Still she persisted…

Elizabeth Warren is one of my favorite accidently-with-purpose heroes. The phenomenon of “she persisted” that caught fire after her attempt to stop yet another  anti-human nominee in the U.S. administration could not have been predicted, but she did prepare for it. Like Rosa Parks who refused to move to make room for yet another white person, Senator Warren has prepared, practiced, learned, and gathered her folk to defy the system that is designed to diminish her.

My friend, Parker Palmer, first highlighted from me the quantum stomp that happened when Rosa Parks refused to continue to participate in her own diminishment. Hers was the third attempt to ignite action by refusing to move on a bus; two other attempts had been made by two other women who were efficiently swept way in to obscurity.

Third time’s the charm.

Rosa had attended Highlander Folk School where she prepared for desegregation and met Dr. King, who was unknown before participating in Rosa’s defense. Rosa was surrounded by support from the NAACP, her family, and the Highlander community. They had prepared and persisted until Rosa Parks became an accidently-with-purpose hero.

My fingers, hands, and arms would all fall off long before I wrote about all the women I know of who have persisted to defy the system that is designed to diminish us. And that’s just the ones I know of…

Still, there are too many women who are continuing to participate in their own diminishment. Who put fragile (white) men and their desires before their own needs. As a white woman, I was fascinated and horrified that mine was the deciding demographic in the 2016 presidential election. This was Stockholm Syndrome writ global. This is how you enslave over half the population. We have been trained, conditioned, and indoctrinated into serving a system that ignores our needs and concerns, uses us as mere objects to please men, and ultimately punishes us for existing.

It’s worked. We spend millions of dollars/euros/yen to be attractive to men, not just for potential sexual partnership but for jobs, medical care, social services, housing, and just going out in public. We live in a world – yes, in the U.S., too – where a displeased or disgusted male gaze can be literally deadly for a woman. The thing men most fear from women is laughter; the thing women most fear from men is murder. And many women have become proxies of men, becoming the hit men for the punishing paradigm and our worst enemies. That any woman still has any sense of self-worth and strength to walk through another day is fucking amazing.

What if we stopped this shit? What if we spent our money on democratic campaigns rather than make-up? What if we bought books rather than botox? What if we spent the time we have dedicated to caring for male egos and spent it on talking with each other about how we can make the world better for children and trees?

I’m done caring for men (except in cases of reparations); they have everything. White men are so privileged that they perceive the loss of any privilege as oppression! Men had this world in thrall for millennia and have thoroughly fucked up our paradise of Earth. It will take persistence to turn the tide of extinction, focus on the possible, speak out, create new habits of care and attention that are independent of male ego. We’re the ones that have more education, who go to religious services most often, who care for children and elders, and who call together community where ever we go. This is what civilization actually is; not masses of monetary wealth, military might, or physical domination. Our culture is not civil; our culture is war. Notice how many times a day you use a military or violent metaphor for things that are not either of those things…

I invite other women, and allies for women, to persist in defying a system of war, degradation, rape, and emotional usury that diminishes all of us…to the point of extinction.

Semi-permeable membranes…part two…

So many of us are expecting to be judged and very fearful that we’ll be found wanting or, even worse, repulsive. We live in a culture where incel-identified men take out their fear-fueled rage on others, and women continue to spend more and more time and resources on being outwardly attractive while taking out their fear-fueled rage on ourselves. For those of us who want to reclaim our fear for our true happiness, retaining the “semi-” state that allows for protection and change is very difficult and needs lots of intention and support.

When we lose the “semi-” we become defensive and closed-off; we become passive and untrustworthy. Openings for new learning decrease exponentially in these states. While judgement is something we fear, we need to reclaim this, too, in order to dance in the possibility of “semi-“. We may want to invoke some Trickster energy to help us reclaim fear and judgement as allies rather than continuing to feed the energy of enemy.

In a conversation I had with Larry Daloz, author and co-founder of The Whidbey Institute,  he shared his approach to  judgement in learning and change:

It [a judgement] depends on the person, their world, their context. You have to be judgmental and not judgmental at once! I get frustrated with people for whom the greatest sin is judgment, is making judgments; but not necessarily. You stop making judgments and you walk out in the middle of traffic! I mean come on! That’s what your brain is for, we’re constantly making judgments, analysis, distinctions, all of that evil cognitive stuff; we’re constantly doing it and it’s a damn good thing we do. The question is when to make them and when to suspend them.

