Commonweal Spring Letter


May 30, 2018

Dear Commonweal Friends:

I hope this Spring Letter finds you well.

We live in unimaginable times. The forces working against freedom and the earth are global: climate change, war, terrorism, authoritarianism, and more. I return to the global challenge later—first an overview of our work at Commonweal.

Healing Ourselves, Healing the Earth

I turn 75 in October. My health is good. My mind clear. My energy strong. I love the work. My parents were long-lived. But age leaves its mark. Though my hearing is less acute, I listen more deeply than ever. My tremor (benign essential tremor, not Parkinson’s) makes eating, texting, cell phones, credit cards, hotel security locks, and writing more difficult. Though my hands shake, my commitment to the work is unshakeable. Some things I don’t do as well as I did. Other things I do better. Healing ourselves and the earth was the mission I was given for Commonweal in 1975. That remains our mission 43 years later.

Commonweal Overview

Commonweal is strong. Our leadership team is able: Oren Slozberg, Executive Director; Arlene Allsman, Managing Director; Vanessa Marcotte, Chief Financial Officer; and me. We work seamlessly together. Oren, Arlene, and Vanessa more than make up for my deficits. Together we are far more than the sum of our parts.

We have more than 20 programs in health and healing, education and the arts, and environment and justice. We’ve reformed juvenile justice in California. We rewrote the laws governing California fisheries. We started the initiative to ban drilling off the northern coast. We helped pioneer nutritional strategies for at-risk children.

Now we’re providing leadership in integrative cancer care, collaborative learning, environmental health science dissemination, arts-based camps for youth, arts-based education in schools, art and contemplative practice for disadvantaged people in Los Angeles, and much more.

Commonweal began with juvenile justice as a central commitment. Our Juvenile Justice Program, our Visual Thinking Strategies, our Power of Hope summer camps, our Bay Area Young Survivors (BAYS) cancer retreats, our Gift of Compassion work in Los Angeles, and our Fall Gatherings all reflect the central role of justice and diversity in our work. We continue to build diversity in our board, staff, and program work.

Four New Commonweal Websites

Four new websites are coming to fruition at Commonweal.

Karen Wang’s Because Health website for Millennials, concerned with environmental health, is a remarkable contribution. Karen also directs the Collaborative on Health and the Environment.

Anna O’Malley, MD’s new website for her Natura Institute is beautiful. Anna takes over the Garden from James Stark and Penny Livingston Stark on July 1. Anna has a passion for the healing power of nature. James and Penny join our growing Commonweal Northwest community on Whidbey Island north of Seattle. Their Regenerative Design Institute will remain a Commonweal program.

Diana and Kelly Lindsay, co-directors of Healing Circles Langley, have launched our Healing Circles Global website with the able help of Petra Martin. Healing Circles Langley hosts more than 600 client visits and more than 30 different circles each month. David Spaw and Susan Rafte are building an extraordinary Healing Circles Houston with partners including the Houston Jung Institute and St. Paul’s United Methodist Church.

Our forthcoming Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies (BCCT) website builds on my MIT book Choices in Healing: Integrating the Best of Conventional and Complementary Approaches to Cancer. Integrative cancer care has gone from the fringe into mainstream medicine. Most leading cancer centers now have integrative cancer care programs. My partner on BCCT is Lucy Waletzky, MD. My colleagues are Laura Pole, Nancy Hepp, and Petra Martin. We think BCCT will make a real contribution. Website: coming soon.

The 200th Commonweal Cancer Help Program

Our 200th Commonweal Cancer Help Program (CCHP) ended on the full moon of April 29. Eight participants came from every corner of the country. Most were facing difficult prognoses. At the end of the week, eight souls had been deeply touched. I wish I could say more but confidentiality is our rule.

The staff included Arlene Allsman, coordinator; Stuart Horrance, co-leader; Jenepher Stowell, sacred space; Waz Thomas, alumni coordinator; Erlene Chiang, Qi Gong and acupressure; Irene Gallwey, sandtray; Claire Heart, chef; Katrina Mayo-Smith and Sabriga Turgon, massage; and Tim Weed, music. Deb Cohan, MD, was shadowing me to learn how my role works. Deb’s Foundation for Embodied Medicine is a Commonweal project. Deb also staffs our BAYS retreats for young cancer survivors. Deb’s operating room flash mob video—Deb dancing with her surgery staff in the operating room before her double mastectomy—has had more than eight million views.

