finance and support an immediate transition to family farming, even if the farmers were lining up to take on such a difficult task. Renewing industrially abused lands is possible, but costly and difficult, often with little immediate payoff. Some of the visionaries advocating the local organic farming plan for these lands know about farming but are not farmers and have no idea what a highly skilled activity organic farming is. Equally, their plans necessitate the skills of seasonal farm laborers, required to make the products competitive in the price-conscious marketplace. Unfortunately, our community isn’t prepared for an immediate transition to family-scale organic food production on that land. It is not a realistic solution. What is needed is a transition strategy that points us in the right direction by reducing the immediate health and environmental problems associated with conventional industrial agriculture while setting the stage for a more integrated, long term, best practices solution.

So the public debate is on! This is good. A&B probably doesn’t agree, however, as they are likely to feel proprietorial about deciding what to do with the land.  I think they are in for a surprise in this regard, even though the current interpretation of the law probably supports their view. Maui is a small island.What people think here matters tremendously and has influence in politics and business. What would be most effective is to build true unity behind a sensible transition strategy to remediate these lands and mobilize as much social will and immediate investment capital as possible.  This would likely include mostly industrial scale, but intelligently managed crops, relying primarily on biological farming techniques with radically reduced chemical herbicide and pesticide use. Ideally there would be room for innovative farmers to incubate more sophisticated, intensive biological models on some of these lands. There would include a plan for how to move these two approaches toward one another, scaling up the intensive practices while incorporating better and better biological practices into the more industrially scaled solutions. A strategy like this creates a real possibility to manifest a stable, healthy, employment-rich agricultural future for these lands. Additionally, the public debate required to get to a transition strategy would educate and involve the community in a very positive way. The urgency factor provided by the climate crisis could also become a factor at the federal level, bringing greater resources to bear on the situation and speed up the transition time-frame, depending on national political outcomes in the upcoming election cycle.

The details of how this could play out takes place in the realm of ideas, but the vision that can drive the debate to a deeper place and awaken public unity is born from something more complex and integrated than ideas alone. Wisdom toward the long view, guided by compassion and nature connection, is much more than a collection of ideas. For such wisdom to become a political force there must exist the social awareness, the ability and will to hear, identify with it and stand behind it. This is a cultural issue and must be addressed culturally. The ability of the public to choose leaders that exhibit the qualities of character that can build social consensus and true social unity versus mere compromise between competing interests is a cultural issue.

Cultural education tends to be slow because it is experience-based rather than idea-based. It involves shifting awareness and belief systems in whole communities as well as individuals. So even in the political and ideological realm we must adopt intelligent transition strategies. Most people have not woken up to the fact that civilization is failing, and most people are not very open to hearing that message. It is too devastating and overwhelming for the ordinary person. People need a certain level of spiritual sophistication to face the odds we are up against globally while maintaining hope and a positive will to act. Therefore, the political messages we organize around must speak to the public where they are in their social development and current awareness of ecological, local and global justice issues. At the same time, we need to build the foundation, through debates and public education, for sophistication to develop. With strategic awareness, we need to direct our social and cultural messages toward the necessity of transition as well.

What I am proposing here is a mentoring approach to politics. One of the basic principles of mentoring comes directly into play in the design of transition strategies of all kinds. The mentor is always looking for a clear understanding of the capabilities of their charges, i.e., where they are in the moment, now. The mentor looks for the edges of ability and awareness in their mentees and sets the stage to invite, push or trick them into the next stage of learning, past their existing capacities. The mentor uses the learner’s own momentum, curiosity and existing positive values to motivate the push into new territory. This is a compassion-driven approach and can be applied to cultural education and political action in the broadest sense.

Also, it is very important to realize that there is a crucial relationship between the three historical pillars of grassroots organizing: Agitate, Educate, Organize! Actions that agitate are not necessarily going to have any direct policy results. They are vanguard actions, sacrificial in the sense that the energetic cost to individuals is usually much higher than direct outcomes. These are sometimes actions taken by the leadership and their immediate “cadre” (to use the classical term), by persons whose understanding of the injustices or environmental threats are well-developed and who are deeply committed to the cause. These actions are intended to generate attention and focus it on the issues that are otherwise not being addressed by society or politicsto stir the pot, precipitate crises in the hearts and minds of the public. The more creative and well-designed agitation actions are, the more effectively they put the issues into the minds of the public, rather than the actions themselves, which often have an element of shock value in them. The recent appearance of Black Lives Matter activists disrupting public gatherings for political candidates is one example of agitation actions that have successfully captured the national stage. Hawaiian cultural practitioners blocking access roads to construction sites until being arrested is another. These are high-risk actions intended to build awareness and motivate support. The more carefully their message is crafted toward the public, the more effective such actions tend to be.

The second step is education. Once there is a “crisis” in the mind of the public, there is dialogue, curiosity and an opportunity to work with people’s hearts and thoughts in a different way. The powers that resist change usually have greater resources to put their message into the media, using purchased air and print time. In the fight to pass a GMO Moratorium through a citizen’s initiative in Maui County, Monsanto and its cohort companies spent over $8 million (that we know of) to purchase air time. The moratorium movement went door-to-door and spent a fraction of what industry did on purchased media time, yet passed the controversial initiative. Unfortunately, Monsanto immediately filed a lawsuit and tied up the new law, but the level of public education that resulted as a consequence was huge. Now, two years later, there is a slate of progressive, grassroots political candidates that have a real chance of flipping the county council, which has acted as a front for industry and development for years. The cultural concept of political activists as “`Āina Guardians”, protectors of the land and Hawaiian cultural values, is now a concept that has entered the social atmosphere of mainstream Hawaii. There is now a growing desire to see the values of `Āina Guardianship represented at the highest levels of government. This is not new in Hawaii, but ancient. The thread of activism and political action  at work for the last 120 years, since the overthrow of the Hawaiian government, is now gaining new ground as coalitions to protect the land are growing in cultural diversity and cooperation.

Education, the second directive in the organizer’s toolkit, is a word that covers a lot of ground. For example, there is the type of education that relates directly to one’s immediate cause, candidate or policy goal. Agitation clearly sets the stage for this kind of education. But beyond that, there is education that indirectly moves people into greater connection to nature, greater empowerment to act, greater sophistication of understanding of the bigger crises and injustices that are facing the world. In this realm of education, ideas and ideology are being addressed but they can also become spiritual obstacles. Because of the inherent grief that comes with recognizing the level of human and global devastation we are contributing to, we tend to resist expanding our awareness of suffering and deepening our connection to nature. But we have to work through and with grief in order to enlarge our sense of personal responsibility and power as we face the condition of our world. In conventional ideological approaches to political action, the spiritual realm of education is often given little or no attention. And to a certain degree this is why political activism achieves its short-terms objectives but not its long-term goals.

This is hugely problematic because failure to succeed at radical and lasting change after so much effort is discouraging and ends up turning people bitter and cynical about the possibility of real change. There is so much buried grief in society. And buried grief leads to denial, fear, anger, hatred and apathy. Much of the function of spiritual practice is to support individuals moving past these spiritual and emotional obstacles, toward greater and greater social, emotional and mental maturity. Spiritual practice helps us embrace life and live from a sense of self-esteem and purpose, offering our genuine gifts to the world. But the cultural norm in civil society is not helpful in this regard, nor is the fact that many, if not all, modern persons carry wounds that relate to the actions of organized religion. And religion and spirituality are synonymous for many people. Plus, the cultural norm says that one’s spiritual path is one’s individual choice. We are told spiritual beliefs and practices are one’s private business. Conventions say that spirituality exists in a realm completely separate from the mundane and the political and that this is how it should be.

While there is very important truth to this, once again, there is a paradox as well. The separation of church and state is a critical political principle that I am grateful exists in our understanding of modern democracy. Ultimately, spiritual choices are individual. At the same time, the spiritual development of each individual is not just a personal matter. The community should be concerned about each individual’s spiritual and social development and health. Everything is connected, remember? If my neighbor is suffering and stuck in their development, how can they deliver their gifts? How can they offer their share of social will or their passion for life to the community they belong to? My neighbor’s personal development and health is my business. At the same time, their psychological and spiritual autonomy is sacred and not to be interfered with. This paradox requires a lot of sophistication to address, especially in a multicultural modern context, fraught with racial and cultural tensions.

In the short time I spent in Burkina Faso, I observed a different cultural assumption about privacy and personal transparency. What I saw may help clarify an important direction we could take to address the private versus community paradox of psycho/spiritual maturation. One of the centerpoints of the Dagara spiritual practice is shamanic divination. In many ways, shamanic divination functions in society in much the same way that psychological counseling and medical consultation function in the modern world: An individual is experiencing difficulties in life that are frustrating their ability to live their lives happily, healthily and in full self-expression. They then seek help from an intermediary. In the case of the modern world, we seek out “experts” who are fluent in the language and technology of their trades: psychiatrists, doctors, counselors, coaches, etc. In the Old World we would seek out practitioners who are conversant with the unseen world of the spirits and ancestors.

Please suspend any judgements you may carry about communicating with the unseen world for just a moment and operate from the assumption that this is a valid choice. In observing the way people receive divinations in Dagara-land, the first thing I was struck by was the community’s interest and observation of divinatory proceedings. People watched shamelessly as their community and family members had their vulnerabilities and their prescribed remedies laid out for them publicly. The modern equivalent would be to have one’s family and neighbors observing an individual counseling session. (My Editor, Heidi Erhardt comments: “What is so interesting is that in India, it’s a cross between these two! Modern world, modern psychiatrists, but yes, the whole family does come.”) As a modern person, can’t you just feel your “skin crawl” with resistance to this conflict with our cultural assumptions about confidentiality and privacy.? I can. This is something vital to look at. Often that “skin crawly feeling” is a telltale sign of an unexamined cultural meme.

Confidentiality and privacy are extremely important protections, but not every culture has shame or danger associated with mistakes and psycho/spiritual difficulties that we do. Not every culture runs on a system of legal trials and punishments and nasty antagonistic litigations. In contemporary United States society, a person’s mistakes and vulnerabilities may end up in a hostile court battle with consequences that last a lifetime. If we could somehow lift the burdens of shame and fear associated with spiritual and emotional vulnerability, we would have a whole new playing field, ripe for restorative justice processes instead of punitive ones.

In Dagara-land I was struck by the apparent absence of shaming in adult-child interactions. I have also seen this among the Latino families I have worked with in the apple orchards of eastern Washington. Somehow, the assumption of love is so strong in these cultures that brusk physical gestures and even slaps used to punctuate reprimands elicited no crying or shame response, as they would in the culture I grew up in. Reprimands were sharp and strong but there was no hidden cruelty. Boundaries were clear, consequences immediate, behavior change was instant with no emotional outburst from the corrected child. A two year old child was happily banging apples on the side of the collection bin. Father sharply slaps the offending hand, “You are bruising the apples! No!” Child gives a startled look and toddles off to some other activity. No message of shame or “Bad girl!” was directed at the child. Children and teens in the Dano family compound where we were staying in Africa? were sitting around in chairs and some adults and elders were standing. An uncle swats the head of one of the older kids and shouts a reprimand loud enough for all to hear. Children slide off of seats and stand up to make room for their elders with slightly mischievous glances at one another. There is no confusion about self worth, hurt feelings or shame in the picture of being sharply reprimanded in front of others. This is very different from my personal experience, where such action directed at me would elicit shame and hurt followed by anger. I would feel bad about myself. In someone with a more choleric temperament, such treatment might solicit cocky back-talk which would escalate the anger/shame factors. In my experience, this escalating shame/anger, victim/perpetrator modality is the norm in North American society.

