I was honored to preach at East Shore Unitarian Church on Sunday, August 8, 2021. Find a recording of the service here.
We often think of life as a straight line, don’t we? Starting at birth and ending at death. It’s a useful western notion that allows us to neatly distinguish the past from the present from the future.
But many wisdom traditions teach that life is often far more like a spiral. We travel along the spiral, revisiting many of the same spots, though often from a different altitude – higher or lower than before. We might encounter a certain life event again and again – new job, a loss, or a new birth – and find some things about our encounter are similar, while others are different, because – though the event is the same – we have changed. We’re at a different point on the spiral.
Buddhist scholar, Joanna Macy, has articulated a spiral which is the focus of our service today. She calls it The Work that Reconnects.
In an age of profound disconnection, she asserts, by working the elements of her spiral, we can become re-connected: to ourselves, to one another, to our higher power, and to the natural world around us. She calls this The Great Turning.
If you glance at the order of service today, you’ll see we have experienced some of these stages of this spiral together already this morning: grounding in gratitude with our meditation time and honoring our pain- with our poem from Rumi, who invites us to welcome every emotion. Now we’ll have our exploration: seeing with new eyes. And then Going Forth with the “Returning to the Service of Life” portion of the service.
So, these are the four steps: grounding in gratitude, honoring our pain, seeing with new eyes, and going forth.
The artist Dori Midnight has placed them helpfully along the parts of the dandelion. The dandelion image helps us see the metaphor of rooting into the earth with our gratitude. The leaves of a dandelion can be prickly and therefore painful. The flower helps us see beauty anew, even after encountering a prickly leaf. And the seeds take wing on the back of the fluffy pappus and fly off to start again elsewhere.
My friend studies herbal medicine, and she reminds me that each part of the dandelion is useful. The entire plant, she says, can be used for either food or medicine.
The spiral is rooted in creation – as we saw so unmistakably in the beautiful slideshow just now. To me, there is such beauty in the ever- expanding bend of the circle as it weaves around and around, increasing the surface area of our life experiences.
It’s also worth noting at this stage that the Work that Reconnects is not strictly linear, though it could be perceived to be. Indeed, it’s a fractal – we might find ourselves bouncing from gratitude to going forth, grief to gratitude, or indeed even find ourselves in two places at the very same moment. I need to constantly remind myself to come out of the linear way of thinking and into a more circular and multidimensional way of perceiving.
I have found the spiral of the Work that Reconnects to be helpful in processing major grief with my high school students. Of course they have grief around the pandemic, what it has taken from them, what it has cost them. They also have grief around racial injustice, whether they were aware of it before summer 2020 or not. They also carry existential grief about the state of the climate on planet Earth. I think we all carry this grief with us, and the Work that Reconnects helps us process that grief – to transform it rather than simply transmit it to those around us.
When we ground in gratitude, Macy teaches, it’s important to note that this is not a space where we necessarily must feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude. It’s a stance regardless of feeling, but one of fact. We have many relationships and resources for which to be grateful, if only we can land in the present moment to witness them, rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, as we are all often tempted to do. So, first, ground in gratitude. It’s a great place to begin.
Then we must honor our pain.
Whew – where do we even begin with the communal pain we face as a human people? There is much to lament – whether the climate crisis, the racial terror wrought by white supremacy, or the stream of lives lost to COVID-19.
This is where I often talk with my students about the power of tears. Any of us who has had a ‘good cry’ can attest to the power of emotional release and its ability to transform our way of seeing our circumstances, even if the tears do not change the circumstances themselves. That’s why this is a stop on the spiral. By carving out time and space to honor our pain, we acknowledge this phenomenon and graciously welcome feelings that emerge when we face the numerous pandemics we do. Like our friend Rumi says, “Be grateful for whoever comes because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.” And in doing so, of course, Rumi guides us back into gratitude in our circuitous journey.
After we have had our good cry, really sunk into the depths of our pain and sadness, we might wipe our eyes and find – suddenly or gradually – that we perceive things anew. We see situations with a new set of eyes. Something in us has shifted and now we understand things differently. Perhaps we recognize our own overuse of natural resources. We are ready to cut down on our use of plastics or ordering so dang much from Amazon. Perhaps we see and acknowledge the special treatment we have received because of our skin color, eye shape, or gender presentation. We see anew what it means to walk outside, to kiss our loved ones, to have a conversation. And it emerges: what is ours to do. This is Going Forth.
A leader from my own Catholic tradition writes in a famous prayer:
I don’t know about you, but it is often gravely disappointing news to me that I cannot do everything, fix everything, know everything. But it seems to be one of my great tasks in life to learn this lesson completely.
And so, each day I must ask, “What, therefore, is *mine* to do?” This is going forth.
Each of these steps, of course, operate on an individual level, but also on a communal one. Each of our families, neighborhoods, work places, and even countries could benefit from an intentional trip around the spiral… grounding in gratitude, honoring our pain, seeing with new eyes, and then going forth with intention.
So today we’ve had a taste of this Work that Reconnects. I greatly encourage you to explore it more if you feel so called – and to share it with another group that might benefit from it.