Wednesday, May 24, 2023


Power and the Spirit at the Hermitage

Delivered at the April, 2023 conference on the uses and abuses of power sponsored by Harvard Divinity School

Here at the Hermitage, a Harmonist community in central Pennsylvania, our bottom line is that the earth is incarnated spirit, that we are created by the spirit; sustained and maintained by the spirit at every moment; and, at the end of our apparently individual lives, we return to the spirit to be taken apart and recycled again and again through countless eons of time as the spirit unfolds. We are the stuff of stars and dinosaurs.

A line from the Judeo-Christian tradition says “This is the day the Lord has made.” As Harmonists, we have a different take: this is the day the spirit is making. Note the present tense and the active gerund form of the verb, the ongoing being and becoming of the spirit, creating an underlying unity and wholeness of existence.

However, our birds here at the Hermitage are having none of that. As I was feeding lettuce to the chickens this morning, a hen grabbed a large chunk and ran protectively away with it, and I could just hear her thinking, “Mine! All mine!” And then there was the goose who, despite standing in a veritable sea of cracked corn, nonetheless thought “Mine! All mine!” as another goose approached to eat and the first goose went wild, lowered its head, extended its long neck and chased the encroaching bird around the barn yard, hissing and honking. Meanwhile, the smart geese came up and ate their fill.

And don't think this is just for birds. Recently as I was driving to Harrisburg and getting on the on-ramp for the freeway, I noticed an impatient vehicle behind my old, slow van edging out and getting ready to pass me and anger immediately overwhelmed me and I thought, “My space! All mine!” and swerved out in front of it to head it off, which was dangerous, stupid, and which I immediately regretted, and spent the rest of the day being a most repentent and courteous driver, letting people on and off and graciously sharing the freeway, and there was a lot to share. We weren't running out of freeway.

So I don't know if I was being more birdlike, or if the birds were being more human, or if all of us were just similar living organisms, all caught up in Aristotle's world, where A is A, B is B, and C is C, and where the underlying unity and wholeness of life is sliced and diced into apparently discrete and separate bits and pieces, and you and I are among those bits and pieces.

This is what I call the illusion of the egg. Think of a nest of eggs, and inside every one is a growing chick thinking, “Mine! All mine!” Its entire world is contained inside the opaque shell, with no idea that there is anything beyond it. And yet this illusion has a purpose; it helps us realize that we, as apparently independent organisms, need to survive; we need food, water, shelter, and it empowers us to meet those needs so we can survive; it activates us.

Of course, taken to an extreme, we develop pecking orders, a survival-of-the-fittest mentality, where not only is what's mine is mine, but what's yours is mine as well, especially in a world without consequences. That is how hierarchies develop, pyramids of power, with broad bases but typically only one person at the top, traditionally a white straight guy. We live surrounded by hierarchies; hierarchies of politics, finance, business, media. And that sucking sound you hear is power going from the broad base up to the top. But those at the top – whether pharaohs, czars, presidents or CEO's – don't always attain their power unethically. We give politicians our votes; we send money to Amazon; and we expect things in return through some kind of transaction.

It's easy to say this is the way of the world, but what if something happens? What if we peck through the shell and sunlight comes streaming in and we stand up and see our brothers and sisters coming out of their shells and we realize we are actually part of something much bigger than we thought? This gives us a new context, a new perspective, and our understanding of the world and ourselves is forever changed.

Let's say you're a penguin and you're swimming in the ocean and you come across an iceberg, and you see the tip sticking up out of the water and you think, “That's me.” But then you take a deep dive and you go under water and you see this vast mass and you just gasp, “Oh, my word.” And you realize this vast mass is also you, that you are part of it, and the little part sticking out of the water is connected and part of this big thing under the water. Let's see how that new perspective affects our understanding of who we are and the world we inhabit.

Let's start with me as being connected with the spirit. How can I understand what that means? How can I understand the implications for nurturing the spirit? For serving the spirit? It starts with listening; listening with intent, active listening. It demands concentration but it's also a learned skill. By listening to the spirit, we understand how it works through us.

