Justine Huxley, CEO of St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, reflects on the learning from our second pilot retreat on deep adaptation, on maps for navigating dark times, and the role of faith and spirituality in radical resilience. ……….
It’s started. The floods and mass displacement in Japan, the earthquakes in California, heat deaths in France, wild fires in Spain. Whether we want to admit it or not, we know climate breakdown is upon us. Whatever we used to call ‘normal life’ is now only a facade. As possibility of mass extinction takes root in our collective consciousness, carrying on as usual is no longer an option. From this moment forward, our activism, our aspirations and our lives – unless they are lived in full conscious relationship with that intensifying destruction – are just a fantasy.
At St Ethelburga’s, we have spent the last 10 days digesting the experience of our recent retreat on deep adaptation. It was not an easy experience to put into words. An earlier blog told the story of our journey – the process of building community, mapping the trends we expect to see in the future, facing our fears of suffering, loss and death head on, working through the 4 R’s of deep adaptation: reconciliation, relinquishment, resilience and restoration, and finally discerning our ‘manifesto’ of deep adaptation – the core values we want to hold fast to, as we walk into this landscape of primal upheaval.
We found this time together powerful and essential. Our questions now are about how to find our own authentic approach, and how to take this work forward. If deep adaptation is about both reconciling ourselves inwardly to the magnitude of what is coming, whilst also mobilising to slow down the slide into chaos and conflict, where does it sit alongside peace work and reconciliation, direct action, spiritual ecology and social justice?
Our experience was primarily of the tremendous value in coming together across diverse communities to confront the unthinkable. Facing our fears head on and engaging in the work of inner and outer preparation, took us to a dark place, but also grounded us in something Real – by connecting us to the truth of our collective situation – and connecting us more deeply to something beyond ourselves. Something eternal, that will outlive our collective human stupidity.
From that place we can stop running. If we stop running outwardly through frenetic action, and stop running inwardly through psychological denial – we can actually be present to the moment. We can make choices that mean something. We can listen – to our own hearts and instincts and to Life as She speaks to us. And perhaps we can hold open a door for those around us who also want to take that step.
I see value in creating a network of individuals and organisations who are rooted in a place of realism, able to embody their deepest values, and to hold an inner alignment which is about a way of being as much as a plan of action. Facing our fears and coming out the other side gives an inner stability and strength that will be much needed if the collective begins to descend into mass panic or moral regression.
With that in mind, I wanted to offer some additional reflections on our experience as facilitators that might be helpful for others in this emerging field.
The need for community and support
The enormity of climate breakdown and the danger of mass extinction can easily overwhelm. We may know the facts about the melting of the polar ice caps or the destruction of species in our minds, we may understand the threat of global conflict or the likelihood of unprecedented displacement on a mental level, but allowing that knowledge in, as experiences we as individuals are likely to face before the end of our lifetime, is a different matter. We need to do this work in community. Building safe containers for these conversations seems essential. The nature of the material may also bring into sharp relief differences within groups – such as generational perspectives, faith perspectives and those around power and privilege. As facilitators we need to be able to work with those differences skillfully, provide systems of support and aftercare, and also build in deep solidarity with those in the global south and elsewhere whose lives are already being torn apart. We may also need careful recruitment and application processes to ensure those we work with are resourced well enough to cope with what this work opens up.
One of our key learnings was that to face up to our present reality unavoidably means to confront death. Not just the death of animal species and strangers in parts of the world we have the privilege to distance ourselves from – but our own potential death and that of our loved ones. There is a difference between reading a horrific news report and scrolling past, and being willing to accept the possibility that these things may happen to us. The keynote in our retreat turned out to be a conversation about death, and our fears and imaginings about how that might happen. This included both fear of the chaos and suffering of societal collapse, and individuals own feelings about their personal death. To me this had the flavour of an initiation – a very necessary and powerful one – after which working through the 4 R’s of deep adaptation had a different impact.
Faith, spirituality and values
All of St Ethelburga’s work is rooted in our four stories: seeking the opportunity in crisis, building community across differences, putting values into action, and protecting what is sacred. These form our own values-based map for navigating dark times, for deep adaptation to the challenges that are coming. They also reflect our hope for transformation, our building blocks for the more beautiful future that may still be possible (though perhaps in a longer time frame than might once have been possible). These are fundamentally faith based values, reflecting a theology of interdependence.
Though our pilot retreat did not explore faith and spirituality directly, we made space for meditation and contemplative walking. And the majority of our participants came with strong faith commitments in a number of different traditions. As the work of the retreat unfolded, we a clear sense that people of faith have an important contribution to make, for several different reasons. In facing the potential for trauma, suffering and mass extinction, those standing firmly in a relationship with something eternal will bring an essential note of deeper resilience. They can become ‘chaplains’ of our times – not necessarily through any kind of ministry, but simply by holding a connection with something beyond.
St Ethelburga’s response to ecocide for the last few years has been spiritual ecology – ecological activism based in the understanding of Earth as sacred. We see that worldview as essential in countering the consumerism and extractive economic model that has got us into this mess. We will be seeking to weave that different relationship with Earth into our deep adaptation as part of the restoration theme, and reaching out to other individuals and communities who are also seeking to bring that way of life alive. We see much inspiring leadership in this area from the younger generation, and also see the potential for a much greater contribution from faith leaders and elders.
‘Preparing’ for climate breakdown
The science suggests we are already in a runaway climate breakdown scenario, where changes that have previously progressed in linear ways, are now changing exponentially and will begin to interact like toppling dominoes with potentially catastrophic results. There is an enormous unpredictability about what we are facing and the more we unpick what ‘preparation’ might be, the more the whole concept begins to recede and seem frighteningly naive. One of our team recalled the ‘preparation’ she went through during pregnancy to ready herself for the birth of her child. After 24 hours of the intense pain of labour, she described herself as a ‘broken human being’ and any sense of what preparation had meant had faded into a realm that bore little relationship with what was actually happening. This analogy seemed powerful and relevant. This doesn’t obviate the need for urgent action on food resilience or disaster response planning – but perhaps our plans and preparations will be discerned differently if we are honest about their limitations.
We approached reconciliation primarily through the lens of coming to terms with our collective situation and asking what we as individuals might need to make peace with. However, the retreat brought up questions about other kinds of reconciliation across differences that might emerge. Collapse may bring unprecedented conflict. But are there also other possibilities? Individuals facing a terminal diagnosis sometimes have the ability to make peace in their families, to forgive major wrongs or to build bridges in remarkable ways. Whether that can translate into our global situation remains to be seen.
A whole system approach
As facilitators, we found ourselves to be less separate from the process than in normal trainings. The fundamental uncertainty of our future means few of us can position ourselves as experts. The theme touches all of us, inescapably. We were inside the process as well as holding space for others.
Our sense on completing this second pilot is that we cannot develop this work for our communities with any integrity unless we are continually doing the work to deeper levels ourselves. We also feel a need to work it through our whole organisational system with that understanding flowing into all our decisions and narratives.
Climate breakdown is an all-encompassing threat. Normal life is already in the past. Nothing any of us do as activists or peacemakers makes any sense now unless it is lived in full conscious relationship with that fact.
We are grateful to the brave and inspiring participants who started this journey with us, and all those on the wider stage who have been breaking through the systems of denial that have bound us for so long. The future may be harsh, but there is energy in our rising to meet it, and there is power in our truth-telling.
St Ethelburga’s will be hosting more retreats on deep adaptation in the coming months, and launching a new series on deep adaptation and radical resilience in the autumn.