Spring Letter From Commonweal

Dear Commonweal Friends:

I hope this Spring Letter finds you well. I write you this personal letter twice a year.
Commonweal thrives in our 44th year.

You will soon receive the Commonweal News. This personal letter focuses on four projects I guide—the Commonweal Cancer Help Program, Healing Circles, Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies, and the new Resilience Project.

Healing Circles in Our Fifth Year
In April, we held our 206th week-long Commonweal Cancer Help Program in 33 years. Janie Brown, the visionary founder of Callanish in Vancouver, BC, shadowed our senior co-leader, Stuart Horrance. Janie came to Commonweal for a training program shortly after watching the Bill Moyers PBS series Healing and the Mind in 1993. At the end of the training, she asked Rachel Naomi Remen how she should start her work. Janie recalls that Rachel said, “Well, you go home. You find your people. And then you start.” Janie did exactly that. Now Janie will return to lead her first Commonweal Cancer Help Program in October, having led more than 60 retreats at Callanish.

The day the Cancer Help Program ended, I left for Whidbey Island to spend two weeks at Healing Circles Langley. Healing Circles Langley opened its doors four years ago. Today Healing Circles Langley has more than 30 circles and 600 visits each month. It is the founding flagship of our Healing Circles work.

I gave a talk at Healing Circles Langley with its co-founders, Diana and Kelly Lindsay. Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea joined us. Christina and Ann are the founders of the Circle Way. Their method informs our work in Healing Circles. You can find the spiritual biography I did with Christina on The New School website.

I called our conversation “Healing Circles: Inquiry as Method.” My message was simple. Healing Circles isn’t a single circle method. It is a learning community devoted to inquiry.
Circles are as old as the first campfires. We must rediscover the infinite power of true healing circles in every age. We speak of circles of one (work with ourselves), of two (work with a friend or stranger), and circles of more. As a learning community, we learn from each other how to engage in circle work better. The merit of any healing circle can only be judged by the experience of those in the circle. We say: “If it guides you on your path, if it touches your heart, it’s a healing circle.”

Near the end of my talk, Christina described a healing circle she once held in a women’s restroom at an airport. A woman beside her at the sinks couldn’t get the water to flow and cried, “I’m becoming invisible.” Christina took her hands and held them under the water. A circle of other women stood as witnesses around them.

Kelly Lindsay is undergoing treatment for glioblastoma. Kelly is luminous. He lives much of the time in an inner healing world he calls “The Farmhouse” where he and his allies work with an entity he calls “Glio.” He posts his reports on the Farmhouse on his CaringBridge site. Diana, a 13-year survivor of metastatic lung cancer, experienced a similar inner healing world during her exceptional healing with lung cancer. They are being held by the whole Healing Circles Langley community. This is the healing power of circle at its most profound.

Three Young Healing Circles Leaders Visit Healing Circles Langley
Three young Healing Circles leaders came to visit Healing Circles Langley this spring.
Dimple Parmar founded Love Heals Cancer in India after her young husband’s untimely death from cancer. She writes:

We started continuous Healing Circles in Mumbai, Pune, Gurugram, and Delhi with our lovely volunteers’ support. This year’s (2019) journey started with the Commonweal Healing Circles Global Summit. We are working on these areas:
• Patient counseling (navigating through choices of healing)
• Healing Circles in different cities
• Cancer retreats like the Commonweal Cancer Help Program
• End of life care conversation (Inspired by Zen Hospice)
• Patient-caregiver education program.

Anna-Lena Burtscher is a yoga teacher and therapist-in-training from a mountain valley in Austria near Zurich. Anna-Lena lost her mother, a renowned yoga teacher, to cancer. It changed her life. She undertook a month-long internship at Commonweal where she participated in a Cancer Help Program. She flew in from Zurich in April to study the work at Healing Circles Langley in depth. She continues to consult with Susanne Fest, a senior staff member, by Skype. Anna-Lena is creating Healing Circles Alps in Zurich. This will be her life’s work.

Weston Pew from Brooklyn has immersed himself in our Healing Circles and resilience work. He has made several visits to Healing Circles Langley. Weston has considered carefully how to do healing circles work around the prospects for civilizational collapse. He hosted a New York City circle on resilience at an interfaith theology center with 30 young friends. I spoke on our resilience work. Then Weston drew up an inner circle for eight participants. He asked them to respond to what they had heard in the form of questions. It worked beautifully.

