A Bioregional Seminar — The Fifth Letter


The Fifth Letter
(June 1989)

The outward growing edges that I shared in the last letter, while important, are not truly radical. To be “radical” one would have to explore the “roots” of a problem. And my concerns about food, transportation, and waste are more like twigs and branches. There is an obvious and intimate relationship between the roots and the branches of a tree. Yet the entire tree may be cut down, and if the roots are left intact they will send up a surge of new sprouts to take its place.

In trying to feel my way into the roots of the predicament that we, as a species, seem to have created for ourselves, I find myself in the presence of an unsettling mystery. The mystery has to do with fundamental questions about my ability (or rather inability) to trust. Some of these questions were unexpectedly presented to me during my first exposure to bioregionalism.

In August of 1986, I traveled to Lake Michigan to attend the second North American Bioregional Congress. This was unusual, as I hadn’t attended any kind of conference or workshop for over l0 years. A practical, rational, familiar voice thought that going to NABC II was a crazy idea. “There’s no money to pay for it,” said the voice,”no way of getting there, and no real interest in any of the specifics that are going to be presented.”

But something kept nudging me, gently insisting that I go. So I went.

Arriving at dusk, I pitch my tent in the woods near the shore of the lake, where I can hear the waves. I go to sleep still not knowing why I have come, but feeling good about being here.

Just before dawn, however, I am seized by a oddly terrifying dream.

In the dream, I am in a small room. It is dimly lit by some sort of candelabra or tin candle that is hanging from the ceiling. I am extremely apprehensive. Suddenly I realize that all the shifting shapes, the patterns of light and darkness, are my own shadow. This realization so terrifies me that I throw up, and then awaken myself from the dream.

The dream is so disturbing that I go down to the lake to meditate on it for a few minutes before the Congress gets under way. Immediately, from somewhere deep inside, comes the words, “You are trying to control your life because you don’t trust it.” Then comes the awareness that I likewise try to control the Earth because I don’t trust it. And those who are close to the Earth, to life, I also mistrust and attempt to control: indigenous peoples, women, children. Here lies the roots of racism, sexism, and other forms of repression.

Taking out a piece of paper, I quickly scribble down the words that had come. But instead of writing, “You are trying to control your life because you don’t trust it,” I inadvertently write, “You are trying to control your life because you don’t trust ‘in’.” The Freudian slip shows me that when I don’t trust life, and therefore seek to control it, then I will also mistrust and attempt to control my own “innerness,” even while seeming to honor it through such practices as dream-work and meditation.

What this challenging insight suggests is that the hidden fear and control of the inner by one who meditates is comparable to the subliminal racism or sexism of one who overtly supports, for example, the struggles of women and minorities while unconsciously clinging to the very set of core beliefs and attitudes that perpetuate this repression. Or like someone whose admirable bioregional efforts may serve to mask an unrecognized but crippling mistrust of the Earth that he or she is trying to save.

But who is it that doesn’t trust life, that doesn’t trust the Earth? This is the thorny, unsettling question that I have been wrestling with in the months and years that have passed since these insights were received on the shores of Lake Michigan. My body trusts. Other creatures—snakes and squirrels and baby skunks–they trust. As a young child I trusted.

Yet some more recent facet of myself (call it the ego, the personality, the surface self) has come to believe that the Earth isn’t a safe place. That it can’t be trusted. How can that be?! Why did we set aside our childhood acquiescence to life, our easy acceptance of grace, when the web-work, the seamless robe within which the many know themselves to be One, is so present, so apparent, such a given?

Not that I feel as though I have “fallen” from grace. Or sinned. Or made some terrible mistake. Or foolishly lost or maliciously repudiated it. Rather that, for some deeply mysterious reason, I have stepped outside of that grace; have pretended to ignore it; have come to deny the Oneness, the beauty, the numinosity.
The consequences of this creative denial are terrible to contemplate, let alone experience—our repression of women, children and indigenous peoples; our exploitation of other species; our compulsive consumption; the mistrust of dreams and impulses and emotions; the stifling of breath and sexuality; the gut-wrenching fear of the unknown.