Much has been written on the subject of shame and authoritarianism and how deeply it is embedded in our society. For readers who have not explored the subject I highly recommend the book by Alice Miller, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence. This is the book that opened my eyes to how thoroughly shame is embedded in every aspect of my northern European-sourced culture’s pedagogy and relationship to authority. The process of addressing and overcoming shame in my own life is ongoing, requiring constant vigilance that regularly needs fine-tuning. The process of moving out from under my cultural shame has been a spiritual journey requiring much psychological counseling, support groups as well as ritual and ceremony. While I am no longer living under the daily shadow of shame, certain situations will still evoke it as the initial response in my body and nervous system. Individual healing from devastated self-esteem buried under male bravado has been one of the themes of my life, and I am definitely not alone. Humiliation and fear of humiliation is at the core of male violence. Humiliated immature males, are dangerous, violence prone creatures. In a culture where this has become the norm, such persons have the capacity to rise into positions of political power. We witnessed this with the rise of Fascism in Europe before the second world war. We have been resisting the resurrection of Fascism ever since, without ever having successfully addressed its deeper cultural causes. Men who have not been put through the ordeals and ceremonies of initiation overseen by elders, don’t often have the support nor opportunity to mature into healthy adult men.

Assuming that the human journey is a journey of ever expanding awareness, our capacity for kindness confronts us with yet another paradoxical hurdle. As our awareness and sensitivity to the world around us expands, we inevitably come face-to-face with the “wall of grief.” This is the term I have heard Jon Young use to describe a phenomenon in the nature awareness mentoring journey that he has witnessed over and over again. As the students in his year long, adult residential programs practice their sit-spot routines and spend days tracking, observing birds, using wide-angle vision, practicing “fox walk” and all of the other “core routines” of nature awareness, they inevitably hit their “wall of grief.” This is two-fold. First of all, they must come to terms with having been disconnected from nature in the first place. Children are naturally open, curious and in love with nature. At some point, every modern literate person is told to put away that childishness and get on with the “important” learning that is required to be an adult, albeit a nature-disconnected adultusually this message is delivered by a consensus of adults, further justifying the lie. The obvious result is grief, the grief of losing that connection and all that goes with it. Then, it gets worse.The more connected you become, the more you realize the suffering of nature at the hands of materialistic industrial civilization. Nature is suffering and you can feel it now. These sensitivities must develop as a person’s awareness and connection matures.

In Jon’s programs this starts to happen about three months into the intensive training. This is usually around the holidays, another grief trigger, and during the darkest time of the year in northern latitudes. This is when students would get sick, injured, want to drop out of the program because it wasn’t what they thought it would be, accuse their instructors of being insufficient, attack the administrators, get depressed and withdraw. These behaviors can all be signs of unprocessed grief overwhelming a person’s psyche. It is at this point in his programs that Jon introduces ceremonial routines to help his students cope with the grief that needs to surface and get processed. If this doesn’t happen, the body and psyche shuts down the awareness journey because the internal pressure becomes too great.

A similar process happens as a person expands their social and political awareness to understand the depth of injustice that exists in the global economic and political realm. When one faces the horrors that humans have committed and sees that these horrors have not gone away but have just changed form and are hidden from our daily lives, the response can be intense grief, shame, anger, confusion and helplessness. Especially when one is confronted by the scale of these problems in the world. Political and social awareness of human and ecological suffering feels overwhelming.

To handle these intense feelings, humans need safety,holding and room to move tears,screams and anguish if needed, with reassurance that they are not going permanently crazy. Rituals and ceremonies can provide this support. It is no coincidence that Malidoma Somé claims The Matrix as one of his favorite movies. The “red pill, blue pill” choice of staying asleep in comfortable denial about reality or waking up to what is really going on is an accurate metaphor for individuals living in the industrial age. Some of the most powerful ceremonies that Malidoma offers are grief rituals, using the songs, rhythms and cosmological orientation of his Dagara tribe to help people move through grief-related obstacles. To some degree, psychological therapy can be helpful, especially group therapy, but all too often conventional therapies are more focused on helping people to “adjust” and return to functionality rather than empowering people to become active agents of social transformation in addition to becoming transformed functioning adults.

Because of the psychological and spiritual dynamics of grief, true political “education” cannot be separated from spiritual and psychological development, focusing just on policy issues or ideological changes. “Issues” only address short-term objectives, not the greater goals that we need to achieve. We need to succeed at our short-term objectives, while at the same time repairing culture at its foundation, so that we have what it takes to make the deeper and more lasting transformation to society that will allow us to reach our long-term goals. For this to happen, we need to expand our understanding of education to include cultural processes by which we become wiser, more resilient, more mature and more nature-connected people. The first obstacle to this is our tendency to separate the personal from the political and not to embrace the fact that each person’s spiritual development and maturity is our business. We need to address the cultural shame that blocks this process at the personal level and pushes us into isolation, depression and hopelessness, or into unchanneled anger and buried rage that becomes the social fuel of hate-based political movements. Hitler, Mussolini and Franco did not create Fascism, they just channeled it into a waiting cultural context. Without mass cooperation and social complicity they would have just been crazy sociopaths and gotten nowhere.

Part of our task in bringing a social justice movement forward within education has to address the deeper spiritual and psychological roots of our broken culture. We need to provide pathways for the advancement of our eco-spiritual development, individually and collectively. If we want exemplary leaders, we need to develop a mature populace that has the capacities of cultural awareness and self-awareness to select mature leaders. We need to transcend the myth that one’s spiritual well-being and psychological development are strictly a private matter and realize that they are actually critical community concerns. We need to encourage all of our friends and family to seek help, without shame, and that comes in a package that they can relate to. We all carry wounds in modern culture. Everyone is born with the need to be guided in our maturation process.

It is no one’s fault that our culture does not generally provide the mentoring and rites of passage that move people (as in traditional oral cultures) through the stages of maturation into adulthood and elderhood. It is no one’s fault that our culture does not effectively address grief, loss, death and emotional injury effectively. Most modern people would not initially be open to the practices of traditional oral societies in this regard. This is a cultural hurdle that needs to be addressed.


The New Old way finds avenues to make the core routines of cultural maturation available to modern people. Psychological counseling and the newer field of coaching generally have fewer hurdles and less resistance in supporting personal growth and healing for “regular folks.” They can be helpful as “transition strategies” toward the more direct and gritty ritual and ceremonial practices that get straight to the core of human transformation. Modern people generally need cognitive processes to help them move through the spiritual/ceremonial approaches of oral traditional people that persons who grew up with these processes find silly and boring. This is because of our deeply trained cognitive orientation and because of our deep distrust of religion, not to mention our culturally instilled fear of the shamanic sciences of the unseen world. Cognitive processing helps modern people negotiate the internalized cultural resistance to ritual and ceremonial practices.

It is important to note that there are mystical traditions underlying all major religions. These traditions have their own authentic approaches to spiritual development as well. No one path is right for everyone. Thankfully, there are many paths that lead to nature connection and an active engagement with elder wisdom. We need to support all of the currents of social transformation and recognize the commonalities of the paths that lead to free, healthy, mature adulthood with a social conscience and connection to nature. We can no longer pretend that psycho-spiritual health and development is not our business or that it is not integral to social change. We can no longer treat the routines of deep awareness and connection to nature as child’s play or irrelevant. We must embrace these processes as integral to our political education and ultimately our success. We cannot get where we want to go if we do not change the cultural ground upon which we are standing. We truly can’t get there from here.  We must change what “here” is in order to get “there.”



The First Principle of Being Human: Seek Kindness in All Relationships – Part 2

Part 2: A New Understanding of History


The planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds.”  Dalai Lama

History told by civilization is the history of unkindness. Conventional history is the storyline that chronicles the victories and achievements of expansive cultures, as told from the victors’ point of view. If we invert this story and re-imagine history from the point of view of the “losers” the unkindness is clear. Not the losers of battles between competing civilizations and kingdoms, but the perennial underdogs, the common people and the oral traditional cultures, living by necessity within the physical boundaries of their territories. This is what I have very briefly done in the previous chapter.  

To flip history in this way may be illuminating in some respects, as an attempt  to balance the historical perspective. The flip side of victor is victim, but they are both sides of the same coin.

Conventional history is a glorified male-dominated history of rise and fall, advance and defeat and of outstanding works of art, literature, science and technology, each surpassing the next. Yet, while this history was weaving itself across the planet and the common people were suffering all manner of oppression to make it possible, a separate strand of history was keeping the whole basket from disintegrating altogether, and humanity falling into violent chaos. This other strand of history, simply stated, is that strand woven by women. ( I will ultimately also include the LGBTQ strand of history as well as much of the stories of indigenous peoples. For now, suffice to say it is not a coincidence that women, LGBTQ people and indigenous groups have been the three most mistreated populations at the hands of civilization.) It is not the history of oppression I wish to look at, but rather the history of care, cooperation, kindness, service and compassion. This other storyline is the history of the mothers, of those who walk the mothering path and those whose bodies, minds, hearts and souls are listening to the mother earth for their instructions.

In order to read this other storyline, one needs to abandon a whole set of assumptions about history and possibly even about the nature of time. Civilization sets its story upon a linear timeline, a timeline of assumed ascendency. By and large, males had the power and positions of influence in this history while women took care of all the daily needs of life: household, food, children. Progress, as defined by civilized culture, is inevitable and it moves in one direction, forward. In its most simple formulation, evolution is perceived to progress along this timeline as a series of competitive interactions between species, societies, individuals, nations and civilizations. To make a mark in this history, one must fully engage in the rules of competition. Greatness comes with firsts, with victories, with notoriety, fame, success, wealth and power over others. This history is real. It forms a very important aspect of every human’s social and environmental landscape as well as proscribing possible choices within that landscape.

However, there is an equally powerful (I argue more powerful) history that runs as a mostly invisible undercurrent throughout all of glorified history. This is the history of kindness, caring, caretaking, cooperation and unequivocal sacrifice. This history takes place in the realm of mothers and mothering, though this is not to suggest that men do not participate in this realm. If this current of history were not to exist, then we would surely not exist as a dominant species today. Nor would we have existed as a thriving, adaptable, intelligent, verbally communicative social species for the millions of years that we inhabited the planet before civilization arrived. It is no coincidence that indigenous cultures are almost universally matrilineal, if not matriarchal. Civilized cultures, that is, cultures that revolve around city life, specialized labor and a warrior class that works for a ruling class, are almost universally patriarchal and patrilineal. There are elements of each in every culture on the continuum, and exceptions to prove the rule, of course. But over the breadth of history, this generalization stands true.

Even in the most aggressive patriarchal culture, the glue that holds society together and gives it coherence is the glue of caring, kindness, connection and cooperation. The bonds of family, neighborhood and workplace keep the flow of the necessities and enjoyments of life moving, no matter what the external urgencies, political repressions, foreign invasions, human or natural disasters might be. The  bonds of love, sharing, caring and cooperation can be shaken to their core by human brutality and violence, but they have never been extinguished among survivors of even the most horrific genocide. In anything resembling “normal states of civilization”, that is from minor ongoing warfare to temporary “peace” (which is actually a state of stable truce), the actions that represent care and kindness far outweigh those that are selfish or violent.