Mary Oliver’s Blackwater Woods ends with these lines:

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

The Cancer Help Program is a river of love and loss. Jnani Chapman, senior CCHP massage practitioner for 32 years, recently died in a tragic automobile accident. Jnani was also a gifted yoga teacher and a nurse. She touched thousands of people. She embodied the healing power of love. Two hundred friends gathered at Commonweal to remember Jnani on Saturday, February 17. Quite a few had experienced Jnani appearing to them. The Jnani Chapman Memorial Scholarship Fund for the CCHP has received more than $80,000 in donations. More than 50 participants will attend the program supported by Jnani Chapman scholarships.

Healing Circles: “Move at the pace of guidance”

Healing Circles seeks to make the core experience of the CCHP available to people everywhere. Healing Circles is also a river of love and loss. Healing Circles reminds us that we heal in circleswe heal in community.

Our friend and mentor Christina Baldwin says “Circle started around the cook-fires of humanities ancestors and has accompanied us ever since. We remember this space. When we listen, we speak more thoughtfully. We lean in to shared purpose.” (From The Circle Way)

We held our third annual Healing Circles gathering at Commonweal in April. Forty-five leaders gathered from across the U.S. and Canada, and from Jerusalem. Our partners include Harmony Hill in Washington, Callanish in British Columbia, Smith Center for Healing and the Arts in DC, and our newer centers including Healing Circles Langley and Healing Circles Houston. Harmony Hill and Callanish have offered retreats based on the CCHP for more than 20 years. We recently discovered a center in France that has done the same. Retreats inspired by the CCHP have started north of Toronto and in Jerusalem. Brazil may be next.

Healing Circles offers what we’ve learned in 33 years and 200 weeklong retreats in the CCHP. We equally learn from our partners. We feel profound affinity for each other. We move among our centers marking pilgrimage paths for those yet to come.

The New School

The New School at Commonweal (TNS), coordinated by Kyra Epstein, offers conversations with thought and action leaders of our time. TNS also hosts art exhibits and musical events in Gallery Commonweal. Steve Heilig recently hosted a full-house gathering with Joanna Macy on “The Wisdom of Our Grief and Outrage.” In February, he talked with Peter Coyote on “Lifting the Fog of Fake News.”

Irwin Keller has brought New School conversations to Sonoma County. Over the past six months, he hosted three conversations on the Sonoma County wildfires. He explored the discovery method for community learning with Rachel Naomi Remen, MD. He interviewed Sharyle Patton on biomonitoring and toxicity from the Sonoma County fires. And he held a community grief ceremony with psychotherapist Francis Weller. Rachel, Sharyle, and Francis are each senior members of the Commonweal community.

I continue my New School spiritual biographies. I recently talked with longtime friend Janet Moses, MD, wife and partner of the legendary civil rights leader Bob Moses. I talked with longtime friend Mary Evelyn Tucker, the remarkable interpreter of Thomas Berry and Teilhard de Chardin. On June 22, I will talk with another close friend, Vedic astrologer Kristina Flanagan. On June 23, I talk with Michael Pollan about his new book How to Change Your Mind. He’ll discuss his research on psychedelics. On June 27, I talk with Beatrice Chestnut on her book The Complete Enneagram – 27 Paths to Greater Self-Knowledge. Enneagram is one of the most powerful archetypal psychologies. Beatrice’s book is an excellent introduction.

Scientists Are Asking: Do We Face Civilizational Collapse?

Commonweal began with a vision of healing ourselves and healing the earth. Our work on planetary healing flows from our commitment to personal healing. We can’t be healthy people on a sick planet. None of us are immune to the decimation of life on earth. Most diseases that afflict us spring from the wounds we inflict on the earth.

The 6th wave of extinctions continues. Species are dying at 10,000 times the background rate. Is life on earth changing beyond recognition? Scientists are asking: do we face civilizational collapse? There may not be a single cataclysmic collapse. Sustained degradation amounts to collapse over a few generations—a millisecond in earth time.

If collapse comes, then what? James MacNeil directed the Brundtland Commission on Sustainable Development. He once spoke at Commonweal of four future scenarios: Business as usual, descent into chaos, achieving sustainability, or becoming artificial people on an artificial planet. The real future will be some combination of all four. We fight for the best mix we can achieve.

An excellent website founded by Commonweal friend Pete Myers,, lists a dozen leading “fan blades” that interact and move us toward collapse. Excerpted:

Climate: 45% atmospheric CO2 increase since 1950.
Economy: Physically impossible growth continuation model. Debt = 325% of global GDP (at least).
Energy: Cheap to extract fossil fuel decline. 65% of oil-producing countries peaked.
Soils: Topsoil loss, depletion, salinization. Approximately 60 crop years left.
Oceans: Acidification, oxygen loss, change of currents, warming, overfishing, dead zones, 40% decrease in plankton.
Toxification: Synthetic chemicals, nanomaterials, heavy metals. 100% of biosphere contaminated.
Governance: Diminishing returns on democracy, failed states. 90% of institutions from bygone era.
Behavior: Human brain adapted for small societies, slow changes in environment.
99% of our history in small tribes.
Biodiversity: Extinction rate 1000 times faster than normal. Pace exceeds any previous die-offs.
Population: Carrying capacity overshoot. 90 million added annually.
Health: Pandemic chronic diseases, potential for exotic epidemics.