From these same roots of mistrust and alienation, however, there may yet grow a noble tree. Somehow, not despite the mistrust and the alienation but because of it, there may yet come a deeper trust; a reconciliation with those whom we have feared and abused; a restoration of grace; an awakening.

For children pass through the awkward and turbulent stresses of adolescence. And clusters of green grapes ripen only slowly on the vine. It would be misleading, therefore, to judge the sweetness of the fruit, or the temper of the child, if that judgment were to be made prematurely. Even so, it may be premature to judge the species.

In the growing faith that this may be so, I would wish that each of us might find the strength and the patience, the sense of wonder and the sense of adventure, the sense of humor, that will be needed as this new story of what it means to be human takes root within and among us. And I would hold the prayer that, as a proving ground for this slowly gestating story, we might each use our families and friends, our bioregions, and our daily lives.

A Healing Impulse: 1 — Introduction

This article was first published in the Fall 1999 issue of Communities Magazine. For more background on the events referred to in this article, see The Lofty Chronicles.

Introduction

Seven years ago, our daughter Lauren was sexually molested by a man who was both a close friend and a long-time member of our community. Her best friend Myra, who lived in the neighborhood, was also molested. The abuse of these two girls by Adam (not his real name) rocked our community, Light Morning, to its core.

Our immediate concern was for Lauren and Myra. My wife Joyce and I wanted to sweep them up in our arms and hold them until all the pain and confusion went away. This parental impulse was quickly followed by feelings of shock, disbelief, blinding anger, and disgust. We were also seized by a sudden fear of the dark, brooding forces that haunt the human psyche, causing people to do unthinkable things. Still later came another feeling–a strange, aching grief for the irretrievable loss of innocence.

Then we discovered, somewhere in this swirling cauldron, a surprising compassion for Adam. He, too, was suffering. Consumed with guilt, shame, and self-contempt, he found himself facing the terrifying prospect of up to forty years in a state penitentiary.

Our empathy for Adam wrestled with the rage we felt at his betrayal. Lined up on the side of empathy were all the values upon which we had been building our lives and our community for the past twenty years. The inner struggle, however, was fierce. It felt, in the shimmering heat of that moment, as though we were competing in a qualifying event for some sort of spiritual Olympics.

But this is not the story of that struggle, nor of its outcome. Time passes and wounds heal. Yet not all wounds heal completely. The traumatic stress of a severe emotional injury often lingers on, long after the surface wound has mended. It awaits a deeper healing.

Last fall I went to a Vipassana meditation retreat in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, wanting to strengthen the meditative practice that Joyce and I share. Midway through the 10-day course, I experienced a brief interval of bliss. Past and future dissolved, leaving only quietness and beauty. Into this unusual stillness came, for want of a better word, a vision. It arrived unannounced, unexpected, and fully formed. It was the complex choreography of a “dance” that would bring deeper healing to all those who had been wounded by the abuse.

I became aware of a startling symmetry–the girls needed to vent their long-repressed and volatile feelings, while Adam needed a profound exercise in empathy. These two needs, I suddenly realized, dove-tailed perfectly. Accompanying this realization was a visual impression that Lauren and Myra’s “confrontation” with Adam should be the culmination of an inward-spiraling series of encounters that would include the girls’ parents and some of our concerned neighbors.

There was also an understanding that the sessions should be conducted by Daniel Little and Cecile Green (whom Joyce had previously met at a communities conference at Twin Oaks), using a technique that they facilitate called Open Hearted Listening.

Even insights can be distracting to one’s meditative practice, though, and I reluctantly set the images aside. While driving home from Chapel Hill, however, they ripened into a compelling impulse, which soon took on a life of its own. What follows is an account of how this healing impulse unfolded during the late fall and early winter of 1998.

