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The Soul of Nature:
The Meaning of Ecological Spirituality

Copyright 1996 by Lynna Landstreet. See contents page for full permissions.

5: "Despairwork" - spirituality and activist burnout

But a single spiritual experience of nature, no matter what its context, is not likely to be sufficient. Such singular encounters can act as powerful motivators, but there is also value in continued engagement with the spiritual, in ongoing spiritual exploration by people who are already committed environmentalists.

Political activism of any sort is a recipe for burnout, if not tempered with a clear recollection of, and frequent reconnection with, the reasons for that activism. As Seed notes, the information we are flooded with daily on the state of the world -- and activists more so than the average person -- can be both mind-boggling and numbing. To which I would add that it can also be depressing and emotionally draining. Too often, activists push themselves at breakneck paces, only to see their efforts come to ruin as yet another forest falls, another destructive megadevelopment is approved, another nuclear test takes place. It is incredibly difficult, in these circumstances, not to be overcome with despair.

Psychologist and activist Joanna Macy began to explore these themes with a series of workshops on what she terms "despairwork" -- coming to terms with the draining, overwhelming grief for the fate of our world that afflicts so many activists. In her book Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age,[9] she quotes many letters from workshop participants on the importance of this type of work. In one, an English professor from Michigan writes that:

During the last fourteen years that I have worked on and off for civil rights, the anti-war movement, Native American rights, environmental issues, etc., I have often noticed the high casualty rate among movement people -- breakdowns, burn-outs, the irreversible damage done to personal relationships, suicides. We must be clear and very honest about where we are right now, and we need to acknowledge the darkness around us and inside us before we can move on.[10]

Anyone with a history of activism will recognize the phenomenon of which the writer speaks. From my own experience, I know that the time in my life when I was the most politically active was the time when I was also the most prone to bouts of crushing, overwhelming depression, which at its peak almost resulted in my being hospitalized. It was also the point at which I was the most cut off from my spirituality, having listened too closely to those in the activist community who considered it an irrational, bourgeois indulgence. I have been much more successful in coping with the stresses of activism and information overload since returning to regular spiritual practice.

Macy draws on her background in psychology, insights from ecology and systems theory, and spiritual teachings from numerous religions in formulating her analysis of the despair that seems to come entwined with increasing awareness of the world's pain. She speaks of the process of "opening like a wound to the travail of the world"[11], and of how to use that opening, the same increased awareness that brings pain, as a source of empowerment:

What is it that allows us to feel pain for our world? And what do we discover as we move through it? What awaits us there "on the other side of despair"? To all these questions there is one answer: It is our interconnectedness with life and all other beings. It is the living web out of which our individual, separate existences have risen, and in which we are interwoven. Our lives extend beyond our skins, in radical interdependence with the rest of the world.

A central theme in every major faith is just that: to break through the illusion of separateness and realize the unalterable fact of our interdependence. This theme has been often hidden and distorted, given the institutionalization of religion and the authoritarian cast it frequently assumed in the last two millennia of patriarchal culture; but it is still there. From Judaism, Christianity and Islam to Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Native American and Goddess religions, each offers images of the sacred web into which we are woven.[12]

Participants in Despair and Empowerment workshops use art, dance, meditation and ritual to express the despair that paralyzes them, and to connect with the healing and empowering potential of that same interdependence. The workshops also laid the groundwork for a more explicitly ecologically centred project -- the Council of All Beings.

Created by Macy, John Seed, Pat Fleming, and Arne Naess, the Council of All Beings is a ritual/workshop for environmental activists aimed at giving voice to grief and anger, reconnecting with their reasons for becoming active, and forging a deeper bond with the natural world. In it, participants go through various types of meditation and ritual, from calling the names of extinct and endangered species in mourning to an "Evolutionary Remembering" aimed at bringing home humans' kinship with other life forms by recalling our common evolutionary origins, and ultimately take on the identity of a plant, animal or natural feature and speak for it in the council from which the entire event takes its name, saying what they feel the being they represent might express to humans if it had the chance.[13]

The Council of All Beings and other similar projects are attempts at answering the question posed by novelist Gael Baudino's activist characters in Strands of Sunlight: "What gets us through?" What is there to keep us struggling on against seemingly insurmountable odds, to keep us picking up the pieces after each defeat, to keep us focussed on beauty in an increasingly ugly world? Baudino's characters find their answer in an ancient goddess, but -- significantly -- not through mere belief in the goddess, but through direct, lived experience.[14]

This is a key point. Blind faith is not empowering; real, visceral, intimate experience of the sacred is. It not only reconnects us with our source of motivation and inspiration, but also with the authority of our own senses and experience. According to neo-pagan priestess Starhawk:

People often ask me if I believe in the Goddess. I reply "Do you believe in rocks?" It is extremely difficult for most Westerners to grasp the concept of a manifest deity. The phrase "believe in" itself implies that we cannot know the Goddess, that She is somehow intangible, incomprehensible. But we do not believe in rocks -- we may see them, touch them, dig them out of our gardens or stop small children from throwing them at each other. We know them; we connect with them. In the Craft [Wicca, a neo-pagan religion], we do not believe in the Goddess -- we connect with Her; through the moon, the stars, the ocean, the earth, the trees, the animals, through other human beings, through ourselves. She is here. She is within us all.[15] (Italics in the original)



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