Balancing and negotiating actions and suspensions of judgement is a big part of how Larry creates conditions for transformational learning in the presence of fear. His work in classrooms, workshops, and individual mentoring has developed his acute sense of learning environments as holding conflicting elements in harmony:

I think that settings in which that kind of opportunity for both separation and connection is made readily available are the kinds of settings where more powerful learning can happen. At least that’s a part of the ingredients. We talk often about a mentoring environment, … I think that one of the key ingredients of a powerful transformative environment is a rich mix of differing voices within a safe context, in which the learner can engage with voices different from one’s own, can try them on, ideally can try on the different voices, and step back into what they thought of as their own several different ways in which it’s safe to do that. I think that this process of trying on a voice different from one’s own is probably a powerful transformative action, particularly if the voice is speaking, is trying to say things in a slightly different way that are still meaningful to the learner.

Larry has a sense of welcoming the “other” as other – and honoring difference that keeps the “semi-” in place. There is bounded openness that invites us to become porous to learning.   Larry has thought a lot about semi-permeable membranes and our paradoxical relationship with welcoming and boundaries:

So there are boundaries but there are semi-permeable membranes and that notion of semi-permeable membranes is essential to life; life exists because of semi-permeable membranes…My point is that life is about semi-permeable membranes; it’s about the capacity both to keep out and to take in and always the process of discernment, of discerning what comes in, what goes out and who I become as I do that. That’s what, as far as I’m concerned, the value in transformation…We have to recognize that there are recognizable points of equilibrium at which transformations rest.

The capacity to both keep out and take in is how life functions. We exist between movement and rest, between change and status.When we stop, when we close-off or lose ourselves to the vagaries of fashion and manufactured desire, we stop living. When we recognize and honor the resistance, rather than try to regain some former state of comfort, we can notice it and let it go so we can compassionately engage with “others.”

Learning and changing happens from the inside out, and sometimes the “other” is within; when we ignore, deny, or demonize fear we are neglecting what needs our attention.  Larry helped me to notice the many characters within our psyches that vie for dominance (see the movie, Inside Out), all with different perspectives on what is best for our whole selves to flourish.

Creatively forming an environment of recognition and acceptance of difference and emotions extends from commitment to living in complement with diverse, contradictory, and conflicting elements, emotions, and people. The fear inherent in this world of conflict can guide us to connection, and separate us from what we desire. As long as we numb our fear and judgement of this world through violence to ourselves and others, we perpetuate the very things that keeps us separate and miserable.

Semi-permeable membranes…

Our cells and our planet have semi-permeable membranes to protect us. Our psyches and spirits do, too. The consequences of the loss of “semi-” for cells is death or mutation (i.e., cancer); the consequences for the planet is also death or mutation. The consequences for psyches and spirits are even more subtle and just as consequential.

Fear contributes to the retention of “semi-” when it is healthy, the kind that Parker Palmer referred to in The Courage to Teach when writing about becoming “porous to learning.” The care and maintenance of our semi-permeable membranes is semi-conscious and semi-intentional, and more popularly known as boundary-setting.

Throughout our lives we are constantly bumping or crashing in to boundaries – some give out, some remain painfully in place. We are also moving and shifting boundaries as we and our environment changes. Boundaries are set for us by others when we are young, and by physics when we are…well…physical. All the boundaries beyond the physical are neglected in cultures that value the physical over the spiritual and psychic (i.e., having to do with the psyche). As you might realize, there’s a connection between neglect of boundaries and fear. When we set boundaries it helps alleviate and edit our fears; when boundaries dissolve or are dismantled, we are inundated with fear.  So, even as important as boundaries are, we also need to have openness. This kind of openness shows up in silence, slow pace, or  learning that is unfamiliar and uncomfortable. However, we tend to fill space rather than open it.

