Over the course of the last few years I have been delving deeper into the trans-disciplinary science of energy systems, largely thanks to my colleague and mentor Dr. Sally J. Goerner. Earlier in 2022, Dr. Goerner and I offered a session to The Weaving Lab on energy systems science for network weavers. A summary of that session can be found here. Since then I have been working with a few others to explore,identify and build out resources, practices and tools at different “levels” (individual, group/organization, and larger system), all within the context of the planet that sustains us, in the four different domains of Energy System Science. Together, these domains support systemnic saluto-genesis – the capacity of living systems to reproduce resilience and wellbeing. The four domains are:
resilient and balanced structures
common cause culture
The Energy System Sciences (ESS) see all “living” systems as “flow networks” or structures that arise from the circulation of resources, information, nutrients, etc. Thinking through the lens of flow, systemic health can be seen as being based on things like:
investment and re-investment of key and diverse resources,
healthy outflows (not polluting or poisoning “the host”),
the velocity and spread of resources in the system,
cross-scale circulation, etc.
The nature and quality of these flows determines how systems are able to adapt and evolve in healthy and health-promoting ways.
The image above offers a sample collection of resources, practices and tools, that transcend specific sectors (economics, education, etc.) and that I look forward to bringing to a group later this fall. Certainly incomplete, these practices also do not all neatly fit into one category, even where they appear to in the graphic – that’s life! If you go to this link, you will find the above image as a clearer PDF document that has hyperlinks for some of what is listed (items that are underlined) that will take you to additional information. And I am always eager to hear what others would add!
I am grateful for the many teachers and collaborators, in addition to Dr. Goerner, who have guided my thinking and practice along the way: Joe Weston, Gwen McClellan, john a. powell, Eve Capkanis, Melinda Weekes-Laidlow, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, Joel Glanzberg, June Holley, Resmaa Menakem, Katya Fels Smyth, Tanya Tucker, Verna Allee, Carol Sanford, Robert Peng, Maya Townsend, Father Richard Rohr, Dorn Cox, Sherri Mitchell, Harold Jarche, Nora Bateson, Marty Kearns, Tara Brach, John Fullerton, Marilyn Darling, Daniel Christian Wahl, Anne Marie Chiasson, Dr. Chris Holder, Tyson Yunkaporta and Steven C. Hayes, among others.
These days, folks love to hate Zoom as much as they used to love to hate meetings in general. And “Zoom fatigue” is a problem most folks didn’t even have until the last couple of years. I know from experience how taxing it can be to interact with people through a computer or phone screen all day long. AND, for a minute, I want to sing the praises of online gatherings.
Online gatherings can be powerful. I’ve born witness to deep heart-opening moments and moments of relational repair in online meetings. I’ve seen people have important moments of insight and learning. I’ve seen folks inspire one another and discover their power to speak into difficult situations and confront unjust dynamics within their organizations. And, I’ve seen folks share important information and make really strategic decisions. It’s all about how you create and hold the space. When we bring the best of what we know about creating containers for meaningful engagement, designing for the whole person, the magic can still happen.
Online learning can be more fruitful than in-person learning. Before the pandemic began, most of our workshops were in person for two or three days at a time. As we transitioned to online learning, we broke the content up into smaller bites (typically 3 hours) and spread sessions out over several days or weeks. We’re finding that participants enjoy taking in content in smaller doses, absorbing the information, and practicing a little before layering on the next set of ideas.
Online gatherings can reduce the time, effort, and resources needed to participate. Since 2020, I have been able to participate in waaaay more conferences, convenings, and gatherings than I would have in the ‘before times.” I’ve been able to gather wisdom and inspiration from the Movement for Black Lives, Race Forward, and the Othering and Belonging Institute, to name just a few. I’ve participated in somatics workshops and disability justice workshops, and connected regularly with peers who are committed to deepening our practice of equity. I’ve been co-learning and co-leading a peer exploration at the intersections of racism and classism. And as a volunteer, I’ve been able to get deeply involved with the Poor People’s Campaign and both learn from powerful leaders from across the country and plan with leaders from across our state. On the flip side, while the cost of an online gathering isn’t zero, it can cost a lot less and make it possible to engage more people. While an online meeting does expend energy, I’d be surprised if the carbon footprint of a Zoom meeting exceeded a trip by car, train, or airplane.
Online gatherings have been good for my health. Because I haven’t been traveling for work and because full-day events are rare, there are rarely multi-day stretches where I’m 100% involved with only one group. This has meant much less late-night hustling for one group before an all-day in-person event for another. And I’ve done literally no late night work on train rides between NYC and Boston after a full work day (a regular feature of my work life before COVID). As someone who is chemically sensitive, it was not unusual for me to have to wear a mask to deal with chemical exposure in hotels and offices long before the pandemic. As someone with food allergies, eating on the road is fraught with difficulties. In the world of online work, it’s been a blessing to work from spaces where I can control fragrances and chemical exposure as well as my own meals. I have heard from others with chronic conditions and mobility challenges that online participation has enabled them to participate more fully in things that matter to them, with an important caveat. While we’re getting good at using features like chats and breakout rooms, we haven’t done as well with accessibility needs like ASL, spoken language interpretation, captioning, or other aids for folks with visual challenges.
