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Spiral Spiritual Practice in the Time of Corona

By Karen G. Johnston

Image of small tiles in a mosaic, forming a spiral.

If we were to be given a pill to be convinced, “Don’t worry. It’s going to be okay,” would that elicit from us our greatest creativity and courage? No. It’s that knife edge of uncertainty where we come alive to our truest power. ~ Joanna Macy

How might we make our way through this strange and scary time called COVID-19? What spiritual practices are available to help us grow our resilience and point us towards collective liberation? I commend to you the four-point Spiral from the Work That Reconnects (WTR).

Joanna Macy, a Buddhist teacher and compassionate Deep Ecologist, developed ways to approach overwhelming circumstances of a global nature, not by solving them, or bypassing them, but by thoughtful, intentional, spiritual and political engagement. Macy speaks of The Great Turning, a living narrative that affirms our choices, actions, and attitudes as essential to creating and sustaining right relationship with the planet. The Great Turning understands that our planet is a living system, an organism, not a constellation of mechanical processes and not an evolutionary breeding ground which humans dominate. Joanna, and the community of students and teachers that has developed around her, have generated and further developed powerful concepts. Of them all, the Spiral is one that I find myself turning to over and over again.

Think of the Spiral as an open invitation to a spiritual practice in hard times or overwhelming circumstances, one that can be of great worth in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. While we can follow the spiral on our own, the depth and breadth of possibility grows when done in a communal context. Even online, as is asked of us during this pandemic crisis.

Grounding Ourselves in Gratitude

Gratitude is not dependent on external circumstances.

If we are to face the dire circumstances of our time, or of our own personal lives ~ both the facts and the emotions ~ we will be able to do so more resiliently if we start by grounding ourselves in gratitude. We do this with intention, rather than hoping that a sense of gratitude will just surface of its own accord. While some people are temperamentally oriented towards seeing the positive in situations, others of us are not (I included myself in this latter group).

The good news is that gratitude is not an innate talent, but a skill that can be learned and grown. Gratitude is not dependent on external circumstances. Connecting with a sense of gratitude while available to all, must also be practiced to be available. Fear, anxiety, and a sense of scarcity (so abundant in this time of Corona) can make it more difficult to access, but not impossible. Practicing allows a kind of spiritual gratitude muscle to grow and strengthen.

For those who struggle to find the first ground of gratitude, I encourage connection with the breath that found you awake this morning. Writing this down, perhaps repeatedly, even a whole page through, until a new reason for gratitude arises and flows through your pen, or your keyboard, or your mouth, or your signed words.

Honoring Our Pain

The only way out is through. And with.

If we were to stop at the first point at the spiral, we might feel good, but not for long and not as deeply as possible. The Work That Reconnects tells us that to be able to move and shift out of stuck places, both emotionally and intellectually, we must do the hard work of facing complex, difficult emotions: we must honor our pain by naming it, even feeling it. It is in doing so that we are a part of creating liberation from it, dissipating the power of pain to contort our behaviors into ugly or harmful shapes.

Many of us choose to numb out, rather than to even approach the pain that has come with Substances, screens, snark, snacking — these are numbing defenses against the dread, the grief, the despair that this pandemic. Greed is another defense. Arguing to avoid the tension of terror — those of who are sharing confined spaces with other people, even ones we love, know this particular defense well.

In this culture, we do avoidance of pain really, really well. Part of the reason for this is that when we feel pain, we think it is our pain. Or even that we are the pain and the pain is us. This second part of the Spiral does not come easy. But it is crucial. Finding and creating both safe and brave space to be able to give shape and name to your pain, especially when this is done in community, allows transformation to take place: we not only learn with our heads, we experience with our selves, that the pain we think is ours, is really part of a greater pain that our existence touches. We can begin to see that we are not our pain; we are a part of a great collective existence that holds pain, yes, and holds other possibilities.

Seeing in New Ways

You have to believe it to see it.

If we equip ourselves with the protection of gratitude, and if we have journeyed into the land of honoring our pain, what we just might find on the other side is a new way of beholding our circumstance. New ways that generate healing and move us away from harm (of ourselves or others).

Some of us find a strange, yet human, comfort in pain or certainty — for many of us, these are familiar companions who have not yet finished their purpose in our lives. That’s okay. The third point on the Spiral journey adds to the gifts those perspectives offer, opening to additional possibilities.

Leaning into our connection with others, we can consider new perspectives, help us see in new ways, help us entertain what may well be impossible, but may shed light on other actual possibilities. This includes looking back to our ancestors and looking to sources of indigenous wisdom, and the perspectives of those with marginalized identities whose contributions and realities have often been erased.

As a poet and spiritual leader, I find that metaphors are super powers. They can help open a door that my pain had tried to fasten shut. For me, progressive dystopian art (novels, movies) grows my sense of the Possible. It also feeds my spirit, in ways that facts and science, while necessary, are insufficient.

Here are the thoughts of 30 thinkers who imagined what COVID-19 makes possible. Here is the idea that there might be medicine in this virus. How might they, or history, or another person’s experience, help you perceive this challenge and these times in new ways?

Going Forth

It is not enough to weep for our lost landscapes; we have to put our hands in the earth to make ourselves whole again.” ~ Robin Wall Kimmerer

With the first three points of the Spiral, we are cultivating resilience, building stamina, and growing emotional and spiritual intelligence. This forth, but not final, point on the Spiral is where Collective Liberation takes shape, for this is where we take what we have integrated as individuals and as a group practicing together and apply it to our lives, to our communities, and to society. This is the bridge back to our lives, newly informed by the work we have just completed. The hope is that in going forth, you have been strengthened so that you can be of service to what Joanna calls The Great Turning, that you might now embody the courage and creativity that is required of all of us in this time of crisis, in this time of opportunity.

This is the point in the Spiral that has the most emergent qualities, for it cannot be known what anyone’s Going Forth looks like ahead of time. It emerges based on what you brought to the Spiral in terms of trust, vulnerability, and suspension of disbelief, as well as how much synergy arose among those participating. Some enter into the Spiral knowing for what they are fortifying themselves and are pleasantly surprised. Some enter thinking they know what to expect and come away surprised, perhaps pleasantly, perhaps not so much. And there are those who enter not knowing and yet, it becomes clearer what shape their path of Going Forth takes.

Learn More

Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy by Joanna Macy & Chris Johnstone

Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to the Work That Reconnects by Joanna Macy & Molly Brown — this books gives the theoretical framework and examples of group-based exercises

Website: https://workthatreconnects.org/ — this is the best place to start exploring online resources

Here is an online worship service, held on March 22, 2020, at The Unitarian Society, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, in East Brunswick, NJ, where Rev. Johnston serves as settled minister. Its structure follows the Spiral. For Grounding in Gratitude, joys were shared, and for Honoring our Pain, sorrows were shared, but all werecedited that out of the recording.

About the Author

Karen G. Johnston

Karen G. Johnston is the settled minister at The Unitarian Society in East Brunswick, NJ. Before becoming a minister, she spent 20+ years as a clinical social worker....

For more information contact conglife@uua.org.