We take care of our own, however we define our own to be. This is often taken for granted, but to me, it’s the most significant thread of history and the one that stirs my heart. Until very recently, it was enough for our care, kindness and cooperation to extend only to “our own” while the powers that be competed and fought for territory, resources and influence over one another. There was horrible suffering, yes. But while our global population was low and our technology primitive, nature had the resilience to withstand our demands at a global scale. But with the Industrial Age, modern war technology, modern agricultural conventions, mass production systems and mass extraction technologies, taking care of “our own” on a national, religious, ideological, regional, ethnic or class basis is no longer enough to even ensure basic survival.

Now we must radically expand what we consider to be “our own”. This is a call to kindness, compassion, forgiveness and healing on a grand scale. This gives the Native American expression “all my relations” a universal meaning, going beyond all boundaries and including not only all peoples, but all beings as family. We have made it this far by caring “enough”, but now we are forced to step up our kindness game if we want to survive. This requires an extreme shift of perception and a radical shift of values across culture.

And this shift applies to all cultures, new and old. Indigenous cultures varied in the kindness they extended to “others”. It could be argued that they were mostly not kind to outsiders. Most were neutral, adopting a “wait and see” attitude with important cultural protocols to follow for greeting and establishing a tentative peace that had the possibility of growing into trust. Some were hostile and violent. Some were welcoming toward visitors and guests. But without exception, they took care of their own.

The narrative that tracks caring, kindness and mothering is of a completely different nature than conventional written history. It is cyclical, repetitive, humble, patient, rhythmic, listening, gentle, receptive, enduring. The heroism of this history are the stories of great acts of kindness, forgiveness, endurance and sacrifice in the face of terrible brutality and overwhelming odds. Some of those heroic stories do make their way into conventional history, thankfully. But the current of history out of which those stories spring is under the radar of conventional history-telling. Conventional history is fire, punctuated by water. The undercurrent of history is water, punctuated by fire. Conventional history is vertical, the undercurrent of history is horizontal. Vertical history ascends towards the heavens, horizontal history goes around and around on the surface of the earth. It is very, very difficult for people who have been dazzled by the accomplishments of vertical history and culture, continuously listening to preaching about both material and spiritual ascendance, to perceive the value and worth of horizontal history and culture, much less consider giving it greater value than vertically ascendant culture. But this is precisely what we must do. We must give the cycles of tending life and culture, and the social and spiritual practices of those cycles precedence over our vertical aspirations.

When Malidoma Patrice Some’ introduces his Dagara culture’s cosmological system and worldview to western students, he uses a diagrammatic medicine wheel. This is not something that the West African Dagara themselves use, but rather a creative way to represent some of their cosmological notions to westerners.  

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As a central tenet of his teaching, Malidoma emphasizes that the balanced cosmological relationship of the element of water to fire is about three measures of water to one of fire. His most basic critique of modernity is that we have the balance of water and fire reversed, thus we are quite literally burning up the earth: physically, socially and spiritually.

In the Iroquois Confederacy the clan grandmothers had political veto power. The men conducted political debates and oratory and made decisions in council, but if the clan grandmothers didn’t like the council decisions, they had the institutional power to veto them. This particular balance of power was somehow left out of the United States Constitution when it borrowed much of the other governing wisdom of the Iroquois. Institutional political veto power granted to women came from the observation that women carried the wisdom associated with bringing life into and sustaining life in the world. This wisdom was more important for the long term health of culture, society, the people and the earth than the male oriented wisdom of the warrior, hunter, scout, innovator, protector and statesman. Fire is needed for people to thrive, survive and protect themselves but it is meant to be in service to the health of the people and the land. Fire is greedy and narcissistic by nature. It needs to be tempered, humbled and contained in order to be a tool that serves the welfare of the people and land. When fire governs itself, it consumes everything that burns.

This is the stage in history where we find ourselves now. Fire is governing itself and consuming everything that burns. Open fire has its place in some biological systems. It serves as a radical way to purge the stagnation that develops with excessive accumulations of dead biomass. This can renew biological succession and the biodiversity that ensues. This knowledge was used by many traditional native people who practiced controlled burning on a wide scale to increase game habitat and maintain habitat for important root harvests. On a metaphorical level, social fires can carry the same quality of renewal in their wake. Mass social movements and revolutions that cause dramatic regime change make room for new kinds of social organization.

However, if these fiery movements are not infused with enough kindness, respect, reconciliation and healing, they can often lead from one form of despotism to another, without truly significant change like communism in The Soviet Union and China. Social movements tend to adopt the underlying conventions of the institutions they are trying to change out of either blindness or expediency. It is most common that the grand aspirations of these movements fail while only relatively small, though often significant institutional shifts are accomplished.

The abolitionist movement succeeded in making slavery illegal in the United States, but it did not end the institution of racism or the economic oppression of dark skinned people.The civil rights movement made significant gains by ending state-sanctioned segregation and getting the Voting Rights Act passed, but it did not desegregate communities or end race hatred or racial prejudice in America. The labor movement achieved the eight hour day, the right to collective bargaining, workplace safety laws, minimum wage laws, child labor laws and many more achievements. But the owning class has only gotten richer and capital, more globally mobile. This causes economic hardship for working people around the world as well as creates difficulty in monitoring and controlling pollution and worker’s rights globally.

All of these phenomena are the result of our struggle with the central paradox of being human. Humans have opened the Pandora’s box of choice. Choice and conscious innovation are intimately wed. Innovation is what leads to invention, and invention is the root of technology. Human technology has powerful consequences on the natural environment and on other groups of humans. Innovations seem positive to those that conceive of them and to those who possess new or better technology. The long term and more global consequences of new technology, however, are much harder to evaluate.

Take the Stone Age technology of the stone-tipped spear and cooperative human hunting strategies. In every instance where humans arrived in previously uninhabited lands with the stone-tipped spear, every species of herbaceous megafauna or large flightless bird was soon extinct. This almost happened to the megafauna of the entire ocean with the innovation of steel-tipped harpoons. Coupled with shipbuilding and sailing, new technology drove global whale hunts in the 1800’s which nearly wiped whales off the planet. Within a thousand years of the arrival of humans on the American continents, the mastodons, giant ground sloths and other megafauna and their predators were extinct. The giant flightless birds of Hawaii and New Zealand, extinct. The demise of the giant marsupial megafauna of the Australian continent is more of a debate than these other examples, but circumstances around the timeline of the arrival of humans there point to human involvement in their extinction as well. On the African and Asian continents the evolution of humans developed slowly, along with the megafauna and large predators. The plants and animals had time to adjust to the new human hunting strategies and use of fire to modify habitat and thus the megafauna have survived until the present era.

It was most likely a combination of human practices that caused these mass extinctions, not the least of which is the use of fire to modify landscapes. Habitat destruction is the leading cause of extinctions today. The long term consequences of habitat change are much harder to perceive and even more difficult to reverse.

Some indigenous people take exception to these tragic human intervention theories. Deeply held ecological ethics and practices of give and take are woven intrinsically into many indigenous cultural heritages. Therefore, the point is not to blame humans, but to understand the patterns of human behavior as they relate to innovation and technology. Human ingenuity creates technologies that give the inventive groups advantages that they didn’t have before. Our conscious relationship to inventiveness is one of the key qualities that separates humans from other species of animals. The advantages of innovation give immediate results that pay off in relation to gathering or generating food, increasing mobility across the landscape, increasing the habitat for game species, displacing other humans, etc. But the long term effects of the use of these technologies is not nearly so apparent as the short term benefits. The ecological feedback loop for hunting and gathering cultures is relatively quick. Overhunting and over-harvesting have effects that are felt in a matter of years, or seasons, certainly within a generation; while the long term effects of habitat modification may take many generations to express themselves. Plow agriculture leads to loss of organic matter and water-holding capacity in soil unless very important practices are used to maintain soil health, especially on irrigated landscapes. Thus historically, in the lands where wheat has been the staple crop, agriculture has led to soil depletion and desertification. The removal of forests to provide grazing habitat has also changed local weather patterns, lessened rainfall, led to desertification, biodiversity loss, human displacement and the fall of entire civilizations. Such long term effects are much more subtle in their cause and effect relationships, even to the extent that they are being debated by scientists to this day.

It is my belief that hunting, gathering, early herding and proto-farming communities learned the lessons of excessive “taking” early on in their histories and thus developed their powerful ecological knowledge, awareness, skill and wisdom within the context of their relatively limited home territories. It only makes sense that this would be so. These sophisticated integral patterns of relationship to place were culturally passed on from one generation to the next, woven deeply into the fabric of tradition and orally transmitted wisdom.

For generations, the dire warnings of indigenous groups have been spoken to advancing civilizations about the perilous consequences of their greed. We have been warned that to take without giving back to the earth is perilous. Finally these arguments are beginning to register, as modern science is catching up with indigenous wisdom. Now the consequences of species extinction, pollution and global climate change have gotten our attention as tangible threats to our own future. Yet we are still acting as if we can continue on the same path, even though we know that we can’t.

The irrational disconnection between knowledge and behavior is disturbing. None of us would deliberately starve our children, but that is essentially what we are doing. Only we are starving them in the future, so we can deny that we are doing it at all.

The paradox of choice is behind this reality. Within the paradox of choice is an inherent conflict between two qualities of the human mind and soul, the conflict between two kinds of intelligence. The glamorous intelligence of cleverness that leads to innovation and new technologies, and the steady experiential intelligence of mentored wisdom founded on tradition, awareness, connection to nature and the broad observation and purposeful development of human character over time. The innovative mind is more or less adolescent. It is unconcerned with the future and has an arrogant faith in its own abilities. “We will come up with a solution for that problem when the time comes. Our cleverness will save us. Technology and science will save us.”

If innovation is not contained within a culture of wisdom, the innovative mind becomes enamored with itself and its obvious powers,falling easily into service of greed and short-sightedness. That is the state of the modern world today. This is the fire that is burning up the world.

By and large modern culture is so in love with innovation and cleverness that we have literally forgotten how to generate wisdom or even to recognize wisdom, much less give elder wisdom its due respect and honor in society. We are in love with the young, the new, the shiny. Our cultural idols are youthful, or attempting to keep the appearance of youthfulness. We no longer hold meaningful rites of passage from youth into adulthood or from adulthood into elderhood. Old age is stigmatized and old people are institutionalized, separated from the natural recipients of their guidance and patience, the young.

Instead of masters of wisdom, we take our instructions from masters of success, experts and professional doctors, scientists, politicians, engineers, educators and business leaders whom we entrust with the critical decisions of society. No longer do we take our full share of social responsibility, informed by the wisdom of elders, to participate actively in the decisions of our communities. Indigenous decision making processes are almost universally consensus based, the most basic and thorough of democratic processes. Each voice is valued and social unity is of utmost importance. In such decision making systems, it is the duty of all adults to participate fully so that each person can be 100 percent informed, responsible and accountable to the decisions made by their community.

It is no coincidence that the modern shift in values away from involvement and responsibility corresponds with an almost thorough disconnection from nature. Most people living in the modern, developed world haven’t got a clue how to grow or collect their own food and medicine, much less harvest and prepare fiber for clothing, make their own containers or build liveable shelters from the landscapes they live in. These plant and landscape skills, coupled with careful animal and bird observation and “tracking” skills are foundational in the traditional indigenous world. They are carefully developed by the cultural mentoring practices of these societies. Every member of society must master these primary skills to  a basic level of competence. Nature is the obvious direct source of everything.One’s relationship to nature is personal, immediate, physical and sensual. In this world view, the individual is a participant in the natural world, not an owner of it. One cannot own what one belongs to.

