Theme Talk for Southeastern Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute 2006

Good morning. I am really pleased to be with you today during this incredible week of UU community. Indeed, community is at the heart of what I want to talk with you about—how we can face the enormous challenges of our times in community, together. Together we can help our society, our culture, even our economic system “come back to life.”

I want to begin our exploration with a couple of simple exercises that may help us along in that enlivening process. In a moment, please turn to a neighbor and exchange one sentence each about something you love about life on Earth at this time. Please don’t start a whole conversation. Just take 30 seconds each to share whatever pops into your head when I ask, “What do you love about life?” For example, my response might be: “I love to hear my 3-year-old grandson laugh.” Share one sentence each about one thing that you love.Thank you. Notice the atmosphere in this room as we speak of our love of life. It’s almost palpable! Our hearts are wide open. Talk about coming back to life!

Now let’s take another step. Would you turn to a neighbor now—the same one or a different one—and this time, share in a sentence or two something that troubles you about the world at this time? There may be many things that trouble you—just pick one to mention now. Trust whatever comes. Again, no conversation, just a brief statement.

Thank you. How do you experience the atmosphere in the room now? It’s certainly darker, heavier, but our hearts are still open. These things trouble us because we care! We are interconnected within the web of life, and when other people and other beings suffer, we feel it! We come back to life through feeling joy and love, and also through feeling pain, anger, and fear at what we seeing happening to our beloved world. As my mentor and friend Joanna Macy says: “We suffer with our world–that is the literal meaning of compassion. It isn't some private craziness” (Macy, 1991).

All too often we avoid looking at the things that disturb us about the world, partly because it’s not socially acceptable to talk about them. We don’t want to ruin dinner parties. We may also feel helpless to do anything about it. Or we worry that these feelings will overwhelm us.
Joanna Macy suggests, however that “Both our capacity to grieve for others and our power to cope with this grief spring from the great matrix of relationships in which we take our being. We are, as open systems, sustained by flows of energy and information that extend beyond the reach of conscious ego” (Macy, 1991). Here’s where community comes into play. When we share our feelings and concerns with others, as we just did, we open ourselves to the flows of energy and information within the web of life, which can guide and sustain us.

Challenges We Face

I’ll return to this theme a little later. First I want to set the stage for the challenges I see immediately confronting us in 2006, and talk a little about the opportunities these challenges offer to us—the bad news and the good news.

You all probably touched on the bad news when you shared what troubles you about the world today. Like many of you, I have been concerned about the assault on the natural world by our industrial society. Like many of you, I have been deeply troubled by our nation’s military actions abroad, focused most recently in our invasion and occupation of Iraq. I am troubled, too, by threats to our democracy, from voting fraud and stolen elections to an Administration that considers itself to be above the Constitution. I am troubled that so much of our clothing and consumer goods come from Third World sweatshops, from the labor of underpaid and overworked women and children.

I have been concerned about global climate change for some time, too. Then, a year or so ago, I began to hear about “peak oil.” As I read more about it, I became more alarmed. All the troubles I mentioned before seem to pale in the face of these two seemingly unavoidable and long term catastrophes: global climate change and “peak oil.” They cannot be voted out of office, impeached, regulated by law, or brought down by international intervention. And they will dramatically change the way we all live—probably within the next few years.

Most of you have heard about global climate change, also called global warming. How many have seen Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth”? I understand it’s a powerhouse. It just came to Mt Shasta before I left, so I plan to see it when I return home.

And how many of you have heard about “Peak Oil”? Peak Oil refers the moment in time that the global production of petroleum peaks and begins to decline. Many observers believe that will happen within the next few years—in fact, some set the date as November 2005. This means that the remaining supplies cannot be pumped at a sufficient rate to meet current demands, so prices will spiral even higher, causing transportation costs for goods and people to skyrocket. We could be facing economic collapse, widespread famine, and even a breakdown in our civil society within the next few years. It’s a terrifying prospect!

By the way, a similar peak is predicted in natural gas production, so there’s no easy out there. And we cannot simply substitute renewable energy sources, such as biodiesel or hydrogen, for oil, at least not at our present rate of consumption. This is because they require a lot of land and/or energy to produce. We will have to drastically reduce our use of energy—plain and simple.

Global climate change is already evident in the increased ferocity and frequency of hurricanes and other violent storms. Climate change could cause the release of new viruses and bacteria, creating new epidemics around the world. Increased transportation costs from declining oil supplies will leave hungry the many people who depend on grocery shelves stocked with food shipped from hundreds, even thousands of miles away. The resulting famine could lead to raids on available food supplies in neighboring areas, with civil warfare at home, and more military “interventions” abroad.

