by Dennis Rivers and friends -- March 2004
Turn Toward Life is a spiritual community for people who love the Earth, and who have come to understand, each through their own path, that the issues of peace, social justice and ecology, on the one hand, and the processes of enlightenment, self-realization, salvation and personal fulfillment, on the other, are infinitely interwoven. Turn Toward Life welcomes people of every religion (and of no particular religious affiliation) who are seeking to lead lives of active compassion, awareness, gratitude, forgiveness and creativity. Confronted by world continuously at war, a world of savage inequalities, and a world drifting toward ecological suicide, we seek to nurture in one another a deep reverence for life and encourage one another in a strongly compassionate resistance to the forces of greed and ignorance that are destroying the world. Most of all, we seek to support one another in bearing love's burdens in a wounded world.
Our community-without-walls, which began twenty-five years ago as an anti-nuclear affinity group, is an expression of two global changes of heart that began in the 1960's and continue to this day: the ecology/sustainability movement and the liberation theology/engaged spirituality movement. It is based, among other things, on the growing realization that if we do not take care of the organic world, the organic world will not be able to take care of us; and that whatever new machines of death we point at our enemies today, they will surely point back at us tomorrow. These are especially painful issues here in the United States, because the United States, with about 5% of the world's population, now spends more on armies and machines of death than all the other nations of the world, friends, neutrals and enemies, combined! This massive preparation for socially-sanctioned murder is not only horrible in its own right, it also generates pollution that will last for eons and diverts enormous resources away from real social, economic and ecological needs. We in the United States are helping to create the dangerous world we fear.
These crises of our time challenge each person to love and cherish life, to nurture those around them, and to resist being incorporated into processes of oppression and wounding, all at levels perhaps never before experienced in our lives. And this quite necessarily involves a good deal of exploration and experiment. In the Turn Toward Life community, the search takes a particular set of forms, but we understand that people vary widely in their needs and temperaments regarding the spiritual life, and so we bless everyone who's path toward compassion may take a different form from ours.
Here is an outline of our community practice and structure I see it developing:
Community As a Circle of Supportive Friends -- Turn Toward Life is a circle of supportive friends who meet as equals, encourage one another to deepen their reverence for life, and reach decisions by consensus where group decisions are needed. Since the community is a circle of friends and not a church or corporate entity, we have no income, no expenses, no property, no liability insurance, no tax exempt status, no restrictions on our freedom to advocate for or against legislation, no funds to raise from participants or others, and no tax returns to file. (Whew!) This leaves us more free attention to devote to study, advocacy, meditation, prayer, celebration and creativity. We generally meet in one another's living rooms. (In the warm months we can have potlucks in parks or gardens.) One problem with traditional religious and spiritual organizations is that a few talented people get most of the attention. But the task of encouraging each person to take a more active role in serving the web of life requires that attention, recognition and encouragement be spread more evenly throughout a community, suggesting a circle as model, rather than a pyramid.
Interfaith, Pluralistic, Non-possessive -- We honor that even though we are converging on a core of shared values, we each converge from a different angle, a different life experience, and this is true whether we come from different religions, cultures, genders or just have different personalities. So our emphasis is on understanding one another rather than trying to agree on everything. Often when people try to understand one another, each person's position or feelings can shift in significant ways, which suggests that the effort to understand should always come before the effort to agree. Focusing on questions, as described below, makes a more accepting space for people to hold different answers, and also, quite significantly, more space for everyone's answers to evolve. Pluralistic means that belonging to this particular circle of friends is not intended to preclude someone from belonging to other circles of friends or more formally-defined communities/organizations. We welcome people who already belong to churches, synagogues, mosques and other spiritual communities. Non-possessive means that we do not claim unique ownership of our particular concerns, ideas and approaches. The truths and forms of eco-spirituality have evolved over many centuries in many cultures, and like sunlight, wind and sky, can be embraced and enjoyed deeply without needing to be possessed. It would be a mistake at many levels for any organization to claim to own them. My own particular vision is that whatever serves the emergence of more reverence for life should belong to all life. Therefore, all of our writings, practices, study guides, documents, etc., are in the public domain and any organization or community is welcome to use them free of charge and with our deep blessing.
