Fall 2019: Where Are We?

Dear Friends,

As summer ends, as the fall of 2019 begins, where are we?

The world is on fire: the Amazon, Siberia, Indonesia, and much more. Some fires are deliberately lit to clear land for grazing and agriculture. Many more are accidental or spontaneous. Global Watch Forest Fires gives you the picture.

Fire and climate change are only one of several dozen global vectors creating the “perfect storm” for humans and the biosphere. They include biosphere stressors, social stressors, and technological stressors. Most people focus almost exclusively on climate change. But there are many more stressors, and their interactions and feedback loops are entirely unpredictable. Check our new Resilience Project website.

Informed opinion is divided on whether we will (on the whole) move into a phase of global civilizational collapse or whether we will “bend, not break.” At the recent Resilience gathering at Commonweal, Nate Hagens made a powerful argument that we will bend but not break. His keynote talk is worth watching.

We can see “bend” and “break” as different points on a single continuum. Many places in the world have already inalterably broken. I love science fiction writer William Gibson’s observation: “The future is already here. It is just not very evenly distributed.”

One very real question is whether liberal democracy will collapse under the weight of the Global Challenge. Here is a powerful set of slides, “How liberal democracy can die on our watch,” from the brilliant United Kingdom thinker Jeremy Leggett.

Where are we as summer (in the Northern hemisphere) ends and fall begins? We face the greatest turning point in human history. There have been formidable turning points before, no doubt. But they did not take place in the Anthropocene, when humanity is changing the earth not only for ourselves but for all life.

The great questions are:

1. How do we understand what is happening?
2. How do we hold what is happening?
3. How do we live now in ourselves, in our families, and in our communities?
4. How can we act in concert to bend the perilous arc of our history toward life and justice?

Those are the great questions. Like all great questions, they have no single answers. But let us close with the great Sufi poet Hafiz: “Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you living in better conditions.”



Notes from Whidbey Island

langley-moonDear New School Friends:

I’m spending much of the summer on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle. Here are some notes about how life and the world look to me right now.

First, life. My 75th year offers opportunities for reflection. I care about what I am reading, what I am writing, and how I am spending these precious years.

Right now I am reading: Quaker Faith and Practice from the British Quakers, a remarkable compendium of over 350 years of faith and practice of their community. Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life, by the eminent British scholar Edith Hall, the first woman to win the Erasmus Medal of the European Academy. MFK Fisher’s delicious compendium The Art of Eating, which includes “How to Cook a Wolf.” This I owe to my wife Sharyle Patton, an extraordinary cook and reader of cookbooks. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Can the Universe Story Bring Us Together?


A New Biography of Thomas Berry

“The universe,” Thomas Berry wrote in his prescient Dream of the Earth, “is a single, gorgeous, celebratory event.”

Mary Evelyn Tucker, John Grim, and Andrew Angyal recently published Thomas Berry—A Biography. It is the definitive biography of one of the most revolutionary thinkers of our time. Thomas Berry was a cultural historian who later called himself a “geologian.” I spoke with Mary Evelyn about this biography in an incandescent New School conversation (our third, including a wonderful spiritual biography).

Mary Evelyn is co-founder of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale with her husband, John Grim. They both worked intimately with Thomas Berry for more than 30 years. Continue reading

Deepening Understanding of Enneagram Types: Watching People of Each Type Describe Their Experience


Dear New School Friends,

As I write, we have just completed our third day-long workshop with Beatrice Chestnut, author of The Complete Enneagram: 27 Paths to Greater Self-Knowledge. The enneagram, for those of you who are not familiar with it, is a model of the human psyche generally understood as consisting of nine interconnected personality types. Here are the links to my previous writing on the enneagram, which describes the system in some depth. Here is the link to the first of Beatrice’s New School workshops, where she explored types 8-9-1 with panels of people who represented each of these types. The two remaining workshops will be posted soon on our website, iTunes, and YouTube. Continue reading

Commonweal’s Resilience Project

Dear TNS Friends:

The chatter of politicians and commentators continues about all manner of things. But nature bats last. The “Polar Vortex” descends on the Midwest. Here is a beautiful piece from WIRED: “And now the weather: Mars-like, with a chance of apocalypse.”