 

 

 

A Healing Impulse: 2 — Coping With Betrayal

Coping With Betrayal

Lauren and Myra (1997)
Lauren and Myra (1997)

This past May [1999], several months after the events in this story transpired, and seven years after the abuse, I asked each of the main participants, one at a time, to share their experiences. The first interview was with Lauren and Myra. We walked out to Myra’s back yard (accompanied by Puck, her pet ferret) and sat down on the grass with a small tape recorder.

Myra: After the abuse was uncovered, when I was eight, I felt more angry toward myself. Almost like it was my fault. I knew it wasn’t, but those thoughts came up a lot. I didn’t understand the situation. All I knew was that I wanted to punish Adam somehow. I didn’t know whether I wanted to punish him for something I did wrong or something he did wrong.

Lauren: I felt basically that he was this friend of mine who had lived in my community for as long as I can remember. And I felt betrayed. Like, “Why the hell did he do that?”

* * *

Joyce: The processing we did with Lauren after the abuse went well. But we had no way to gauge what was going to happen when she got into her teenage years. We intuitively felt that much of what she had experienced would be a time-release capsule and would be triggered by the onset of puberty.

That turned out to be true. About a year and a half ago, an angst or a hostility toward Adam started showing up that hadn’t been there before. It was as though Adam could do no right. Something was obviously brewing, and we weren’t sure where it was going to go.

* * *

Myra: Last fall, I definitely felt angry. I had stuff to get out that hadn’t come out yet. And I didn’t know if it was ever going to come out, if I was ever going to be able to talk about it.

Lauren: I had a lot of anger, but it was buried. I had put it down. But about a year ago, it was starting to come back up onto the surface.

* * *

Joyce: When all this first hit the fan, back in 1992, I knew that if I was going to be of any use to Adam as a support person, I had to give full expression to my sense of betrayal and disgust and just my rage at someone hurting my child. Anyone who has children, they know what this would feel like. To have someone that you’ve lived with and loved and trusted harm your child is a huge betrayal.

I was able to get those feelings out, even though it was hard work. And it turned out the way I had hoped–I was able to offer him my support. But I had to keep doing it. I had to keep bringing him before me (both at the time of the abuse and at various times since) and vent my feelings over and over again.

* * *

Adam: I discovered, after the abuse, that my community was basing its response upon a fundamental, almost unspoken premise–a refusal to participate in our throw-away society, a society in which relationships are disposable. To choose instead, when the deeper dimensions of a relationship challenge us to let go of some dearly held attachments–to choose to face that agonizing struggle, rather than avoid it by throwing away the relationship.

That is precisely the challenge that I presented to Light Morning. Were you going to ditch me, the way the rest of society ditches a sex offender? That’s what we do. We bury them under the jail. We give them sentences that are astronomical. Because no one wants to identify with that struggle in their own lives.

The alternative is for each of us to claim an extremely ugly side of ourselves. To see my offense as something that is not outside the realm of human nature. Society says, “You’re a monster,” if you do what I did. I know that I am not a monster. Yet at the same time, I know that what I did was horrible.

This community rose to the excruciating challenge that my behavior presented it with. And I was met with something different than what society offers sex offenders. Dramatically different. I discovered that the people in my community were choosing to not make their relationships with me be disposable.

* * *

Daniel: The Chinese word for “crisis” means both danger and opportunity. That’s conflict in a nutshell. There’s the potential for danger–for an antagonistic, polarized situation. Yet there’s also an opportunity, if people have the willingness to engage with each other in a new way. It’s about creating a loving, empathetic connection, based upon a desire to see and appreciate another person’s perspective. Especially that person’s emotional perspective, which may be volatile.

But if two people, or a community, have a container or safety net–an agreed-upon process that they know and can use in their relationships–then anything is possible.