A bounded and open presence or space offers an invitation to engage in a space safe enough for fear.  If we can become “hosts” in creating and maintaining such a space for ourselves and others, we can to encourage inquiry, a community of truth, and practice vulnerability. These are “soft skills” that make it possible to hold space that is safe enough to for fear, for apprehension. The “hard stuff” in this space can be: disagreement, confusion, vulnerability, failure, and learning something completely new. These are necessary for inquiry, both reflective and exploratory, and happens in the presence of emotions – in the presence of fear.

Fear pops up when cracks in our understanding or worldview appear, after we have bumped in – or run headlong in – to a concept, perspective, or experience that doesn’t fit. For example, I work for a well-respected non-profit who’s mission is to end poverty in one of the most affluent communities in our country. Our most recent initiatives included advocacy and education to interrupt the systems that perpetuate poverty. However, we depend on donations from the very rich to support our work, from the very same people who benefit from the systems that perpetuate poverty. We risk our funding (i.e., our ability to help people stay warm, fed, and safe) if we interrupt these systems that support our donors and insure we won’t fulfill our mission.

Fear becomes louder when cracks open up to gaps, when our understanding has a clear drop-off beyond which we can’t perceive anything else. Referring to the previous example: so much of our economic (capitalist) system depends on a lot of people being poor (poor as in not having enough money/resources to thrive). If we don’t want poor people, we need to dismantle capitalism.* What else is possible in our vast, diverse society for regulating goods and services “to promote the general welfare“?

Wouldn’t a bridge be nice when a crack or gap appears? Believe it or not, engaging one of our underutilized fear responses – connect – anchors the bridge to possibility. Some might call anchoring in connection in the face of fear “faith.” Connection across cracks, across gaps, and across knowing has drawn Parker Palmer consistently to engage with fear in both his learning and teaching. In a conversation we had years ago, he said that he believes human beings live between faith and fear and that,

…that’s not one you resolve or collapse, precisely because that faith involves the mysterium tremendum, and there’s a very healthy fear that one feels as one walks up to the edge of that mystery…What holds mystery is different for different ones of us…But faith and fear define the dance we all do, and the music goes on forever and we never get off the dance floor.

When we shake things up, boundaries and precious worldviews get cracked. When things get shaky, the best thing to do is dance into the next revolution.

*I’m not going to debate this point here. If you think that capitalism can exist when every child goes to bed every night safe, warm, and fed – then please contact the Gates Foundation or similar entity of international influence to change every enactment of capitalist endeavor in the world. You will not only eliminate poverty, but likely abortion, too.



Even if your voice shakes…

This blog may get a little shaky. I’m a well-trained academic and woman, which means that my voice has counted for very little as I’ve stayed in the lines. Forays outside the lines (of inquiry, comfort, marketability, expectations, etc.) have been exhausting and painful. Still, I persist and now I’m venturing into the territory of publicly personal that is nothing like the Facebook-esque reality show. I’m also going to attempt to embody experience via digital means, without implants or jacks. Living with intentional inquiry and fear means – eventually, even if I really really don’t like it – speaking up and out.

I’m an optimist, as you may have guessed from my stance on fear. It’s a necessary and mostly good thing. I’m also a realist and listener. I listen to stories because they are what is real, regardless of any facts. Stories are our experiences, our identities, and our values – and they are FULL of emotions. Facts are dry and distant – and will never drive a decision. Doubt this? Just look at the U.S. presidency. This didn’t start in 2016; stories slathered in fear and vengeance have imposed our most influential presidents on the world, to our collective detriment. In my lifetime (a little over half a century), the socially progressive movements in the U.S. of the 60s and 70s have all fallen under the juggernaut of militarism in the 80s and 00s (the 90s seemed somewhat “restful” as we watched, self-satisfied and vindicated, the fallout of the Berlin Wall). The greatest man to hold the presidency in my lifetime only served one term, losing by a landslide because he sought peaceful resolution to the quagmire his predecessors had made in the Middle East which had put American lives on the, very public, line.

All of this while overall violence was declining worldwide, livelihoods were improving, and disease was being routed from entrenched positions. Technology has brought us greater connectivity, more access to education, and means to end massive suffering. These are the facts, but they aren’t the stories most of us hear.

