Talk given by Ruth Rosenhek


It’s a real honour and pleasure to be here at Schumacher again; it’s been a delight to spend some time at this educational institution and it’s an honour to be speaking with you this evening.

I’m going to speak on what I call From Fear to Freedom. As I was sitting there just now listening to my heartbeat, I thought “I get to practice this right away”. So hopefully I’m going to be feeling liberated within the twenty-five minutes that I have to speak, and the fear will have moved on.

I remember a time when I was in Philadelphia -- I’m from Canada; it’s a northern suburb of America – but I was living in Philadelphia and was walking down the street and saw this man who was mistreating his dog. I was with my partner at the time and he saw me make a move to go and intercede on behalf of the dog and he grabbed my arm a bit and pulled me away and discouraged me because he knew that I would go right over there…and so I didn’t – I didn’t intercede on behalf of the dog.

And I remember another time when I was in a supermarket and I saw a woman who was being a bit rough with one of her children and she had a lot of anger coming from herself and directed towards her child. I was afraid to intercede in that situation because I was afraid she would tell me it was none of my business and I would just add to the problem and I didn’t know the appropriate communication at the time. I didn’t know how to say, “Oh you look like you’re having a hard time; is there anything I can do to help?” And so instead I didn’t step in and do anything.

These are just a couple of small examples of the kind of situations that we face all the time in our daily lives, let alone knowing what to do when there’s really huge threats, the kind of threats in the world that can bring up great fear, hopelessness or a feeling of being overwhelmed or maybe even apathy and cynicism. We face these situations on a day-to-day basis often without the tools to effectively engage.

We might look towards a change in the economic, social and political structures and institutions but without undergoing a fundamental transformation of consciousness those changes that we put in place at the institutional level will not be binding. We need to look towards a simultaneous and underlying shift that moves us from the fears and apathy that we face towards a total spiritual revolution. a holistic revolution, a complete revolution that’s both inner and outer.

Aung San Suu Kyi from Burma, known as Myanmar now, says, “It is not enough merely to call for freedom, democracy and human rights, there has to be a united determination to persevere in the struggle, to make sacrifices in the name of enduring truths, to resist the corrupting influences of desire, ill-will, ignorance, and fear…. We must first learn to liberate our own minds from apathy and fear.”

Of course, it’s not that easy of a thing – we face a lot of challenges in the world today. I’d like to talk a bit about these challenges so we get a picture of why it is that we sometimes feel so overwhelmed.

Well, on the one hand, we’re in the midst of an extinction crisis; some scientists call it a mass extinction spasm. Biologists say that the natural rate of extinction should be a loss of one species every four years; others say one every year, so somewhere in that range. They estimate the current rate at twenty-seven thousand species each year, which is three species every hour. That’s enormous. And they say that given the continuation of the present trends, by the end of the twenty-first century we’ll lose fifty percent or more of the current species that exist on the Earth today.

In addition to this, there’s global warming, loss of topsoil, scarcity of water and the poisoning of our waters; there’s nuclear radioactive waste, genetic engineering, the list goes on and we hear about it all the time; it’s practically a litany of threats. And there’s a number of wars that go on as well, wars in the literal sense and then many others: the war against subsistence which we see in the globalisation of poverty; there’s the war of borders and boundaries which we see in the globalisation of imperialism and hegemony; there’s the war against human security which we see in global militarisation; there’s the war of exclusion that we see in racism; there’s the war on indigenous people that we see in colonisation and loss of the wisdom traditions; there’s the war on women which we see in trafficking and there’s the war against the other which we see in the refugee crisis that we face.

Indeed, there are a huge amount of challenges and it’s no wonder that any person might feel slightly overwhelmed facing these. George Monbiot says, “To live in these times without striving to change them, is like watching with serenity the oncoming truck in your path.” So indeed we do need to make some moves or this oncoming truck will bowl us right over.

The class we’re doing now is called Earth, Spirit and Action and we’ve talk a lot about compassion, and sometimes it might seem that I’m saying that we just need to feel with, that if only we could feel with what is happening on the planet, then that might be enough. But tonight I’m going to state clearly that this is not enough. It’s not enough to just be compassionate and to witness. Compassion is actually a behaviour. Compassion is an action. If we do feel with what’s happening on the planet, then we feel moved in some way to take some action. Instead we’re largely paralysed as I mentioned before, and I’d like to look a bit at what are some of the reasons – besides the enormous threats we face – that we find ourselves to be so paralysed and overwhelmed and so on.

