The Work that Reconnects

As residents plan Transition Albany, they're turning to Joanna Macy for guidance in building resilient communities.

Posted by Pamela O'Malley Chang at Feb 09, 2010 10:20 AM |
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The Work that Reconnects

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In the month since I last wrote about Transition Albany, I've been accumulating e-messages: things to do, assorted progress notes, and announcements of upcoming events.

In the “things to do” category, I can register with Hyperlocavore to offer my backyard to a landless gardener, or buy a bike light from Albany Strollers & Rollers (who will then donate a light to an Albany schoolchild), or obtain a free fruit tree from a city-sponsored giveaway. The progress notes tell me that at a recent potluck brunch, attendees signed on to the 10:10 Initiative, pledging to reduce their carbon emissions by 10 percent in 2010, and held a brainstorming session about ways to do it.

Meanwhile, about a dozen people are busy planning events to build awareness about what Transition Albany is up to (and why) over the next several months. These include screening films, including The Joys of Life on Two Wheels, movies about bike sharing, and Homegrown, a documentary about an urban off-the-grid homestead in Pasadena, California. Afterward, viewers can participate in a plant exchange.

Although I've mostly been lurking on the fringes of Transition Albany, I broke cover on January 24 to attend an eight-hour workshop based on the work of Buddhist eco-philosopher Joanna Macy. Called “Introduction to the Work that Re-Connects” and led by Anne Symens-Bucher, the workshop's purpose was to nourish our hearts and souls while we undergo social upheaval and create social transformation.

For  years, people I respect have spoken highly of Macy's ideas of “The Great Turning,” and I wanted to know what I've been missing. Symens-Bucher led us through a series of exercises, interspersed with limited explanations of Macy's ideas. Macy believes we are entering the third “Great Turning” in human history (prior Turnings being the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions). The present Turning involves a shift away from an industrial growth-based society to one that is life-sustaining. Whether we can achieve this shift is unknown and, as with any revolution, will entail suffering. Macy's work, as I understand it from this workshop, is to help people navigate a path through the Great Turning that fosters intentions to heal the world in loving kindness, joy, compassion, and great peace.

The workshop followed a four-step progression:

  1. Invoke gratitude. One can turn toward gratitude at any time and any place—and doing so can be an act of revolution (as opposed to reactionism, I presume).
  2. Honor pain for the world. We are part of the web of life and cannot help but be heartbroken at what is happening to the world.
  3. See with new eyes. Look at the “deep time” view from seven generations backward and seven generations forward. Recognize that we are all intimately connected both with all that is broken and with all that is blessed in our world.
  4. Go forth, holding heartbreak and hope simultaneously.

The exercises began with introductions in which we identified what we wished to protect. We were 16 participants, 14 women and two men, ranging in age from young motherhood to great-grandmotherhood. People wanted to protect trees, the Earth, children, grandchildren, teenagers, dreams, trust, optimism, voiceless species, and a sense of shared commonality.

In a series of one-on-one, two-minute monologues, we "invoked gratitude" by completing the sentences:

  • What I like about myself ...
  • What I like to do or make ...
  • A place I remember from childhood ...
  • A person who helped me believe in myself ...

After eight minutes of deep listening and eight minutes of free-association talking, I felt that I knew my partner well enough to trust our ability to work together in the future.

My favorite exercise was called “milling”: 16 of us walking about in a living-room sized space, first, as if we were each in our own separate world, then as if we were New York commuters—in our own worlds and in a hurry to be somewhere—and finally, looking at and acknowledging each other. The pleasure derived from nodding and smiling as we passed was remarkable.

Tree hugThe Greatest Danger :: If you're not worried, you're not paying attention. But don't get stuck there!

To “honor the pain of the world,” Symens-Bucher set a rock to represent fear, dead leaves (grief), a stick (anger), and a wooden bowl (emptiness) in the center of our group. People took turns addressing these objects, mostly verbally but sometimes (and most eloquently) not. At the start and finish, Symens-Bucher emphasized the duality of each emotion: fear is the flip side of courage; grief arises because we love; anger channels our passion for justice; and without emptiness, we cannot replenish ourselves.

The “Seeing with New Eyes” exercise was a role-playing event. Some of us represented future humans from 2210, while the present-day humans described what it was like to live through the Third Great Turning: what we feared, what we had to overcome, what we did, and how we felt. Then, the future human role-players spoke, most of us giving thanks that enough people had acted soon enough to enable our survival.

The final exercise was another series of one-on-one dialogues. The questions this time were:

  • What will you do after the workshop?
  • What do your doubters say?
  • What do your ancestors say?
  • What do your descendants say?

The answers tended to include both self-nurturing and work to build Transition Albany. Oddly enough, the inner voices from our ancestors seemed to have more power to tug on us to live up to our values than did the inner voices from our descendants.

Despite the exhaustion that this type of workshop holds for an introvert, I see it as a good reason why I will bet money on Transition Albany's success. This group is transforming itself into a community, weaving itself into more communities than I knew existed in my neighborhood. If resilience is a network with robust, multi-layered levels of connectivity, then Albany is already more resilient than it was a few months ago. Transition Albany has already embarked on the work that reconnects.

Pamela O'Malley Chang

Pamela O'Malley Chang wrote this piece for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Pamela is co-founder of Sarana Community Acupuncture in Albany, California and a YES! Magazine contributing editor. This is part of a series of blog posts about the efforts of Transition Albany.

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