Our modern language lacks a term for this awareness and skill set. We tend to refer to it with terms such as “reading the signs of nature” or “nature literacy.” In reality, the sensual field and body-mind integration of the primary skill sets of the oral traditional world have almost nothing in common with the abstract interpretation of two dimensional symbols into language. The use of terms from modern linguistic technology to metaphorically reference nature awareness confirms how invisible the oral reality is to the literate world view. The weave of cultures that orient themselves toward nature connection, caring for place and kin and the development of human character as their primary function are the cultural systems that have generated and perpetuated  ecologically integrated elder wisdom for the vast majority of human existence. Indigenous culture is the original “production system” for social and ecological wisdom.

Although the development of human character is complex and individual, in a traditional oral culture it could be summed up most simply as the process by which we develop kindness and caretaking into a high art. Young humans, in addition to being creative, curious and willing, are impulsive and selfish. There is a process through which we mature into adults not governed by ego, by impulses of self-interest or reactive impulses of anger and jealousy. Rather, we evolve by considered motivations of genuine care for others and for all of creation in the process that I refer to as “character development”. Here is Salvatore Gencarelle speaking about the Seven Sacred Attributes.

     “When people are fully connected they have very healthy conduct. This conduct is called the Seven Sacred Attributes – which are the laws of nature in human form. The teaching of the Seven Sacred Attributes is a Lakota teaching taught to Gilbert Walking Bull by Horn Chipps and Moves Camp. They are a measurement of connection in an individual, and are an indicator of the regeneration of healthy culture. The more people display these attributes, the stronger the community becomes. The attributes give us a method to gauge grief, connection and healing.

    The seven attributes are given below with their Lakota names and an English translation.

     The Attributes or Virtues (Wo-ope). One: Wo-wah’wala – a state of peacefulness or inner quietness (humility.) Two: Wo-canto’gna’ke – a feeling of deep love. Three: Wo-wa-unsila – a feeling of deep caring, love and compassion for all of creation. Four: Wo-wa’wo’kiye – the act of being helpful. Five: Wo-bli’heca – being fully alive and working with a sacred purpose. Six: Wo-wi’yu’skin – a sense of happiness and delight, being pleased, delighted and joyful. Seven: Wo-za’ni – being healthy in all parts of a human being; the heart, the mind, the body, and the spirit.

    When these seven qualities rise within the youth, they ensure the continuation of human life upon the earth. In ancient times elders knew that when young people have these qualities, they will live as caretakers to themselves, nature and each other. They will be truly helpful to all of creation in such a powerful way that modern people can only recall this way of life in legends, myths, and dreams.” (

Each of these attributes is a quality of character that supports the individual to choose care and kindness over other possible choices. The more one develops these attributes, the more likely one will discover the path of kindness, healing and peacemaking in ever more challenging circumstances. Thus the journey of character on the path of kindness is never ending. We can always learn to show greater love and kindness in our words and actions. Elders are those who have mastered this path to a greater degree than others in society. Such eldership can only exist in a cultural context that recognizes it and prioritizes its value. An elder without a community is more or less just an eccentric old person. Eldership is not just an individualistic process of mastery but an integral process that is woven into a cultural basket. Elders are not experts. They may be experts of particular skill sets, but that is not what gives them their status as elders nor what qualifies them to guide society. Rather, their nuanced understanding of human development, their mastery of the Seven Sacred Attributes (or their own cultural equivalent) coupled to a deep and sophisticated connection to nature and a thorough mastery of their cultural cosmology are all at work.

In addition to a cultural equivalent of the Seven Sacred Attributes, many traditional societies have sophisticated and effective processes for social healing and reconciliation that function within their specific language and kinship culture. These processes are of a completely different quality than the justice systems of modern societies. Modern justice functions more or less within the domain of assigning blame and punishment for violations of our social agreements. Modern justice is based upon retribution and little, if any, attention is given to social healing. In general, indigenous justice processes are about restoring social wellbeing to all members of an offended community, to true peacemaking. This requires healing of wounds caused by social transgressions at a community level, a very different orientation than that of the modern court system. More attention will be given to this important subject in future blogs, and to the modern movement for restorative justice.

The important thing to consider now is that these processes work well for communities that see themselves as family or tribe, where tradition, cosmology, language and cultural assumptions are the same. But they do not necessarily bridge across cultures or apply directly to conflicts between cultures, especially deeply entrenched cultural, ethnic, racial or national conflicts. It would be false to claim that indigenous societies were universally compassionate toward persons or tribes from different language groups and cultural traditions. Some traditional societies that practiced a high degree of kindness and caretaking within their own tribe and lands might also raid neighboring tribes or clans, take slaves, even practice ritual cannibalism or human sacrifice. “Others” were not necessarily considered to be “people” to which the rules of care and kindness applied.

The promotion of an ethic of compassion toward all people is a relatively new development in human history. It is found in Buddhist teachings and in some interpretations of Christ’s teachings. And it is found in the Peacemakers’s Story of the Iroquois Confederacy. But the spiritual and philosophical “innovation” of universal compassion may have only been around for the last few thousand years. Interestingly, the notion of universal compassion seems to have surfaced within civilized cultures as well as indigenous culture in the Americas in relatively the same time period. There may be other examples of this that I am unaware of. And we can only speculate about the values of the peoples of pre-history or outside the scope of written reporting. Within history, the first modern political social movement to utilize a philosophy of universal compassion was the nonviolent movement led by Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa and India in the early part of the last century. The philosophy of nonviolent social action has since spread and profoundly influenced movements for social justice around the world.

Universal compassion could be described as kindness of the highest degree. We know how to be kind. We have been practicing kindness for as long as we have been human. Even when civilized history usurped the attention of humanity with horrific violent practices, , we continued to take care of one another, weaving the fabric of society with sufficient kindness to hold it together through the unimaginable circumstances of violent conflict. To extend the kindness and understanding we show to our own families and allies to every person doesn’t seem like such a great thing to askbut out in the “real world” it seems to be a very great challenge.

The New Old Way proposes that we must somehow link the wisdom of the old ways to the call for universal compassion of a new way. We must somehow govern ourselves from a place of deep connection to nature and we must become effective advocates and practitioners of universal kindness and peacemaking. We somehow need to find ways to translate the kindness at the core of our humanity, that we already express toward our kindred, into a universal compassion that can actively heal the wounds of history that are driving global conflict. The cultural processes of the indigenous world that recognize and develop the guiding qualities of eldership have much to contribute to the call for universal compassion. The insight of modern movements and spiritual traditions that advocate universal compassion also have much to contribute. Both of these threads require modern people to deeply examine the conventions of awareness, thought and behavior patterned into us consciously and unconsciously by “civilization”. Modern and indigenous persons alike need to step far outside of our physical, social and psychological comfort zones to learn what we need to learn. We need innovation, but not so much on the technological level. What we need now is social and cultural innovation that can govern and direct our technological innovation. We need water to cool the fire of civilization. The source of the water of social healing and cultural repair and reconciliation is the deep well of kindness that resides at the heart of humanity. The caretakers of this sacred well have been those indigenous cultures whose core value is care-taking and women, mothers and grandmothers who hold the core practices of care-giving even in modern patriarchal cultures. This is where we must turn our attention for guidance.a5595126192ed620981420b6517f1287

The First Principle of Being Human: Seek kindness in all relationships Part 1


The First Principle of Humanity: Seek kindness in all relationships         

Part 1: The Literate Versus the Oral World View

History bears witness to the human capacity for cruelty. Humankind has become skilled at exploitation, oppression and violence at a scale scarcely believable. So there seems to be little evidence to support my claim that the central guiding principle of humanity is kindness. Yet the human capacity for kindness is undeniable, and this capacity arises in us unexplainably, even in the most unbearable of circumstances. If we bother to take a long and a sweeping look back, it becomes quite clear that we have only made it this far because of kindness.

The view of history that sees the trajectory of humanity as one that moves toward ever escalating greatness of achievement and dominion over nature is perhaps the greatest work of propaganda ever achieved, but it lies far from the truth of who we are. Buried within every institution of modern society are hidden assumptions that enslave us to a world view whose only probable outcome is global ecological collapse. Some of these assumptions are being ferreted out and exposed by the modern movement for environmental justice. But even this movement generally fails to go far enough in its critique of the industrial paradigm. The paradigm out of which modern people interpret the world is generated by the sacred cow technology of modern culture itself: literacy.

Before the advent of writing, and in particular the advent of the phonetic alphabet, words were utterances that only existed, like music, as sound vibrations that had no objectified existence in space. Language was a living, fluid expression of thought and feeling that only existed in the mind of the speaker and listener. It was unquestionably useful, but it wasn’t a “thing.” Language was an “experience” that had no physically enduring existence. When words became committed to stone, clay and paper they became objects as well as experiences, joining the spear, the knife and the hammer as useful physical tools. This is what Walter Ong calls “the technologization of the word” in his seminal work Orality and Literacy.

For the most part, literacy is not even perceived to be a technology at all, but is understood as a natural evolution of the human capacity for language. It may be true that literacy is a natural human evolution, and thus unavoidable. This does not mean that it is without its inherent risks or shadow side. The obvious shadows of the misuse of language are not what I am concerned about here: lying, the propagation of hateful ideologies, half-truths intended to divert or obscure the truth. The most serious shadows of literacy are assumptions and values embedded within the unexamined thought patterns of the literate mind itself. These values and assumptions are almost entirely invisible to themselves. It is the hidden paradigm of literacy that obscures the true purpose of humanity from itself. This paradigm would ultimately have us believe that our purpose on earth is to achieve, rather than to care for; to do rather than to become.

I do not believe that literacy is “bad.” Similarly, I do not think the discoveries about the physical makeup of the universe that led to the atomic bomb are bad. I would argue that atomic bombs are bad, yes. They are a technology with only the remotest possibility of a non-destructive use and their production consumes massive human and natural resources that could otherwise be used to alleviate suffering. For the most part, I do not think that any technology is inherently “bad”. There are technologies I have fought against (i.e., nuclear fission, broad spectrum herbicides, and genetically modified organisms) because of how they are being used and the risks outweigh the benefits by a very large margin. I oppose these technologies because I believe them to be unwise and our social institutions unable to truly regulate their use on the basis of wisdom.

It is especially important to make this qualification when it comes to literacy because the history of mass literacy is so woven together with the history of modern liberation and democracy. Popular literacy and democratic movements have walked hand in hand as they have spread around the world over the last few centuries. Literacy itself is something that many of my historical heroes have fought long and hard to spread among oppressed people as a required skill for liberation. I believe that literacy is a required skill at this time in history. But how it shapes our minds and habits must be carefully understood.

In its original form, literacy was a technology that the ruling classes jealously guarded for their own use, giving them a strikingly powerful advantage over the common oral folk. It was a technology of oppression that assisted the ruling classes to account for their property, crystallize their ideology and pass complex ideas, technologies and mathematical formulas on from one generation to the next. It allowed for specific, hidden communication over great time and distance. It allowed recorded stories, literally  “written in stone,” and by the victors, to shape history. It allowed for the development of codified law, mathematics and analytic and categorical science, thus, advanced technology. The written word is unquestionably powerful.

