Summer Letter from Michael

Dear Commonweal Friends:

I hope this letter finds you well. This time has been unlike anything we have ever seen. This brave new world has all of us hard at work bringing our programs online, building our resilience infrastructure, and adapting our work to the fierce urgency of now. I’m writing to you with my biannual update about our organization and programs, as well as to ask for your support. I’ll come back to that at the end of this letter.

The United States has failed to COVID-19 test. Other countries have done far better. We have also failed to marshall a skillful response to the financial and economic crisis. And we have failed to protect not only the most vulnerable but also much of the American public.

Black Lives Matter. Systemic racism is real. Neoliberal economics doesn’t work for people or the planet. These three things need to be said. Frederick Douglas wrote:

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

Commonweal has always been committed to healing, the environment, and justice. Commonweal started as an outgrowth of Full Circle, a residential school for children in the juvenile justice system I co-founded in 1974. Our first Commonweal program, the Commonweal Clinic, brought integrative healthcare to these children. David Steinhart, director of the Commonweal Juvenile Justice Program, has carried on working with juvenile justice for decades, reducing California’s youth prison population by 90%—and enacting many other reforms on behalf of at-risk children. 

With Oren Slozberg’s leadership, our commitment to justice, diversity, and gender equity has deepened further. The Power of Hope summer camps are extraordinarily diverse. Angela Oh and Ming Tu’s Gift of Compassion works with low-income communities of color in Los Angeles. Their work with a church pastor harboring hundreds of migrants near Tijuana buys food and necessities for them. Oren recently initiated Commonweal Social Artists in Residence Fellowships to provide space in the Retreat Center for social artists on the frontier of social justice change. 

Ladybird Morgan Brings the Humane Prison Hospice Project to Commonweal

Ladybird Morgan, RN, MSW, is a gifted new Commonweal program director. Her Humane Prison Hospice Project hopes to make prisoner-provided hospice services available in California’s 33 prisons (humaneprisonhospiceproject.org). Ladybird co-facilitates a circle for high-level offenders at Avenal Prison through the transformative program Guiding Rage Into Power (GRIP). Until COVID-19, Ladybird went into San Quentin Prison weekly to lead Compassionate Care at End of Life training for the prisoner-formed Brothers Keepers group as well as to co-facilitate the Brothers Keepers’ crisis counseling program. Ladybird is also actively engaged in the Commonweal Cancer Help Program (CCHP) and Healing Circles Global. Ladybird has worked in end-of-life care and on sexual violence for more than 20 years, notably with Zen Hospice Project and Doctors Without Borders.

Healing Circles Global Expands Rapidly

Healing Circles Global is attracting new circle hosts from around the world. Healing Circles help participants experience a safe space, attentive listening, community, and resources for healing. “We are looking for compassionate listeners who can bear witness to the suffering and joys of others without thinking they are responsible for finding a way out of them.” The free host trainings enable participants to:

  • Discover the key concepts and format of a healing circle
  • Improve a capacity for attentive listening and compassion
  • Learn how to create a safe space online
  • Participate in a healing circle
  • Practice hosting a healing circle
  • Prepare to host a circle in a personal or organizational setting.

The leadership includes Diana Lindsay, Susanne Fest, and Petra Martin on Whidbey Island; David Spaw in Texas; Janie Brown at Callanish in British Columbia; and Ladybird Morgan, Jaune Evans, and Oren Slozberg in the Bay Area.

Creating a Single Commonweal Cancer Resource Site and Online Community

Miki Scheidel, our Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies partner in Bangkok, proposed bringing our major cancer resources together in a single Commonweal Cancer Community website and online community. We agree. 

We have four major cancer resource clusters:

  • Healing Circles Global, described above.
  • CCHP, the Commonweal alumni circles, and the effort to bring CCHP online. (Arlene Allsman, Angela Madonna, and others are working with me on this.)
  • Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies (BCCT) is the most encyclopedic integrative cancer therapy resource on the web. With Miki Scheidel’s leadership, we’ve launched a major effort to make BCCT more user friendly. (Nancy Hepp on Whidbey Island, Miki Scheidel in Bangkok, Maria Williams in Tokyo, Laura Pole in North Carolina, Kozo Hattori in Palo Alto, and me in Bolinas.) 
  • The cancer-related New School conversations are gems. (Kozo Hattori selects critical snippets from these conversations for BCCT.) 