Of course, there are caveats to all of these upsides to online gatherings. They can be boring, taxing, and even exclusionary. They can make it possible to sit still for too long, strain our wrists and hands, and spend too much time with our screens. They can make it possible to say yes to too many good things and thereby fail to carve out space for other meaningful things in our lives. They can create real accessibility problems for folks without a reliable internet connection or device. And, given the limited ability for participants to engage with one another as they would choose, there are a lot of power dynamics to address and manage. Still, the rise of online meetings in response to the pandemic has taught us that if we design carefully, facilitate attentively, and address equity and access issues, they can be a vehicle for more participation, less environmental damage, and more powerful thinking and action.
I love frisbee and have for as long as I can remember. Recently, as I was entering into a few weeks of sabbatical time away from work, a friend asked me what I thought would be most regenerative of my mind, body and spirit during this time. In addition to rest, slowing down, being generally mindful, and taking a break from screens, social media and the news, one of the things that came top of mind was playing frisbee. I have memories of my teenage and twenty-something self in utter bliss and a sense of timelessness, hurling a disk across a vast expanse at a corner lot in our neighborhood in Flint, Michigan or at a lakeside park in upstate New York with my dad or a friend, feeling the breeze, watching the frisbee glide and rotate against a backdrop of brilliant blue sky and feeling the grass massage my bare feet as I ran to make a catch. Heaven.
This is a love that I seem to have successfully instilled in my three daughters. And one of them, our eldest, has taken it to another level this season through her involvement in her high school varsity ultimate frisbee team. I have only played “ultimate” a couple of times, and very informally, in my lifetime. Growing up in the Midwest US, this was not “a thing” the way that it is here in the northeast. And it turns out that at the high school level in this community, it is taken quite seriously and is played with great skill. Having said that, the culture and success of the ultimate frisbee boys’ team here has been particularly striking in that it seems so different from what one usually thinks about in terms of high performance athletics. The more I have learned and experienced this current high school ultimate frisbee season, especially in the context of these times, the more I have appreciated what is happening right under my nose, forall that it gives to the teenagers involved and would seem to offer a mainstream culture hurting for lack of alternative ways of being, well, more human(e), especially in adolescent and competitive contexts.
My oldest daughter, Annabel, also plays varsity volleyball, which takes up a lot of her time in the fall. When she got involved in frisbee during the spring, one of the first things I noticed was her overall upbeat attitude and holistic appreciation for her teammates and the ultimate culture. “There just isn’t much drama,” Annabel explained to me at one point, “and people are really kind, supportive and frankly mature.” In a sense, ultimate to her is not just a sport, but a way of life. She went on to explain how in ultimate games there are no referees, that players take responsibility for calling fouls and then talking it out if there are any differences of perspective. I’ve witnessed this a number of times in games and have been impressed that even when there is clearly tension and disagreement, the players manage to work it through – some beautiful self-organization and respectful confrontation/ fierce civility on display!
I also came to appreciate early on in this recently completed spring season, the joy-full, heartfelt, and creative expression that comes up during and around games. After one memorable game, the two competing teams sang songs they had composed to one another, conveying appreciation for the adversary. In another case, after one team scored, the other team gave them a standing ovation as a salute to the level of play and skillfulness on display. In a recent tournament finale, the boys’ team was down a couple of points with not much time remaining and called a timeout. Instead of getting down on one another or into a heated strategic conversation, they played music and engaged in a playful dance circle for a couple of minutes, then went on to win the game. And when someone accidentally hurts someone else during play, they make sure to stay engaged with the injured person, showing genuine care and making sure the person gets the support they need.
The camaraderie and respect on display is really remarkable. The boys’ and girls’ teams come to one another’s games and cheer each other on. “You just don’t see this in other sports at the school,” says Annabel. Each time someone scores from either team there is an outburst of celebration from whoever is cheering from the sideline. If someone makes a mistake on the field they are supported by players on and off the field, and the invitation is for everyone to move on. It is not unusual to see the boys come together in a game to hold hands and take a deep breath together to gather themselves, and for both teams to engage in a mindful moment before a game. Annabel says to me, “We genuinely love each other and enjoy being with one another.” This shows and comes through time spent outside of practice and games building relationships and rapport, including through community service projects. (the most recent being at the local survival center).
There is also a core element of mindful inclusion and paying attention to privilege. The boys’ team recently made the decision not to go to a “by invitation only” national conference because of its exclusivity and tendency to only include mostly white teams and privileged schools. The girls’ team, in light of its multi-racial make-up, has had open conversations about anti-racism and anti-sexism. And there has been an attempt to create across programs an authentic and welcoming community for LGBTQ+ team members, including an open embrace of trans athletes.
