My Silent Teacher: the past knows more than we think

In 1999 and 2000, I joined forces with my karmic collaborator Elise Crohn to initiate the Gaia’s Witness Pilgrimage Project. There is so much to say about this work, and so much that continues to be relevant today.   There isn’t a website for Gaia’s Witness, because that was before websites were really a thing. Cell phones weren’t a thing. Nothing of it was live streamed or podcasted. We used human connections and the postal service and the telephone to organize a 28-day walk to sites of profound ecological damage — first to the Gulf of the Farallones, and the following year to Butte Montana.  

Both Elise and I were what you might call activist-refugees — having fled from the extractive/addictive/burnout trajectory of conventional social change work, we were seeking sanctuary by going deeper and closer to the truth.  

We walked for days and weeks, past rampant wildfires in Montana and gridlocked interstates in California. We practiced Tonglen. We slept in cemeteries and on beaches, listening to our dreams and painting and dancing and storytelling our way toward something that could feel honest and real about our world.   

We were fueled by the conviction that the creative heart and intelligent body and the community of women who formed our ensemble were all somehow part of the healing of this Earth.   

I’m telling you this now because it’s easy to drop the thread of what we know to be true. There were 7 women in all, plus a core of spaceholders who did not do the walk with us but shared dreamspace with us from home. The journey was profound and wrenching and disappointing and powerful and boring and confusing and gorgeous and brave.   

We each returned to our homes with a feeling of trauma and despair. It wasn’t a time when everyone discussed eco-grief and PTSD. We had our teachers to guide us – Joanna Macy and Thich Nhat Hanh and Peace Pilgrim. We dispersed. We tended our personal lives. We had seen something raw and direct, but didn’t know exactly how to find the bridge between what we had witnessed and the ‘business as usual’.    

And so, there the whole experiment sat, simmering well below the surface, growing with time into a silent teacher.  

It’s been 20 years and I see more and more each day that what we were up to with Gaia’s Witness was a hard core dress rehearsal for what is asked of us now. We are asked to SEE, to LOVE, to EXPRESS, and to CONNECT.

The antidote to this time is not to ‘fight the power’, not to exhaust ourselves by attempting to use the “master’s tools” to dismantle the house. The antidote is to use our *birthright tools* of imagination, of community, of authentic expression and embodied presence. All of them within reach. All of them generative rather than extractive.  

What about you? What magic in your lifetime and lifework have you been holding close to the vest? How do we thread these acts of power from the past into the story of now. What do we encounter along the way? I find my own mind uses the language of cynicism to disavow many courageous actions. Was it naïve? Was it foolhardy? Was it self-righteous or heavy-handed? Was it just too weird? Is it possible that these are the exact flavors we are missing in our recipe for transformation?  

There is much more to say about this, and I would love to hear what is alive within you as you read and consider. For my part, I am returning to the wilderness in the days ahead. I will be listening and tending my ecological heart, and opening to the vision of our collective wholeness awakening.  I hope you’ll dream along with me and share what you find along the way.