One reason for our social paralysis might be found by looking at these feelings that are so completely overwhelming. We have grief, we have anger, we have despair, we have hopelessness.

For example, our hopelessness might lead us to believe that we are unable to activate “What can I do? I’m just one person amongst over six billion, after 13.7 billion years of evolution – how can I possibly have anything to do with what’s going to happen?”

We’re pathologised for having these feelings, and there’s an absolute taboo in our society against anything or any kind of feeling that’s too strong, and so instead of the feelings being affirmed as healthy reactions to the times – the natural reaction to the violence that plagues our planet, our home and the suffering inflicted upon our brothers and sisters – these feelings are denigrated and as a result we develop a sophisticated defense mechanism to suppress these feelings. Our outrage is turned inwards as we look inside ourselves to see what is wrong with us for having these feelings, and we try to find ways to fix ourselves, to better cope with a dysfunctional society.

Sadly, the feelings are not seen as the gems they truly are; in fact they are the fertile seeds of transformation that can be transformed into Love and the Energy of the Warrior. The strength and the courage and the desire to work for freedom and for justice arises from these very emotions: overwhelming anger and grief and despair – all of them – and if we just allow them their natural course, then transformed they will be, and moved we will be too.

In fact, our fear extends even further. We live in a society that’s largely what we might call biophobic; that is, we’re afraid of the natural system, we’re afraid of nature, the very biological fabric which we are inextricably a part of. E.O Wilson, the evolutionary biologist, talks about biophilia which is our natural love for the natural world, for all living things. It’s an affinity we have with it.

But here in modern society, we have the opposite, we actually feel more and more separate from the web of life, and we experience more and more of what we might call technophilia, where we feel comfort and safety in our homes and around machinery, computers, movies, video games. How many of you know that great feeling when you hear the on-line email connecting and you know you’re getting connected? This is comfort; these are the creature comforts of 2004. And we have a government and corporations that gladly reinforce this way of life. I’ll never forget how George Bush appeared all across the nation after September 11th to reassure everybody, that “Everything’s Okay. Go buy, Go fly.” Buying and flying, consumption of goods, are meant to be the creature comforts that replace a strong deep and intimate connection with nature.

But what Theodore Rosak says in The Voice of the Earth, is that “the repression of the ecological unconscious is the deepest root of collusive madness in industrial society”. And indeed we’re breeding a whole society of eco-illiterate people who don’t have the chance to develop a deeper eco-literacy or biognosis, a deeper understanding of the earth and natural processes, and instead to manipulate or remove nature is all too comfortable for most people. So it’s not good to have too many trees – one might fall on my house!

From this perspective, we do not readily engage in social or environmental change as we live in a world of technology where everything appears to be fine. Victor Frankl, a survivor of World War II who was in the concentration camps, calls this the ‘delusion of reprieve’. The delusion of reprieve, he says, is when prisoners in the war camps thought that something would happen, somebody would surely save them.1 Somebody would do something. He says that those people who survived the camps didn’t have this delusion of reprieve. Many of us have the delusion of reprieve, that something’s going to happen, it’s not really that bad, it’s going to be okay, scientists will fix it, medicine will fix it, we will be fine.

Another reason we might not feel to mobilise is that we don’t have a dream. The days of Martin Luther King getting up and saying “I have a dream”, that kind of energy is just not here anymore. Who is leading the way with the dream of where it is that we want to go in the future? There’s an organisational theorist, Peter Senge, who talks about creative tension. That’s the tension between where I am now and where I want to be, and in the larger sense we might experience this creative tension between the way we currently are living on the planet and the way we’d like it to be. Senge says this creative tension mobilises us, encourages us to move towards the vision. But instead, we don’t dream, we don’t dream about that time when we will live together harmoniously, peaceful, in a truly sustainable way on the planet. That’s idealistic or that’s not worth the costs. Maybe we’re afraid that we might fall short of that dream and be disappointed, that the dream won’t happen, and better to not dream than to have a dream that we won’t fulfil! That’s the belief. And again, that doesn’t create an agility to move forwards, to engage.

Finally, we might not engage because we are afraid of the lack of immediate success. We live in a society where we like quick and fast outcomes and we’re not that accustomed to waiting and letting things brew. We want to see the results. And oftentimes when you’re doing this kind of work, you don’t always see the results. As a matter of fact, you may suffer a few losses the first few times. But you know, when we first tried riding a bicycle, we fell off the bicycle a number of times before we could ride it; but we’ve forgotten that. We live in a day of fast motion, action-packed times. So we expect it to unfold like a Clint Eastwood or Arnold Schwartznegger movie of some sort, with instant results.