One last point worth making. There is a very mature invitation by members of the ultimate teams to take personal responsibility and, as Annabel explains it, “focus on controllables, not uncontrollables.” In other words, to enact the serenity prayer, knowing when to push for change and when to let go and just flow with what is. I can see how this is impacting my daughter and her teammates in a time that begs for this kind of discernment.
In a world that can seem at times so unmoored, this spring ultimate frisbee season and the remarkable leadership of these local teens has given me hope for the present and future.
Ok, you know the way the movie starts about the state of this country.
Opening scene. Racism is deeply embedded in communities and every institution, our world is at war, reproductive rights are crumbling, COVID has weakened our health, our economic system is collapsing, and climate change is wreaking havoc on the planet. Among these and other crises, Black people, Indigenous people, and Latinx and Asian & Pacific Islander communities are the first and last to be impacted. They are trying to stay alive, protect their children, and hold onto their bodies, lands, and dignity.
Scene 2. You get out your cape. A really nice fitting, fabulous, super hero, version of a cape that ties around your neck while you stand effortlessly on top of a mountain. You’re a hero for this moment. You’re living in this mess so you might as well join with others to make the movie end better than the first draft of the screenplay.
Scene 3. Imagine the faces of people who are in your sphere of influence. Who are they? Go down the mountain and get them! Build power through collaboration. Join organizations and networks and train up your skills together.
Final scene. You pack your social justice emergency kit. It’s a gorgeous cool suitcase that matches your cape. It’s got everything you need to make change:
A bowl of laughter for the tough days
Fulfilling relationships with people who care about you and will also support change
A mutual aid handbook that helps you find rest, money, food, water, and shelter as you work for justice
Good nights of sleep and putting your feet up on the couch
Movement of your body, exercise, and breath
And, lots of cuddles!
You stroll out to the road and your cape billows in the breeze as your suitcase rolls behind you. Your favorite power song comes on cue as the credits roll. It’s the kind of walk, the kind of music that comes at the end of a movie and makes you feel connected to something greater. You feel ten feet taller, you feel – and are! – more powerful and wiser. You got this!
Especially for my white colleagues, white family and white friends…and for me.
Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk About Race, wrote: “I don’t know how many different ways I can express how it feels to know that this country will always offer up the violent destruction of our lives to young white men angry at their lack of purpose and power. We will never be safe until white manhood is defined by something other than the quest for domination over others.”
While we have varying political inclinations and levels of activism, we can probably agree that not speaking out or otherwise addressing “the quest for domination over” is not what white people ought to be doing in response to the murders in Buffalo and the racist violence that preceded it and will follow.
Many of us want to be a part of something larger such that our feelings, thoughts, statements and actions contribute to a movement of white people who are working collectively for a future of freedom and connection. This is a lifetime of work and, for many of us, our daily mission.
One thing that gets in the way is being overwhelmed.
As I awoke last week with a heavy heart about so many personal, local, national, and global issues, one option was to fall into being overwhelmed and to stay there. For many, it is a habitual response. One of my habitual responses is related: to avoid overwhelm and to carry on or push through, ignoring the depth of the pain. Neither is useful if the task is to be a part of a movement for change.
The history of this country is, in fact, overwhelming. It is overwhelming to recognize that this country is formed in the “quest for domination.” White colonists killed indigenous people for land and enslaved, abused, and killed Africans as a means of creating wealth and maintaining power. It is overwhelming to know white people brought their children to view lynchings. And equally overwhelming to know millions watched the video and listened to the words of Payton S. Gendron, the white man who killed or wounded 13 people, most of them Black, in Buffalo.
As a white person I know I/we need to hold this history, without excusing or dismissing it. It is hard and also both problematic and hard not to wrestle with it.
We need to build our emotional strength and integrity to name the violence and oppression and to confront it. It doesn’t mean that we wallow in it; it means we can’t ignore it or rely on silence or denial (“it wasn’t that bad;” “the US has good ideals;” “that’s so negative, can’t we just move on?”). And, partly as a result of the ways we have detoured from these heavy realities, the current-day level of racism and violence is incredibly overwhelming. That is why we need to act and create new ways of being
This week, as I continued to grapple with the mass murders in Buffalo, a white man gunning down our Black elders, and I learned of so many babies and teachers murdered in Uvalde, I am trying a new habit: I am creating space for grieving and also space to talk and strategize about steps I can take in response. Yesterday, I shed tears before a meeting. I am in fact overwhelmed but not stopping at that way station.
The number of issues and problems around us can indeed be overwhelming. But they are perhaps less overwhelming when we see that they are connected. The quest for domination, racism, and misogyny are the drivers of an array of issues: Payton and Kyle Rittenhouse and other white people who use guns to slaughter (often Black and brown people), police murders of Black people, policing in general, prisons as our form of punishment, anti-trans laws, occupation in Palestine, inequitable COVID deaths, and so much more.
