I believe we all have a soul path that we are born to make manifest in this world. For me, as a young child I liked to draw and had a desire towards art before I knew what that meant. As a teen, I wanted to join the Peace Corp and be of service to others. Later, I studied sign language and wanted to teach deaf children. (None of these early aspirations were encouraged—as viable vocations—by my family of origin.) As a young adult, I found myself supporting friends, lovers, and co-workers through the vicissitudes of life, love, and often much drama. Recently, I have been reflecting on my near-death experience from appendicitis when I was sixteen. Had it not been for visiting family friends, who encouraged the emergency room, I may not be here today. We’ll never know for sure, but my appendix ruptured as I lay on the operating table. On an unconscious level, I believe that experience likely altered, or deepened, my orientation to life and purpose. Later, on the eve of my thirtieth birthday, I was ravaged by the loss of my brother, mother, best friend. Family. After the initial descent into the dark night, my heart broke open to the world. I was reborn again in many ways. To compassion. It was a long journey home and by no means an easy one but I’m grateful for the wisdom that emerged out of that long transformative passageway. Ultimately, it opened a pathway to service offering AIDS education/outreach and later facilitating grieving children at the Dougy Center here in Portland. It also created space for me to emerge as a spiritual artist and to answer the call of Spirit to manifest beauty in the world.
I’m sharing my personal story here to illustrate what I believe to be a universal truth…that we each have a unique calling in life and to encourage others to listen deeply to that inner guidance, even when no one around you affirms it to be so. I remember a few voices from the past including my late brother Richard and others who often didn’t really ‘know’ me, strangers in fact, who reflected back to me my potential and what they saw ‘in me’ that was possible. It made all the difference and gave me confidence to follow the muse where ever she would lead me.
In 2002, Spirit guided me to environmentalist and Buddhist scholar, Joanna Macy. And to a ten-day despair and empowerment intensive that broke open my heart to the suffering and beauty of the world which was, in every way, a spiritual homecoming to my place in the web of life. At the close of our training, we were invited to speak aloud and declare these Bodhisattva vows for the healing of our world. These vows are what continue to guide me in life, in my work, and in my HEART. For love of the EARTH, Pachamama.
I vow to myself and to each of you:
To commit myself daily to the healing of our world and the welfare of all beings.
To live on Earth more lightly and less violently in the food, products, and energy I consume.
To draw strength and guidance from the living Earth, the ancestors, the future beings, and my brothers and sisters of all species.
To support each other in our work for the world and to ask for help when I feel the need.
To pursue a daily spiritual practice that clarifies my mind, strengthens my hart, and supports me in observing these vows.
In Derrick Jensen’s brilliant and heartbreaking A Language Older Than Words, he writes, “Every morning when I wake up I ask myself whether I should write or blow up a dam. Every day I tell myself I should continue to write. Yet I’m not always convinced I’m making the right decision. I’ve written books and I’ve been an activist. At the same time I know neither a lack of words nor a lack of activism kills salmon here in the Northwest. It is the presence of dams.” I hear his frustration and feel his pain around the extinction of so many species and for what is happening to our beloved planet. The new year has begun and already it seems like it will continue to be business as usual. Our world leaders failed to reach an agreement around climate change in Copenhagen, health care reform looks like it will benefit the insurance companies more than the individual, and there is ever more emphasis on fighting terrorism than in feeding our people or healing the Earth.
Most of us begin the new year with resolutions of one sort or another from losing weight to saving money or being better organized. I normally set intentions of what it is that I would like to actualize through the course of the year, but this year I have been feeling unusually inert as to where to put my time and energy. I get a wild idea to sell everything and go live in Africa or some where there appears to be a greater need, but I realize that there is also work to be done here at home. I ask myself what is my role during this planetary time? What is the role of my art in the face of climate change and environmental degradation? I believe deeply that we each have a role to play in what eco-theologian Thomas Berry coined the “Great Work,” but like Jensen, some days it just doesn’t feel like enough. I want to avoid sinking into helplessness and despair but that happens some days, too and that is okay. I often listen to Krista Tippett’s interviews on Speaking of Faith while I work in the studio and her recent interview called, “The Wisdom of Tenderness,” was with Jean Vanier, the Canadian philosopher and Catholic social innovator who founded L’Arche, a community centered around people with mental disabilities. It is such a beautiful and touching look into this little known community where there is such joy and tenderness. Love. Safe touch. Vanier speaks of falling in love with reality and realizing that in that reality God is present. In another interview, Kate Braestrup, a Unitarian-Universalist minister and author in Maine, “is called in when children disappear in the woods or when snowmobilers disappear under the ice. She calls herself a doer whose sense of God emerges from what happens between and among people.” Both Vanier and Braetrup bring a sacred intention, love, and holy witnessing to their work on behalf of those who are different or who suffer. They remind me that I don’t have to go to Africa to make a difference in the world, I do that right here, right now through my ability to be present to those in grief, my practice around holy listening, and creating beauty. Perhaps that is enough.
In his interview, Vanier quoted Ghandi: “I can’t change the world, but I can change.” This has given rise to my considering “right speech” from the Noble Eightfold Path, the Fourth Noble Truth in the Buddhist tradition. I feel called to speak on behalf our besieged and beautiful Earth, Pachamama, but sometimes my words have been interpreted as judgmental or condemning. I remembering hearing this twenty years ago when I was involved with AIDS education and outreach. Back then, the message was, “to be silent is to be complicit” (or silence=death) and I feel that today around the ecological crisis. I can’t be silent now either and the fact is that this crisis will affect all life on Earth, not just what is perceived as a marginalized group of individuals. My intention is not to judge—after all I am part of the system and use resources, too—but to open the dialogue. Sometimes, in my passionate expression, instead of inviting others into the conversation certain language cuts short the dialogue, so the commitment for me now is: How to hear other perspectives, listen deeply without judgment, and speak from a place of mindfulness? Along with creating art, I intend to be attentive of this as I navigate the landscape of my relationships, my communities, and the larger world. Being more organized might have been a lot easier…sigh. Blessings to all beings in this new year.
Prayer of deep listening
In this century and in any century,
Our deepest hope, our most tender prayer,
Is that we learn to listen.
May we listen to one another in openness and mercy
May we listen to plants and animals in wonder and respect
May we listen to our hearts in love and forgiveness
May we listen to our deep spirit in quietness and awe.
And in this listening,
Which is boundless in its beauty,
May we find the wisdom to cooperate
With a healing spirit, a divine spirit,
who beckons us into peace and community and creativity.
We do not ask for a perfect world.
But we do ask for a better world.
We ask for deep listening.
-Jay McDaniel, Hendrix College