Healing Circles Houston Keeps Getting Stronger
Helen Spaw is a fourth young Healing Circles leader from Healing Circles Houston. Helen has built healing art circle work at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Houston. Her schedule includes Healing Art Circles, Women’s Healing Art Circles, Divorce Care Healing Art Circles, Me Too Circles, and an Open Studio Healing Art Circle.

Helen’s uncle, David Spaw, founder of Healing Circles Houston, recently wrote:

Hi Michael,

Just a quick update on our Houston activities:

Our circles at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church are sustained at approximately 18/month. We have ongoing circles for Women, Veterans, Grief and Loss, Divorce Care, and the Wesley Community. We also have recovery circles at Main Street Ministries and several ongoing Trauma/Recovery circles at the Jung Center and the Institute for Spirituality and Health. As you know, we are part of the Greater Houston Healing Collaborative assembled to respond to major local area traumatic events: storm recovery, shootings, fires, etc. The Greater Houston Healing Collaborative is building a team of volunteers with prominent area psychosocial organizations to respond to the great local challenges of the day.

We are particularly excited about three emerging opportunities:

We just completed a training for nine New Hope Housing community leaders. As mentioned at our last retreat, this is an amazing community including eight sites and growing, more than 1,100 residents, located throughout the city and created for residents with low or no income. Approximately 65% of the residents come in off of the streets. This is an adventure in adapting our Healing Circles modality to a very different community than our typical experience.

Houston also has a nursing initiative which is still in an early stage with the Methodist Hospital System—one of the largest hospital systems in the greater Houston area. Susan Cooley and Lindsay Espejel (at Methodist) are leading the charge. The Chief Nursing Officer has expressed a strong interest in pursuing Healing Circles in their nursing community. The Institute for Spirituality and Health has agreed to sponsor a training.

And our latest initiative at the Jung Center is with the recently formed Community for Conscious Aging. This rather large group has come together and expressed an interest in building a learning community. I have been asked to join their steering committee. Healing Circles Houston will have learning events for this group in the fall for Healing Circles and building resilience with restorative practices. I have a feeling that this idea will take off—will keep you posted.

A few days later David wrote:

As a follow up to our meeting with the Chief Nursing Officer of Houston Methodist Hospital, we had a beautiful first circle with the nurse leadership today. The gathering was put together by Lindsay Espejel and Susan Cooley, and hosted by Susan Rafte. The Methodist Hospital System is embracing our model—we look forward to great things! Thank you Lindsay, Susan, and Susan!

Profound circle work continues in Jerusalem; Washington, DC; Vancouver, Canada; and elsewhere. At Commonweal, we’ve started a Healing Circles Leadership Training Program coordinated by Kathleen Kraemer and Shelia Opperman. It was promptly oversubscribed. We anticipate that the whole Healing Circles community will focus on leadership training this year. Websites: Healing Circles Global, Healing Circles Langley, Healing Circles Houston.

Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies Website Grows Stronger
Our Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies website launched October 1, 2018. We average 3,500 visits a month. More than half come from outside the United States. Great Britain accounts for one third of the visits. Ireland, Australia, and Canada follow. We have high-quality summaries of 86 therapies including many mushrooms, curcumin, green tea, cannabis, melatonin, resveratrol, many vitamins, and also off-label uses of pharmaceuticals such as low-dose naltrexone, metformin, beta blockers, and statins. We summarize other therapies, such as mind-body approaches, energy therapies, manipulative therapies, and metabolic approaches.

We are also creating authoritative 30-40 page reports on individual cancers. Breast and prostate cancer reports are now published, with ovarian, colon, lung, and brain to follow. These reports are invaluable, especially valuable if consulted shortly after diagnosis and before major treatment decisions are made. They are also invaluable for practitioners, who appreciate that all citations go directly to the peer-reviewed literature.

There is no resource like Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies on the web. No other website examines the complex interface among conventional, experimental, and complementary therapies with as much nuance and objectivity. No one else includes a focus on overlooked or repurposed therapies developed in the mainstream for which there is often solid scientific support. We separate clinical and preclinical evidence so readers can better assess effectiveness and safety in considering each therapy.

