Reflections on Common Grounds: It’s a Big, Busy World

June 14, 2010

This is the first of at least two reflections on the Common Grounds interfaith environmental retreat. Chris wrote these on the worst Megabus ride of his life and, in the spirit of the busy life he bemoans in the words below, is uploading them on this lunch break.

It’s been over a week since I last updated this blog which, if I’m to believe the “rules of blogging,” translates to years of radio silence in the fast-paced realm of internet media. Every resource I’ve consulted about blogging says the same thing: “Blog. Daily.” A week without new content and you may as well call it quits. The blogosphere is a fickle lover.

I haven’t followed that rule because 1) I just don’t have the time to post every day, and 2) I don’t want to publish something that I don’t think is worth circulating. In other words, I’m a sucker for the ol’ “quality over quantity” mantra, even when it works against me in “building a brand.” But this blog has succeeded beyond my wildest expectations – though I’ve just been figuring it out as I go along, NonProphet Status has amassed a loyal and sizable following. I guess it’s you I’m talking about now, isn’t it? So this is the part where I say “thank you for reading, oh loyal faceless reader! I hope you didn’t disappear forever in my absence.”

incarnationAnd I guess I really do mean that. This blog exists for public writing – words that exist for more than just myself, writing that I hope will find its way to readers and stir in them a response of some sort. So it is because of you that I am sorry to have disappeared without warning for over a week, but it was a worthy sacrifice. No, not even that – not merely worthy, and not at all a sacrifice. It was a necessary reprieve. You see, I was in Connecticut for a week for the Common Grounds pilot program, a collaborative project of Yale University’s Chaplain’s office, Andover-Newton Theological School, and Hebrew College on interfaith engagement and environmental responsibility. It was five days of speakers, workshop sessions, hiking, swimming, sailing on the Connecticut River and, most importantly, community building – all at the beautiful Incarnation Retreat Center near Ivoryton, CT.

The week was full. But I wasn’t just too busy to blog, or too focused on the activities of the retreat – I simply couldn’t get online as the facilities were without internet. It was a total sea change for me; living in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Chicago and working extensively on media strategies for disseminating a narrative of interfaith cooperation at the Interfaith Youth Core, I spend a significant percentage of my day in front of a computer screen. Yet today, as I sit in front of my laptop, it couldn’t be any clearer to me that I’d rather be back in those woods. The internet has lost its luster.

Last week I accessed a part of me that I’ve been a bit disconnected from this year (realizing that it’s been so long is a bit jarring, I must admit). By unplugging from my vast and various online networks, I recalled something I’d forgotten since the three weeks I spent last summer in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota: how important it is for me to be immersed in what many religious folks call Creation. Back in this cavernous concrete chaos called Chicago, I feel the absence of unmolested mud puddles, boundless trees, shoeless days – the undemanding pace of the unpaved world. I miss star-filled skies, penless peacocks, the quiet hum of mosquitos and the echo note of a single drop of water returning to the earth. I miss appreciating rather than ruing the sunrise. I miss uninterrupted birdsong. I miss silence.

Before moving to Chicago two years ago I spent so much time outdoors, but it has proven difficult since I got here. I’d like to re-prioritize and make it happen more often again. Why is it so easy to participate in a culture so disconnected from our natural world that we have to schedule time to escape into it? What does it say that we even distinguish it as the “natural world” instead of just “the world”? As we discussed at Common Grounds, perhaps this disconnect is why it has been so easy for us to destroy our planet. You can’t feel sorry about trashing something that doesn’t really exist to you. Maybe we’ve retreated from retreating to soothe our own guilty consciences.

My return to the infinite urban landscape isn’t the only thing throwing off my groove today; I also miss the people I met. Last week a ragtag team of Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Indigenous, Christians, Pagans, Muslims, and me, the self-proclaimed Secular Humanist, spent five days making known our entire selves. A crystalizing moment was standing in front of the collective conference at the week’s end and delivering a rap I’d written with others there, accompanied by a man on guitar, another on harmonica, and a chorus of beatboxers. It’s been a while since I’ve rapped for anyone, and it was a constellating enterprise. I had no performance anxiety; in fact, I was ecstatic to share in that experience with them. We created something of a “sacred space” together where expressions were honored and embraced. It was collaborative and comfortable; our conversations were intimate and important. That sort of extensive exposition isn’t common in day-to-day life, and stepping out of it was a sharp divorce. I made some fast friends; now the community we carved out is dispersed across the continental United States. I miss it, and the person I was in it. I am working hard to bring that person back into my routines.