Questions Instead of Answers With the help of many dear friends and great writers (including Rilke, the Quakers and Sam Keen) I have been working over the last year on a list of questions that could express the eco-spiritual quest. (This list can be amended by the community from time to time, and also by each individual as they define their own quest more clearly.) To sum up briefly the argument I make in Chapter One of Turning Toward Life , answers imply that the most important journey of discovery is, in some sense, already over. Questions, on the other hand, imply that the journey is beginning or ongoing. Our particular contribution to the emerging world of reverence-for-life-related spirituality is the focus on these questions as what we share and how we reach out to listen to one another and encourage one another. Here are the twelve. (In Turning Toward Life I include a commentary on each one.
Open-ended possible questions for the eco-spiritual quest:
1. life: How do I feel/experience/understand my life as part of and connected to the life of the world? (including, what people, animals and plants do I feel the deepest links with?)
2. meaning: What does reverence for life mean to me, today? How could I explore, expand and deepen these meanings? How are these meanings changing and evolving?
3. service: How am I called this day, this year, this decade, this lifetime, to serve the web of life? Also, what am I called to renounce or avoid? (For example, Buddhism contains a tradition against the making of weapons. Many religious denominations support people's decision refuse military service.)
4. exemplars: Who has inspired me to care more deeply about people and the web of life, and how have they inspired me? Whose love, integrity, work, creativity, energy and/or wisdom has opened up new possibilities for my life, and how will I remember/celebrate them? How will I carry on their work?
5. visions/virtues: In the course of the journey of my life, beginning today, what virtues, visions or principles do I want to embody? (Some may express this through affiliation with a spirit-guide animal.) Presently, which of these do I find most challenging, and how might I address this?
6. joy and sorrow: How will I make and deepen the place in my life that can hold both joy and sorrow? How could we support one another in addressing the world's suffering and woundedness.
7. gratitude & forgiveness: What is my path toward the interwoven processes of reconciliation, peacemaking, gratitude and forgiveness? Where in my current life am I called and challenged to work in these areas, and how might I nurture the skills necessary to move more fully in these directions?
8. sexuality: How will I express my sexuality in a way that weaves together my body, heart, mind and attention, and supports a similar emerging integrity in all those with whom I interact?
9. practice: What practices or disciplines will I explore, adopt or continue to help me focus my attention, mobilize my inner resources, and express my deepest aliveness?
10. life story: How do I currently understand the journey of my life, with whom do I share my life story, whose life stories do I receive, and how could I deepen all of these activities?
11. celebrations: What kind of activities, gatherings and celebrations would support my life of service and nurture my feelings of gratitude for the gift of life?
12. uniqueness: What are the unique challenges and questions of my life? What calls me forward to a deeper aliveness?
Some of these questions are so deeply personal that we imagine people may need a quite sheltering environment in which to discuss them. We encourage each person to explore these questions with the level of privacy that feels right.
Ongoing Quest / Daily Renewal What we share as a community, in addition to loving the Earth and all Her creatures, is a group of questions rather than a group of answers. What we hope for each participant is simply that a person feels called to love and serve the Web of Life, and that a person accepts these twelve questions (or other questions of similar intent) as worthy of their deepest response. Sharing these questions would not preclude a person from valuing other questions as well, taking particular vows or holding a creed specific to a particular religion. The real challenge is to live these values each day, not to promise that one will live them forever. While participants who feel called to take vows are deeply welcome to write or choose their own vows, even then I would encourage everyone to have a daily renewal emphasis as contrasted with the traditional once-in-a-lifetime emphasis. An entire new world of possibilities opens up when you accept each day as its own little garden, even that each breath is a new breath! We show that we share the challenges of the twelve questions by coming back to them again and again, and by helping others explore them.
One of the great temptations of religious and spiritual organizations is to try to complete with words what can only be completed in living and in reaching out to others. So that makes me want to be modest about the power of words, and especially about the power of once-in-a-lifetime declarations. I am also aware of a paradox involving hallowed words. If we were to make the words, "I hold these questions to be worthy of my deepest response" a required affirmation, I fear that we would cut the ground out from underneath the actual feeling, the felt discovery, that these questions point us in spiritually meaningful directions. The only way for the discovery to be real is for us to offer it but not to require it. So I have called them "possible questions" for the eco-spiritual quest. Only a individual can make any one of them an actual question by embracing it daily, by taking it to heart.