One example: studies suggest that developing infections during breast cancer surgery or reconstruction can significantly increase the risk of recurrence. We debated whether we should cover this. Would it frighten too many women? Or was it a very significant little-known piece of information? We elected to cover it. Why? Because different hospitals have different surgical infection rates. They are required to report them. You can find those reports online. Given these studies, wouldn’t you want to know about breast surgery infection rates when choosing where to have breast surgery? Likewise, if you were uncertain about reconstruction, wouldn’t the risk of infection be something you would want to consider? Nurses give post-surgery patients talks on wound-care before they go home. But wouldn’t you want to know what is at stake in keeping the wound as clean as you possibly can? Sometimes we talk as if the choices in conventional therapies were something we could count on oncologists to cover fully with their patients. It turns out there is a lot to know about conventional therapies that your oncologist may not know or may not think is important to tell you. True integrative cancer therapies involve careful evaluation of both conventional and complementary cancer therapies as well as the repurposed or off-label therapies that are often left out.

There are dozens of hidden “clinical gems” like this on Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies. Our website has rightly been called “encyclopedic.” We’re getting enthusiastic responses from colleagues at the Society for Integrative Oncology—the authoritative professional organization in the field. We also have an excellent collaboration with OncANP, the Oncology Association of Naturopathic Physicians. We believe Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies will help change integrative oncology. That has been the intention of our cancer work for more than 35 years. You can find the website here.

The Resilience Project and Omega
I have written to you about the global challenge many times. The human dilemma is not just climate and inequality. There are dozens of global stressors. Their unpredictable interactions drive increasingly rapid future shocks. The number of failing states is growing. These failing states are the signature of metastasizing collapse of whole regions—and whole civilizations.

Environmental stressors include climate change, biodiversity loss, toxification of all life, insect armageddon, deep damage to oceans (acidification, dead zones, plastics, fish and plankton depletion, and overfishing), declining and polluted fresh water sources, depleted top soils, vanishing forests, spreading desertification, and EMF (electromagnetic field) pollution.

Social stressors include poverty, racism, injustice, unsustainable economic growth, global debt, fragile financial systems, fragile supply chains, vulnerable power grids, population overshoot, refugee migrations, resource competition, uncontrolled technologies (including artificial intelligence, biotech, nanotech, robotics, and cyber threats), dysfunctional geopolitics, failing states, outdated governance institutions, war, terrorism, and nuclear threats—and the obscenity of defense expenditures that could readily build a better world if deployed on behalf of humanity and the earth.

If we prepare for future shocks, they may become more survivable. Preventive resilience enables humanity and the biosphere to absorb shocks without collapse. Restorative resilience enables humanity and the biosphere to recover after collapse. Both are essential.

Two years ago we started two new projects to raise the level of visibility of the global challenge in civil society and philanthropy through Commonweal and the Jenifer Altman Foundation. The Jenifer Altman Foundation was created by an alumna of the Cancer Help Program, Jenifer Altman. We worked at the Jenifer Altman Foundation to found the Health and Environmental Funders Network 20 years ago. We are hoping to do something similar for the global challenge. Our two projects are The Resilience Project and its philanthropic twin, OMEGA: Resources for Resilience.

The Resilience Project seeks to (1) frame the global challenge, (2) identify people, projects, and resources that offer informed perspectives across the political spectrum, and (3) encourage exploration of informed initiatives to mitigate these future shocks and build the best world we can for our children. Find the website here.

OMEGA: Resource for Resilience explores these issues with funders. The OMEGA website mirrors The Resilience Project website. Few foundations focus on the global challenge. After two years of quiet work, we have speakers on the risk of civilizational collapse presenting at three leading funder affinity groups this year: the Biodiversity Funders Group, the Environmental Grantmakers Association, and the Health and Environmental Funders Network. Find the website here.

Our intention is not to tell anyone what they should do. Our intention is to encourage wise, kind, and skillful responses to this brave new world.

James Baldwin once said: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” We need to face the human dilemma together.

Last Words from Fes, Morocco
I end this letter to you from Fes, Morocco. Fes is the cultural and spiritual capital of Morocco. It is a holy city.

Fes has been called the Athens of Africa, the Queen of the Maghreb. We are staying in a guest house in the Medina, the old walled city. The Fes Medina is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Two of my heroes, the Jewish philosopher Maimonides and the Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi, lived here in the 12th century.

The Medina is 450 acres, less than half the size of the whole Commonweal property. (Commonweal’s leasehold is 100 acres but the whole site is 1,000 acres inside the Point Reyes National Seashore.)