A Healing Impulse: 3 — A Perilous Opportunity

A Perilous Opportunity

Daniel
Daniel

To appreciate the elegant simplicity of the impulse that arrived last fall during the meditation retreat, one must have at least some appreciation for the complexity of the situation we were facing. Adam, for example, has been in a relationship with Myra’s mother since before the abuse, which was understandably aggravating a tumultuous mother-daughter relationship.

After moving through the judicial system, Adam embarked upon a lengthy therapy program for sex offenders. Later he returned to the neighborhood, where everyone was aware of his problem, and renewed his friendships with the members of Light Morning community, including Lauren. Myra, on the other hand, hadn’t seen Adam since the abuse. Her father and step-mother were convinced that complete isolation from the person who had abused her was the best path toward healing.

During the summer of 1998, some of our neighbors were beginning to voice deep concerns about the festering emotional wounds and their effects upon the girls. One friend sent Adam an incendiary, frontal-assault letter.

This simplified sketch hints at the emotionally charged environment into which the Chapel Hill impulse was introduced.

Cecile: It felt like both an honor and a tremendous opportunity to be asked to help the community use Open Hearted Listening as the next step in their healing journey. It was also a big stretch–to apply the tool that we had been using primarily with couples to a completely new situation, and with teens, who were outside the age range we normally work with. Some of the relationships were quite estranged and had very little of the commitment that an intimate partnership has.

Daniel: For me there was definitely a sense of excitement, that was also tinged with fear. It was a high-octane issue.

* * *

Myra: I said “Yes” to this process in order to confront Adam with my feelings. To give me a chance to look at him, and to show him how disgusted I am. To tell him in person how much he hurt me and how I will never be able to trust him or feel any type of regard toward him.

Lauren: I wasn’t that interested when the session with Adam was first suggested. But I knew it would be good for me in the end. So I did it.

* * *

Adam: Committing to the Open Hearted Listening sessions was both a responsibility and an obligation. Beyond that, it felt like an indebtedness–some way that I could at least start to scratch the surface on the debt that I owe to the community and more specifically to the girls and their families. It was an opportunity being held out to me for some partial redemption.

I was concerned initially for my own vulnerability. I didn’t know the facilitators and felt that I might be viewed, in their eyes, the way society views a sex offender, rather than from a more enlightened perspective. It was hard for me to trust someone I didn’t know.

Consequently, I was afraid. It was a selfish fear–I didn’t want to be beat up any more. I had been working, ever since the abuse, on trying to allow myself to feel vulnerable. That was one of the ways in which I was sick. In certain areas, I was unable to feel vulnerable. Therefore I lacked empathy for vulnerable people, including the victims of my crime–your daughter and Myra. I would block those feelings.

In the years since my crime, I had been making some progress. And I became afraid that with my new-found vulnerability I would be smashed by the same people I had smashed earlier, without adequate moderation. There was a sense of taking a risk.

* * *

Daniel: Adam was concerned that the girls’ anger might be used to punish, and that the process wouldn’t be reciprocal. That he would get dumped on and not be able to offer his perspective on the situation.

Cecile: We responded to his concerns by educating him about the process. Because from the outside, that’s what it looks like–especially in this situation, where Adam was only going to be listening. From the inside of the Open Hearted Listening experience, however, it doesn’t matter who’s doing the listening or the speaking. The healing opportunity is there for both people.

So that was an important concept to convey to him. But of course it was only a concept. It wasn’t until he began to learn the process, and practice it, that he realized its potential. Then he began to feel okay.

A Healing Impulse: 4 — Learning to Listen

Learning to Listen

Joyce
Joyce

Once everyone had agreed to participate, the stage was set for some training in the core elements of Open Hearted Listening–speaking, mirroring and validating.

Cecile: Our basic strategy was to present the material, demonstrate it, and then have each person practice both the listening and the speaking. Part of our job as facilitators was to address the girls’ need to be heard, and also Adam’s concern that he wouldn’t just get dumped on.