Mass literacy has unquestionably advanced the relative power of the masses in the colonial, now industrial world. But the written word is a relatively new invention in the scope of human evolution and migration. Humans have inhabited most places on planet earth as orally communicative, tool-using, social primates for a very long time. Our physical brains may have changed a little in the last few millennium since words got their chance to become physical representations, but not much. However, the human capacity to change our world has escalated wildly since the invention of the written word. And our way of thinking has changed. How we use our brains has changed a lot. This, I believe, is one of the main explanations for the suicidal trajectory of modernity.

In my late twenties a younger friend of mine studying at The Evergreen State College invited me to read a book that few people outside of academics have ever heard of. Professor Emeritus of Saint Louis University, Walter J. Ong’s seminal treatise: Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. This book has had one of the most profound effects upon my life, more than any other intellectual or philosophical work. The book sets out to examine the deep differences between the oral mind and the literate mind, and the grossly inaccurate prejudices of the literate mind toward the oral one. Before reading this book I was of the literate mind-set, even while being in philosophical and political resistance to its assumptions and values. After reading it, I began to explore my own thinking with a new set of tools, and to appreciate the intelligence and wisdom of oral people through a new lens. My curiosity about my own undeveloped oral mind was awakened. Whole new life pathways opened up before me. I am in deep gratitude to Walter J. Ong, a person I have never met nor spoken with, but, paradoxically, whose written words have opened up my deepest appreciation of the oral way, the Old Way.

The most insightful suggestion that embedded itself in me upon reading this book was that, as a literate person, it was impossible for me to conceive of the world as an oral person. It was hard for me to accept that my very thinking and perception was shaped by literacy. After all, didn’t I begin my life as an oral person? It was only after mastering the fundamentals of oral communication that I learned to read. And couldn’t I still speak as well as read? I could listen to stories told by indigenous persons and understand them, couldn’t I? We could communicate if we both spoke English.

But could we really communicate? And did we share the same relationship to language and to the word? Was there not perhaps something missing from my field of perception that was accessible to the primarily oral person? A person who was raised in an oral culture might later learn to read and write and enter my world, but was it possible for me to enter theirs? These questions nagged at me, and still do. I believe that I have taken baby steps into the oral world view, maybe even giant steps considering how I was raised. But compared to those few people living today who were raised speaking their native language and in the old oral ways, I am still a child, and I know it.

In Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” a shepherd sparring verbally with the Duke’s fool says, “…those that are good mannered at the court are as ridiculous in the country as the behavior of the country is most mockable at court.” This is uttered in defense against Touchstone’s attack: “Why if thou never wast at court, thou never sawst good manners; if thou never sawst good manners, then thy manners must be wicked; and wickedness is sin and, sin is damnation. Thou art in perilous state, Shepherd.”

Set here as the perspectives of “country” versus “court”, the arrogance and meanness of the court’s point of view is plain, as is the very practical and generous wisdom of the shepherd. This epitomizes the disdain which the literate person holds the oral one. In fact, the word the literate person uses to describe the oral one is not “oral”, which would indicate possession of the skilled use of language, but rather “illiterate”, indicating the lack of command of the written word. To the literate person, the lack of literate skill diminishes the intellectual worth, sophistication and intelligence of the oral person. “Illiteracy” is equated with the savage, the primitive, the peasant, the country bumpkin whose wisdom may be quaint but of little value. This attitude, in its most bigoted and arrogant form, has been suppressed (to some degree) in modern discourse due to the indigenous rights movements of the last several decades. The stereotypes persist, however, as do more subtle versions of the self-centered literate paradigm.

The reason this arrogance is so strongly embedded in the paradigm of literacy is because modern literate culture has walked away from the oral ancestral wisdom of its forebears. In fact, it has actively enslaved and waged genocide against nature-integrated traditions and what it considers “primitive savages” for thousands of years. Globally, people of primarily oral cultures, whether peasant or indigenous, are consistently at the bottom of the social ladder. They are the poorest, have the least political power and voice and, to the extent that their traditional way of life has been disrupted, suffer the worst health via issues with addiction, abuse and violence, both within and from outside their cultural group. In these communities, gaining the skills of literacy is of utmost importance as a first line of self-defence. But, as many stories can attest, renewing and restoring and, in some cases, reinventing the old oral/traditional cultural ways is the lifeline that reinvests these communities with pride, identity and meaning. Power toward self-determination seems to depend on both the skills of literacy and the renewal of (or adherence to) traditional cultural practices which are of the oral world view. This is one way that the “New Old Way” is coming to life around the world.

It is very important to point out here that there is a deep connection between oral cultures and nature awareness, nature connection and first-hand, direct, practical ecological knowledge. I will address this specifically in future blogs. I sometimes call this “nature literacy,” referring to the highly developed ability to read the signs of nature, skills that exist as a cultural norm in indigenous societies. Developing even a rudimentary ability to sense disturbances to baseline conditions in nature and participate in animal tracking and bird behavior interpretation takes years of hands-on study and practice with a mentor for a literate adult like me. Even now, after 20 years of study, I can only have a child’s conversation. But at least I know there is a conversation.

In the mainstream, however, little has changed. The self-importance, hidden values and assumptions attached to a culture steeped in literacy live on, with virtually no direct experience of the oral/traditional way of relating to the world. Nor is there widespread interest in seeing the world through the indigenous lens, except in three emerging subcultures: the environmental justice movement, mainstream interest in indigenous ceremony (shamanism and healing practices) and the nature awareness mentoring and “primitive skills” movement. Within these threads of emerging sub-culture, there exists authentic curiosity, attraction and desire to advocate for the protection, power, voices and lands of traditional oral peoples. Overall, this is a very positive thing. It is also from these threads, coupled to the direct struggles for the rights, lands and power of indigenous peoples, that the New Old Way is emerging. But it is not without its labor pains, the most obvious being the problematic conundrum of cultural appropriation. Issues of cultural appropriation anger many of the emerging cultural and political advocates of traditional people, and justifiably so. Charges of cultural appropriation raise shame and confusion in people of European ancestry who find themselves deeply drawn to the wisdom and practices of traditional people. This conundrum is worthy of its own blog and I will address it. But for now I want explore something even more challenging that usually goes unaddressed in the cultural appropriation discussion.

“Orality and Literacy” explores the conundrum of oral “intelligence” versus literate “intelligence.” Ong asserts that the literate person’s unconscious assumptions make it nearly impossible for them to perceive oral intelligence at work, much less to become “oralized” (my word.) I have since discovered that it is not only possible to imagine the traditional oral way of experiencing the world, but that people raised literate can also become oral, though through a very different process than people raised oral become literate.

One conundrum is that the reasons for oral people to become literate are obvious and emphasized as necessary everywhere. The reasons and methods for literate people to become “oral” are virtually invisible to all but those already living with a culturally transmitted orality. There is not only a lack of motivation in conventional modern culture to become orally aware and fluent, there is active antagonism toward the practices required to gain oral fluency. In the animal tracking, survival skills, nature awareness movement “Coyote Mentoring” practices are perceived by conventional culture to be impractical, pointless and childish, especially for adults. Or, in the trend to explore shamanic ritual and ceremony, the practices one must engage with are considered to be fraught with superstition, magical thinking or outright psychological danger.

“Oral,” as I am using it here obviously refers to much more than the ability to use spoken words to communicate. There exists no good word in the English language that captures what I am trying to refer to here. Persons raised in an indigenous cultural and linguistic context grow up close to nature, practicing the traditional arts of hunting, gathering, fire making, fibercraft, shelter, plant medicine and spiritual development. They receive a comprehensive, integrated, cultural education. Universally though, through different cosmological and linguistic lenses, persons thus raised develop an ecological literacy and awareness far more sophisticated at reading the signs of nature than even the most formally educated western scientists. This process of developing nature literacy through primary sustenance activities off the land is what my nature awareness mentor, Jon Young has coined “Coyote Mentoring”. Coyote Mentoring is powerful but it is still just a generalized version of what an indigenous oral society would have to offer. It is, however, actively exposing people raised in literacy-based cultures to nature-integrated awareness skills of traditional oral cultures. This approach to mentoring is at the foundation of the hundreds of nature awareness schools that have spun off of The Wilderness Awareness School in Duval, Washington and Jon’s mentor, Tom Brown Jr.’s Tracker School in New Jersey. To be fair, it was likely Tom that coined the term “Coyote Mentoring”. But it was Jon that flushed out and articulated the process of Coyote Mentoring as the major focus of his work at the Wilderness Awareness School.This can be explored in detail in the book Coyote’s Guide to Connecting With Nature.

In addition to practically oriented nature skills and nature awareness mentoring, traditional persons also receive sophisticated social and cultural mentoring. They are guided through character and spiritual development at the hands of elders who are the repositories of countless generations of ancestral oral wisdom. Traditional oral societies depended upon the wisdom of their elders to guide them in navigating both their survival in a natural environment, subject to the cataclysms and reciprocities of nature, as well as guiding them in a social environment, susceptible to the paradoxes of human character and cleverness. They also had to contend with the realities of raiding cultures if they were not a raiding culture themselves, or with competing raiding cultures if they were. This required either excellent stealth and flight strategies or excellent warrior capabilities. Either way, scouts with highly developed nature literacy, stealth, speed and invisibility had to be trained. Eldership was informed by shamanic spiritual practices aligned within the cultural cosmological story. And elders were responsible for transmitting this complex, cultural, social, technological and environmental human system forward from one generation to the next with expertly trained hunters, gatherers, scouts, warriors, leaders and medicine people.

The processes by which complex integral cultural practices are moved from one generation to the next in oral societies are what Jon Young calls “cultural mentoring” systems. They are extremely sophisticated, and yet in traditional oral cultures themselves, they are not “systems”. They are simply what is done. Oral cultures do not typically self-evaluate in the way that literate cultures do. They do not break social processes down into categorical parts with an explanation that connects all of the parts and from which they then form linguistic generalizations. This is a quality of literate consciousness, not oral consciousness. Oral traditional societies pass all of their wisdom from one generation to the next without any reason to break down their practices and explain them to themselves. Their wisdom is contained within the stories and practices themselves, guided by those who have mastered them. They do what they do because it works. If it stops working, they change it. There is no explanatory self-consciousness about this in the way that literate people have about education and skills.

I recall all too well trying to learn a card game from Dagara teanagers in Dano, Burkina Faso. They just dealt me in and expected me to learn by playing. I tried asking for rules in my broken French. “Porquais? Porquais ca?” Why? Why that card? They just looked at me weirdly like my question made no sense, which I’m sure it didn’t to them. Then they would grab my cards and make a play and hand back my cards. No attempt to explain was made. The message was, “Do! Try! We will correct you. You will learn.” I don’t think they even knew what an explanation was. They were always laughing at us, there. If there was a traditional dance, just join in! Laugh! Stumble, try, learn. No one slows it down or teaches parts. “What is a part? It is a dance. Watch me, I will exaggerate it and make it simple for you. Try! So funny! Try!”

Jon calls this phenomenon unconscious competence. It is wisdom, knowledge and awareness that is not conscious of itself. The generalization and label “cultural mentoring systems” is a literate person’s way of explaining an oral reality to other literate people. It is not a concept that an oral traditional person would ever think to come up with on their own unless they became fluent in a literate world view. This is a fundamental paradox of the New Old Way. In order for literate modern persons to engage with an oral point of view as humble learners, they need to be able to see and label what it is they are going to be engaging in. “…those that are good mannered at the court are as ridiculous in the country as the behavior of the country is most mockable at court.” From the point of view of a traditional indigenous person, a modern literate person who comes to visit their traditional territory is less capable and less aware than a child, completely helpless in taking care of themselves without assistance from modern technological devices or knowledgeable locals.