These twin crises will demand enormous, far-reaching changes in everything we do. It’s a bit hard to even comprehend the enormity of the changes required. This may be the greatest challenge that humanity as a whole has ever faced. “When people of the future look back at this historical moment, they will see, perhaps more clearly than we can now, how revolutionary it is. They may well call it the time of the Great Turning” (Macy & Brown, 1998, p. 17)—that is, a transition from a death-dealing Industrial Growth Society to a Life-Sustaining Society.

Life’s Lessons on Survival

Life itself has taken on even greater challenges, and obviously survived. Way back at the beginning, when life consisted of bacteria, one variety—the blue-greens—developed the ability to trap sunlight and make food through photosynthesis. This solved one problem and created another: oxygen pollution. Most bacteria couldn’t survive in an oxygen-rich atmosphere, and the blue-greens were producing excess oxygen in the process of photosynthesis. Elizabet Sahtouris in her book Earth Dance tells us, “It was a lesson Gaia learned more than once, that new experimental forms of life may seriously endanger the whole dance and that other improvisations may be required to rebalance it” (Sahtouris, 1991). It sounds like humans are not the first polluters and destroyers, which may be a small comfort for some of us.

Many bacteria didn’t survive, but obviously, others did. Bluegreens invented enzymes that made oxygen harmless to them. Other species created sunscreens. Still others solved the problem by living together in thick colonies. Those on top burned to death, but the dead cells served as filters for the living ones beneath. Bacteria learned to live as cooperative teams rather then independent individuals—a lesson for us humans today.

Then another discovery was made: bacteria learned to use the polluting oxygen to break down or burn food molecules through respiration. The destructive energy of oxygen was (and still is) used to break up food molecules, freeing their energy for use. And the waste gas produced in respiration is carbon dioxide, the very gas needed for photosynthesis.

This is but one very dramatic example of how life has adapted on a broad scale to changes in the environment, especially changes brought about by innovations made by one species or another. If bacteria can do it, I guess humans can, too. Perhaps we can adapt to the dramatic changes we face because of global warming and declining energy supplies—both situations we humans have helped significantly to create.

Overcoming Denial

Bacteria have one advantage over us: presumably, they don’t do “denial.” As successful living systems, they take in feedback from the environment, and adapt their behavior accordingly. As humans, however, our first reaction to any challenge is likely to be denial. “No, there’s plenty of oil. We just need to open up the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. We just need to set things up in the Middle East so that the pipelines keep flowing in our direction.” Or, on the other hand: “We’ll substitute hydrogen, or biodiesel, or ethanol for oil and keep on truckin’. Technology will save us, just as it has for the last 150 years. We don’t have to change our revered American Way of Life.”

From where I stand, such denial is rampant, and it hinders our ability to see what we really need to do. How can we solve problems that we won’t even admit exist?

Behind denial is fear. Fear can be a healthy warning, but it can also be falsely evoked and used to manipulate us, as in the so-called War on Terror. How can we clearly confront the dangers without succumbing to fear? “More basic to the Great Turning than any ideas we have about it is the act of courage and love we make when we dare see our world as it is.” (Macy & Brown, 1998, p. 38).
We need courage and love, and also faith—faith in ourselves as intelligent, adaptable beings, and faith in life itself. There is wisdom embedded in the natural systems that support life—including within our own bodies and psyches. Let’s seek its guidance and listen to its promptings. The feedback we need is here, although often in forms we don’t acknowledge or understand: intuition, feelings, hunches, dreams, art—and most important, living examples all around us in the more-than-human world.

As the story of photosynthesis and respiration shows us, life will find innovations and adaptations to rebalance the conditions needed for life. This pivotal point in human history—this Great Turning—presents us with the opportunity to create the kind of people and societies our souls have been longing for. No longer able to take the easy way out with cheap and plentiful energy, we are compelled to change in ways that can lead, in time, to a healthier, happier way of life for everyone.

How Shall We Respond?

Let’s come together as cooperative communities, using the physical and human resources we have at hand. Let’s recreate local sustainable economies to provide the necessities of life close to home, instead of relying on food and goods shipped from an average of 1200 miles away. Let’s reduce our “ecological footprints”; that is, our impact on the ecosystems in which we live. That means radically reducing our energy use at home, in industry, and in transportation. It means using compact florescent light bulbs, drying clothes outside, choosing energy efficient appliances and vehicles, riding bikes and walking much more of the time, and many other practices most of you could no doubt enumerate.

Let’s honor and work harmoniously with the natural systems in which we are imbedded, protecting the water, air, mountains and valleys, forests and wetlands and wildlife of our regions. Let’s spend more quiet time in nature, attuning to natural cycles and rhythms. Let’s re-establish direct connections with the processes that provide what we need to live: let’s grow more of our own food and fiber, and make more of our clothing and shelters, out of local materials.