Petra Martin and Oren Slozberg are helping to create the Commonweal Cancer Community website and community. 

Sanctuary: Bringing the Cancer Help Program Online

Bringing CCHP online is my greatest challenge. We call the new project Sanctuary. The CCHP has a 34-year legacy of more than 210 powerful week-long retreats. Sanctuary brings new challenges, but also new possibilities. We can reach many more people. The cost will be far lower. Arlene Allsman, Angela Madonia, and I are working with many others in the CCHP alumni community and CCHP staff on this necessary initiative.

Commonweal and Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies Address COVID-19

Both Commonweal.org and BCCT.ngo have online resources addressing COVID-19. Both focus on what you can do to make your body less hospitable to the virus and less likely to develop a severe case if you are infected. It is a national and, in fact, global tragedy that these evidence-informed and evidence-based integrative therapies are not more widely known or used. The BCCT.ngo COVID-19 page is comprehensive. The Commonweal page is more accessible. Bottom line: follow BCCT’s seven healing practices and consider some evidence-based or informed supplements and medicines.

Collaborative on Health and the Environment and Because Health Mount Rapid COVID-19 Response

Karen Wang, director of the Collaborative on Health and the Environment (CHE) and Because Health, has responded rapidly to COVID-19. Karen wrote on June 30:

CHE had a webinar on Safer Green Cleaning, Sanitizing, Disinfecting in Child Care Facilities and Schools During the COVID-19 Pandemic this morning. We had more than 300 join live, including someone from National Public Radio and government officials from 20 states (Georgia, Missouri, Nebraska, California, Washington, North Carolina, New Mexico, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Utah, Louisiana, Texas, Kentucky, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maine, Arizona, and Alabama). We also had a webinar with Pete Myers and Linda Birnbaum last week on endocrine-disrupting chemicals and COVID-19 that had more than 350 live attendees. Because Health also just released toolkits so that parents can easily give information to their care providers and schools: Safer Disinfecting and Cleaning for Early Childcare Providers and Schools and another toolkit for home use (healthandenvironment.org).

Commonweal Garden and Natura Institute Hold In-Person Art of Vitality Weekend

Anna O’Malley, MD, and James Stark at the Commonweal Garden and the Natura Institute for Ecology and Medicine (Natura) are pioneering the way for safe in-person gatherings at Commonweal. Anna wrote at the end of June:

James and I are in the midst of our final Art of Vitality weekend. Friday and Saturday were held in the Garden; we broke our group into two circles of ten, keeping them separate as per public health guidelines, yet interconnected. James and I facilitated each separately, then switched groups the second day. Tomorrow we will have our closing circle on Zoom.

We were all in a playful, grateful, and completely adherent way with the new way of being together, and it really was quite beautiful in so many ways. It was wonderful to be back together in a physical circle with open-hearted beings. It is good to know and feel how graciously the Garden can hold day-longs in this interim. 

Anna, in addition to directing the Garden and Natura, is also the lead physician at the Coastal Health Alliance, so her grasp of safety protocols is impeccable (naturainstitute.org).

COVID and the Economic Crash: Previews of Coming Attractions

We’ve warned about the coming of this time for 40 years. Three years ago we created The Resilience Project (resilienceproject.ngo). Through the Jenifer Altman Foundation (Jenifer attended the CCHP) we also launched a sister site for The Resilience Project called OMEGA: The Resilience Funders Network (OMEGA.ngo). 

  • The Global Challenge is the intersection of several dozen global stress vectorssocial, environment, economic, and technological (resilienceproject.ngo).
  • We can’t predict what combination of global stress vectors will cause what outcomes, when, and with what further consequences.
  • Future shocks are coming fast and are often more severe.
  • The global stress vectors interact with regional and local vectors to produce different specific outcomes in different places.