When an oral culture is “discovered” by a literate one, they are at great risk and technological disadvantage: on the material technology and war making fields as well as the linguistic, social and cosmological fields. Indigenous oral cultures may raid and fight with one another, but they do not proselytize. They do not convert. They do not think about how to make other people see things the way that they see them and adopt their cosmological stories as universal truths. And this makes them socially and cosmologically vulnerable to literate cultures that do think about and practice those things, as well as how to overpower people by force of arms and use terror and torture to control the behavior of large groups of people. Those are all literate cultural inventions.

Prior to the 13th century, the Catholic Church followed the belief that there were no such things as “witches.” The belief in witches was considered a pagan belief and the church even went as far as capital punishment of people who persecuted or killed others for witchcraft. In the 13th century many changes came to the Roman Catholic Church. Over the next century and a half, punishments against heretics increased in severity and frequency as Christian sects outside the Roman church began to gain popularity in Europe. In 1209 the first crusade was launched against the Cathars, a competing Christian sect in southern France. 20,000 men women and children were massacred by crusaders recruited by Catholic clergy and nobility from the north in a single attack. This was an attempt to exterminate the “heretic” Cathar movement in the Languedoc region of southern France. In 1233 a crusade was sponsored by the jealous royalty of Northern Germany. It was backed by the ridiculous accusations of Pope Gregory IX of witchcraft and satanic worship by the Frieslanders of Stedinger, a clear work of war propaganda. Forty thousand crusaders, promised with eternal life in heaven and the spoils of war, wiped out the entire force of more than 8000 armed “free men” and then killed all of their women, children and elders. The Frieslanders had established a practical democracy and refused to pay tithes to the church and taxes to the nobility.

Over the next two hundred years punishments for heresy and witchcraft, a very convenient excuse to kill anyone who threatened the power of the established clergy and nobility, increased in severity and included the doctrinally sanctioned or encouraged use of torture to gain confessions. The discussion of witchcraft began to gain more vigor. The black plague of 1346 – 1351 fueled the rumors and fears of witchcraft in a traumatized European population. By the mid 15th century witch hunts, “trials” and burnings, backed by Catholic doctrine, had begun in Western Europe. By that time, the Church had gathered up, invented and committed to written text the witchcraft myth that persists until the present day. Covens of witches gather in the dark of night, fly through the air, eat children, poison crops and livestock, collect male genitals, cast spells of wasting sickness and disease and copulate with the devil. No doubt many of these details existed in the common folklore of the oral peasant peoples of the day, but now they became church doctrine, actively implemented by the ruling monarchies of Europe. Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1450 helped spread anti-witchcraft Christian doctrine, increasing witch persecutions across Europe.

Backed by this doctrinal and social momentum, Spain began its expansion into the “New World” and its subsequent subjugation of the traditional native peoples encountered in search of gold and silver. 1444 marked the first African slave trading raid by a Portuguese company. Papal bulls in the second half of the 15th century divided the lands of Africa and the Americas between Portugal and Spain and legitimized slavery (in exchange for a portion of the spoils.) The Protestant Reformation Movement that was gaining momentum in Northern Europe adopted many of these same attitudes. Protestant sects persecuted by the Catholic and Anglican churches carried with them these attitudes toward new world pagans and “witches” into the northern colonies of the new world. Ultimately, the expansion of the United States into Texas and the western territories under the doctrine of Manifest Destiny mirrored the 400 year old doctrinal attitude toward darker skinned, traditional oral peoples as “less than human” and “worthy only of slavery” or “extermination”. In four centuries, from the 1450’s to the 1850’s, millions, possibly even tens of millions, of African, New World, Asian, Australian and Pacific Islander indigenous persons, as well as European peasant leaders and healers, were exterminated or enslaved. Racist, anti-indigenous, witch-scapegoating European state and church sponsored terrorism, conquest, slavery and colonial occupation ushered in the Industrial Age. This period of history is what the literate modern world calls the Golden Age of Discovery. If the indigenous oral world had a term for this period of history it might be the Dark Age of Terror and Disease. I love the t-shirts that have a picture of Geronimo and his band of armed Apache scouts that say, “Fighting Terrorism for 500 Years.”

I think it is important for people of European ancestry to recognize that their own indigenous ancestors were wiped out by the same forces that have waged a more recent genocide and occupation via colonialism. We all go back to indigenous roots, some of us with oral peasant roots in between, kind of an agricultural stepping stone away from tribal hunting and gathering or tribal nomadic herding. My point is, nature connection is something that is everyone’s birthright and for whom everyone possesses ancestry and genetics. We, who are further removed, need to work quite a bit harder to renew the threads of our oral integral mind-body capacities and push those capacities back into our own cultures. Sometimes living traditional cultural practitioners can help us, but even if that is not possible, there is much that we can do.

It is also important for all readers to recognize that it is not only Europeans who have carried out genocide, cultural and economic imperialism, conquest, slavery, torture, ecological destruction and the like. There have been massive colonial civilizations that predated European ascendance as well as ones younger than Europe, such as: Egypt, Aksum, the Incas, the Aztecs, the Mayans, Kongo, Phoenicia, Babylon, the Chinese Empires, Mongolia, Feudal Japan and the list goes on… In truth, brown, yellow and red people have developed opressive, expansionist, class-based societies throughout history as well. It is not a European monopoly. Just because white skinned persons have been the world dominators for the last few centuries doesn’t mean it was exclusively our idea.

I purposely left the Iroquois Confederacy out of the above list. It is a 600 or 700 year old federation of six separate language groups and was distinctly non-expansionist in its ambitions. It did expand, however, by offering neighboring tribes to join, including raiding tribes. It did form armies from time to time to deal with raiding tribes that refused to join the confederacy and was reportedly quite ruthless when it turned to war as a last resort. Many things were borrowed from the Iroquois that informed our democratic federalist constitution. This will also be a subject for several future blogs.

Two hundred and forty-seven years have passed since James Watt patented the basic modern steam engine design in 1769. In that short time the world has witnessed a fantastic expansion of the human population and incredible escalation of human migration across great distances, accompanied by foreign plants and animals. We have seen a transformation of science and technology beyond the former boundaries of imagination. The mass production of food and consumer goods, in addition to the migration of the bulk of the population from the agricultural landscape to burgeoning cities characterizes this time period. Now, having passed the limits of consumption proscribed by contemporary solar energy in a closed biological system, we are rapidly approaching the end of the fossilized carbon-based Industrial Age.

It is no coincidence that the destruction of ecological systems and indigenous cultures has progressed hand-in-hand with the advancement of the colonial, neo-colonial and industrial systems and culture. The values and attitudes that motivated and carried out colonial and industrial expansion on a global level are the root values upon which conventional culture is built. They infuse the owning class, the middle class, the working class and the poverty class with different beliefs and feelings to perpetuate the system, but the value structure is universal. What is conventionally “most valuable” is production and access to capital. This is a complete inversion of the oral, traditional, indigenous value system. There nature is the most valuable asset (which has no access to human capital.) Balanced sustainable living with emphasis on the development of human character and nature skills mastery does not produce a lot of exportable consumer products.

However, industrial production is not going to stop any time soon, barring a nuclear conflagration. And it is preposterous to suggest that the current global human population, unskilled at both nature awareness and the primary skills of living from the land, return to hunting and gathering in a world whose natural ecosystem stability is already severely compromised. We are facing a time of urgent transition to some kind of unknown future that cannot look like our present, nor our recent past. Nor can it look like our distant, but most proven, sustainable past. It must be something fundamentally new that draws upon our recent and our distant pasts to inform its newness. This is a premise of the New Old Way.

We are loaded with clever technology and capital resources but we are deficient in wisdom, awareness and nature connection. To me, it is clear where we must turn.

A big part of what I am attempting to do with this blog is to make the reasons for becoming orally proficient, nature-observant and primary skills competent clear and those cultures visible and understandable to the conventionally educated, literate-minded persons of the developed world.

I believe this kind of cultural, spiritual and psychological repair is absolutely necessary for us to have a successful and nonviolent transition into the future. Transition is coming, whether we cooperate with nature or not. But the spectre of apocalyptic human violence and cataclysmic natural disaster is real, and it is pressing on us every day. Many, perhaps even most, of the people alive on the planet today are already experiencing ecological collapse to some degree or other. Many, perhaps even most, of those experiencing ecological collapse are also already experiencing superpower surrogate warfare, state-sponsored domestic repression, paramilitary organized crime violence, civil war, police brutality or all of the above. The end of the industrial age is not near, it is here. And it is rapidly escalating. The Syrian refugee crisis is but one small symptom of system failure and yet it involves the displacement of six million people!

The wisdom of oral traditional culture emerges directly from acute awareness and understanding of nature, passed on over generations of observation and connection. Oral social and ecological awareness is both a deeply personal experience and a highly mentored one, one that cannot be separated from the spiritual development of the individual. Oral intelligence comes from a highly sophisticated and nuanced inter-generational culturally transmitted “pedagogy,” for lack of a better word. In modern culture, the vestiges of “cultural mentoring” remain most often in areas where the direct transmission of practical skill sets, requiring finely tuned observation and full-body involvement, are still alive, such as: hunting, fishing, athletics, search and rescue, medicine, midwifery, farming, music, dance, art and theatre. Ironically, the only professions that utilize tracking and stealth skill sets are the military and the police. Unlike oral cultures, however, these fields have become highly specialized and in most cases, less integrated with connection to nature. But still, an understanding of mentoring and the development of character through the process of skill mastery is very much alive in these fields.

The greatest repository of indigenous wisdom and practices are those cultures that are struggling to carry on and renew their traditions against all odds in this modern world. These cultural treasures must be protected as a first line of defence for the future of the world. Their traditional lands must be returned to their care, they must be given political autonomy and sovereignty, they must be compensated for their many losses so that their lands,waters and languages can be restored to health. Their sacred places must not be desecrated with modern technology and every effort must be made to understand the world from their cultural and historical point of view. In order to find a New Old Way forward to an abundant and just future, we must all work together, and we must understand how different that work can look from person to person, from place to place and from subculture to subculture. We must act and we must act with clarity,intention and purpose.


The First Principle of Earth: All life depends upon reciprocity – Part 3

Civilization’s Escape Attempt



Life depends on death. Receiving depends upon giving. Waking depends upon sleeping. Activity depends upon rest. An in-breath requires an out-breath. This constant dynamic cycling of duality expresses the fundamental law of reciprocity, the natural law that governs the balance of opposing forces. Reciprocity stirs the cauldron of generativity. It is inescapable. In the grand scheme of life on planet earth, it is the foundation upon which all living systems rest.

What lives without the death of another? Perhaps a few species of bacteria that metabolize sulfur via heat vents on the ocean floor and maybe some species of algae and phytoplankton that live off sunlight and dissolved minerals alone. It could even be argued that parasites, viruses and bacteria that require living hosts survive on the life of others, not the death. However, the bigger picture of plants and animals participating in the web of life on the thin surface of this blue planet is a bit more complex. The death of one organism predicates the life of others and the life of one organism depends upon the death of others, more or less in equal measure. This describes the original and most fundamental cycle of reciprocity. Living and dying are woven together in an elegant dance of give and take, governed by the most basic natural law of life as we experience it.