In schools we are taught about war and conquest, about the success of the current system and our place in it; we are not taught about unions, let alone why we ever had them. We don’t learn about the Native American holocaust or how the U.S. military attacked – with bombs! – American citizens in America desperate for better working and living conditions. I wasn’t even required to read the Constitution; I chose to read it after achieving two college degrees beyond high school. Public schools were designed as factories to produce workers to serve the U.S. economy; all the tinkering to prop up “liberal education” and creativity will not change this. These are facts without stories, or stories that have been shouted down by the engines of consumerism.

Consumers. In the U.S., we consume vastly more than we produce – it’s the American Way. I read stories about working lives a century ago and am impressed by how much has not changed, it’s just gotten very quiet. Instead of burning sweatshops with locked doors and windows, we now have workers leaping from office buildings without any fire. Workers no longer have to be locked in to squeeze out every drop of work, we are now tethered via devices that we are expected to attend 24/7. Balancing the demands of work and life still eludes us, and working conditions are still hazardous – just less photogenic.

Our stories instruct us on the right and proper way to be successful, beautiful, admired (maybe loved), and free: shop. Shop more, buy bigger. With just a few clicks, we instigate a vast serious of events that results in our desired thing appearing almost instantaneously on our desktop or doorstep. Everything you are or have is wrong or not enough; you need to buy more to fix yourself. Boredom is to be avoided at all costs, and only rest when exhausted. We have become black holes of need, while the engine keeps burning through our ability to live.

What if we stopped? What if we changed our collective story?

The United States of America was founded on good ideals that got lost – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. After 250 years, Americans saw their “great experiment” failing to produce the desired results. We were enslaved to corporations that had more rights than human beings, and no responsibilities. We had to pay more and more for clean water, food free of poison, and devices to clean and cool air that had become dangerous. We were lonely, angry, sad, and terrified most of the time. As our government became a tragic farce, we collectively said, “Fuck this shit.” At the tipping point of the early 21st Century, Americans stopped shopping. We stopped pursuing profit, freeing ourselves to live abundantly. Americans finally embraced the value of “enough,” and we are richer for it. Slowly, then suddenly we could then produce what the nation’s founders imperfectly imagined: off the scale happiness.

How does that feel?

Let’s shake things up.

Grab the paradox…

There is a paradox in becoming more unique and individual by integrating diverse others. The key dynamic of transformation is deeply listening to their voices, taking in the consciousness of others that is different, the incorporating them into one’s own sense of self. This is how we grow through dissolving separation; you are a part of me, I can’t harm you without harming myself. This is transformative learning, because we can’t go back to how, where, or what we were afterwards – and terrifying magic is a huge part of it.

Transformation as a popular theatrical display of “magic” is something we see in plays and movies that portray magic as something supernatural and beyond mere mortals – the witch becomes a cat, the wizard becomes a dragon, the angel becomes a demon. The seed of our fascination with dramatic displays of transformation lies with our very real, very accessible experience of magic that transforms our world and worldview – and who, what, and how we are in it – ultimately changing us in ways we couldn’t have predicted (and probably not like, at least at first), which is always terrifying.

This kind of very natural magic is vital in all the teaching and learning of Starhawk, a teacher, priestess, author, activist, and farmer who uses her knowledge and skills to – say – shut down an international meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) or help people to deeply change how we interact with our environment. Coming from a magical awareness, her first action in any effort to teach or learn is to create “sacred space,” which she described as follows:

It’s basically just creating an energy form circle and that creates kind of a boundary which [signals participants that] now we’re in sacred space, now we’re in sacred time, and then calling in the elements, four directions, and the goddess and the sacred in some form, into that space to make it sacred space…I think it deepens the learning, puts it into a different level, and I think people will go further because it’s like telling yourself, okay, this is sacred space, sacred time, this is time you actually are out of your ordinary life a little bit, or somewhere else; you can open up in a deeper level and you can do it safely knowing that you’re going to step out of this sacred time back into ordinary time and there will be a boundary on it.