The global stress vectors are social, environmental, economic, and technological. They include climate change, topsoil loss, depletion of fresh water resources, ocean pollution, population pressures, inequity and racism, pandemics, global financial and economic systems, transformative technological changes, disrupted political systems, toxification of all life, nuclear and radiation dangers, genetic modification of life forms, global media and disinformation systems, and much, much more. Biodiversity has entered an evolutionary bottleneck. We can’t know whether humans will be part of what survives, or in what form. 

One thing is clear: the technosphere is a likely winner in whatever comes next. This includes the technology giants and the technology disruptors. Technology, the modifier of all human systems and much of the biosphere, will continue to transform all life on earth.

One more thing is clear: resilience matters. Resilience at every level. Resilience will take a million different forms around the world as people seek to ensure access to food, shelter, safety, justice, and the other necessities of life for themselves. Resilience that bends the arc of history toward health, the environment, and justice matters most of all.

Commonweal has initiated a series of OMEGA webinars through The Resilience Project and OMEGA. The Commonweal physical site is going solar. We are nimble with programs that serve as conditions change rapidly. We encourage family and community emergency preparedness. We’ve purchased high-quality ham radio equipment. New School sound and video technician Ken Adams has gotten his ham radio license. Solar-powered ham radio will be the only form of distance communication if and when the grid goes down. Stanley Wu, Shorey Myers, Joan Diamond, Preeta Bansal, Jon Jensen, and I are working on the OMEGA Resilience Funders Network. Oren Slozberg, Stanley Wu, Ken Adams, Christina Conklin, and many others are working with me on The Resilience Project.

Seven Sources of Hope

Where do we find hope in these times? I often paraphrase Vaclav Havel. “Optimism is the belief that everything will go right. Hope, by contrast, is a deep orientation of the human soul that can be held in the darkest of times.” Hope is essential to live and serves well now. 

It is vital to distinguish different kinds of hope. Hope for ourselves. Hope for our friends and families. Hope for our communities. Hope for our country. And hope for humanity and the earth. 

It is equally vital to distinguish short-term and long-term hope. At the most proximate level, it matters that we have hope in our lives to live each day. It matters that we have hope for our communities. We may not be able to change the course of earth historythough we can try. We have a lot to say about what we hope for each day for ourselves and those close to us. And we may even be able to influence the future course for our country over the next six months. That could help bend the course of the future of the earth as well.

Here are seven sources of hope in my life. Most of them focus on what we can do for ourselves, our families, and our communities.

  • Love heals: the ancients considered friendship the highest form of human relationship. The love of family and friends gives me the courage to live and do my work.
  • Imagination heals: imagination can be a powerful source of hope. Imagine that we learn to live simply that others may simply live. Imagine that we can change ourselves, our communities, our country.
  • Nature heals: nature is the mother of hope and the mother of healing. Nature is the healer of body, mind, and spirit. Time in nature gives me hope.
  • Stories give us hope: there is no hope without stories. Jyoti Kumari is 15. Her father, a New Delhi rickshaw driver, was injured in an accident. Jyoti bought a $20 bicycle with their only savings. She carried her father 700 miles from New Delhi to their village. She would stop to call her mother on her cell phone. “Don’t worry. I am bringing pappa home.” Jyoti’s story gives me hope (nytimes.com/2020/05/22/world/asia/india-bicycle-girl-migrants.html).
  • Radical disruption creates hope: times of radical disruption create the possibility of a transformational shift toward a better country and a better world. That possibility gives us hope. We can hope for it, fight for it, and commit our lives to it.
  • Changing ourselves creates hope: we have the power to change our bodies, hearts, and minds. Yoga, tai chi and qigong change us. So do exercise, meditation, better diet, and herbal medicines. So do music, art, inspiring films, and literature. So do loving ourselves and others. Attuning ourselves in these ways brings hope.
  • Lives of service give us hope: This is truly vital. In the end, our acts define us. Each act of kindness is an act of hope. Sometimes millions upon millions of small acts of kindness change human consciousness. Black Lives Matter is a teaching story for this kind of change. Human consciousness has changed deeply over time. We can be the change we seek.