Yet despite all of these obstacles, the threats of extinction and other threats actually invite us to change. They invite us to transform ourselves and to become involved. Much like the fish that were set free from the oceans and swam onto sand, we too have the capacity to transform. Only what’s being asked here is not that we grow new limbs but that we have a transformation in our consciousness.

This transformation is not too much to ask. We’re the survivors of a long slew of species that didn’t survive. Over 99.9 percent of all the species that ever lived on the planet did not make it through the extinction sieves to be still living now. So only one tenth of one percent or one in a thousand species have managed to survive through all previous extinctions – and one of these species is us. That’s a really proud history that you and I have, that we have managed to make it. So we’re the adaptable, flexible beings that are still here. We can rest assured that it’s within our capacity and our intelligence to figure out what needs to happen so that we can go on. So this invites us, being on the brink as we stand right now, this invites us to go deeper into that intelligence that has led us to be here today.

We need to find ways to look for other ways of measuring our success and failure rather than through hope and hopelessness. Hope and hopelessness are rather like states of mind, somewhat like sad and happy; they’re very fleeting and not very dependable.

Chris, who has been facilitating the course was talking about working to stop the Heysham power plant at Mokum. They wanted to stop this power plant and then there was a vote on it and only twenty people out of three thousand voted to stop the plant after much hard work. How much hopelessness and despair that outcome brought up for him, and the others that he worked with.

So I said to Chris, “Well actually there’s other ways to look at that, besides the actual outcome. First of all we don’t know what other outcomes resulted from the work you did. For example, how many people were educated about the issue and how might they react the next time they’re faced with a similar issues.”

But one person that I like to draw on the best for wisdom on this matter is Martin Buber, who was a Jewish philosopher living at the end of the 1800s. He said that it’s very important for us to speak “Yes” or speak “No” when we’re the minority view in our societies and in fact the person who stands out alone or with a small minority forms the “yeast of a free society”. He says it’s not a matter of whether we get everybody over to our point of view, but that the mere fact of standing up for that truth and what we believe in is what continues to create democracy over and over again. In fact, he says it’s better sometimes when you don’t get your outcome because it’s just allowing for the freedom of speech to continue to happen that’s most important. So this is the kind of thing where we need to remember that just standing up, just speaking our truth is very powerful. It’s a strong action in and of itself.

Nietzsche on the other hand says that, “Deeds need time, even after they are done, to be seen and heard.” A lot of people are familiar with the fact that sometimes a change happens inside of us but it doesn’t manifest outside in the world for a while. The same thing happens with our work, that while we might be planting seeds, it may take a while before we see the growth. Everybody who has a garden is familiar with this. You don’t expect a seed that you plant in your garden – at least in my garden, a lot of the seeds that I plant don’t grow, sometimes even a whole crop doesn’t grow – but it doesn’t mean you stop planting. You might learn not to plant that seed there and you try it somewhere else next time, or you try a different way of planting it or you do it at a different time of the year. So these kinds of natural organic growth metaphors are really helpful for us when we’re doing the work, that if you do it at the right time, with the right seed, with the right caring, all of those factors, then if you’re lucky, you’ll see it sprout up. Even then it’s going to be subjected to all kinds of environmental conditions which will influence how the plant grows, how the change takes place.

It’s the same when you take action in the world, standing up for something, - maybe something very small, it doesn’t need to be anything very big – it takes time to see results. From the time the English Quakers first took on the issue of slavery, three quarters of a century passed before it was abolished in Europe and America. So that was quite a while to wait. And in America, the first widespread women’s rights movement took the same amount of time until the right to vote was given to American women. It takes quite a bit of patience and understanding to understand that it’s a long road, one that crosses a number of generations really, to do the work. And the work for women’s rights is in no way over; it continues on. The same as in any social justice issue right now, these are long standing campaigns.

In the Bhagavad Gita, it says, ‘Be not attached to the fruits of the action’. It talks endlessly about that, about not looking towards the outcome. If we can attach to our desire for outcomes the more overarching or underlying goal of our awakening or self-realisation, then we will be able to move outside of this dominant paradigm way of looking at success and failure. While our acts may not always lead to the fruits in the short term (or even the long term sometimes), ultimately the acts will have served to relieve suffering and each act of loving-kindness in the world is a beautiful act which can be called a so called ‘successful’ or completely fulfilled moment.