The skills and awareness she’s developed over years of teaching, learning, and living in deep communion with “Gaia consciousness,” a level of awareness which includes planetary considerations and consequences, are expressed in each encounter with “other,” be that person, plant, animal, or spirit. Using magical, psychological, and sociological tools, Starhawk has initiated transformative learning in the woods, in street actions, in classrooms, in living rooms, and even online. Her stories center on “power with” rather than “power over” as vital to any learning that is transformational. Teaching people to understand and enact their own power – something that is deeply terrifying in our parochial society – is how she can magically transform the world through individuals. Stories of literally teaching in the heat of actual conflict are common in her experience, such as one story she shared of a large street action not long after the WTO action in Seattle:

In Washington D.C. back in 2000, it was the first big thing right after Seattle, there were so many people there and the convergence center was so crowded that we couldn’t find space for the training. We tried to go out in the street and the cops were arresting people and harassing people. We ended up doing the training in an alley. So all of it kind of goes into the decisions about what are the exercises you’re going to use and what are you going to teach people. There are certain things I always include, like grounding, because I think it’s the basic thing; if you learn nothing else, if you can learn even the concept that, “Oh, right, I can be grounded.” I always tell people it’s hard to grab; the hard thing is to remember that you can actually grab!

Grabbing the ground that feels like it’s opening beneath you is truly terrifying. When transformation happens, that’s what it feels like and why it’s so hard to grab, to ground when the paradoxes pull everything you thought was true and right apart. In those cracks and gaps, in the between of was and is, you glimpse what could be. And there’s another paradox: we must ground fully in the world we have and grab the world that we could have; in a world of individual concerns, our lives depend on connecting and caring for each other.

That’s the magic that’s right here, right now, in and at our fingertips and toetips (tip toes?). Our fear response when paradoxes arises is a “first thought” and our fear guides us to respond to what we’ve come to expect is dangerous – understanding and wielding our own power. Staying with our fear into our “second thought” will help us “real-ize” the world we could have through becoming more unique together.

Second thoughts…

Your first thought is your conditioning; your second thought is your choice.

Humans are conscious of 20% of our brains’ activity, with maybe another 5% that’s subconscious. The overwhelming majority of our brains’ activities are fully unconscious, not conscious at all. Movies and books have portrayed titillating and visually appealing consequences of 100% consciousness – but really consider this for a moment. Our brains are not independent agents; our consciousness emerges from not just our brains, but our bodies. Most of what our brains do is care and maintenance of our bodies. Another large part is devoted to “stored experience,” also known as prejudice.

If we were 100% consciously accessing all the processing in our brains, we would likely be catatonic. Seriously, think about everything that is going on in your body right now, just sitting and reading. Go ahead, I’ll wait…

How far did you get? Could you even name all your parts that are doing things?

Now, take a moment to thank your unconscious brain for taking care of all those complex, constant, careful tasks so you can enjoy sitting up and reading.

So, while it is not helpful to pull the recipe for all the biochemicals necessary to digest breakfast (including all the muscles and valves involved) every time into our conscious mind, it is very helpful to pull the pattern of our reaction to people we perceive as “other” into our awareness for evaluation and possibly adaptation. Our unconscious mind, while inaccessible to awareness, is quite adaptable and malleable to our choices. Thus growing up in a certain society with certain family members and friends will shape our personalities and choices for many years, but once our pre-frontal cortex has fully formed (approximately 23-25 years old) we have the capacity to choose, to confirm or deny all or part of what has shaped our first two decades of life.

If we know who is doing the choosing.

Our brains have evolved to protect, preserve, and procreate. To those ends, we store experiences – particularly ones that defy or countermand those primal goals – so we may more quickly react to safer resolutions when again faced with similar circumstances. What is peculiar to humans is our ability to instill experiences we have never had via our imaginations. It is through this amazing capacity that we learn to fear people we’ve never met, avoid dangerous plants and animals we’ve never encountered, and feel attracted to a set of characteristics in another person that we have never known. We are taught by individuals, media, and societies what is acceptable, desirable, and safe – in addition and contradiction to our own lived experiences. What becomes our worldview is not only shaped but created by our brilliantly adaptive unconscious mind.

[Let’s make a useful distinction here between “brain” and “mind.” The brain is our neuroprocessing, biological unit, and the mind is the result of those processes; however, our brain is not only contained in our skulls or relegated to our one organ named “brain.” Overwhelming biological research shows that we contain an intrinsic nervous systems, and thus neuroprocessing, in diverse organs – particularly our intestines (see Dr. Michael D. Gershon’s work on the “second brain”). Our thoughts are the end points of vast, systemic neuroprocesses that are collectively our known – and unknown – mind.]

