Scenes of species extinction-in progress can be too much to witness. Remember that heart-twisting photo of a mother polar bear cuddling her cub? The two are trapped on a last remaining chunk of ice, surrounded by water. Overwhelmed by sadness and rage, but feeling totally helpless to change the reality, we numb out.
Earlier this spring, teachers from three Sisters of Mercy Catholic high schools in the San Francisco Bay Area were not numbing their feelings. Instead, they were quietly weeping and raging over video clips they had seen of environmental devastation. These teachers were participating in a six hour inter-active educational symposium, “Awakening the Dreamer: Changing the Dream,” organized by the Burlingame, Calif. Sisters of Mercy. More than 100 teachers took part in three separate faculty retreat days.
“Dreamer” is the creation of the Pachamama Alliance, a non-governmental organization in San Francisco. Its message holds that we who live in modern industrial society must be awakened from our destructive dream of runaway prosperty and consumerist fixation. Our trance-like belief system has produced a daily nightmare for every other creature and ecosystem on the Planet.
Mercy Sr. Patricia Ryan views “Dreamer” as one of the best programs she has ever presented. “It puts everything together that we’ve been studying and supporting separately for years,” weaving together environmental sustainability and activism with social justice and spirituality. Tying together these three elements is what has riveted the attention of the entire Mercy community throughout the U.S. explained Sr. Ryan.
Her community became involved in April of 2010 when the Mercy Institute’s Extended Justice Team participated in a “Dreamer” symposium. Its success prompted members to carry the program back to sisters within their own geographical areas and to begin training symposium facilitators. Sessions have since taken place in Rhode Island, Maine, Maryland, and California.
The six-hour session packs in rich helpings of information, feedback and rituals. Participants experience guided meditations honoring their local indigenous ancestors. They view video clips of Fr. Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Joanna Macy, Wangarai Maathai, Julia Butterfly Hill and Maude Barlow. They listen to indigenous leaders. One of them warns, that “if you are coming to help us, you are wasting your time. If you are coming because you know your liberation is bound up with ours, then let us work together.”
“In other words, there isn’t any such thing as a third or a fourth world. We are all in this together,” states Sr. Ryan.
To that end, activists challenge viewers to rethink society’s six unexamined assumptions of what makes for success: “More is better. We are separate from everything else in nature. Poverty is inevitable. Technology will save us. Growth equal progress. I can’t make a difference.” There is information on the history of the industrial revolution, which considered Earth as a commodity to be used. As they lights come back on in the room, the group splits into pairs to share their reactions.
“There is a lot of time to allow people to get into the level of feelings for both the beauty and suffering of the planet and its creatures,” observes co-facilitator, Catherine Regan, a spiritual director at Burlingame.
One clip concludes with Buddhist environmental activist Joanna Macy assuring people it is okay to grieve. “The anguish we feel is inevitable, normal and even healthy. Don’t be afraid of the pain. If we are afraid of it we won’t feel where it comes from – our love for the world. That is what is going to pull is through.”
This is what makes “Dreamer” different. It doesn’t leave people with a sense of doom. Instead we can all do something to move ourselves and the Planet into healing.
Bill Twist, one of the symposium creators, says: “We are not flawed, evil people. We are misinformed. Now that we are waking up to how the world has been organized, there is a real moment of hope. “
It is beginning to happen, says Sr. Ryan. The video concludes with Paul Hawken, author of “Blessed Unrest,” noting the existence of over two million groups around the world actively involved in working for environmental and social justice.
At days’ end, symposium members meet with representatives of local environmental and social justice groups in their areas to check out available opportunities .
“Awakening the Dreamer” is the outgrowth of Bill and Lynn Twist’s relationship with members of the Achuar, Ecuador’s Rainforest tribe. Several years ago, elders and shamans began having dreams about a people who would encroach upon Ecuador’s Rainforest with their destructive values. Their dreams came true. Oil speculators showed up.
The Achuar reached out to environmentally conscious Americans, among them, the Twists, for help. The Pachamama Alliance emerged. It advocates for the Achuar through eco-tours, land titling assistance, economic development and policy advocacy.
Sr. Ryan and her team will present another symposium on June 9 at Mercy Center in Burlingame. There is no tuition fee but free will offerings will be accepted. For further information, e-mail her at PRyan@mercywmw.org
For more information on the Awakening the Dreamer program, see their Web site.