Modern culture strives to rise above nature’s dance of life and death rather than fully embrace and participate in it. Death is understandably scary to a self-aware being. Awareness of death challenges our most basic sense of identity and meaning. Much of the subject of the world’s “great” religions is devoted to deriving meaning from the improbable reality of self-conscious life in the face of certain corporeal death. This is not true, however, of the cosmological systems of cultures and language groups that have not created civilizations.

The animist, pantheist, ancestrally oriented spiritual practices of oral peoples of place address the inherent paradox of life, yet there is something fundamentally different about these oral cosmological systems. Indigenous ancestral cosmologies treat the self and the soul as part of a continuum of seen and unseen forces, extending back to the ancestors and forward to the coming generations, woven together by ropes of connection to all of creation. The development of the soul is seen as the strengthening of these sacred connections through practice and mastery of skills and awareness. The soul matures and advances in a more horizontal or downward direction through deeper and deeper levels of conscious participation in the beauty and balance of nature. The difference with the old spiritualities and the new is the focus of their attention. Animist cultures face the earth and celebrate sensual involvement with it.

Abrahamic religious orientation is upward, toward a distant deity, toward a perfect unity with creation after corporeal experience comes to an end, negating the present earthly experience of sin and suffering. Eastern religions are more complex. They share with western Abrahamic traditions written cosmological doctrine and priestly classes that possess resources and political influence, yet still retain strong elements of shamanic practice as well. The mystic traditions within Christianity, Judaism and Islam also employ meditation, isolation in nature, poetic and artistic expression, dance, rhythm and trance as authentic ways of connecting to God and creation. But in most cases, both the Eastern and Western great religions perceive life as an experience of suffering. Suffering therefore, can only be transcended through enlightenment or an after-death state of unity with God and creation. If a generalization can be made, it is that the focus of civilized religions is on the human experience and future transcendence of suffering. Indigenous spiritual practices, as I understand them, focus on full sensual immersion in nature and navigating embodied intensities, such as ecstatic joy, raging grief and everything in between. One might then say, the equivalent of the Bible or Koran would be a direct, sense-oriented, worldly experience. This could include interaction with forces and beings unseen in ordinary states of consciousness. Civilized religious practices focus on the suffering in life and the hope or promise of transcending that suffering through following a particular religious path or set of doctrines. This is not surprising if we examine more deeply the conditions of civilized life for the common person.

My definition of “civilization” is an expansion of mass culture characterized by class divisions and specialized labor. Civilizations are composed of societies who claim to be civil, from the Latin civitas meaning city. Therefore, civilizations are societies who orient their activities and values primarily around cities and other human creations, rather than around nature or creation itself.  A fundamental narcissism and arrogance permeates all of civilization. More on that later.

The primary purpose of  traditional, village-based cultures is to care for their “people” as well as the places that provide them with the resources for food, clothing, shelter and medicine. It is not uncommon among people following the Old Ways to refer to stones, plants, animals and even landmarks as their relatives. Thus, taking care of the “people” in this context extends well beyond the boundaries of the human species.

Expansive cultures that generate cities still have to attend to the people and land, at least minimally. But, in all but possibly a few extinct matriarchal civilizations, these modern cultures all expand their territories. Expansion claims resources to support greater concentrations of wealth and power in an elite class. The most important mission of culture in a civilization, therefore, is to care for the elite class of rulers and landowners. The mission of caring for the people and the land is attended to as a necessary condition for survival, and in better examples, given eloquent lip service. 

In a kind civilization, the care of the common people and land is given dutiful attention second to the collection of resources required to maintain the elite class, i.e., the good king, the democratically elected president, the responsive and responsible CEO. In a despotic or greedy civilization, attention to the health of the land, civil liberties and welfare of the people are given minimum attention to maintain compliance. Decisions are solely in service of the short term goals of the elites. This creates mass suffering at a much different scale.

This new kind of class suffering could never exist in horizontally organized, village-based aboriginal societies. It is a product of the New Way. In the usual analysis of history, only the dynamics between kinder versus more cruel civilizations are examined. Cultures living in the Old Way are left out of the conversation as irrelevant. Ironically, the 600 year Federation of Indigenous Nations, known as the Iroquois Confederacy, existed on the North American continent long before it was named America.Though rarely mentioned, the Iroquois Confederacy had a profound effect upon the development of global democracy, a subject for a future blog. There is no example in the “civilized” world of a democratic government or federated cooperation between nations of differing cultures and languages lasting even three hundred years. This is one more example of the inherent myopia and deliberate self-centeredness of the New Way.

The acquisition and control of resources and territory requires protection, whether the government be kind or cruel, democratic or despotic. This necessitates not just a warrior class, but armies capable of standing against the armies of other expansive cultures. “Civilizations,” by definition, take on the mission of expanding and protecting their territory and influence. This demands the conversion or enslavement of others to the dominant set of cosmological beliefs, practices and language. “Civilization” has created a new kind of mass warfare as its primary method of  expansion and protection. Civilization adopts class structures that keep the majority of people in second class status or even in institutionally organized slavery. This would be inconceivable to most oral, village based cultures of place.

The pre-agricultural peoples of old may not have been peaceful, but they engaged in warfare, slavery and raiding on a completely different scale. The scale of primitive warfare, even in raiding cultures never put demands upon the people or landscape beyond its means. The demands of the natural law of reciprocity always came before the advantages of warfare and expansion. Not so with civilizations.

The shift began with the advent of plow agriculture, the domestication of food plants and grazing animals.  Food resources could now be traded and stockpiled. The scales of equilibrium that human cultures had lived within for countless generations of hunting, gathering and proto-agricultural activity began to tip. The central metaphor of human culture began to change. The horizontally-oriented ethic that “reciprocity makes right” became replaced by the vertical ethic of “might makes right.” The trajectory of human culture changed from care-taking to simply taking. The ability to take without giving back justified taking, elevating the practice of taking without giving to a symbol of social status. The more you could take, accumulate and control, the greater was your worth and the more you presumed to be favored by the gods or God. The sword and the plow together became the new paradigm of human society and culture. Get on board or get out of the way.

Here we have the taproot of modern history. Recorded history, by the very fact of being recorded in writing, contains both consciously and unconsciously the bias of expansion and conquest as well as the early marriage of agriculture and warfare. This is because writing itself, the “technologization of the word”*(Orality and Literacy) is a technology belonging originally only to civilized cultures, and originally only to the elite classes. This explains why “history,” in the classical sense, is the history of war and competing civilizations and religions and nations and language groups. History is civilization talking about itself. 

Hidden within this natural bias, however, is a lie. It is a lie by omission, not by proclamation, though plenty of lies by proclamation exist in historical accounts as well. The truth or falsehood of historical accounts depends to a large degree upon whom one sympathizes with and upon whether the account was written by the “victor” or the “victim,” as perceived by the reader. “History is written by the victorious,” is a famous adage. And it is true. In the bigger picture, all of history is written by the spokespeople of literate civilizations to support the point of view of literate civilization.

Until very recently, the point of view of the true victims of history was never written, it was only told. From the point of view of oral cultures of place, all of “history” is about civilized cultures taking their land and resources and killing or enslaving or assimilating their people, effectively extinguishing their cultures, languages and belief systems or appropriating the parts of them that proved useful to the conquering civilization. From this point of view, “history” is a story of systematic robbery, enslavement and genocide that goes back to the earliest civilizations that emerged from stone age culture 5 to 10,000 years ago, a relatively short time in the scheme of human evolution on the planet, and only a little greater than the short span of written history itself.

The advent of civilization is the story of systematic assault against cultures living by the natural law of reciprocity carried out by elite cultures who seemed to be attempting to escape from natural law. No longer were people primarily interested sustaining the abundance of the land upon which they and their ancestors had lived for countless generations and upon which they had developed extremely sensitive and responsive ecological awareness, technology and practices. No longer did the vision of the leaders of the people extend forward in particular places to the generations to come hundreds of years hence. This was the “Old Way.” Now elite groups of people following the “New Way” were far more committed to acquiring territory and concentrating wealth and influence in the hands of a class of rulers.

Taking without giving back in roughly equal measure became a source of social status that elevated a wealthy and powerful minority class of persons above the majority classes. This resulted in vertically oriented social structures with owning and ruling classes at the top of the pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid, the peasant and farming classes maintained many of the beliefs and nature connected practices of the Old Way. But this had to be done in ways that did not directly challenge the authority of the elites. Vertically oriented societies now stood in contrast and in conflict to the horizontally ordered societies of oral cultures of place. And, as history bears out, horizontal nature connected societies, even those with warriors, could not hold their ground against the war technologies and mass armies and cosmological aggressiveness of the New Way.

Ironically, the principle English words used to describe the older, oral, horizontal societies that skillfully practiced taking care of kin and nature as their central cultural values are “primitive” and “savage.” Were we naming our own shadows and behavior in a psychological “projection?”

History as we know it is the abandonment of the natural law of reciprocity as the central guiding understanding of human culture. Now look where that has gotten us! How smart are we modern people, really? We can build nuclear weapons and internal combustion engines and cell phones and satellites. We are clever, and in love with our awesome cleverness! But smart?

We cannot underestimate how deeply the abandonment of nature has lodged itself in the modern person’s consciousness. If we are to make our way forward from this point in history we must find a way to return modern cultures and social organization to reciprocity. This is the mission of this blog, to stimulate conversation about the paths we might take toward a “New Old Way” which does not reject the cleverness of human technology but somehow finds a way to place it within systems of governing wisdom that are primarily informed by the natural laws that govern life on earth, most especially that of reciprocity: the balanced relationship of life and death, of taking and giving.


The First Principle of Earth: All life depends on reciprocity –  Part 2 

Part 2 – The Still Small Voicetumblr_lrtv5kOerI1r3v7q7o1_500_large

There is a Hawaiian word that I am trying to understand. Kuleana. It is something like responsibility, but kinder and somehow more generative and relational. The word kuleana is often used in a collective way as a call to take care of something. “Taking care of our elders is our kuleana.” Or like a t-shirt I saw recently, “More Limu, More Fish. The ocean is our kuleana.” (Limu is Hawai`ian for seaweed, an important food source here that local citizen groups are working to restore to health and abundance along the shorelines.)

A word like “responsibility” can be problematic. For me it carries too much of the inward weight of obligation and not enough of the levity and outward motion of an authentic call to respond, which I believe to be the original sense of the word. I am tempted to replace this word with “kuleana” in my vocabulary, and here in Hawai`i I can perhaps get away with that in certain situations. But even still, some Hawai`ians take offense at the appropriation of their words by non-Hawaiians, and understandably. “They stole our land, repressed our culture, usurped our rightful government and now they want to take our language, too!? And they don’t even really understand it!?”

I will admit to this offense myself. In the first draft of this chapter I tried to make the case for ‘“kuleana” and offer my interpretation of the word. Only thanks to my editor was this cultural faux-pas averted. I tell this only because it shows how a “well-meaning person,” in this case myself, is capable of delivering offense to persons of another cultural and experiential background without so intending, an example of unconscious ignorance obviously still alive and well in me. Not proud. And I hope my readers will kindly give me feedback of this nature if something offensive slips past my editor’s eye.