When I am able to see white power, racism, misogyny, and concentrations of wealth as interconnected problems, I am reminded that our actions for freedom are also connected. You can be working against anti-semitism, seeing the root of othering and racism, or holding organizations accountable to building pro-Black practices and cultures, while someone else works on prison abolition. Prisons hold disproportionate numbers of BIPoC, trans, and poor people, and are rooted in control and punishment; hence, these issues are connected. And on it goes. As a white Jewish person in a multi-racial family I feel particularly pulled to work against racism, prisons, and anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim issues. Others may choose to show up in other places. We need to see the interconnectedness of these many issues.
And so, to white people who seek a better future for all, let us not be overwhelmed to a point of inaction or numbness, but instead speak out and take action. Silence is not an option. Inaction is not an option. As my mother, Ruth Messinger, a white anti-racist shero of mine, often says: “We cannot retreat to the convenience and the luxury of being overwhelmed.”
I had already fallen in love with Dante Bowe’s song Joyful just from listening to the track. But when I saw his video today, it stopped me in my tracks. Dante oozes a joy that is grounded in a deep spirituality and a deep connection to community. This is a great anthem, an ode to #Blackjoy and to the power of choosing joy. Even when the events of the world constantly envelope us in fear, anger, grief, and hopelessness, we can choose joy. As we used to say in Sunday School, joy is choosing to be happy, even when things don’t go our way. There is so much that is not going our way in this country and around the world. And yet, without denying the forces arrayed against us, we can still choose joy. We can choose to build a deeply grounded sense of community. We can choose joy that doesn’t have to wait for poverty, war, racism, and oppression to cease. We can choose joy “in the midst.” I hope this video puts a spring in your step and joy in your heart, even as we struggle together to create a better world.
16 months ago, I wrote this piece and it is just as relevant today, not surprisingly.
I wrote: “We have to decide, particularly white Americans, if we are willing to step into a real period of reckoning and not just a temporary increase in awareness that is evidenced by the formation of committees and our participation in marches.”
I continue to be in the belief that we have to take the small steps and we have to find places of dreaming and action where we get clearer about the big steps. Those who are fighting and killing for white supremacy and power are getting ever more drastic. I hope to write about what a drastic yet grounded and loving white response looks like in this moment…and then to take that next step.
March 19, 2021
A friend said that as the snow melted in her Minneapolis neighborhood last week, the smell of smoke from the fires after Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd last summer was released anew into the air. This, as the trial of Derek Chauvin begins in Minneapolis.
This month is a cacophony of anniversaries and markings. It is a year since Louisville Police killed Breonna Taylor, about that since two men killed Ahmaud Marquez Arbery, a 25-year old unarmed Black man, and the start of the trials of Derek Chauvin and Kyle Rittenhouse.
Note that I am trying here to use an active voice after listening to a powerful podcast with Baratunde Thurston and Yahdon Israel talking about how racism and anti-Blackness is built into our use of the passive voice and tendency to make those impact the actors of a sentence. [In other words] George Floyd was not killed by Derek Chauvin; Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd.
This is an important time in our country. While our courts are a far cry from sources of healing or justice, it is critical that we use this system for positive change as much as possible, while we create better systems.
What will happen? We must:
Use this moment to make the courts an instrument of justice.
Work from outside the courthouse to say that we are ready to be a society with real accountability for wrongs that we have committed, both historically and recently.
Shift how we use language to ensure we are attributing actions to the perpetrators of the harm, in this case the death of another human.
Ask, each day, “what can I do differently in my organization to dismantle anti-Blackness and the destructive myth and perpetuation of white supremacy?” and then act on it.
Let’s be active now. In our language and our actions.
In our organization and many others, people are tired and grieving. We have lost loved ones and we have lost access to aspects of our lives that we hold dear. And yet, we need to save energy for the important work and rebuilding ahead. We have to maintain energy in organizations so that the commitment and work does not end after a workshop, or after a team is set up, or after we hire a director of equity. These are just the first steps…
We have to decide, particularly white Americans, if we are willing to step into a real period of reckoning and not just a temporary increase in awareness that is evidenced by the formation of committees and our participation in marches. The smoke could be the signal of us all going down in flames or it could be the olfactory symbol of rising from the ashes and rebuilding our country.
 Baratunde called the podcast: “a meditation and conversation on analyzing the structure of headlines to reframe/revert the gaze away from the victims as racial objects back to the racial subjects perpetuating the problem….[in other words] George Floyd was not killed by Derek Chauvin; Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd.” (“We’re Having a Moment” Podcast, Episode 4, 2020).
 In the same Podcast, Yahdon Israel (@yahdon on Instagram) reminds us that even well-intentioned campaigns like “Say her name” which helps us to hold up people who were killed and to focus on women as well as men; it doesn’t name the subject or actor and doesn’t name what we are doing or why. Don’t put those impacted in the passive action role: “Black people earn less than…”; “women are killed by men”; “George Floyd was killed”. Who did the killing and why?
Back in the 1960s women talked about the personal being political. They linked their personal lives and situations directly to the impacts of sexism which operates at the personal, interpersonal, institutional, and structural levels to devalue and systematically oppress women.
