Sunday, October 5, 2014

Contemplative Social Action: Kim Beyer-Nelson and Sue Sutherland-Hanson


This question and answer sermon was delivered by Sue and I at the North Kitsap Unitarian Universalist Church in Poulsbo, WA on Sunday, October 5, 2014.  It is about the process of co-creating Invitation to Openness, a book of poetry we wrote over the course of a year.  The proceeds from the publication will be wholly donated to support ocean ecology and particularly the work of University of Oregon professor Kathleen Dean Moore, a woman who spends tremendous time in front of audiences helping them find ways to act in social and ecological justice issues without betraying the deep Purpose and temperament of individuals.  The book will be available in a couple of days on Amazon.com in Kindle and paperback editions and will be produced in audio in the near future.  Enjoy!

Questions from Sue and answers from Kim:

What have been the touchstone(s) on your exploration of how to be involved in justice work with your way of being in the world?

There is a very helpful concept that I have been playing with, and it goes something like this:  what is your Purpose (with a capital P), if you believed that nothing really needs to be fixed in this moment, that for this breath and the next, what you are is whole and complete and so is everything else?  So if you say you have come to teach or heal or whatever, that is predicated on the idea that something is wrong.  It is predicated on some kind of action.  So what is your purpose in this sense, when it isn’t a doing but rather a being?  I have been gifted with the word Oneness as a way to describe my own Purpose.  I think everything I authentically do leans on this rugged ocean-side boulder (it’s bigger than a touchstone).  It informs how I see the world, from the tiniest microbes to this lovely human being sitting here with me, to the span of stars.  It’s the Oneness that keeps my eyes a little soft and gentle when I could fill pages with the many ways we are not one. It is the part of me that murmurs to my heart and mind to stay open, receptive, watching with a nurturing kind of awe.

Can you think of examples of the arts particularly writing but not exclusively that have moved a social justice cause forward?  How is it similar and/or different to this writing project?

Silent Spring of course comes to mind, but also works by Teilhard de Chardin and other “ecotheologians” like Matthew Fox, Annie Dillard, Thomas Berry. Listen to the passion in these folks, how we are called to attend, to be co-creators of reality, how we are knit into the world and diminished when any part of it diminished and how our very creativity is the means to our survival:

“The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” 
 
Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek


“We see quite clearly that what happens
to the nonhuman happens to the human.
What happens to the outer world
happens to the inner world.
If the outer world is diminished in its grandeur
then the emotional, imaginative,
intellectual, and spiritual life of the human
is diminished or extinguished.
Without the soaring birds, the great forests,
the sounds and coloration of the insects,
the free-flowing streams, the flowering fields,
the sight of the clouds by day
and the stars at night, we become impoverished
in all that makes us human.” 
 
Thomas Berry

“We are not consumers. For most of humanity’s existence, we were makers, not consumers: we made our clothes, shelter, and education, we hunted and gathered our food.

We are not addicts. “I propose that most addictions come from our surrendering our real powers, that is, our powers of creativity.” We are not passive couch potatoes either. “It is not the essence of humans to be passive. We are players. We are actors on many stages…. We are curious, we are yearning to wonder, we are longing to be amazed… to be excited, to be enthusiastic, to be expressive. In short to be alive.” We are also not cogs in a machine. To be so would be to give up our personal freedoms so as to not upset The Machine, whatever that machine is. Creativity keeps us creating the life we wish to live and advancing humanity’s purpose as well.” 
 
Matthew Fox, Creativity

I think we, Sue and I, have not written directly at a certain issue, but rather, understood that the ripples produced by being poets can be nudged toward people who are deeply called to be the front line folks, the speakers for the environment, the motivators and challengers.  That’s a very different kind of calling from being an artist, one that is important and powerful when it is wholly authentic, and our work then becomes to direct our energy (in the form of poetry and then money) to support those doing the more overt forms of action.  It’s all an energy transfer really—from seeing the world through our own eyes, responding and making from that gift from the world a small creative act, an offering, and then passing that energy into other hands.  This is the very nature of both communion and resurrection.  In this way, I feel we see, we digest, we create and the creation moves forward in the avenues where our intentions have pointed it.  Very mystical and very practical.
 