We would add additional “blades” to the “Fan”: new technologies (artificial intelligence, cyber-threats, and the triad of biotechnology, nanotechnology, and robotics); nuclear threats; EMF; and more. Authoritarianism is rising. Belief in democracy is falling. We don’t yet live in a totalitarian society, Daniel Ellsberg says. But the levers of totalitarianism are in place.

Collapse is not future tense. Collapse has descended in many parts of the world. Collapse drives refugees pressing against the frontiers of Europe, the United States, and Canada. Reaction against refugees have driven Brexit, the right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland, rising right-wing parties in France, Italy, and the United Kingdom, and the rise of the right in the United States.

“We’re sleepwalking toward catastrophe,” a big-state governor says. Most people do not want to think about collapse. This is no moral failing. Optimists assume we will find a way. Sensitives can’t tolerate the tragedy. Realists don’t see how contemplating collapse helps their work. Many don’t have the bandwidth or interest. Many hope it won’t happen in our lifetimes.

Some deny the likelihood of collapse. Harvard professor Stephen Pinker recently published Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. It is filled with charts of increasing life expectancy, decreasing maternal and child mortality, increasing caloric intake and Gross National Product, decreasing extreme poverty, improved world income distribution and more. Critics point out that these gains were built on mining the earth, hydrocarbon extraction, and human slavery.

Thomas Homer-Dixon’s brilliant The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization makes the case that survivable civilizational catastrophes can lead to civilizational renewal. The trick is to make our civilization resilient enough to survive the next catastrophe. Thomas Lent makes a similar argument in The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning.

The ease with which the internet transmits ideas across the world means that, when the time comes, the transformation of global consciousness could occur at a speed that might surprise everyone…When thought leaders emerge, offering new ways of thinking, they gradually attract increasing numbers of people until a tipping point is reached…The number of people required to create that tipping point is surprisingly small, if they are truly committed to the new paradigm. Political scientists have studied the history of all campaigns across the world since 1900 that led to governmental overthrow or territorial liberation, and they’ve discovered that no campaign failed once it achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5 percent of the population. This finding gives scientific backup to the inspiring words of Margaret Mead: “Never deny the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. Indeed that is the only thing that ever has” [Italics added].

For the Mormon community—the LDS Church of the Latter-Day Saints—disaster preparedness is a fundamental tenet of their faith. They believe in resilience, self-reliance, and the ability to help others in disasters. The head of the American Red Cross has called the Mormons exemplary for all Americans in their disaster preparedness.

Preparing for disasters has been essential to traditional agricultural communities for millennia. They knew droughts and floods would come. Many kept a year’s supply of seed stock and whatever else they would need to survive. Remember Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream of seven fat years to be followed by seven lean ones (Genesis 41).

Millennials, especially the Maker Movement, are aware of the likelihood of future shocks. Makers are building their self-reliance skills. They are de-materializing their lives. They seek experience above possessions. They know they may never have the material affluence of their parents. They are prescient.

The Northern California fires showed how fast things change. Many friends spent weeks with their essentials packed in their cars. Disaster preparedness is the frame in which American culture is beginning to assimilate the reality of future shocks. REI stores heavily market emergency tools. The Prepper movement in the United States cuts across political lines. Visions of collapse are found in films, novels, and video games. The sci-fi literature is filled with visions of collapse and renewal. The intuition that collapse is coming is culturally widespread. Collapse scenarios are creeping into mainstream discourse. The National Academy of Sciences has a Resilient America project. The Rockefeller Foundation has a Global Resilience Partnership and a 100 Resilient Cities project.

Terminology debates are inescapable. Some advocates critique resilience as a term because it does not focus attention on environmental and justice issues. Others critique resilience as missing the key ingredient of rebuilding a better world after collapse. But for all its linguistic deficits, resilience is a more hopeful term than collapse. Resilience gives us a sense of agency. Resilience conveys our ability to adapt and to respond.

To move away from collapse will require a profound transformation of culture, consciousness, and economy. A financial crash is almost certain. The vulnerability of the energy grid to cyberattack makes solar microgrids common sense. We need to re-skill ourselves. Updated curricula for home economics, boy and girl scouting, 4-H, and trade school classes integrated into the regular curriculum could prepare children for resilient lives. Knowing how to grow food and care for livestock could be invaluable. Intensive permaculture plots for urban and rural gardens could be lifesavers. It will help to be “handy”—to know how to fix bicycles, buildings, engines, and other things that we require.