More than 70% of the planet is basically off limits without serious technological support, because you can’t breathe underwater. Get much higher than 8,000 feet and you won’t be able to breathe as well as you might like; people have lived for years at 19,500 feet, but they probably didn’t enjoy it. And temperature? Extended periods above 95 degrees or just a few minutes below -130 and you’re dead. We humans are, in a sense, polyextremophobic. So maybe that’s why it’s so existentially dreadful for the heart of the United States to be hunkered down under temperatures as low as -65 (with the wind chill, you betcha) at the same time as Australia is pushing up toward 120. That’s a 185-degree difference, and too much of an overlap with the average lows and highs on Mars for any loyal Earthling to be happy with. Continue reading

Report on Recent Justice System Reform Bills


Dear New School Friends,

Health, the environment and justice have been keystones for Commonweal’s work for 43 years. Services for at-risk children was the first program at Commonweal. David Steinhart has led the Commonweal Juvenile Justice Program for more than two decades. He’s been working at the heart of California juvenile justice reform. I asked David to review the impact of the adult and juvenile justice reform acts that were signed into national law last year. In brief? A major step forward. Here is his analysis.


U.S. Congress Passes Major Justice System Reform Bills

On December 21, President Trump placed his signature on two justice system reform bills sent to him by the Congress. The “First Step Act” revamps federal sentencing laws to reduce incarceration rates and to expand re-entry options for federal prisoners. The “Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018” reauthorizes the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA)—the cornerstone federal law that has promoted improvements in state juvenile justice systems since it was first adopted in 1974. Continue reading

Winter Letter to Commonweal Friends

December 26, 2018

Dear Commonweal Friends:

I hope this Fall Letter finds you well. You recently received the Commonweal News. This is the personal letter I write to you twice a year. I can’t touch on all Commonweal programs, but I want to give you a sense of the breadth and depth of what we are doing.

Paradise Lost

My friend Elizabeth Evans lost everything in the Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise—the California town of 28,000 where 90% of homes burned. She lives in Concow, just north of Paradise. Her community was among the first to burn. She escaped in her RV with her four dogs and one cat. Elizabeth writes: “My son Ean lived in Paradise. He drove through worse flames than I, feeling the heat of the flames on both sides as he drove out in bumper-to-bumper traffic to Chico.”

Elizabeth has provided massage in the Cancer Help Program for more than 20 years. She works on a reservation giving massage to Native American diabetics. I have been under her skillful hands on her table at least one hundred times. Continue reading

Healing in Community


Dear New School Friends:

Does some part of you call out for healing?
Do you know we heal best in relationship, in community?
Do you wish for a relationship or community that would help you heal–and learn better how to help others?

Healing Circles is a simple way to learn how to find or create such healing relationships or communities. The Healing Circles training guide is a good resource. Continue reading

Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies: Website Launch

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Dear New School Friends,

Since 38% of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime, doesn’t it make sense to know that integrating the best conventional and complementary therapies can improve quality of life, potentially slow or prevent recurrence, and possibly extend survival? We explore these issues at The New School in our Healing Circles series of conversations.

Since Commonweal’s beginning, I have focused much of my work on integrative cancer treatment. From my book, Choices in Healing, published in 1996 from MIT Press, through more than 33 years of Commonweal Cancer Help Programs, and many conversations with integrative oncologists and other healers, it has remained at the forefront of my interest and research.

On October 1, Commonweal launched a new website — Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies (BCCT) — that brings together our efforts to help you integrate the best of conventional and complementary cancer therapies. Here’s the story of my 38-year journey to creating BCCT. Continue reading