The Great Turning

If you look, I bet you can see it. But first you may have to turn off your TV. And go outside. It would probably help if you befriended a stranger. Or at least said hi to someone who looks awkward with poverty. Next, consider a cut in pay, and then save on travel – commit to propelling yourself more often.

Now, stroll down the grocery aisle. Look at the produce and consider the stories. See the bananas, perhaps they represent over-extended companies. Look at the local, organic fruit. See the mottled apples. Maybe this isn’t ugly, but a new kind of beauty, the beauty of a gentle, sustainable future, without pesticides.

Yes, if you have the eyes to see it, the world is simmering with goodness. Joanna Macy, a Buddhist teacher, says the world is at the onset of a “Great Turning.” We are experiencing an “epochal shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining society.”

This is likely the tail end of our environmental battles, our militarism and major social inequalities, she says. With climate change and the end of oil already in sight, Macy has peered into the dark future and discovered hope.

We can’t make our realities go away, she says, “but we can choose how we are going to respond.” One response is to close down, “tighten the heart and the fist.” Live with fear and denial. Or, we can “open up – open eyes, heart, hands, freeing the capacity to adapt and create.”

This is a dark time. Yes, on one level, we can be afraid. But at a deeper level we have a strange peace that passes workaday thinking. This is conviction bolstered by intuition, buoyed by a freedom to love, even in dire circumstances. Weird. Plants emerge with love every spring. Some of us will do the same after this heavy, commercial, imperial winter.

Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says transformation doesn’t come about by doing the same thing that you did the day before. People often have to be “displaced and shocked to teach them that this isn’t the only world.”

“There is another world, much bigger and more inclusive, that both relativizes and reenchants this world that we take as normative,” he writes in Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (Crossroad, 2003). It is possible to awaken to a larger world, to see more. This is the hard but rewarding work of spiritual development – something at odds with the industrial growth society.

Macy assures us that we can learn to see the Great Turning. Start by bringing into focus its three dimensions, she says.

First there are “holding actions” that defend life from further destruction. This is the work of the stereotypical, protest-oriented social activist. We need people to shout “stop” to a system going in the wrong direction. But there’s more.

A second dimension includes “all the life-affirming structures emerging now.” These are new social and economic experiments, such as barter economies, community shared agriculture, alternative education and ancient medicines. We need these new structures for hope. They are foundational.

A third dimension involves “a profound shift in our perception of reality.” We see our living planet not as “supply house and sewer,” but as a “living web of relationships.” This is a new way of seeing. It’s developing a sense of radical inter-connectedness. Yes, it’s a Buddhist notion, but is universal as well.

“God is to be found in all things, even and most especially in the painful, tragic, and sinful things, exactly where we do not want to look for God,” says Rohr. This requires a new way of seeing. I’m convinced it’s what Macy calls a cognitive revolution and spiritual awakening.

Sure, Gandhi said we need to be the change we want to see in the world. But this first requires seeing. Seeing the gentle, eternal thread of Life. The sustainable and just future is partially here. Strain your eyes, watch the mirage shimmer, and the beauty emerge.

Issue 1

This article first appeared in Geez magazine Issue 1, Fall 2005, Just as I am..

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