So we can shift our perspective and know that when we’re taking an action we’re not only doing it to get from A to B, but that we also do it for for the sake of all beings, for our self-realisation – however you want to put it, to better yourself as a person, to offer many acts of loving-kindness in the world, whatever works for each person, to frame our lives in a way that makes a prayer every step of the way whether we are washing dishes, working with colleagues, sending a protest letter, attending a rally or smelling the spring lilacs. If we have another goal that’s of a spiritual nature, then it lifts us outside of the paradigm of “I need to achieve this NOW.” And then we have a way to look at our work, every day and every moment of our life in terms of, “Was I working to self-realise myself today?” or “Was I working towards planetary transformation?”. While we’re at it, let’s go for the complete whole revolution, inner and outer!

Finally, I’d like to look at some evolutionary phenomena that Steven Jay Gould, an evolutionary biologist, talks about. Gould talks about punctuated equilibrium, which is that rather than slow and continual general changes that occur over time, evolution actually happens in fits and starts. So you might have periods of time when there’s not much change or only slow changes but then all of a sudden the fossil record jumps and new species appear, new things happen. As far as the kind of change in consciousness that we are striving for, we may very well be in one of those lulls right now, awaiting the next flourishing to occur. That’s the nature of how change happens; it doesn’t just happen in a gradual manner, it happens both ways.

It behooves us though to continue through all these times to continue to engage, to continue to self-activate. There’s a story, The Star Thrower by Loren Eisley – you’ve probably heard it - which comes to mind. It’s about a man who goes down to the beach and sees a young man picking up starfish from the beach and throwing them back into the ocean before the tide goes out and this guy looks at him and asks the younger fella what he’s doing, "If the starfish are still on the beach when the tide goes out and the sun rises high in the sky, they will die," replies the young man. "That’s ridiculous. There’s thousands of miles of beach and millions of starfish. You can't really believe that what you're doing could possibly make a difference!" says the other man. At which, the young man picks up another starfish and as he tosses it out into the waves, he says, “Well, it certainly matters to this one.”

And that’s the way it is, I think, with our work and our lives. It certainly matters to this person that I spent the time with them today, or it certainly mattered to this forest that I stood up for it, or it certainly mattered to me to work with indigenous people to reclaim their land. There’s always some way – it can be really small, it can be larger- but it certainly does matter.

Gould goes on to talk about The Great Asymmetry, which says that as you look back over life history, you see that for whole long stretches of time biodiversity flourishes, life goes on as normal, and then you get these great extinction spasms that whack everything back – like in the Permian era some 245 million years ago, over 95 percent of the species got lost – and all of the damage that’s done by these destructive periods by far overrides the sense of all the times that came before. That’s how we see it. And Gould goes on to say that it’s the same in our society, there’s many, many countless, beautiful acts of kindness and gentleness and beauty that occur every single day, all the time, yet instead we focus on the war, that murder that occurred, that violence that occurred. But if you go back over the course of your life, or over the course of your day, there are many many more things that happened that are fantastic and it’s the same worldwide. There are all kinds of beautiful things that are happening across the world all the time – we just don’t hear about them. We put all our attention to the ones that cause the most destruction. And this is what the media and government would have us do to create a climate of fear. To discourage us whenever possible from engaging in these times and to wrap a veil of smoke around us that keeps us from feeling strong solidarity with each other in our common cause, our common caring for each other and for this beautiful planet..

I’d like to end with a poem by Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Buddhist philosopher, write, teacher, activist who greatly influenced my path towards spiritual activism. The poem is called ‘Recommendation’.

Promise me,
promise me this day,
promise me now,
while the sun is overhead
exactly at the zenith,
promise me:

Even as they
strike you down
with a mountain of hate and violence;
even as they step on you and crush you
like a worm,
even as they dismember and disembowel you
remember, brother,
man is not our enemy.

The only act worthy of you is compassion-
invincible, limitless, unconditional.
Hatred will never let you face
the beast in man.

One day, when you face this beast alone,
with your courage intact, your eyes kind,
(even as no one sees them)out of your smile
will bloom a flower.
And those who love you
will behold you
across ten thousand worlds of birth and dying.

Alone again,
I will go on with bent head,
knowing that love has become eternal.
On the long, rough road,
the sun and the moon
will continue to shine.

Thank you.