In order to do that, we first had to train Adam in what his role would be, and to feel confident that he would be able to validate the girls’ feelings. If we had come to the conclusion, after the training, that he hadn’t really been able to validate, we would have either postponed his session with the girls, or canceled it. We couldn’t take these girls to a vulnerable place and not have him be able to do the process correctly. That was our first benchmark of safety.

To safeguard Adam, on the other hand, we had to lead Lauren and Myra to an understanding of what Open Hearted Listening is and is not. There was a very delicate balancing act here–because of the issues they were bringing, because of their age, because of how long their feelings had been blocked. We had to help them access the intensity of their feelings, but also help them understand that this was not a dumping ground.

Daniel: One of our major goals was to help everyone realize that Open Hearted Listening is a practice within a larger framework of attitudes which help make it work–attitudes such as being willing to play our edges, to stretch into places that are uncomfortable, and to choose to be loving and caring, again and again.

Cecile: Another touchstone is that it’s not about being rational or being right. Healing happens when there’s an emotional connection, when the emotional body is given a place to be.

* * *

Myra: The listening part of the training was hard. My dad and I did it together. I wanted to yell back at him when he said something, because I knew that if I didn’t yell back right then that I’d forget what he said. Then I realized how hard it would be for Adam to sit there and listen.

Lauren: I found the training sessions quite boring, actually. (Laughs) Maybe next time they could be geared more toward younger people.

* * *

Cecile: It was difficult to bring this process to people who are just exiting the childhood consciousness. It’s hard to get to a place of empathy for another person. It was a big stretch for the girls to take this on.

* * *

Adam: The training helped me realize the importance of experiencing my own power. There’s a fear that if we know our power we will abuse it. I believe the reverse is true–that it is the feeling of powerlessness which leads to the abuse of power.

I discovered that power is based in the heart. It very much matters to people how I feel about them. It very much matters to me how I feel about them. The recognition that it matters is a discovery of my power.

Some of the training focused on learning to express anger, but that hasn’t been my problem. My problem has been using anger as a mask, to help protect me from feeling vulnerable. When something made me feel uncomfortable, I would immediately become angry, instead of looking at why I was feeling uncomfortable. So instead of feeling any of the vulnerable emotions, like sadness or fear or grief, or even being aware of them, I would feel angry instead. Open Hearted Listening helped me move toward the roots of my feelings.

Robert: How were you feeling as the session with the girls drew near?

Adam: At first I was impatient. I had a high level of anxiety, not knowing what the outcome would be. Then I caught myself being self-absorbed again. I realized that my own anxiety must be far less than what the girls were feeling. They were the ones who deserved compassion and support. How could they find the courage to confront the powerful adult who had abused them?

Robert: It’s striking, isn’t it, how even getting ready for Open Hearted Listening stirred up the same dynamic that caused the abuse in the first place–myopic self-absorption.

Adam: Absolutely.

* * *

Joyce: In the weeks before the session with Adam, I could feel the girls’ sense of anticipation rising, of finally being able to get it out. My confidence kept rising, too. I thought, “It looks like they can handle this. With each other’s help, maybe they can get it out.”

A Healing Impulse: 5 — A Courageous Encounter

A Courageous Encounter

Lauren
Lauren

After the training, and after the facilitated sharings between Adam and some of the neighbors and parents, the day finally came for the session with Adam and the girls. It was scheduled for early afternoon, in our new community shelter. Nervous energy rippled through the air.

Lauren and Myra came up from our house, where they had been psyching each other up all morning. Adam walked in from the parking lot. Daniel and Cecile were waiting on the porch. Folks were hugging everyone and wishing them well. For each person involved, it would be a courageous encounter.

Daniel: We started by getting an agreement on what the format would be. The first part was a chance for the girls to just be angry–to yell and scream and discharge. And for Adam to be able to take that without taking it personally, as an attack. This is somewhat foreign to the formal practice of Open Hearted Listening. Yet we wanted to honor the girls’ request to do this, as a way of tapping into their powerful emotions.

