Earth Day 2017: Chaos is Good News

Following is a talk ACT founder/director Rebecca Brown gave at the Franconia Community Church on April 23, the guest sermon for Earth Day 2017. 

Close your eyes and think of a place very special to you – a place where you can go to find some peace, some solitude, get grounded, recharged. A sacred place.

What does it feel like, what do you see? What do you feel? What are the sounds, the smells, the sensations on your skin?

Open your eyes. How many of you imagined yourself in front of your computer? Nobody was checking Facebook? How about on your cell phone? How about reading a book?

Show of hands – how many people imagined someplace outdoors, in nature?

In the mountains? At a lake, a stream?

How many imagined a place right around here? 


That is the magic, the mystery, and the priceless or intangible value of nature, of wild places. It’s part of being human to want to be in a place that gives you a sense of peace, but also of grandeur, of things bigger than ourselves, a sense of awe.

I’m going to come back to the importance of these places.

But this talk is called “Chaos is Good News – Lessons from Land and Spirit” And now I’m going to talk about why.

I’m going to start by asking you, what is the most important issue of our time. It’s not war, or immigration, or poverty, or climate change. It’s how we think of ourselves.

It’s how we think of ourselves.

How we think of ourselves is reflected in how we care for our land. In how we care for this planet. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s come back to chaos.

It may be an understatement, but looking around at our country, at the world, things do seem rather uncertain to say the least, out of control, frightening, chaotic. Why would this be good news?

Let’s go back to the original Greek meaning of the word. Chaos is a wide open expanse, the great emptiness that occurs before genesis. It’s the openness where things fall apart and new creations arise. When things seem really bad, there’s an opportunity for something good to take place.  It provides is with that opportunity to deeply examine what is wrong, in order to find how to do things right.

Looking at “chaos as good news” is something I learned – learned from a great Tibetan Buddhist meditation master and teacher named Sakyong Mipham. He believes that the pain and confusion of the world is now so vivid and unavoidable that we have no choice but to acknowledge it. That when we are finally fed up with torturing ourselves, others, and the planet, out of our exhaustion will arise that wide open space, where we come to our senses and rediscover a more natural state.

And what is our more natural state? What is beneath all the anger, and confusion, judgement, bias, and hate?

The Tibetan masters believe that we are basically good. That the natural state of our being, is open, kind, and wise. That we have the answers to all of our problems. We might not like all the answers – they don’t suggest that everything comes up roses -  but the Buddhist tradition is actually very hopeful in that there is unconditional confidence in human nature. The challenge is for each of us, discovering, or rediscovering, our innate sense of wellness, or wholeness, or worthiness. Finding that in ourselves. Each of us. 

This is not some kind of exalted self-esteem exercise. It’s actually the foundation of a healthy society.

That’s because society is made up of all of us. It’s a network of relationships among us and it starts with the relationship between just two people.

It starts with how we treat each other – the relationships between ourselves and others – the one to one relationships, and all builds from there. So transforming society can happen one person at a time. That transformation starts with how we acknowledge one another. From a family member, to someone at work, to the person you’re passing on the street or in line behind at the check out. The power of a smile, or a small kindness, can never be underestimated.

Let alone listening to someone, really listening, not just hearing and getting ready to make your own point as soon as they take a pause for breath. In fact, giving someone our full attention is probably one of the kindest things we can do right now, when we have so many distractions around us all the time.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t get angry or express hard emotions – rather, I’m saying there is immeasurable power when someone is kind to us, or really sees us, and listens to us.  And one thing we’ve learned, I believe, from the last election, is there are a lot of people who feel overlooked, who do not feel acknowledged.

How we feel about ourselves is key. Every morning we wake up , and we have that split second decision about how we feel about ourselves.

Do we feel angry? Frustrated? Hopeful? Calm? At peace? At war? How we feel has a direct effect on how we are in our day and how we treat others.