Imagine if Commonweal were 1,400 years old. Imagine if more than 150,000 people lived at Commonweal in stone buildings facing on ten thousand narrow alleys where donkeys, horses, and push carts (and occasional scooters or motorcycles) were the only transportation. Imagine if there were 5,500 mosques that called you to prayer five times a day.

Imagine if four or five families lived in a single apartment. Imagine if Commonweal were, as the author Paul Bowles once described Fes, a medieval city trying to navigate the 20th century. Sometimes it feels to me as if that is what we are.

Our guest house is a beautiful small palace. The inner courtyard rises four stories to the sky-lit roof. Guest rooms look down into the courtyard, not outward at the world. The guest house has been exquisitely refurbished in the traditional materials—marble, tile, cedar, and plaster. It is one of the most beautiful and peaceful places I have ever been.

I am here in homage to two of my greatest inspirations—Ibn Arabi and Maimonides. I wrote an essay in 2010 about them after a visit to Cordoba, Spain. I called the essay Out of Cordoba.

This was my introductory note:

This essay began after a visit to Cordoba, Spain, in May 2010. It is an inquiry into three great spiritual and philosophical visionaries of 12th century Andalusian Spain. Ibn Arabi was the greatest Sufi mystic of all time. Maimonides was the greatest Jewish philosopher of all time. Averroes’ translations reintroduced Aristotle to both Islam and the West.

Ibn Arabi deeply influenced three leading thinkers of the contemporary Traditionalist School—the gnostic tradition of Rene Guenon, Frithjof Schuon, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Like Ibn Arabi, they embrace the Perennial Philosophy which they affirmed was at the heart of all great spiritual traditions. Leibnitz coined the term Perennial Philosophy, and Aldous Huxley wrote an eponymous book with that title in 1945. The Traditionalists reject the Renaissance, humanism, and the whole turn away from the Perennial Philosophy in the West as a tragic error for humanity.

Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King sourced their non-violent visions of justice and renewal in the Perennial Philosophy. So have countless others. But Michel de Montaigne’s skepticism and doubt—on which so much of Western culture and achievement rests—critiqued the Perennial Philosophy. He drew on the Greek pragmatic philosophies—Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism. I ask whether the Perennial Philosophy might support the collective wisdom we need for the Great Work of healing ourselves and the earth.

Yesterday I visited the house where Maimonides lived. It is a simple house. The ground floor is now a Chinese restaurant. At first this seemed a sacrilege to me. But I wanted to sit in his house. I entered and ordered rice and tofu. My tremor has increased. Sometimes it is difficult to feed myself. This was one of those days. A young waitress saw my plight. She walked over to my table. She smiled kindly. She placed a napkin on my lap and tucked another into my shirt. She took the spoon and began to feed me, spoonful by spoonful. As you might feed a baby. It was the first time I have ever been fed by a stranger in public.

Does the spirit of Maimonides inhabit this house? Is this Chinese restaurant a kind of hidden shrine to his memory? This kind young woman evoked his spirit for me. After a time, I could feed myself. When I finished, I tried to offer her an expression of my gratitude. She shook her head. She would not allow money to soil what had passed between us.

This young woman in the home of Maimonides was a living expression of what I have learned in my 75 years on this earth.

Love heals.
Love is the most powerful force in the world.
True service requires love, wisdom, and will.
A life of service is the path to inner peace.

She, in her late twenties, was in that moment the teacher of an old man in his mid-seventies. I will never forget her. She nourished my soul.

Fes has seen many empires rise and fall. I have witnessed the rise and decline of the American empire. Now comes the beginning of the end of the world as we know it.

Noah built an ark. Perhaps we need to launch millions of arks all around the world. Perhaps we may bend the arc of history toward a new consciousness. The suffering will be immense. It already is. Our work is to serve amidst the suffering. To hold up a light against the darkness.

Please Help Commonweal—We Need Your Support
The truth, dear friends, is that our ability to serve depends on you.
Please help us continue our work. Your support means everything to us.
Your contributions hold Commonweal together.

Please contribute what you can. Please give us the next 46 years as you have given us the past 44 years. Please help us reach our first 100 years of service.

Together, we can make Commonweal a community of lasting service. Consider the Quakers. The Quakers helped end slavery. They have been at the forefront of peace and justice work for centuries. Who knows? We can set our aim high. Anything is possible.

You can select individual Commonweal programs to support or give to Commonweal as a whole.

  • Donate online at www.commonweal.org
  • Or send a check to Commonweal, PO Box 316, Bolinas, CA 94924
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