Sexism and its companion, male domination, are powerful forms of oppression. And if you intersect these with others like racism, classism, transphobia, or the oppression of mothers, it’s clear that a woman’s life and material well-being are in danger.
With Roe v. Wade on the brink of being overruled, Black women who already have poor maternal health outcomes will lose their lives and low-income women will have to scrape together their last dollars to make it across state lines to get safe and legal abortions. Parenthood is difficult, even for those who choose it. Very few of us talk about or normalize the pressure of raising a child: the deep exhaustion, the financial cost, and – if you’re in a dangerous relationship with the other parent – how life threatening it can be. And this is all nearly unimaginable if the person who placed the child in you did so against your will.
Roe aside, the psychic wounds of being a woman are real, whether you are a cis woman1 or a trans woman. Women’s lives are threatened by domestic and sexual violence including in our own homes. Many work for less pay than men and toil away in unsympathetic workplaces that don’t provide paid family leave, child care, or flexibility around school drop-off and pick-up schedules. Women are cut down to size by cis-men2 who they think they know more, know better, and know what we need. We have watched every woman who has run for public office belittled, objectified, dehumanized, and even fetishized. We can’t elect a woman as president even though the stakes are high for women without representation as we are witnessing now.
Women are in mourning. Whether they support a woman’s right to choose or not, they know deep down that their lives are not as valued as cis-men. They can feel it in their homes like a fog surrounding them and as they enter into workplaces and places of power. Women need powerful allies in this moment – people of all backgrounds, even from various political parties, to rise up and challenge the status quo. There are women’s marches, elections, and policy decisions that we can participate in and influence. Otherwise, we risk a major roll back of rights for women – from reproductive freedom to same-sex marriage and equal pay for equal work.
These times aren’t easy but they won’t get any easier if women minimize their struggles and allies stay quiet. We can fight many oppressions at the same time and because they are inextricably connected, if we win in one place, it’s a win for the others.
For the past few months I have been seeing an integrative acupressurist who has been practicing her craft for some 35 years. I am blown away and grateful for the extensive knowledge she brings to the inner workings of my body, including the interrelationships between different “parts” as well as the impact of the “environment” on my “internal” systems.
She has been particularly adept at helping me to understand that presenting and relatively superficial aspects of dis-ease or dis-comfort have longer standing and deeper contributing factors. Peel back one layer, with great care and re-spect, and you are likely to find something else. “Wonderful!” she will often say, marveling at how the body intelligently adapts to stress and other demands upon it. “While this may not feel good, it is actually a very wise and creative response!”
This has me reflecting on our dominant health care system in the US and what it tends to pay attention to and how it responds. How does that compare/contrast with and how is it complemented by what an integrative acupressurist does? What lessons and metaphors lie there for guiding me in my thinking about approaching other systemic challenges – in organizations, communities, economies … ?
First and foremost, an integrative acupressurist assists with body’s structural integrity (muscles, bones, organs), flow management and bio-logical co-operationand communication. Sometimes that is about tending to areas in the body where blood or lymph or chi (all vital flows) are not circulating in optimal ways. Sometimes that is about helping to stimulate parts of the body (organs and muscles) that have become guarded, tense or listless as an intelligent defense response (this often calls for treating those areas indirectly, to bypass defenses and stimulate areas that are impacted referentially). Sometimes this is about reintroducing different parts/regions of the body to one another with careful touch and stimulation. Sometimes it is about helping the entire body process new information and sensations more optimally, including the introduction of various healing and fortifying herbs.
As I have been experiencing these interventions, and learning from this remarkable healer/teacher (she loves narrating what she is doing and entertains all questions), I have been thinking about how this knowledge and wisdom translates into efforts to shift and heal other kinds of living systems. As I have written elsewhere, I am a proponent of not just simply talking about and working on “system change,” but supporting the inherent regenerative (self-renewing) capacity of living systems, social and ecological. My friend Daniel Christian Wahl turned me on to the notion of “saluto-genesis” when it comes to working with living systems, which means tending to the long-term and ongoing ability of systems to produce wellbeing.
Thinking as a systemic health promoter, or “systemic saluto-genarian” (thanks to Freya Bradford for helping to coin this phrase), isn’t what my integrative acupressurist does also our work? Supporting change in organizations, communities, economies, ecosystems is not simply about mechanically plunging in, but sensing the whole, connecting and working at the speed of trust and with great re-spect (of diverse and wonderful bodies – minds, hearts, guts, spirits ….), tending to the four key areas of focus of energy systems science:
structural integrity – optimal connectivity, resilience, flexibility, balance of “sizes”
regenerative flows – optimal movement (volume, velocity, directionality, reach) of enlivening resources
collaborative learning – timely sharing and exchange of information and co-creation of knowledge
common cause/collective culture – valuing and actually working together with an understanding of mutuality
This a metaphor and framework that is proving rich for practice and conversation with others. What do you think, feel, sense?
A magnificent star went dark when Paul Farmer, the great humanitarian, physician, and anthropologist, died in his sleep last Monday, February 21, on the grounds of a hilltop university health complex he’d helped establish in rural Rwanda.