Exemplars instead of dogmas I have noticed that over the past 25 years there has been a considerable tilt in my spiritual life, away from theology and toward biography. I think that is because I gradually became aware that a person's life story could hold much deeper meanings that could ever be contained by a single word or concept or system of concepts. So I would like us to find a way of sharing the process of empowerment that comes to finding an exemplar to whom one's heart responds. There is a subversive and evolutionary/ revolutionary element to this. Extraordinary beings, whether we are talking about St. Francis, John Muir, Dorothy Day, Ramakrishna or Rachel Carson, show us that the dominant way of living is not the only game in town, not the only possibility. The deep gifts they give us are their radiant hearts and wide horizons, which are contagious and pass down through the generations like a flame traveling from candle to candle.
Continuity of Encouragement The heart of our association is to deepen our reverence for life, and our compassion for one another, by living with and responding to the twelve questions, and by opening to receive the transmission of spiritual energy that comes to us from exemplars. We are more a support group than an action group, precisely because in my experience most peace, ecology and social justice action groups do not provide much emotional support for their members. Thus I am moved by the vision that the only way to get more people active in defending the planet to develop a more emotionally sustainable form of activism. I envision our meetings and gatherings and celebrations as focusing on the two themes of responding to the questions and celebrating exemplars. (There is certainly enough material here to keep any person busy for several lifetimes.) Encouraging everyone to keep a journal, and sharing from one's journal at periodic gatherings could help people have a sense of continuity. And I would like our Turning Toward Life guide-book-on-the-web to keep on growing by receiving the contributions of wider and wider circles of participants.
Practices and Activities of Community Participants. Here are the actions that I see as fitting together to create the Turn Toward Life community. They are arranged more as directions in which to travel rather than as fixed destinations. In relation to each one, after a person has made some progress in a given activity, whether gardening, diet, meditation or study, etc., that person could offer to help others in their local circle to do the same. In keeping with our emphasis on participation rather than membership, and our emerging practice of mental non-possessiveness, we encourage all people everywhere to adopt any and all of the following practices, whether they do so as part of participation in our community or not. Since we are all part of the community of life (and since we are not involved in fundraising campaigns!), we do not have to draw a line that separates our practices of reverence for life from the similar practices of others.
1. Morning circle of prayer and meditation. Every morning when you wake up, you are invited to join a morning communion of all hearts, a circle of meditation and prayer on the gift of life. Participants in this activity have agreed with one another to begin each day by giving thanks for the mysterious gift of life that we receive from a living well of life beyond ourselves and by opening ourselves this day to serve all people and all life as our beloved kin. Please use whatever words, forms and silences that express your deepest sense of gratitude and connectedness. If your spiritual practice and/or religious tradition already includes morning prayers/meditations of gratitude and self-offering, we hope that you will do these practices each day knowing that we join our hearts and minds with yours.
The specific time does not matter. Whenever you wake up is fine.) Emerson wrote that for those whose hearts keep pace with the Sun, day is forever dawning. As more people come to participate in this activity, we hope to encircle the world in a perpetual prayer of gratitude.
As a way of participating in this activity more fully, we recommend that each person read and contemplate the themes developed in books such as Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer by Brother David Steindl-Rast, and A Grateful Heart , edited by Mary Jane Ryan. This practice is intended to be both very personal and also communal. We who are now involved in the Morning Circle invite you to make it more personal by building a little altar of gratitude where you live, perhaps containing leaves or shells or other gifts from life, pictures of animals with whom you feel a strong connection, and pictures of the people life has entrusted into your immediate care, a pictures of adults and children from the far corners of the globe, with whom our ecological fate is now completely joined. You are welcome to spread this practice by individual invitation to friends and family members. On your altar please feel free to include photographs of those with whom you have personally agreed to join in morning prayers and meditations of gratitude.
2. Find (or extend) the activities that allow you to live out more fully your reverence for life , by actively moving in the direction of treating all people and all life as your kin. Many paths serve the Tree of Life: protecting forests, oceans, wetlands, deserts and the creatures who live in them. supporting disarmament and peace on Earth, global sharing, compassion for the poor, the amelioration of social, economic, racial and gender inequalities, the renewal of life in cities, space for wildlife, parks and gardens, conservation and recycling in your community, and many others. As Joanna Macy explains in her various books and lectures, safeguarding the mountains of poisonous nuclear waste that humans have already created will require that we develop an extraordinary new sense of loving responsibility for the Earth and Her creatures that will guide and inspire people for hundreds of thousands of years! And this same imperative to love more deeply reaches us from many crises. Therefore, from the many ways that you can express your caring for the Earth, choose one or two toward which you feel strongly drawn, and let these one or two issues be your contribution to the Tree of Life and to the Turning Toward Life Community. No one person can work on all issues, but as a community we can work on many issues, and each person's activity on one issue can be a gift to all the others in the circle.