We don’t need to jump into disaster readiness. We can ease into it. A “go bag” with your essentials. Cultivating a garden. Connecting your solar panels to a battery so you won’t go dark if the grid goes down. Connecting with nature. Learning to do things ourselves.

Green economics is at the heart of what we need. Kate Raworth’s Donut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist is essential reading. Raworth lists nine ecological ceilings that cannot be exceeded and twelve social foundations that must be met to create a safe and just space for humanity through a regenerative and distributive economy. Website:

You can’t have a regenerative economy with current military spending. You can’t end climate change without a carbon policy. You can’t have a sane energy policy without large-scale renewables. Work on systems change parallels work on family and community resilience. Durable movements start at the grassroots.

The Quakers show what “being the change we seek” actually means. There are only 210,000 Quakers around the world. Europe and North America have 70,000 Quaker Friends. Yet this tiny community has played a catalytic role in the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, peace work, advocacy for prisoners and the mentally ill, and much more. Quaker Meetings are healing circles. You sit in silence and speak your truth into the middle of the room.

There are thousands of organizations doing great work on the silo issues. Only a few organizations focus on the whole. The Fan Initiative, the Post Carbon Institute, the Stockholm Resilience Centre, the Millennial Alliance for Human Behavior and the Biosphere, the Dark Mountain Project out of the United Kingdom, and the Transition Towns Movement are examples.

Commonweal has always worked for a just and sustainable world. We work in the “silo” issues of health, education, the arts, permaculture, the environment and justice. But we’ve also worked on the global challenge as a whole—the global problematique. We worked for years on the Earth Summit and the United Nations conferences that followed. Over time, the work has taken many forms.

We believe in the power of ideas. We believe in Lent’s premise that if 3.5% of any community becomes fiercely dedicated to a necessary movement for change, that movement will succeed. We want to be a small part of that 3.5%. Resilience work has been grounded in Commonweal’s DNA for more than 40 years. We welcome your interest and your thoughts.

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it.”

You may know the contested quote attributed to Goethe (which in fact has a more complex provenance):

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.

Commonweal’s 43 year history embodies this truth. When we deeply believe we should do something, we begin it. We start in a way that doesn’t require much money—so no one can stop us. The volunteer spirit has been at the heart of Commonweal since our inception. We make our mistakes early while our projects are small. As we get things right, resources often follow.

Planetary healing was part of the earliest vision I had of Commonweal. I was walking on a dirt road at the edge of Bolinas in 1975. I looked out across fields of waving grass at the old RCA property at the edge of the ocean a mile away. A shaft of sunlight broke through the clouds and lit up the Main Office Building. I had a vision of a center for healing ourselves and the earth. I was too young to know it was impossible.

Commonweal Friends: Our Beloved Community

So, dear Commonweal Friends—for 43 years you have chosen to believe in our work. You have made this improbable vision we call Commonweal a reality.

You’ve sent us your contributions. You’ve asked for memorial donations to come to Commonweal. You’ve remembered us in your estate planning. You’ve given us real estate. You’ve given us boats and cars. You’ve put $20 a month on your credit card—a most wonderful way to create a steady stream of support for our work. You’ve shared the volunteer spirit with us. You’ve provided the core support essential to our work. You’ve kept us in your thoughts and prayers.

When we sat in a healing circle in the 200th CCHP under the near full moon on April 28, several participants sensed the spirits of those who have come before. I’ve had or heard about too many experiences of visits from those who have passed over to be certain they are gone forever. I choose to believe they are supporting us and our work from the other side. Jacquie Jones. Merijane Block. Stephanie Sugars. Lenore Leffer. Lynn Getz. Jenifer Altman. Barbara Smith Coleman. And many more.

You needn’t share my choice to imagine that there is an afterlife. What I do hope, and ask, is that you to continue to support our work. Commonweal Friends, across the United States and around the world, are what truly sustains us. We—you and I—are one tiny strand in the invisible web of people who refuse to give in to cynicism and despair. We are one thread in the fabric of those who choose to care. Do you know this beautiful poem byWilliam Stafford?

The Way It Is
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change. People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding. You don’t ever let go of the thread.

Thanks for following the thread. Thanks for listening. Thanks for caring. Thanks for being part of the Commonweal community. Thanks for supporting our work.

With prayers for all of us, and for the earth,
Michael Lerner

To make an online donation: Click here. Check donations can be mailed to:
Commonweal, PO Box 316, Bolinas, CA 94924

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