While I digress a bit, this is relevant to the topic of “responsibility” at hand. Reflecting on the feedback I had received I came to some realizations. I already advocate for people of European descent to connect with their own personal ancestors, as challenging and painful as that often can be. Even to identify with the earth-connected side of one’s European cultural heritage and history can be difficult and painful. Corollary to this, I must somehow reclaim the language of my birth and ancestry, not just borrow (steal) words from other cultures that seem to already have the meaning I am reaching for. First of all, every language is deeply nuanced. It is probably not possible to fully grasp the meaning of a foreign word without completely absorbing the language, customs and culture, and possibly even the landscape, that the word springs from and lives within.

To engage full responsibility for my use of language does not mean that I may not use Hawai`ian words, but rather when I do , I must become fully aware of why I am choosing Hawai`ian over English, and consider the audience where I am speaking or writing. I am  assuming permission is granted to me based upon the relationships that are present to the utterance.

For example, I am a beginning hula student. My kumu hula (hula teacher) has taught me a protection chant for entering the forest, in particular if my intention is to collect plant materials. If I am with my Kumu, I may use this Hawai`ian chant. In fact, it is respectful and expected of me, as a student, to do so if he gives me the nod. He has given me permission to use the chant outside of his presence as well, and very occasionally I do. After all, I have permission. However, usually, if I am leading a group into the forest and we pause to pray before entering, which is a cultural protocol not unique to Hawai`ian culture, I almost always choose to honor my own ancestry,culture and language by making my prayer in English. English words work fine for speaking to the unseen world. At this point in my cultural education, English is better, because it resonates more deeply inside me. I am attuned to my daily language and therefore it is a more effective way for me to communicate with the spirit world and with people who understand English. However, English words do not resonate as deeply with the land here in Hawai`i and in that way perhaps carry less power (and they sound much less beautiful to me.)  At some point, I may feel the Hawai`ian language and have permission from my cultural elders to use it, perhaps even a responsibility to do so. Because of the rich gifts I have received from the process of learning the language and culture, it may become my kuleana, my responsibility, to use the Hawai`ian language as a way of honoring and giving back to the teachers and elders who made the effort to educate me and to the culture and ancestors that host my presence here. That would be an example of reciprocity at work. What I am reaching for here is a nuanced understanding of the word “responsibility” and how our “ability to respond” is linked to the natural law of reciprocity.

There is something inside the human being that the Friends Meeting for Worship (Quaker Church) calls “the still, small voice.” I remember vividly the “meetings” I attended as a child. Meetings happened on Sunday, just like other churches, but there was no priest or preacher in front of the congregation. Members would arrive dressed in their Sunday best, take their seats facing front and sit quietly, as if waiting for the sermon. Nothing at all would happen for the longest time, just a room full of quiet adults and children. Sometimes the fifteen minutes that we kids were required to sit in silence (adults kept on in sitting for a full hour) felt like an unbroken eternity to me. No one would speak. There would only be the sounds of nature coming in from outside and the small sounds of people shifting position or coughing in the high-ceilinged room. On what I considered to be “better days,” before we were allowed to go downstairs to our Sunday School class where we could TALK, someone would speak during the meeting’s first fifteen minutes. It was commonly an older person of my grandparent’s generation.They would usually tell some kind of story, often about something that they observed in nature. Birds seemed to be a common theme to tell stories about. First would come the story in slow detail, usually about something that seemed pretty ordinary to me. And then would come a reflection on the experience that had meaning to the person, spiritual meaning, which they would share with the group. Sometimes the person speaking would refer to the Bible. But it was equally possible that they would quote Rumi or Ralph Waldo Emerson or something from the Bhagavad Gita if it was relevant to their message. When they were finished, no one said anything, the silence continued. On very rare occasions this would happen twice before I left the room. I was always relieved to go, but I liked it when people spoke. Quaker Sunday School was much like I imagine other Sunday Schools to be. We studied Bible Stories,played games,made crafty things and got ready to “Trick or Treat for UNICEF.”

It was only later, as a young adult, that I returned to a Friends Meeting in Seattle, Washington. I had not attended a meeting since I was nine years old, when my mother died. She was the force behind our family’s participation.. At nineteen, I was living in a group house in the University District, working temporary and part-time jobs to support my full-time peace and anti-nuclear activism. Many of the older persons who were leaders of this movement happened to be Quaker “grey hairs,” and I was very curious. One of my good friends, whose mother was a Quaker and had grown up in Meeting, invited me to come one Sunday morning. I attended irregularly for some years after that. This is when I began to reflect on the unusual character of this “church” more deeply. I never spoke for the hour we adults would sit together in silence, but I always came away enriched and renewed, with a feeling of support for the work I was doing in the world. My friend, Roger, did on occasion offer something during Silence. It was not forbidden to speak as a young person. The Quaker youth had plenty to say, including me, when it came to Meeting For Business, the forum where all the business and policies of the Meeting were discussed and decided by a process of spiritually guided consensus. There was a deep respect for elderhood in Friends culture, as well as a deep respect for the voice and power of youth. It was inspiring to find a pocket of this quality of respect within a culture that generally respects neither their elders nor youth.

The silence held within the Meeting for Worship was the place where the community of faith would gather together to listen for this sacred thing that they called “the still small voice.” This is the voice of guidance that lives and speaks within every person, if one takes the time to sit quietly,reflect and listen. To hear the still small voice does not necessarily move one to speak. When I asked about the conditions expected for speaking at  Meeting I was told only that one must feel moved by spirit to share. Sitting in a receptive silence with others brought me many personal reflections that came from the still small voice within. And very, very often, the words that were spoken at Meeting touched that still small voice within me in profound ways.

The belief in Friends Meeting is that God speaks to and through each of us, if we take the time to listen.The voice is not usually a booming or prophetic voice, though it can be sometimes. It is a deeply quiet voice. And that voice is most commonly heard in a state of profound, reflective silence. Scripture is considered to be an important, sacred basis for interpreting the inner voice, but not an exclusive one. There are Buddhists, Jews, Muslims and others who attend Meeting for Worship as equal participants. Pretty profound, really. Here was a “Peace Church” that practices peace and tolerance without preaching. Instead of “practice what you preach,” the moral instruction becomes “practice what you hear when you listen to the still small voice within.” Quakers through history are perhaps best known for the attention they give to conscience in the spiritual life and in their insistence that one must not only listen to conscience but act on it in worldly affairs.

Of the last three centuries, the Quaker church is perhaps the spiritual movement originating in Europe most historically committed to equality, democracy, religious tolerance, freedom of conscience and to peace and the practice of nonviolent social action in the United States. Philadelphia was founded by English leader William Penn in 1682 as a refuge for fellow Quakers who held the majority influence in politics and business in this important city for a full century. The movement for independence and the emergent federation of independent states was shaped in profound ways by Quaker values and thought, though Quakers themselves backed away from direct participation in politics because of a crisis of conscience stemming from their spiritual commitment to pacifism. Quaker Friend John Woolman was one of the early supporters of the 1755 tax-resistance movement that led to the Declaration of Independence. He wrote a spiritual diary that was published posthumously in 1772 which came to have a profound influence on the Religious Society of Friends. Woolman looked to nature as a powerful direct source of spiritual truth and guidance and a direct reflection of God and spiritual wisdom. He advocated harmonious relations between humans and nature as fundamental to a righteous life. “I believe that where the love of God is perfected and the true spirit of government watchfully attended to, a tenderness toward all creatures will be experienced, and a care felt in us that we do not lessen that sweetness of life in the animal creation which the Great Creator intends for them under our government.

Quaker Friends have been important leaders and supporters of progressive currents within United States history from the very beginning: tax resistance against the British, abolition of slavery, religious and cultural tolerance and respect, women’s suffrage and rights, the labor movement, civil rights, the antiwar and antinuclear movements and the environmental movement. Their primary tool in these reformist movements has always been passive resistance, civil-disobedience and nonviolent direct action, since before those names were coined in the English language. The Quaker spiritual, cultural and political contributions give persons of European heritage one example of a cultural legacy of European descent that we can embrace and be proud of. It was surely deeply influenced by its contact with the philosophies, customs and wisdom of the original inhabitants of their new continent.This openness to influence is to its credit, especially considering the cultural attitudes of dominant European religious movements toward non-literate peoples at the time.

John Woolman remarks in the Journal, “The marks of famine in a land appear as humbling admonitions from God, instructing us by gentle chastisements, that we may remember that the outward supply of life is a gift from our Heavenly Father, and that we should not venture to use or apply that gift in a way contrary to pure reason.” To Woolman “pure reason” was roughly synonymous with what I call “natural law.” He is saying that signs of famine in nature, whether human famine or animal famine. They are communications to us, instructions, reminders, from the Creator to respond to the laws of nature and live gratefully in harmony with them. We should clearly not use the gifts given to us by life and the Creator in ways that run contrary to natural law, if we do, famine will ensue. Embedded within this very simple quote are profound understandings of reciprocity, responsibility, and the way the natural world communicates to the human conscience.

I am striving here to express the connection that John Woolman has obviously put together between presence to the natural world, the natural law of reciprocity and the human capacity to respond: responsibility. I am reaching for a deeply nuanced understanding of two English words that are in some ways very simple in their origins. Reciprocity comes from the root word reciprocal. This comes from Latin reciprocus and simply means back and forth, re- meaning back and pro- meaning forward. Responsibility is easy for the layperson to break down: ability to respond. The word “respond” comes from the Latin verb respondere meaning to “answer, to offer in return.” Because they share the same root prefix re-, meaning back, responsibility and reciprocity are connected in root meaning to a notion or a sense or a description of giving back or offering back. The natural law of reciprocity states simply that the forces and materials that generate life and abundance are gifts to the living and that the recipients of these gifts must give in return for the forces and materials that generate life to remain vital and not be diminished.

The animal and plant and microbial world all live by this law without thought, though not necessarily without consciousness. Thought is the quality of consciousness particularly assigned to humans. Thought is capable of being aware of itself, of making conscious choices about behavior and of reflecting upon those choices and evaluating their consequences later. Self awareness, choice and the ability to evaluate and alter behavior may exist in less developed ways in the animal world, but these qualities are developed in humans to a much more sophisticated order of magnitude. In this way, while animals certainly act on the basis of self-interest, they are not capable of greed, for example, in the way that humans are. The privileges of thought and choice come to humans at a cost. If they are not tempered with the responsibility to care for all of creation, to follow the natural law of reciprocity and to pay very close attention to the signs of nature, then we may destroy the very sources of life that nourish us by making poor choices – choices that benefit us, or some small minority of us, in the short term but diminish the very sources of life that nourish and sustain us and our fellow creatures in the long term. This seems obvious and sensible, but the ecological and social crisis that human history is now propelling us into at a global scale is no laughing matter. It is a direct result of choices we make individually and collectively every day.  Reciprocity is not merciful, it’s a law. When the balance of life is put in jeopardy, it will be restored by the most direct means possible. Taking without giving back cannot be sustained long term. The beings, mineral resources and energy resources that are taken from without replenishment will be exhausted eventually in the short term resulting, as John Woolman pointed out, in the “marks of famine” followed by famine itself.
The good news is that each of us has within us the capacity to listen with a highly developed quality of attention and observation to the still small voice of conscience that vibrates to the rhythm of nature. Our sense of reciprocity can be awakened. Our sense of responsibility can be restored to its authentic activity in our lives. Our sense of gratitude can be renewed. All of these things flow naturally from reflective silence and time spent immersed in nature, doing the things that we evolved to do with our minds and bodies and sharing those experiences with our friends and families. This is the subject matter of the New Old Way: finding ways to connect to kin and nature in a modern world as profoundly and skillfully as our ancestors did following the Old Ways