3. Begin (or continue) studying the classics of Earth-inclusive spirituality , such as Thomas Berry's The Dream of the Earth . or Tom Hayden's The Lost Gospel of the Earth . We hope you will read Turning Toward Life , a book of readings assembled specifically for this community, because it explores many of the central themes of eco-spirituality at greater length than can be done is this letter. (It is free on the web at www.turntowardlife.org.) I have included at the end of this letter our preliminary reading list of the classics of Earth-embracing spirituality.
4. Develop and/or extend one or more friendships dedicated to exploring reverence for life as a spiritual path , to serving the Web of Life, to exploring your evolving activities, commitments and the Community's process of creative self-questioning, and to mutual support in the unfolding of your awareness, understanding, compassion, creativity, courage, honesty, gratitude, sense of beauty and forgiveness (Life's unfolding in human beings). One way you can nurture this friendship is to accept one another as partners in the morning circle of prayers and meditations on gratitude, and discuss your journeys toward gratitude.
5. Start a study group or weekly potluck dedicated to exploring the community's Shared Possible Questions, as mentioned above and explained in Turning Toward Life (and as extended by your own concerns). Discuss and explore with others the evolution and living out of your commitments toward the Web of Life. Make yourself available to others as a spiritual companion in such explorations. Include gratitude and celebration in your gatherings.
6. Working with the themes and concerns expressed in the various commitments presented in Turning Toward Life , explore, develop and/or adopt a set of commitments that express your path toward a deeper reverence for life. You are welcome to adopt the Turn Toward Life commitments as developed by the community's founding circle of participants. And you are also strongly welcomed to use the materials presented here as starting places for your own journey of study, reflection, meditation and spiritual self-definition that will lead you toward your own unique commitments.
7. Find at least one person (or group) who is serving life in a way you admire , and find a way to recognize, encourage and support that person (or group) in their work.
8. Choose one or more Earth Saints or Luminaries of any culture or religion to whom you feel attracted, and learn as much about those persons, their lives and their work as you can. Find creative ways to let their lives be a blessing upon your life. Share with others what you learn and how you are changed by the study and contemplation of those lives.
9. Find gentle ways of publicly acknowledging your reverence for life and your loyalty to life, that feel appropriate and satisfying to you. Some people may feel called to acknowledge their reverence for life in dramatic ways, for example by adopting monastic dress of some sort, or by wearing black arm bands of mourning for people killed in wars and species of animals driven extinct. For others it could be as simple as wearing a bracelet of green beads that represents the connectedness of all living creatures. What is crucial is that you find a way of expressing your commitments toward life that is deeply your own.
10. Make a serious review of your diet and consider eating less meat, or giving up eating animal products altogether, for the good of Planet Earth, for the good of poor people everywhere who need the grain that is now fed to animals, and for the good of your own body.
11. Explore ways, in purchasing the necessities of life , to support individuals, farms and businesses that are working to sustain Mother Earth . For example, buy organic fruits and vegetables at your local farmers market.
In the past, a spiritual path of infinite compassion was thought to be the calling of only a few people with special talents and temperaments. But today, the suffering of the Earth and all Her creatures, a suffering for which humans are largely responsible, calls out to each person , not just a talented few, to live a life of endless caring, compassion and creativity.
We invite you to join with us in the healing and renewing of the world, in the various ways we have described above. We give thanks for all the ways in which you may already be serving the web of life. And we bless you to care for the life of the Earth in whatever ways and groups are appropriate for you. May we all walk this path with kindness, wisdom, energy and delight!
Inviting Circle of Participants:
Dennis Rivers David Richo Paloma Pavel
For more information about the history and approach of Turn Toward Life, please read the first essay in our community book of readings, Turning Toward Life
Classics of Earth-Inclusive Spirituality (a selection by Dennis Rivers)
The Dream of the Earth
World as Lover, World as Self