Last weekend we hosted a group of people working on a transition from consumerism to citizenship. We came together at a beautiful retreat centre in Somerset, surrounded by seven hundred acres of woodland. We did not know what would happen by meeting here. We just trusted that nature would help.
This started when, last year, my Way of Nature brother*, Adrian Kowal, proposed the idea of hosting a Philosophers’ Camp. The original Philosophers’ Camps are documented from the 19th century, involving brilliant minds like that of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Early in the 20th Century, people like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford also retreated into the wild to find new perspectives around big issues of the time. But of course, many cultures across time have gone out into nature to seek wisdom. Part of our work today is about helping people do the same, in a way fit for modern times.
When we opened our Philosophers’ Camp, we described how nature can help us shift conversations away from the head. When we go into nature, she helps us speak more fully from the heart. Sometimes, she helps us speak from a deeper place in the belly. Sometimes, she helps us bring words through as if they came from the Earth.
Inspired by the brilliant people at The New Citizenship Project, we took this intention to explore a specific theme: The transition from Consumerism to Citizenship. The sense here is that if the world were to awaken from a slumber of consumerism, a more participative society would do more to find balance and prosperity for all.
I had no idea how the weekend would go. But I absolutely trust that nature always has something to teach us, and with the help of Way of Nature processes, rooted in profound wisdom traditions, very special things can unfold.
I can share glimpses of what we did, but it doesn’t make sense to explain it in a linear way. We met around a dreamlike door in the middle of a forest. We lay on the ground and looked at the tree tops in silence. We started mornings with Qi Gong (pronounced Chee Gong) to help openness and flow. We practiced mindful walking, bringing our deepest needs ‘home’ with every step. We went blindfolded into the night to find a distant drum. We went deep into conversations with our eyes closed. We camped around the fire and cast toasts out to loved ones around the world.
Rational thought and a drive for outcomes often seem to override the forms of modern life. This was also a dynamic for this camp. There were feelings of frustration and discomfort. We did not fight them. We held them and opened space for them and still we trusted that deeper knowing might come from the heart or the belly or the Earth.
Then we arrived somewhere. Different perspectives and forms of understanding began to unfold. We began to see – feel – citizenship in ourselves. More than words and concepts and theories, we began to explore the theme with all of our ways of knowing. From here we started to explore notions of self worth, justice, need, desire and balance – all from a deeper place.
Isadora Duncan, the famous dancer, was once asked to describe a dance and she responded by saying: ‘If I could say it, I wouldn’t dance it.’ Perhaps at our camp we started to dance the ideas of consumerism and citizenship rather than try to say them.
From here we touched deeper into the passions and tensions of being change makers. ‘What right have we?’ – and ‘Who are we?! To do this work?’ We acknowledged shadows and doubts and different kinds of fire in the belly and we made space to hold them with better care and intention. Perhaps most importantly, we made space for each person in the group to take care. After all, if we cannot take care of ourselves, then how can we possible take care of society?
By the end of this concoction of nature and learning and soul and campfire, we caught a glimpse of what it is to be human. We did so together – feeling the highs and the lows – also sensing into deeper questions around the role each of us plays in the story. We felt it from the feet, through the belly and heart and then the head. And now, we can let the head do better thinking and the hands do better doing.
It seems to me that there is a greater need for this work in all aspects of strategy and planning and policy and more. Where we set out to explore society and citizenship, it helps to go deeper into what it is to be human. When we do this, we realise that change is about profound needs and passions – and more, that we each hold a key to working with change, simply by being and knowing ourselves.
At the retreat, one of the participants, the extraordinary social innovator and ‘animateur’ – Ronan Harrington, shared a poem by Robin Robertson:
To the walled garden, the place
I’d never been,
with a simple turn
of the key
I’d carried with me
all these years.
The key is to be human. And I have come to see that this is where citizenship starts.
These words are dedicated to Chris Seeley, who helped to open so many doors to knowing, and to being human.
*I feel it is important to challenge the convention of organisational language. Adrian feels like a different kind of brother to me. With this energy, we work more deeply with our venture for a better world.