Now, let's go up the chain of increasing social complexity to our significant other or others, if we have one. We need to bring that listening skill with us. I have been, rightly, accused many times of acting unilaterally, of doing what I want to do. I like to think that happens much less frequently now than it did, but it still happens. And why? Because it's easy. It's easy to make decisions for others and to act as though their opinions don't count. And the way to change this is by asking them, “What do you think?” Just “What do you think?” Because the question admits our limits, that we know what we think but not what the other one thinks. And at that point we can start the process of collaboration, of cooperation, of consensus.

Now, let's go up to the level of an intentional community, where we need to ask the same question of 10, 20, 30, or more people. It can be done. It's hard, but it's a process and gets easier with practice. And if some person says, “Do what I say because the spirit speaks through me,” you can rightly counter that the spirit speaks through you as well, and everyone can say that, and pretty soon we're in Quaker meeting.

Next, at the village or town level, the New England town meeting is a good example of how small communities can still work directly together. But it gets harder with a city, a county, a state, a nation, or many nations. Still, I like to think that with modern technology and social media, that we can have a more direct, participatory democracy instead of a representational democracy. I'm not sure how that would work, but we can at least start asking the questions. This starts to flatten the political hierarchy.

Business and financial hierarchies can also be flattened. I'm thinking of the distance between the lowest paid and the highest paid in a company. I understand in Japan that it's common to find a difference of the power of 10 between the lowest paid worker and the highest paid management position; whereas in this country it can be 100 times or more. Increasing worker participation in management decisions, and on boards of directors, are other ways to flatten the hierarchy.

I would love to live in a world where we had a National Happiness Index similar to what Bhutan has developed. Maybe we could call it a National Index of Well-Being. I would love to hear on the daily news that, while the stock market has gone down so many points, that the National Well-Being Index has gone up because there are more children in subsidized day care, and so many single mothers have found skilled work, etc.

In our daily lives here at the Hermitage, we have found four behaviors that help keep us on track, that allow us to recognize the divinity in ourselves, in those around us, in all living things, and in the planet itself: kindness, patience, humility, respect. And those four words are the complete lyrics, repeated over and over, of one of our hymns: kindness, patience, humility, respect. These help provide context and perspective, along with meditation, yoga, and other practices.

I wish I could say I achieve balance, harmony, and unity using these behaviors 100 percent of the time. But actually I try for 90, even 95 percent. But that last five percent isn't pretty, like how I acted on the freeway. I realize there are times I will just lose it, when I am overwhelmed by anger and some really violent emotions. These typically happen when I'm stressed, fatigued, or simply haven't eaten for a long time. But I've also learned I can't just berate myself for being imperfect. That kind of flagellation creates its own circular system that is very difficult to escape. I've found that forgiveness is key to breaking that cycle of self-loathing. Recognizing that I am, as Nietzsche said, human, all too human, with feet of clay and head in the clouds.

Fortunately I don't have to be perfect as the arc of the unfolding of the spirit is long and spans many lifetimes. I will do the best I can to help move it along, and forgive myself those moments when I fail.

As Harmonists, our emblem is a blossoming flower; which to us is the earth itself. Flowers need to be nurtured. They will try and grow wherever they are planted or where their seed is cast, even among rocks. Poor soil, no soil, can stunt and even kill them. In fertile soil, with sunlight and water, they can grow close to achieving their full potential.

We look upon humans as being the gardeners of the planet, as being the planet's consciousness and conscience. As her consciousness, we aware of who and what we are; while being her conscience directs us to the ethical choices needed to make the garden grow and bloom. And the power we need to do such holy work comes directly from the spirit. We have the power to nurture, to serve, and to heal the planet, and what wonderful holy work that is. We have the power, in the words of one of my favorite Star Trek characters, to make it so.

Hymn No. 57

You and I are brought into being,

we are one.

So to bring vision and healing,

we are one.

The earth sees itself through us;

transforming in harmony.

We are one.

We are one.

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