The Light in Every Heart

Our ways of experiencing this brave new world are as varied as our personalities, our beliefs, and our circumstances. Even if you have food, shelter, and an income, the transformation of the world is traumatic. We respond to trauma in so many different ways. Some with fear, some with anger, some with hope, some with resignation. Some ask what they can do, some seek to understand. 

Commonweal is not a partisan organization. Our healing programs welcome all. Our juvenile justice work cuts across the political spectrum. So does our work on health and the environment, our work in education and the arts, our work in permaculture gardening, our work on resilience, and much more. Rachel Naomi Remen’s “Healer’s Art” program has touched medical students in red and blue states and in countries with vastly different political systems and beliefs around the world.

We have deeply held values. The next few months may determine the future of the republic. The depth of polarization is extreme. Polls show that people on both sides are equally worried. But if current trends hold, it looks as if COVID-19, massive unemployment, a new awakening to justice, and deep concern for the country may create a new opening toward a better future. It is vital that each of us recognize and seize this opportunity to make a difference wherever we can.

But what happens next? Even if the American people choose a new direction, will the polarization continue? Will we swing back and forth between hostile tribes? Or is this is one of those rare moments when an entirely new order comes into being? I believe it truly could be. It has all the markings of such a moment. But new orders are not necessarily either wise or successful. Still, we have reason to hope. “We are bound together / ” James Taylor sang, “By our desire to see the world become / A place where our children can grow up free and strong.”

The question of what we can do will be answered differently by different people. My personal instinct is to reach out across differences to find well-intentioned people with whom we can make common cause. Our best work has often been done that way. We seek what is best in others. “There is,” the Quaker George Fox said, “that of God in every person.” The Yogi says Namaste, which means, “I bow with respect to the divine in you”pointing to the fact that there is a divine spark in every person.

Intergenerational Leadership

One of the great joys of my life is my partnership with Oren Slozberg, Arlene Allsman, and Vanessa Marcotte. Oren is our executive director, Arlene our chief operating officer, and Vanessa our chief financial officer. Arlene and Vanessa have both been with Commonweal for many years. Arlene coordinates the CCHP and oversees all site activities and much more. Vanessa is a financial wizard who also has deeply wise program instincts.

Oren came to Commonweal seven years ago. He came first as chief strategies officer. Three years ago he became executive director. Oren insisted we create what he calls “intergenerational leadership.” It was an inspired and inclusive conception. It simply means that each of us contributes where we have value.

This is my 44th year at Commonweal. In numerology, 44 carries the symbolism of the “master healer.” In the Chinese way of counting age, which counts your first year from your birth date, I am in my 77th year. This 44th year of Commonweal and 77th year of my life have symbolic significance to me.

People used to worry about what would happen to Commonweal after I am no longer here. We don’t hear that concern any more. Oren’s growth into leadership at Commonweal has been remarkable. Oren is a weaver of people and communities. He brings a deep humility to his work along with a deep confidence in what he can contribute. 

Oren’s commitment to diversity and justice is profound. He was the founding executive director of the LGBTQ center in San Francisco. He then became executive director of Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS, which is now a Commonweal program), which has reached more than a million children in countries around the world. VTS is especially powerful for children for whom English is a second language or who have had little exposure to reading and writing at home.

Oren brings to Commonweal exactly the sensibility that this brave new world requires. He has formulated a vision for the coming decade of Commonweal’s work focused on three core commitments to healing, resilience, and justice. He will share his whole vision with the Commonweal community soon.

The Commonweal Board of Directors is an active part of our leadership community. It includes Steven Bookoff, Catherine Dodd, Jaune Evans, Judy Hatcher, Katherine Fulton, Angela Oh, Rahmin Sarabi, and myself. It is a wise and deeply engaged community.

I am focused on Sanctuary (bringing the CCHP online), on Healing Circles Global, on BCCT, on the New School and the Learning Community webinars I offer every Friday morning, and on The Resilience Project and OMEGA work.

I feel a wonderful lightness of being. Sharing responsibility in intergenerational leadership with Oren, Arlene, and Vanessa is a gift beyond words. People ask me if it is a model for other organizations. I can’t begin to answer that question. I only know it works here.

Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man

Who am I at 77? And why should you care? I don’t know that you should care. But I will try to answer the question in case it might interest you.