But what if we acknowledge the inherent struggles in life without getting sucked into the negativity? Without falling into the trap of doubting our own and others’ worthiness? What if we create an environment where our minds and hearts can have some time to reflect on what is important, on how we will be in this challenging world? How we might transform our world, by the simply choosing how we are?

 We can create that environment, and in fact we have it right here.

I think we live in one of the greatest places in our country, and in the world. It may take spring an awfully long time to get here, but we learn patience and fortitude, and a bit of humour.

We can step outside into a remarkable landscape, we can walk for a few minutes and escape traffic noise. There are still places here that seem untouched by the hand of people.

We have wide open rugged expanses, and we have more intimate places. The edge of a pond, a clearing in the woods, the way the early light reflects off a mountain stream. The ancient Celts had a name  “thin places,” where suddenly, you feel outside yourself – and very much grounded – feel a sense of mystery, and connection to something bigger – it’s like heaven and earth are joined.  Christians feel that. Buddhists feel that. Apaches feel that: the Apaches say, “wisdom sits in places.”  It’s part of being human, a yearning for connection, a yearning to feel awe.

Getting outside, into nature – it’s like a prescription for what ails us. Science – so much research now on – the perpetual question – who are we? What is consciousness? What is the nature of our minds?  Neuroscience tells us that the brain responds – our cognition, our emotions, and the places beyond our conscious thought – are affected by being outside. We become calmer; we think more clearly; we think more creatively, and we behave more kindly. Just being in nature – it doesn’t have to be on top of Mt Lafayette, or 10 miles from a road – city people can find it by looking at a single tree – being in nature is powerful and transformative. And we can be in nature right outside our door – that’s why we’re so lucky here.

When we get ourselves away from the din, the chatter, the overload of information and media and technology driven sensations we are blasted with – when we choose to step away from that, we can hear ourselves think. We can give ourselves the time to reflect. We can feel. Feel with all our senses. Be completely present with what is, right now. It’s our choice to do this. And doing this – taking the time to just be – reflect, feel – today, in our culture, that’s a radical act.

We are not going to remake our world, our society from the top down. Transformation starts from the human heart, from every one of us. And even if you’ve stopped working, you’re still part of society – in that respect, we never retire. We can’tretire from society.

Chaos gives us a lot of ground, a lot of space to work in. I believe that we live in one of the last sane places. Our traditions of local, self-government, direct democracy through our town meetings, our reliance on civic volunteers, our tradition of taking care of things ourselves, with our neighbors and in our communities, all of this is very powerful.  We have the tools we need. We just have to use them. And that starts with how we feel about ourselves, and how we acknowledge each other.

One of the most radical things I’ve found about our state came, believe it or not, from a governor’s report. A special commission, in 1991, a special commission that was asked how NH should prepare for the 21st century.

And here we are. This is what the commission said:

"People come to New Hampshire, or stay in New Hampshire, to be independent. We discover, paradoxically, that independence requires a community effort. Under the mainstream of rugged individualism there has always been a practical current of interdependence and cooperation. As New Hampshire grows, our sense of mutual dependence must become as strong as our independence, or we will lose both."

- From New Hampshire: My Responsibility, Final Report of the Governor’s Commission on New Hampshire in the 21st Century, 1991. 

I want to conclude by giving thanks, which seems a good thing when speaking from this place, giving thanks to the people who came before us, over a hundred years ago, who had the vision and the boldness and the courage to fight back against the powers that be and created the White Mountain National Forest.

And I want to thank the dozens of landowners I’ve had the honor and privilege of working with who love this place, and their places within in, love it so much that they have protected their land for all time. Protected their land so that wildlife always has a home, and so that people will always have places to go where we can reconnect, find solitude, and find a sense of the sacred.

Some of these landowners have passed on, and their spirit is so very present in that land, and always will be. And the sprit lives in the souls of those who are still here. 

So on this fine spring day, do something radical – get outside, leave your cell phone behind, and give yourself some space to just be. Savor that experience. And be kind to whoever you meet.