Can you explain what role beauty and silence can have in social activism?  How do you respond to the charge that those might be unnecessary extras when it comes to desperate times and topics?

We begin to resemble that which most holds our attention.  If we see beauty around us, we will want to preserve it because it has become a part of us—it’s purely and deliciously selfish.  That blurring of boundaries, of what is “me” and what is “other” is what leads not just to great art, but also, it is the heart of social activism of any stripe.  There is nothing so powerful as a selfish motivation.  I say this is the very best sense of the word.  Beauty alerts us to that need to preserve, to appreciate, to see the loveliness in ourselves. It’s said that you cannot see something-a skill, a joy, a darkness or a despair-- unless you have first felt it in yourself.  Everything in social action is first a function of that kind of compassion and response to both beauty and darkness. 

The silence, at least for me, is the bowl where I make the second movement of a response—I see what I am, what I am thinking and feeling and do not confuse the larger world with myself.  This is important; without this backwards step, I will inflate, burn out, be too shrill to be heard because I am prone to self-protecting in a negative sense.  Again, this is a part of compassion—first the deep abiding with, then the soft-eyed separation.  It’s like cycling between diffuse and focused awareness.  It’s a kind of contemplative mysticism, seeing the world like this.  One and not-one and both are absolutely valid.  The social activist needs to hold both with exquisite care or their actions do become wholly selfish not Selfish with a capital S.

How did working collaboratively with Sue influence the effort and differ from projects of this nature where you worked alone?

Do any of us ever work alone?  :-)  Seriously, I think every poem I’ve ever written since I was thirteen was a conversation with this rock, that person, this idea, that feeling.  Poetry is wholly relational.  The difference has been the mirroring and holding of the process of creating a sustained and longer work, the idea that four hands are supporting this entire project.  That’s the beauty of great social action movements, too, the sense that you aren’t doing this alone, that there will be many gazes around the circle of the issue, lots of points of view and so fewer chances to drop the proverbial ball.  I’m looking forward to the birthday of this project, watching the ripples go out—the bobbing as the book is picked up and read by folks, the little lapping waves as book becomes dollars becomes motivational speaking becomes a turning back to seeing beauty around us and our ability to take small, sweet steps to preserve that.

Questions from Kim and answered by Sue

When do you remember the light going on that "action" might have many textures and voices?  What was that moment like for you?

In regards to the light going on, I don’t remember a “a-ha” moment, but I do remember some interesting influences towards this idea that social action can be done by many types and in many ways.
I recall a satisfying project when I was a university student studying art .  I met a lovely group of Palestinian and Jewish women who were traveling to different synagogues and churches to discuss peace on a panel.  I volunteered to do the art project for the Vacation Bible School and invited these women to help me introduce the art project which involved writing the kids names in Hebrew and Arabic script and then decorating them.
This project contained two ingredients that have been a major theme for me:  the arts and relationship. Later, the role of writing arose to the surface. Somewhere in my forties I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  I was utterly fascinated by this book, its author, the audience and its influence on abolition. Harriot Beecher Stowe helped people see the plight of the slaves on a personal level by helping them relate to the characters in the book.  She used the art of writing and story to help people enter into relationship with a people group they had distanced themselves from or were invisible.
 Writing relates to a second combination of essential themes to me- both in my sense of spiritual practice and the role of the arts and living life meaningfully: these themes are Seeing and story. I suspect these two themes influences the following poem which is included in our upcoming book. I had just read a rare AP news article that humanized a Palestinian.  I was moved and wanted to extend the perspective:

Ahmed – Prince of Peace

Before you, boy, I knew so little.
I met a Palestinian once in an airport.
He guessed I was afraid and I was.
Newspapers print black and white words
like all, and terror, and revenge.
I’ve learned a little since then
of Naomi’s poetry,
of Shaheen’s music,
of the warmth of chickpea soup,
and the white of goat yogurt.

The soldier said he mistook you
for a militant – you, a 12 year old boy.
Ahmed, he was partly right. When you died,
militant spirits poured out of you
rampaging the hospital corridors-
demanding the lurking spirits of death
let live the Arab, the Jew, and the Druse
who received your lungs, your liver,
your heart.

What did you whisper to your father
that gave him the courage to love
the children who received these
while you, his own son, lie dying?
What kind of heart beats like yours,
miraculous heart, heart of Christ,
of every true prophet?

