Simultaneously published on the Transition US blog
My longing for cultural transformation and ecological healing has called me into an apprenticeship in the tending of collective grief. At the first grief ritual workshop I attended, psychologist and soul activist Francis Weller paraphrased Carl Jung, saying "where there is trauma, the imagination stops." For me, this statement defines the necessity for grief work. The unhealed trauma we are carrying is narrowing the capacity of our imaginations to imagine a transition into a more beautiful world. To reconnect to the vastness of our imaginations, we must journey through the initiatory threshold of grief.
This dominant culture has been steeped in trauma for so many generations that we accept it as normal. We have long ago passed through fight or flight and entered freeze, preceding as if the systems around us have not already begun to disintegrate. The devastating shocks of our time are not anomalies but the system functioning in exactly the way it was designed to: the isolated individual cut off from all sources of nourishment, in exclusionary competition with an alien other. But often people are too stuck in the cycle of trauma to be able to see this. It's as if our imaginations have themselves become immobilized—narrowed by our unprocessed trauma and a vast, undefinable grief for some deeper belonging we don't even remember we've lost.
I believe that the necessity of our time, the only possibility for (r)evolution, is to expand our imagination by fully grieving the depth of our culture’s disconnection from authentic sources of nourishment. Our collective grief is a radical act, it brings us to the roots of the crisis—this crisis that stems from a wounding displacement from earth and community and violent perpetuation of the same wound on people with an intact connection to their indigeniety. This disconnection has spread across the world in the form of an ideological monoculture, which—through its refusal to witness its own mortality—deadens everything it touches.
We must witness the generations of unprocessed trauma each of us carries as we walk through this shame-bound, self-isolated “normal.” We must feel the immeasurable absence of a larger body of community whose witnessing, love, and support was supposed to create the container in which we could fully experience our emotions. We must grieve our dis-memberment from our widest self of earth, the loss of our relationship with the ecological presences around us, and the absence of a cosmology stemming from the vital experience of the sacred infused in all life.
The full force of this witnessing calls for many rituals and sanctuaries to fully hold our grief.
The dominant monoculture does not offer us safe spaces to tend our collective grief and so the grief often stays stuck inside our bodies, unwitnessed. As the grief builds up, the thought of releasing it can feel so dangerous that to protect ourselves, we choose to numb the pain instead, distracting ourselves with what Francis Weller calls the “secondary satisfactions” of our culture. This numbing is a completely appropriate response in a society without community or ritual support for the tending of grief. Solitary grief is traumatizing, especially when the grief is seen as something shameful that must be hidden from others.
Grief cannot fully be released from the body if it is experienced in isolation—we need to hold each other in community and mutual witnessing, drawing on the presences of an animate earth, offering our tears as food for the ancestors. When experienced on this deep level, our grief becomes initiatory, bringing us into the deeper witnessing of death-as-cycle that initiates the adolescent into adulthood. Grief brings us into full relationship with what we love, what we long for, what we will fiercely protect—it orients us towards a sense of self expanding out beyond the boundaries of our skin.
Through an embodied and expressive grieving process, we can begin the work of healing the ancestral trauma collected in our bodies over hundreds, if not thousands of years. By passing through the threshold of our collective grief, we will begin to re-member ourselves into an Ecological Imagination in which we are interwoven in relationship with the other beings around us, opening new possibilities for the transformation of culture and the living of our gifts.
As part of this process of remembering our belonging, I am creating the Earth Grief Project to seed conversations about collective grief within groups working towards cultural and ecological transformation. The project draws on the work of Francis Weller, Joanna Macy, and my studies with Valérie Thomé of Souland (www.souland.org) in her process of the Grief Composting Circle.
Earth Grief Project was inspired by two newly forming groups coming out of the Transition Town Movement: the Inner Resilience Network and the Stories to Action: Building a Community of Results Cohort. In both groups, I heard seasoned activists and healers speaking of the absence of spaces in which to tend the collective grief they were carrying. They spoke of the lack of support for their grief as a contributing factor to burnout and (as Aldo Leopold so aptly puts it) the feeling of "living alone in a world of wounds.” My hope is that the Earth Grief Project can help to weave a mycelium of support for the embodied expression of collective grief.
My apprenticeship with grief-tending has helped me to re-member that a deep purpose of human existence is to listen to the imagination of the earth. This Ecological Imagination offers a different way of witnessing the crisis our disconnection has created. In this different way of listening, there comes a moment when we discover that in the absence of our tears, the waters that are rising can teach us how to flow. And as we freeze into immobility, the Earth is showing us how to melt. We are being invited back into a deeper relationship in which our collective grief is the gift we release to the Earth, the only gift that can witness the full vastness of our belonging.