These profoundly intertwined aspects of the retreat – the solitude of the “natural world” and the warmth of deeply engaged community – proved the ideal situation for some much needed personal reflection. My ship ran aground at Common Grounds and I was forced to slow down and take stock of my rations. It has been pretty smooth sailing lately – I’ve been fortunate to receive a lot of accolades and opportunities recently, from awards to speaking invitations to personal celebrations of my work – but those affirmations made it easy to continue the fast pace I established during the throes of my thesis-writing, exacerbating a bad case of “doing, not being.” I’d lost sight of the “slow down and notice” mode I resolved to model. And while I do not wish to deny the opportunities I’ve been so lucky to receive, I’m also rethinking some of my priorities. I’m once more asking the so-called religious questions that come from a shared life. What are my deepest desires? What will I demand of myself? What matters most? How can I make this world just a little more balanced for myself and for others?

I think I began to resolve some of these questions last week but, when it comes to the so-called religious questions, revelation is ongoing. The authority and responsibility of an ethically godless life requires a commitment to this endeavor. I’ll continue to ask, and to listen for answers. And I think that ambiguous process is easier when done in communion with others, such as those I was honored to know last week, and perhaps best facilitated apart from the distractions of our modern world. My heart hurts today, and it’s a symptom suggesting just how important this retreat was for me and why I need to more actively cultivate some of those aforementioned components of retreat. So for this lunch break I’m turning this thing off and going for a walk, to listen instead of type or talk.

Check back this week for another reflection coming from the Common Grounds retreat, on an exchange I had with the Rabbi Arthur Green about working within or without traditional religious paradigms.

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5 Responses to “Reflections on Common Grounds: It’s a Big, Busy World”

  1. Joe said

    Three years ago I participated in something similar of a retreat into the woods to find myself amongst many others. It was a divergence of the self I identified within the confines of the “concrete city.” I found myself lost and loved by a community of others who too were trying to rekindle a sense of truth and progress. It is all too often that we lose our ability to truly talk and connect with one another by doing so everyday in email, text, IM, etc.

    For me it takes a return to the earth, to the forest, to the rain and the wind until I feel centered and rooted again. (New Agey I know, but it is a language those who participate in these retreats can understand with the simplest of ease). Within embracing that experience and returning home to the city there is a significant amount of mourning. Trying to bring that feeling into our daily lives.

    What I have realized is that those feelings become a part of us and therefore never leave. They are seen in gesture and gaze, through subtle realizations as in an appreciation for the sounds of rain calling you to wake up and reverence for the the beauty of imperfection within human beings. We too are nature.

    Carlos Castaneda reminds us to, “Look at every path closely and deliberately, then ask ourselves this crucial question: Does this path have a heart? If it does, then the path is good. If it doesn’t, it is of no use.”

  2. Jena said

    I very much enjoyed this! So many of us have forgotten how much there is around us and how beautiful the natural world is, and many will never be given (or take) the opportunity to rediscover this. For me, the woods make me feel *alive* and connect me with my “spiritual side” but yet I still don’t spend as much time away from the fast moving city as I should…how does that always happen?! Anyway, glad you enjoyed the trip and look forward to catching up soon!!

  3. Michael M. said

    “Why is it so easy to participate in a culture so disconnected from our natural world that we have to schedule time to escape into it?”

    Alternatively, why is it so easy to designate the world we create as unnatural? Why do we not say of a bird’s nest, “That’s not natural, that’s bird-made?” when we do say of a human dwelling, “That’s not natural, that’s man-made?”

    It sounds as if you are transferring a Cartesian dualism from mind/body to human/natural. Aren’t we, too, the product of nature? It also sounds as if what you appreciated was the opportunity to escape distraction and connect with others in a manner that felt more meaningful than we are ordinarily accustomed to. That’s great, but was it the presence of “unmolested mud puddles” that made this possible? What the heck is an “unmolested mud puddle” anyway? One that no critters scurry across or drink from, or contains no microorganisms? Or just one that doesn’t show signs of a homo-sapien foot print?

    I think the disconnect that has led us to treat our environment so recklessly is the one that separates the “human world” from the “natural world,” as if we are not natural beings.

    “What does it say that we even distinguish it as the ‘natural world’ instead of just “the world”?

    Exactly.

  4. […] NonProphet Status « Reflections on Common Grounds: It’s a Big, Busy World […]

  5. […] Caring For Our Common Ground Hey folks! Check out my latest guest blog for the Washington Post, a collaboration with Chelsea Guenther about our experience at Common Grounds (which I blogged about here and here): […]

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