I live with with my wife, Sharyle Patton, in one of the oldest houses on the Bolinas mesa. I bought it for $40,000 when ordinary people could afford homes here. Sharyle has been my partner in life and work for more than 35 years. Sharyle has worked for decades through her Commonweal Biomonitoring Resource Center to reduce toxic exposures in low-income communities. She works intensively to safeguard firefighters from toxic exposures with the San Francisco Fire Department and the International Association of Firefighters.

I am a creature of habit. I like simplicity. My greatest luxury is to put on clean clothes every day. Wool socks, black Lee Extreme-Comfort pants, a t-shirt, and a red corduroy shirt. I wear a scottish hand-knit sweater and a stocking cap if it is cold.

I usually wake at 6 a.m. I meditate, check my email and the headlines, and have breakfast. I work from 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Then I go out to our little gym for upper body work, or take a bike ride, or go down to the beach and do my free-form qigong practice. In the evening, Sharyle and I often watch films together. We are usually in bed by 9:30 p.m.

I love good food. I eat all my meals from the same chipped enamel bowl, orange on the outside with a floral blue interior. Breakfast is quinoa with coconut milk, blueberries and cashew nuts, and a cup of chicken bone broth with miso. Lunch is a salad on our back porch. Sharyle’s dinners are works of art. I almost never find a restaurant meal that compares with Sharyle’s cooking. Sharyle loves to feed people, dogs, and birds. She always has dog treats in her pocket. She buys big sacks of organic bird food. Our orchard attracts flocks of birds of every kind.

I love my work. My study is at the back of the house. It is a gentle chaos of books, papers, and jumbles of connecting wires. Reading is my passion. Occasionally fictionmore often poetry, sacred texts, biographies, politics, and economics. Focal passions have included integrative medicine, environmental health, finance, the new technologies, depth psychology, Jewish sacred writings, Hindu sacred writings, the Sufi tradition, and more. For media, I read The New York Times, The Guardian, Bloomberg, The Intercept, and a half dozen newsletters.

I go through long periods of passionate study of one topic or another. Psychology and politics, nutrition in children with learning and behavior disorders, integrative cancer therapies, integrative and functional medicine, finance, technology, mysticism in the great religious traditions, and archetypal psychology are examples.

My current passion is enneagram, a depth spiritual psychology that astonishes me even after 50 years of studying depth psychologies of many kinds. Carl Jung, Roberto Assagioli, and James Hillman are three archetypal psychologists who have influenced me. GI Gurdjieff, Claudio Naranjo, Oscar Ichazo, Beatrice Chestnut, Sandra Maitri, Richard Rohr, and AH Almaas are seven interpreters of enneagram I admire. I’ve done New School conversations and enneagram panels with Beatrice Chestnut. I recently completed a New School spiritual biography with Sandra Maitri, who is unique in having studied in depth with both Naranjo and Almaas. Through Maitri’s work I have come to explore Almaas’s Diamond Approach, a spiritual psychology of great depth that I find most useful.

I keep everything as simple as possible to devote myself to thinking and to the work. I am an introvert. On the enneagram, I am a 5 (one of 9 points), which is the observer or the Buddha point. Fives believe that knowledge can be a substitute for human interactions. This describes me and my father before me. We both live(d) the life of the mind surrounded by books in messy studies focused on our writing. We both are/were intellectual generalists with wide-ranging interests. We both immerse(d) ourselves in psychology and politics. We both have/had complex worldviews that married progressive social goals with real politik understanding of how the world actually works. We both were/are effective teachers who, once away from the lecture hall or Zoom call, retreat(ed) back into our studies for the sustenance that comes from reading and writing.

Why am I moved to tell you this? At 77, one never knows which letter will be the last. My health is vibrant. My love of work and life is as strong as ever. I hope to be around for a long time. But only a fool does not contemplate death at 77. So I offer you this portrait of the artist as an old man.

Reopening Commonweal

Our online programs are flourishing. Commonweal has been largely a place-based organization for 44 years. So our web presence was less developed than those of colleague organizations (like Environmental Working Group) that have made extraordinary contributions through highly developed websites for decades. True, many of our programs have websites. The gift of COVID has been to press us to develop our online work quickly.