He was only 62. It seems he suffered a massive heart attack.
Since I first learned of Dr. Farmer’s work with Partner’s in Health (PIH), the extraordinary nonprofit he co-founded back in 1987, I was inspired by his vision, mission, and values which go to the heart of every social justice credo I’ve ever read.
It’s easy to write lofty mission and belief statements. The walls of the cynical and sanctimonious are filled with them.
It’s another matter to muster the collaborative energy and force of character that willsthem into being. Few have done it with such skill, courage, and resilience as Paul Farmer, in the face of daunting obstacles. Only Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. come to mind when one considers who else might fit in this pantheon of humanitarian giants.
To get a feel for the magnitude of Paul Farmer’s achievement, try this imaginal experiment.
Gaia calls you forth and charges you with the following mission (excerpted from PIH’s website): Provide a preferential option for the poor of this planet in health care. At its root, your mission is both medical and moral. It is to be based on solidarity, rather than charity alone.
You ask: What moral precepts shall I adopt to guide our work?
Gaia answers: Your success will be evaluated by the degree to which you implement the following moral tenets:
1. All human lives have the same value, and every human being has the inalienable right to be healthy to fulfill their potential.
2. The right to health is not the only right held by our patients. Other fundamental human rights are interrelated and just as inalienable.
3. All people need to stand in solidarity with those who find themselves at the margins of modern society.
4. The playing field needs to be leveled for those individuals who are born at a disadvantage (equity vs equality).
5. Injustice is not accidental but a direct result of structural violence and oppression. We can fight injustice by changing those dynamics.
6. It is our moral call to action to expose social injustice and to work toward correcting those systemic forces that create inequalities, no matter how impossible or challenging this task might look.
Though we approach the challenge of social injustice from different angles, I’ve always been struck by the congruence of IISC’s mission —”to build collaborative capacity in individuals, organizations, and networks working for social justice and racial equity” — with that of Partners in Health. And there is no doubt that we share the same set of moral convictions in going about our work.
Tracy Kidder documented this labor of love in “Mountains Beyond Mountains” in 2003, shadowing Farmer through rural Haiti, Cuba, Peru, Siberia, Rwanda, and Lesotho, as he hiked hours to the homes of patients to be sure they were taking their medicine. From the prisons and barrios of Lima to the gulag of Siberia, and throughout rural Africa, he shone his light where the world had turned an indifferent eye. Thousands are alive today because Paul Farmer lived; his love for his patients will forever be his legacy.
As long-standing friends and partners who’ve known of my admiration and commitment to Dr. Farmer’s work, I invite you to take a few moments to peruse Partners in Health’s website and consider making a donation in honor of his life and work — one of great love, generosity, and courage that made the world a better place.
Now it’s up to the rest of us to ensure that his spirit lives on — his moral flame an eternal sanctuary for the marginalized.
May he rest in peace.
Thomas J. Rice, Co-founder and former IISC Board Chair (1992-2012)
“When all hope for release in this world seems unrealistic and groundless, the heart turns to a way to escape beyond the present order.”
Howard Thurman (philosopher, theologian, educator, civil rights leader, author)
“The entire self-generative process is supported by compassionate acceptance extended through the relational field. This requires the felt experience of the heart, as distinct from compassion as an idea or an ethical imperative.”
“The longest journey you will ever take is from your head to your heart.”
Attributed to various sources, including the Sioux people
About five years ago, my dear friend and colleague Melinda Weekes-Laidlow turned me on to the writings of Father Richard Rohr, and in particular his book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. As Melinda and I are of a similar age and stage, I think we were both contemplating in our own ways what life held for us during what felt like a time of significant transition. The timing of this gift ended up being quite auspicious, as I would then spend the next number of years (up until now) going through something of an unraveling, precipitated by work burnout that revealed unaddressed patterns in my psyche and body that were begging for attention. It was not a complete breakdown, but something of a slow crash. Control freak that I have often tended to be in my life, I spent a fair amount of time trying to direct the descent.
All my efforts to manipulate and steer really did was make a bit more gradual what has been at times an excruciating experience. That said, it has also been very rich, putting me more deeply in touch with my feelings, my body, and (as hard as it is for me to use this word sometimes), my soul. Interestingly enough, about a year after starting the book, Melinda and I (along with Jen Willsea) found ourselves working directly with Father Rohr and his staff at the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) in New Mexico, guiding an internal equity learning and change process. If you know anything about the nature of this work, and especially in these times, you will not be surprised that this only added more fuel to what was at best a “cool burn,” not because of CAC in particular, but because it is a fractal of the hurting whole that is the broader culture, and because that process dared to approach this work from a deeper contemplative place.
