Letting go of our need to impact the future

This post begins my second year of offering weekly "conversations around the fire". If you are one of the friends sitting with me around this virtual campfire, welcome back, and Happy New Year! As with last year, 2013 began for me with a men's retreat on the first weekend after New Year's Day. What better place to begin this round of weekly reflections.

Our tradition celebrated its twentieth anniversary this year, with eleven of my closest male friends and colleagues meeting for three days of conversation and adventure. This year we traveled to Doe Bay on Orcas Island for our retreat. It is not an event that any of us would consider missing. In fact, we plan our whole year around it, and most years all eleven of the original members of the group show up. We range in age now from 52 to 84, and cover a professional spectrum that includes an architect, an attorney, a psychiatrist, a filmmaker, several clergy, a meditation teacher, and three commercial fishermen. Not your usual mix.

We began this adventure two decades ago with a strong desire to address the ecological costs of our current way of life. We still share that purpose, and most of us still see ourselves as "change-makers". But we have become more circumspect over the years about what that change entails, and less strident perhaps in how we hold our aspirations for change.

Most of us would describe ourselves as having a spiritual practice, though that practice varies in nature and context. Several of us, including some of the Christian clergy among us, have strong meditation practices drawn from Buddhist insight meditation. We always begin our days together with a half-hour of silent meditation, beginning in darkness, and sitting through to the first light of day. As a practice, this carries for us some symbolism about how to inhabit the darkness of our times, and an honoring of the annual return of the light, just now beginning to make itself felt.

The friendships that have been forged over these years feel especially privileged, considering the level of isolation and fragmentation that too many of us endure as a given in our lives. This annual retreat offers an expression of continuity and care in long-term friendships that is a wonderful antidote to the trend away from direct, in-person connection. We have a lot of fun together, enjoy a penchant for fine single malt whiskey, and build outdoor adventures into all our gatherings. But we also make time for more serious conversations, hosted each year by different members of the group.

This year we riffed on Meg Wheatleys' new book So Far From Home: Lost and Found In Our Brave New World. In the book, Wheatley takes on many of the assumptions that have anchored our activist culture for decades, and that have been core to our own activist agendas. She says, "I wrote this book for you if you offer your work as a contribution to others, whatever your work might be. And if now you find yourself feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, and despairing while also experiencing moments of joy, belonging, and increased resolve to do your work." As an alternative to the activist warrior mentality, she offers the image of a "warrior for the human spirit." With issues like climate change and cultural polarization continuing to deepen, despite our best efforts to turn them back, she articulates a middle way between anger and passivity, denial and despair, that can enliven our efforts to bring healing to the world, while freeing us from the burden of our attachment to specific results.

This is an operative paradox that I return to often in this blog - the elusive middle way I have sought in my own life and work between the truly daunting challenges we face, and our capacity to work joyously for the common good independent of whether we are "successful" in creating the changes we seek.

Our group's conversations about Wheatley's book were heated at times, and not all of us agreed with her proposed path of the spiritual warrior. These are emotional fault lines not easily reconciled with a culture of activism that is often anger driven, constricted by a sense of urgency, and bound to a feeling of personal failure and deep discouragement if reality doesn't accept our specific "demands". Wheatley's proposed path through this quandary requires a measure of spiritual discipline and trust in the "emergent" nature of reality that is often missing among activist networks. We could all agree with Wheatley's prescription that  we seek to "embody values and practices that offer us meaningful lives now." But some heat was generated by her next assertion that "we let go of needing to impact the future."

This challenge to the results-driven ideology of our culture is always a hard case to make. Why would we even want to let go of our need to impact the future? Yet it is our NEED to achieve certain results that causes the imbalance, not the efforts themselves. We can continue to give our best efforts, no matter what the outcome, and this is precisely what offers us access to resilience and joy in the midst of our efforts. The integrity and whole-heartedness of our desire to be present to our work, and to each other, is where our aliveness springs forth. And when you think about it, where else but from this aliveness - this joyful and unhurried embrace of the moment at hand - can a "future" worth striving for ever find purchase and take root?

May 2013 be a hinge time for all of us, in which we choose, again and again, to turn back toward that kind of aliveness, the kind that is always as close as our next action, and our next breath.