Self-knowledge, the conscious act of pulling back the curtain or stepping to the side of the center stage production of who we are, is most of the conscious brain’s care and maintenance of our minds. Similar to what happens to people when they lose unconscious abilities to care and maintain their bodies (see the case of Ian Waterman documented by Dr. Jonathan Cole), when we don’t consciously care for and maintain our minds we cannot fully function in the world without outside support. We remain or become dependent, co-dependent, or pathological. Awareness and responsibility – the ability to respond – for our motivations and actions are markers of maturity, regardless of chronological age. As we take up adult activities and commitments, we gain choices. We can choose to continue with beliefs and behaviors that were given to us as part of conditioning (however intended), or we can investigate, experiment, and imagine other ways of being that may “feel right.” The feeling that precedes knowing is our nonconscious mind at work. How we interpret feeling states, the meaning our conscious mind puts to nonconscious thoughts/felts, determines our experience and contributes to our knowledge of self and others.







The freeze response…

People have actually commented on how still I can be when the crazy is flying. And there is a lot of crazy flying around as I write this. Families being ripped apart by the U.S. government, open season for police on people of color, hard-won workers’ rights falling beneath the boots of corruption, Antarctic ice melting into the sea, and a growing silence where insects and birds used to be.

My response to forces larger and stronger than I am was conditioned growing up in the ‘70s with a father far away in a war and a mother alone with two small girls and too many demons of mental illness. I was terrified a lot; I was afraid my mother would hurt us more, that she would leave, that my dad wouldn’t come home, that this was my fault. As a child, I didn’t have a vote or money or a clue about options outside our house. I couldn’t leave, I couldn’t fight, I couldn’t connect, I couldn’t trust. I froze – waiting for this round of crazy to go by.

I’m seeing this response in myself and others in our adult situation where we can’t leave (there’s no Planet B), we can’t fight (the U.S. military is only getting bigger), we’re disconnected to the point that loneliness has become a deadly pandemic, and we don’t trust ourselves or anyone else. So many of us – with varying palettes of privilege – are frozen, waiting for this wave of crazy to go by.

Frozen in fear is a real response that buys us time. Perhaps the threat or danger will pass by or change. Perhaps the situation will change and no longer be threatening. Perhaps someone will save us.

Staying frozen, waiting for a miracle or a savior, when the danger is slow in coming is what is known as “boiled frog syndrome.” If you haven’t heard of it, it goes like this: if you put a frog in boiling water it will leap right out; but if you put a frog in cool water and slowly turn up the heat, the frog will stay put until it is boiled to death. Our freeze response buys time, it doesn’t resolve or reduce the danger.

In many situations, being still for a bit is a great advantage; it allows us to engage our conscious mind to make optimal choices. We can scan for levers, escape routes, allies, or a good-sized rock. Our fear has primed us to be laser focused, firing on all channels even when we are outwardly still. Staying still can allow the danger to pass us, or it can make us an easy target, maybe even complicit in the harmful consequences of our inaction.

We’re afraid for good reason – lots of good reasons. And our fear is present to help us make optimal choices to regain our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Michael Moore, a champion for working Americans and native of Flint, recently wrote a poignant essay about calling on his musical education to inform his continued engagement in activism, in our continued fight. He reminded us that a moment of stillness, a breath, is needed to keep playing. In our individual moment of breathing, we need to trust the rest of the musicians, our allies, to keep the music going until you can rejoin them.

I am suddenly reminded of giving birth. Mid-labor I became so exhausted by pain and fear that I fell asleep. I didn’t sleep long, maybe 20 minutes. I woke right before the stage called “transition” but should more accurately be called “transformation” – that point when I was sure I would die, that there is no way this birth could happen. As I wept in terror, my loved ones and caregivers assured me I could do this, that the birth would happen for both of us. The stillness before the final push was vital to both of us. I did it and was transformed.

Let’s breathe into this transformation. We need to work with our fear for what wants to be born.