Cecile: Lauren and Myra stood together. Adam was maybe ten feet away. The girls were feeding off each other’s feelings. I chose to stand with them and offer my energetic support, both through my physical presence and by touching them and sometimes offering words of encouragement.

Robert: It was a brave and difficult thing they were attempting to do.

Cecile: Very brave and difficult.

Daniel: And incredibly brave willingness on Adam’s part, to go through that. I was standing with Adam. I had my hand on his back, behind his heart. We were trying to keep our knees bent and keep grounded. At times, the girls really got their energy going. Adam was breathing hard, but staying grounded. It was very intense, but he was doing fine.

The girls had a certain reluctance. My God, of course! This process was a re-creation of the whole situation, with the girls having to be vulnerable with Adam–their abuser! They were being asked to reveal their innermost being. That’s an incredibly vulnerable thing to do. And the whole violation had been about their being revealed in a totally inappropriate way. So considering that it was such a loaded situation, they did great! All three of them did great.

Myra was able to display some real vulnerability to Adam–her anger, and some grief, and a sadness about the breaking of trust. It was good to see that she was able to get to that place.

Lauren: My karate training helped me get my anger out. It has made me a hell of a lot less shy. Yelling at Adam was like doing a big karate shout.

Daniel: That’s exactly what it was. She went into a karate stance and then the anger came out like a “KEEEAAAH” from the gut. It was a little rehearsed, because she was relying on a martial arts form to access her feelings. Yet it worked. It allowed the energy to move, whereas otherwise it might have been too scary.

Lauren: I felt sorry for the poor bastard. But I also wanted to do it. I just had to think to myself, while we were doing it, “Well, he didn’t think one shit’s worth about us, when he did what he did. So why do I care?”

Myra: Daniel and Cecile were very supporting during the actual session. They were there for me and Lauren. Cecile was right by us the whole time–hugging us and rubbing our back and telling us to breathe. And Daniel was over by Adam.

Lauren: They did an awesome job!

* * *

Cecile
Cecile

Robert: Being directly confronted by Lauren and Myra must have re-opened some painful memories of what you did to them. How did you deal with that?

Adam: I couldn’t have done it without therapy. The concept of “therapy” conjures up an image of empathy and compassion for the person receiving it. The therapy that sex offenders get is anything but that. My therapy was funded primarily by the Department of Corrections, although the offenders themselves contribute financially. My belief is that the mode of treatment reflects the funding source. Much of it, therefore, was punitive.

But regardless of how punitive the therapy, there was still an opportunity to learn from the experience. What everybody in the treatment program learned, over and over, was to go back to when we were abusing our power. The nitty-gritty awfulness of it. The gut-wrenching, nauseating aspects of it. And to do it in a way that your feelings are there. That you’re not numbing to it.

It wasn’t new, therefore, having to regurgitate those memories. So when the girls were confronting me, I wasn’t feeling fear. I was respectful of what they were doing. Aware of how much courage it took. I was praying for their strength, because I was responsible for what I had done to them, and I wanted them to move in a healing direction.

Maybe one reason it’s called Open Hearted Listening is that when you open your heart and start caring about the other person, the empathy just flows. It’s a genuine, heart-felt desire to hear and understand something that I have to assume I don’t hear and don’t understand, until they help me. So the girls were helping me hear something I needed to hear, something I didn’t fully understand. That I needed to understand.

Robert: What did you hear them sharing with you?

Adam: They wanted me to understand how much pain and agony I had caused them. Not just in the past, but in an ongoing way. That they were still struggling, because of what I had done. They wanted to make sure I was not minimizing. That I was not in denial. And part of the reason they wanted me to understand was to make sure that I would never do it again to anyone.

I was surprised that Lauren and Myra came up at the end of the session and hugged me. I might have imagined Lauren doing that in a token way, but this felt like a genuine embrace. I was far more surprised when Myra was able to do it. It was probably the context and the feelings of the moment that inspired her. It felt authentic. It felt like she meant it. Although I don’t think she would do it today.