When the doctors lifted the still pumping heart
from your small body
true religion fell on its knees
begging to witness the crown of ages
lowered on your sweet head.

Ahmed, my prince of peace,
the next Palestinian I meet
will make me think of you
and I will want to kiss their feet.
(SSH)


We're talking about contemplative social action today...what does that mean to you?

To me, the word Contemplative describes a focus either directly within through breath as with meditation or by focusing on a text/object that helps us quiet, be in touch with the reality of ourselves in the moment and be open to how our interior observing how it might insect with the Divine.  This helps us be mindful and aware of when emotions or unexamined stories absorb us with negative influence. 

It also helps us see our connection to others, helps us see how we have all types of energies within us, but with the help of faith traditions we learn to do this seeing with the practice of compassion, lack of judgment,  which increases our generosity with others, an important practice when we are confronting injustice.   I think of Thick Naht Hanh’s poem , Please Call Me By My True Name:  He wrote about this poem: 

This poem is about three of us.
The first is a twelve-year-old girl, one of the boat
people crossing the Gulf of Siam. She was raped by a
sea pirate, and after that she threw herself into the
sea. The second person is the sea pirate, who was born
in a remote village in Thailand. And the third person
is me. I was very angry, of course. But I could not take
sides against the sea pirate. If I could have, it would
have been easier, but I couldn’t. I realized that if I
had been born in his village and had lived a similar life
– economic, educational, and so on – it is likely that I
would now be that sea pirate. So it is not easy to take
sides. Out of suffering, I wrote this poem. It is called
“Please Call Me by My True Names,” because I have many names,
and when you call me by any of them, I have to say, “Yes.”

I also think of Thomas Merton responding to the young peace activist who committed his life full time to world peace efforts. After five years, he saw no results and wrote to Merton of his discouragement.  Merton advised him to trust the work is not lost, because he may not live to see the results.  That reminds me of Jesus telling his disciples that they are harvesting seeds somebody else planted.  Contemplative Social Action can help us have that kind of patience and view. 
Kim says that she sees contemplation as a support for those on the front lines.  And I would like to add that through contemplation, we can change the energy and plant seeds through this interior work.  It can also be something that moves the contemplative to the front line and deepen/nuance the work of those acting with warrior energy.  

Tell us a little today about the evironmentalist that changed your ideas of what social action could look like...

I have been attending the annual Fisher Poets Gathering in Astoria, Oregon for several years now. In addition to great story telling and poetry and folk music, I attend films and lectures on the health of fisheries which depends on the on the health of our seas.   There I learned about ocean acidification, which is a casualty of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.[2] An estimated 30–40% of the carbon dioxide released by humans into the atmosphere dissolves into oceans, rivers and lakes. This  changes the PH balance needed for the development of exoskeletons of the tiny creatures at the bottom of the food chain as well as bi-valve shells, crabs, lobsters etc.  I went into a paralyzed funk of despair .

I almost didn’t go to last year’s presentation by philosophy professor and nature writer, Kathleen Dean Moore’s .  I didn’t know if I could survive it.  She was speaking about our Moral Obligation to Respond to The Climate Crisis.

I not only survived it –I was converted by it.   It was full of beautiful images of nature,  essential facts, f inspiring quotations, and of course, careful logic addressing reasons a person might not take advantage of this sliver of time we now have to act.  And She named my reason:  paralysis.  Somehow, she dislodged it. 
She defined justice as speaking for those powerless due to lack of voice.   She named the voiceless as  our children, the future, and creation itself.  She named pulling together as community, buying and acting locally and keeping politicians accountable at the heart of an effective response.

At the end, the two-hundred some people couldn’t move.  Many of us were weeping and nearly all were spontaneously organizing.  Someone knew a bill to watch, someone knew rep’s contact info, someone knew an organization to look into, a local market, etc. I left empowered and energized and impassioned. 
Kathleen is very different from me in that she is a non-deist, but like me, she experiences the sacred in nature and respects people’s diversity.   I’m ecstatic to be donating the proceeds of our book to Kathleen’s work and the care of our oceans.  

Help us to pass the message caring on--consider purchasing a copy of 
Invitation to Openness  




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