We also want to re-open the Commonweal site when we can. We know that, with the resurgence of COVID-19, that time may be delayed beyond the summer. But when the time does come, we think we know how to do it.

Of course we will follow state and county safety guidelines. Second, as the guidelines allow, we will start offering the Retreat Center to individuals and to family groups whom we know to be safety conscious and who will take responsibility for their own safety. Then we will extend the opening to what we call “circles of trust”small groups that have gathered at the Retreat Center for years and have been together for long periods of time. They trust each other to be safe together. At the same time, we will begin to open for day-long socially distanced outdoor gatheringslike CCHP alumni days. Our gallery, almost the size of a basketball court, offers great possibilities for socially distanced indoor gatherings. We may put a big open sided tent on the front oval for outdoor gatherings in inclement weather.

Designed for This Time

Commonweal is designed for this time. We benefit from having foreseen it for more than 40 years. We have prepared for it intensively over the past three years. We are neither surprised nor shocked that what we foresaw is actually upon us. True, there are surprises about the specific ways in which events are unfolding. But part of our understanding of the Global Challenge is that the unpredictability is entirely predictable. We see the specific surprises as instances of the completely unpredictable ways in which two dozen global stress vectors are interacting.

This preparation also actually opens us to authentic paths to hope that others may not yet see because they are not used to navigating in the dark. Many people remain in shock or are just coming out of shock. We are clear, dispassionate, and ready to move as opportunities to serve open up before us.

Living Awareness, Living Resilience

I have offered you seven sources of hope in my own life. I have offered you the hope that a new majority of Americans may come together to build a truly inclusive community across our differences that honors the good people on both sides and in the forgotten middle of our great divide. But even if we create that new majority, the Global Challenge will continue. The future shocks will grow in frequency and intensity. What we need is a new way of living in an environment of hyper-uncertainty that will likely be our fate for a long time to come.

Call that new way of living resilience. Think of it as people all over the world preparing to meet what is before them as best they can. Think of it as millions of experiments as people seek food, shelter, safety, community and the fundamentals of survival. Think of it as otherswho have the essentials for survivalliving frugally so that we can help others.

This requires a change in consciousness. Not some unattainable “spiritual” change in consciousness but a grounded awareness of the emergent truths about what we are facing, what will be required, and how we can find in ourselves what this time calls forth from us.

We are responding in our personal lives, in our programs, and in our extended community. Go to The New School website (tns.commonweal.org) to the conversations and webinars that address resilience, or go to resilienceproject.ngo or omega.ngo.

We Need Your Help

We need your help. Now more than ever. 

If you are reading this, dear friend, there is a very good chance that you know who we are, what we do, and what we are committed to. We are committed to a world of equity, diversity, and justice. We are committed to a world where we have learned to live in harmony with the earth. Healing ourselves and healing the earth has been our vision for 44 years. Oren Slozberg has focused us further on three guiding principles: healing, resilience, and justice.

We need your help to build the next 44 years of our work. You can contribute to any of our individual programs or to Commonweal as a whole. We welcome donations of any size. What helps us most is a monthly donation that you can afford. One-time donations are equally welcome. Our online donation page has all of these options.

If you are considering a major donation, please contact Oren Slozberg, Arlene Allsman, or me. If you are considering including Commonweal in your estate planning, please let us know. And if you have tangible assets you’d like to donate to Commonwealcars, boats, houses, land, art, furnishings, or other things of real value that you no longer need and would like to put to work, we would love to talk with you.

One final thing you should know. We are looking for a second site in addition to our site in Bolinas. We hope and expect that our 50-year lease within the Point Reyes National Seashore will be renewed in nine years. But this world of hyper-uncertainty is such that we are looking for a second site in the Pacifc Northwest where we can also ground our work for the decades ahead. If you have thoughts about this, or wish to contribute to the Commonweal Second Site Fund, we’d love to talk with you.

Stay in touch. We are so profoundly grateful to each of you for your thoughts, your prayers, your contributions, and your dedication to our work.

Stay safe. Stay well.

Courage. It’s the most interesting way to live.

With love and gratitude,
Michael

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