In Neil Douglas-Klotz’s translation of the Lord’s Prayer from the original Aramaic, the line, “Give us this day our daily bread,” translates to “Grow through us this moment’s bread and wisdom.” (Fox & Douglas-Klotz, 1993). Listen to the implications of that line: “Grow through us this moment’s bread and wisdom.” It speaks of co-creation, doesn’t it?

Those of you who grow some of your own vegetables know the joy of co-creation, the joy of eating tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, chard, or fruit and berries that you yourself have planted, watered, and tended. You may know the winter joy of opening jars of food that you canned earlier during harvest time.

I understand there is a revival of interest in spinning, something I’d like to pursue myself, creating thread and yarn directly from locally obtained wool. I think people who obtain all their supplies from stores really miss out on a vital spiritual connection with the living processes of Earth. Let’s shop less, co-create more.

Through this time of change, we may learn to more fully accept and honor the cycles of birth, life, and death. Coping with famine and epidemics may help transform our relationship to death, so that we come to fear it less, to accept it as a natural part of the life cycle. In a world of diminished energy and resources, we will need to limit population growth. This means fewer children being born, making those that are more precious. I envision communities collectively taking responsibility for the children, rather than leaving it all up to the parents.

On an individual level, I believe all of us are called to bring our gifts into service in the world. We can’t afford to waste anyone’s talents or skills or ideas—as if we ever could! Often, we need to first clear away some psychological and social impediments we have been carrying, and that may require some focused work on ourselves.

I believe my counseling and coaching work contributes to the Great Turning in just this way. In the last couple of years, I have discovered the power of counseling and coaching people by phone; it’s amazingly intimate and effective. I work with people all over the world, helping them bring their gifts more fully into their communities. I help them clarify their life’s purpose and move beyond whatever limiting beliefs and conditioning holds them back. It is incredibly gratifying work: to witness and support people’s awakening to who they really are, and to their amazing capacities for creativity and transformation.

The years that lie ahead may be full of hardship, pain, and loss, but I believe we humans are capable of facing this with courage, intelligence, and integrity. Buddha teaches us that the causes of suffering lie within us: in addiction or grasping; in hatred or resistance; and in confusion. Our response to pain and hardship creates suffering, not necessarily the hardship itself. Paradoxically, accepting our feelings of fear, anger, and grief—as well as love and caring—reconnects us to the strength and guidance available to us in the web of life. We discover that the human heart can expand to embrace it all: joy and sorrow, fear and love.

The Role of UU Congregations

I believe UU congregations can play key roles in the Great Turning, in our own communities, starting now. Indeed, most UU congregations are already engaged in activities for the Great Turning, protecting local environments, recycling, working in their communities for social justice and peace. But we may be able to act more precisely and effectively, making sure our service addresses root causes as well as alleviating the effects of our Industrial Growth Society.

Let me give you an example of what I mean by that. Years ago I did a service project as part of a course I was taking. My group painted the interior walls of the local Food Bank building. It was my first contact with a Food Bank and I was rather appalled by the stacks and stacks of donated items from corporations, because much of it was essentially junk. It seemed to me at the time that while the Food Bank was getting food to needy people, it was inadvertently supporting big corporations in the process. A subliminal message was being sent to the recipients: “This is good food; this is how you should eat.” I couldn’t see that the Food Bank was addressing the root causes of poverty or of an exploitive corporate system. It seemed to only mitigate the results, temporarily. Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t support Food Banks, but I am saying we would do well to pay attention to how effective our service action is in making the big changes needed.

An example of an endeavor that attempts to address the root causes of our current energy crisis is the Post Carbon Institute, which encourages energy conservation and the use of renewable energy sources, disseminates alternative news and information, and sponsors the “Relocalization Network.” This is a network of groups working to “re-localize” their economies so that their communities are less dependent on food and goods being trucked in from distant places.
I’m involved with such a group in my town of Mt Shasta, California. It’s called APPLE-Shasta, APPLE being an acronym for Alliance for a Post Petroleum Local Economy. We are creating backyard and community gardens, working on a community compost, informing ourselves and others on how we can save energy at home—up to 50% is possible before considering expensive solar panels. We support our local Farmers’ Market and look for ways of encouraging more small farmers to grow the crops and animals we need.

We may have a bike fair later this summer, to encourage people to buy and use bicycles, especially around our tiny little town. As part of my own behavior change, I bought an electric power-assist bike that helps me take on the hills of my mountain town. I rarely use the car to shop these days, unless I have to carry a large cargo. And I find that riding a bike helps me connect more with the neighbors I pass on the street.