This was a blessing in many ways. Melinda and I, and other IISC colleagues, discovered that there is a crucial need to put in place certain structures and supports for the organizations with which we work, as well as for ourselves, as we undertake this kind of learning and change facilitation process (see this post “An Ecosystem of Resourcing for Racial Equity Culture Change Work”). During one of our early trips to New Mexico, Father Richard gave us a copy of his book Just This: Prompts and Practices for Contemplation, which I received gratefully and with intention to put straight to use as a part of our support ecosystem. During the plane ride home, after completing a silent meditation, I was skimming through the last half of the book, when I came across what might otherwise have been a throw away line. It mentioned that doing contemplative work was not meant to be heady, and really needed to be centered on the heart. Heart-focused. “Heartfulness practice.”
I tucked this away and then a few months later found myself in a situation that I would say is the closest I have come to a “mystical” experience (another word that does not come very easily to me). I will spare the details here, but essentially what happened was that for the first time in my life I understood what my heart is, to have a direct experience and view of the world through it. I don’t remember ever having that feeling of being so unconditionally held, enveloped in love. Not to say that I was instantly transformed. The experience passed and my body memory faded. But not completely. It has been rekindled by a few other experiences, not quite as intense, and also through my own ongoing practice.
What I’ve found in doing heart work is that it brings me warmth in varying degrees, an actual physical feeling, as well as something emotional. This often leads to a subtle smile, if not an outright grin. And with that comes a sense of softening, letting go, loosening my grip. I’m reminded of what Barbara Fredrickson, who runs a research lab dedicated to the power of emotions (including love), once wrote, that love constitutes “moments of warmth, connection and openness to others.” Fredrickson and her colleagues have discovered that when love is in effect:
“Your outlook quite literally expands as you come under the influence of any of several positive emotions. With this momentarily broadened, more encompassing mindset, you become more flexible, attuned to others, creative, and wise. Over time, you also become more resourceful.”
While I cannot claim wisdom (another one of those words), I can vouch for the others when I am tuned into my heart – a sense of being renewed, that has implications not simply for how I feel personally, but how I see others and interact with them. It feels, in many ways, like a more right way of relating. See, in this vein, the short video below for some thoughts about how support for the regeneration of our oceans might link to the heart, and love.
It turns out that this is all very much in alignment with longstanding wisdom traditions and what those who are dedicated to contemplative practice experience. Father Rohr has defined contemplation as “a long loving look at what is real.” That long look is not simply about time, but also depth. It is about sinking below the neck, into the heart and other regions of our bodies. Without that sinking, Father Rohr says, we can simply fall into “stinking thinking,” addictive repetitive thought that is more circular than anything and often leaves us more disconnected and unreconciled – split, at the mercy of overly analytical and fractured thinking. When we come from the heart, we come from more of a place of wholeness or natural inclusion (to borrow a phrase from Alan Rayner).
“Facing the sorrows of the world requires that we remain intimate with the world.”
Francis Weller (psychotherapist, author, specialist in grief work)
And the heart is not all. It turns out there are other seats of intelligence and wisdom in our bodiesthat can also be easily neglected, including our guts. Over the past couple of years, I have become more familiar with the power of tuning into my lower abdomen through practices taught by Joe Weston and The Weston Network. Just before the pandemic locked things down in March of 2020, I attended an in-person Respectful Confrontation workshop with Joe in New York City. It was a profound experience. Through the use of different techniques, including the “core exercise” which centers our attention and breathing on the Taoist energy core in our bodies – three inches below our bellybuttons and a third of the way into the body – I was able to ground myself in ways that feel, well, very grounding. From that place, and breathing into that part of the body, we were then invited to explore our selves (sensations, emotions, thoughts), our relationship to our surroundings, and our relationship to others. Even on Zoom, I have experienced how re-charging this is, that my energetic batteries fill up, and I am able to engage with a fuller sense of self and of boundaried presence.
In a particularly powerful moment during the in-person training, Joe invited us to face some of our articulated fears, represented by other people in the workshop physically approaching us. We experimented with standing in our “strength pillar” by concentrating on our abdomens, stamping our feet and saying out loud, “No!” This was initially a bit awkward, and slowly I got the hang of it. That said I did not expect the visceral shaking that then happened and took over my whole body. It sent wave after wave through my esophagus and solar plexus, each time I spoke more solidly from the gut. While initially a bit unsettling, I realized that it was actually a long overdue release and reclaiming of what Joe would call our authentic personal power.
As outlandish as this all may sound to some, those more familiar with the intelligence of our amazing bodies will not be surprised. As one of Bessel van der Kolk’s trauma book title states, our bodies know and keep the score, and are incredibly intelligent at protection and expression. Science is showing us that a stable and solid sense of self is in fact rooted in our hearts, our lungs and our bellies. A recent article in the Psyche Newsletter points out:
“An important limitation of contemporary psychology and neuroscience is that scholars replaced the old Cartesian dualism – mind versus body – with a new dualism: brain versus body. The new dichotomy was even cruder than the old one, and certainly no less rigid. Experimenters refused to take note of whatever happened south of the neck because the scientific picture of the day dismissed what previous ages had carefully noted – the wisdom of the heart the power of breathing, and the intelligence of the gut. Now, thanks to a wave of new research findings, with more to come, we know that these intuitions can be fully reconciled with a scientific outlook on the self. Your consciousness really does have deep, rich roots in your bodily feelings.”