I think UU congregations can organize their own relocalization groups, or participate in starting one in their communities. A “peak oil” committee might research ways of saving energy at home, and educate the rest of the congregation. Offer workshops in permaculture, organic gardening, and food preservation. If the church has a large kitchen, use it for canning and drying workshops. Encourage fellowship members to shop at Farmer’s Markets and local businesses, and to boycott the corporate Big Box stores that bring their goods from far away, often from sweatshops abroad, and send their profits out of the community.

Moreover, UU congregations are in a unique position to provide spiritual support to their communities in these difficult times, because we study and share teachings from all wisdom traditions, unlimited by dogma. There is so much available in the world’s religions and philosophies to help sustain us now. Drawing on this wisdom, we can create support groups for people having difficulty coping with the radical changes and hardships—which is likely to be a great many of us!
And we can spread the word: Fear Not! Big changes are afoot, and change nearly always brings pain and loss. But through these challenges we can work together for a Great Turning. We can create a sustainable society of cooperation, mutual respect, diversity, friendship, and peace.

Learning to See Each Other

To close, I’d like to lead a short exercise from the book I co-authored with Joanna Macy that inspired the title of this talk: Coming Back to Life. The exercise, called “Learning to See Each Other,” is adapted from the Buddhist practice of the Brahmaviharas, also known as the Four Abodes of the Buddha. They are: loving-kindness, compassion, joy in the joy of others, and equanimity. The practice helps us to see each other more deeply and experience the depths of our interconnections.

Please turn to a person seated near you—you can work with a stranger or a friend. We’re going to do a kind of meditation while gazing silently at a partner. If you prefer not to work with a partner, that’s okay too. Just look around you at people in general as you listen to the words of the exercise. But if you are willing to work with a partner, you will probably have a more powerful experience.

Face your partner with eyes closed, remaining silent. Take a couple of slow breaths, centering yourself and exhaling tension. Open your eyes in soft focus and look upon your partner's face… If you feel discomfort, just note it with patience and gentleness, and come back, when you can, to regard your partner. You may never see this person again: the opportunity to behold the uniqueness of this particular human being is given to you now…

To enter the first abode, open your awareness to the gifts and strengths that are in this being… Though you can only guess at them, there are behind those eyes unmeasured reserves of courage and intelligence… of patience, endurance, wit and wisdom… There are gifts there, of which even this person is unaware… Consider what these powers could do for the healing of our world, if they were to be believed and acted on… As you consider that, experience your desire that this person be free from fear… Experience how much you want this being to be released as well from greed, from hatred and confusion and from the causes of suffering… Know that what you are now experiencing is the great loving-kindness… Closing your eyes now, rest into your breathing…

Opening them again, we enter the second abode. Now, as you look into those eyes, let yourself become aware of the pain that is there. There are sorrows accumulated in that life, as in all human lives, though you can only guess at them. There are disappointments and failures, losses and loneliness and abuse… There are hurts beyond the telling… Let yourself open to that pain, to hurts that this person may never have told to another human being… You cannot take that pain away, but you can be with it. As you draw upon your capacity to be with your partner's suffering, know that what you are experiencing is the great compassion. It is very good for the healing of our world…

Again we close our eyes, opening them as we enter the third abode. As you behold the person before you, consider how good it would be to work together…on a joint project, toward a common goal… What it would be like, taking risks together… conspiring together in zest and laughter… celebrating the successes, consoling each other over the setbacks, forgiving each other when you make mistakes… and simply being there for each other… As you open to that possibility, you open to the great wealth, the pleasure in each other's powers, the joy in each other's joy…

Now entering the fourth and last abode, your eyes open, let your awareness drop deep within you like a stone, sinking below the level of what words can express… to the deep web of relationship that underlies all experience… It is the web of life in which you have taken being and which interweaves us through all space and time… See the being before you as if seeing the face of one who, at another time, another place, was your lover or your enemy, your parent or your child… And now you meet again on this brink of time, almost as if by appointment… And you know that your lives are as inextricably interwoven as nerve cells in the mind of a great being… Out of that vast web you cannot fall… no stupidity, or failure, or cowardice, can ever sever you from that living web. For that is what you are… Rest in that knowing. Rest in the Great Peace… Out of it we can act, we can risk anything…and let every encounter be a homecoming to our true nature… (Macy & Brown, p. 194-196).


Fox, Matthew & Douglas-Klotz, Neil. 1993. Prayers of the Cosmos. San Francisco: Harpers.

Macy, Joanna. 1991. World as Lover, World as Self. Berkeley: Parallax Press.

Macy, Joanna, & Brown, Molly Y. 1998. Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Sahtouris, Elizabet. 1991. Earth Dance: Living Systems in Evolution. iUniverse, Inc. On-line at