Of course, this is validating what many spiritual traditions and indigenous peoples have honored for a long time. I continue to be very influenced by my reading of Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, which I finished about 18 months ago, during the first pandemic summer in the US. Yunkaporta is an academic, arts critic and researcher who belongs to the aboriginal Apalech clan in Queensland, Australia. Towards the end of this book, Yunkaporta sums up what he and a number of other indigenous people with whom he “yarns” see as an indigenous approach to engaging and being in right relationship with living systems – respect, connect, reflect, direct. Interestingly, he offers corresponding embodied centers for doing this work as: gut, heart, head, hands. He also makes the point that Western colonizer cultures tend to reverse this progression, leading with action and control (direct/hands) and intellect (reflect/head), and only perhaps later capitulating (connect/heart, respect/gut), if at all. More rooted cultures suggest that right relationship begins in our guts, not our heads!
Renewal, revival, restoration; spiritual transformation; an aspect of living systems without which there would be no life; a process through which whole new organisms may be created from fractions of organisms; an adaptive and evolutionary trait that plays out at different systemic levels.
All of this to say, that in many places people may be approaching the work of regenerating and renewing ourselves, one another, and the larger living systems of which human beings are a part in the wrong (or certainly an incomplete) manner, if they are trying to at all. Case in point, I was once in a weekend workshop with a long-time teacher of so-called “regenerative development” and was joined by my wife. During one of the exercises, my wife began to cry, and this made the workshop leader very uncomfortable. Em (my wife) was essentially told to get herself under control, as this was not in the spirit of the disciplined approach we were learning. Now if you knew my wife (a therapist who does a lot of work around trauma), you would know how amazingly embodied she is and attuned to her environment and to other people. This regenerative “guru” was in essence asking her not to be herself, not to access a crucial part of her wisdom and intelligence, which is a wisdom and intelligence our species shares. That did not sit well with either of us.
Flash forward a few years … During the March 2020 Respectful Confrontation workshop with the Weston Network that I mentioned earlier, we engaged in deep somatic/embodied work, individually, in pairs and in the group as a whole. This was done with great care, consideration and skillfulness by the facilitators, and also with a spirit of encouraging us to push on the edges of our physical, psychological and emotional resistance. There were moments of great energetic release throughout those few days. I remarked at how rare this is in a group setting, how uncomfortable it felt to many, and also how liberating it seemed to be to everyone- tapping into fuller and more resilient sources of power, connection and expression. What is more regenerative than that?!
A quote I am known for by some of my colleagues at the Interaction Institute for Social Change is “we are not simply brains on sticks.” And yet for many, this image seems to be the dominant vision and sense of who human beings are. As a result, many people are disconnected from a fuller sense of belonging to themselves, others, and the rest of Life. Social and cultural dissociation. In her book How to Be Animal, Melanie Challenger chalks this kind of dissociation up to a false belief in “human exceptionalism” that attempts to separate us from our basic animal nature. Having a category of “non-human” allows animals to be objects for disgust and victims of mistreatment and control. The same goes for parts of our selves (our “disgusting bodies”) and humanity (“the unclean”, “bad others”). This is literally and figuratively rejecting our roots and appendages.
All of this considered, questions I lean into in some form each day, at times with others, include …
What do I/we need to reclaim and repair?
How can I/we practice re-spect (looking again) for who I am and others are?
How can I/we ground in our guts, orient to our hearts, and align our brains with that more ancient foundation?
What might I/we re-member that has otherwise been forgotten?
We took to the streets to #resistracism and #resistfacism.
We have #masked, #vaccinated, and #boostered.
Even when others wouldn’t to save our lives.
What would it take for us to #emerge&envision?
To free ourselves from the mass social psychosis of COVID fear, loss, and restraint?
Yes, we’ve been sick. Yes, our beautiful ones have passed. And, yes we are tired. And we’re still alive and our futures are waiting for us.
We will either be in a regular cycle of variant upswings and downswings, or COVID will become endemic. In either case, I believe the time has come for us to make a decision. To no longer just survive COVID, but to live with it like a storm we come to expect or eventually will retreat, and to emerge from it and envision futures that are equitable and resilient.
Futures, plural because people, communities, and continents may need different kinds of futures; there isn’t not just one that fits all. We deserve and can design together futures that are full of joy and wellbeing, and that reflect systems of liberation. Futures that are grounded in collaboration, love, equity, and networks.
I hope to be immersed in these questions with you and other leaders. In the blog comments, will you join in?
What is this country and this world crying out for?
What is your vision for equitable and resilient futures?
How can capacity builders like IISC, and leaders in general, help make your vision possible or help make your vision come into view?
What experiences, resources, and tools do leaders and networks need to deepen their heartset, mindset, and skillset for emergence and envisioning?
What kind of experiences and transformative spaces can help us emerge from this time of pandemic, fear, and deeply exposed racism and oppression, to futures of joy, wellbeing, and systemic liberation?