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On a bleak November afternoon, when the suit was still in process, I visited the Onondaga Nation—a big name for this scrap of land that looks like a postage stamp on maps of Central New York. I had come because I was moved by the integrity and vision of their land rights claim, and now I saw how few material resources they possess to pursue it. In the community center, native counselors described outreach programs for mental health and self-esteem, bringing young people together from all the Haudenosaunee. To help with the expenses, other tribes had chipped in, but few contributions had been received from the richer ones.

They were eager for me to see the recently built school where young Onondagans, who choose not to go off the Nation to U.S.-run schools, can receive an education. A teacher named Frieda, who was serving for a while as a clan mother, had waited after hours to show me around. The central atrium she led me into was hung about with shields of a dozen clans—turtle clan, bear clan, frog—and on the floor illumined by the sky light was a large green turtle, beautifully wrought of inlaid wood. “Here is where we gather the students for our daily morning assembly,” Frieda explained. “We begin, of course, with the thanksgiving. Not the real, traditional form of it, because that takes days. We do it very short, just twenty minutes or so.” Turning to gaze at her face, I sank down on a bench. She heard my silent request and sat down too. Raising her right hand in a circling gesture that spiraled downward as the fingers closed, she began. “Let us gather our minds as one mind and give thanks to grandfather Sun, who rises each day to bring light so we can see each others’ faces and warmth for the seeds to grow.” On and on she continued, greeting and thanking the life-giving presences that bless and nourish us all. With each one—moon, waters, trees—that lovely gesture was repeated. “We gather our minds as one mind.”

My eyes stayed riveted on her. What I was receiving through her words and gesture felt like an intravenous injection, right into my bloodstream. This, I knew, can teach us how to survive, when all possessions and comforts have been lost. When our honored place in the world is taken from us, this practice can hold us together in dignity and clear mind.

What Frieda gave me is a staple of Haudenosaunee culture. The Mohawks have written down similar words, in an equally short form, so the rest of us can have it too. Known as the Mohawk Thanksgiving Prayer, it begins:

The People

Today we have gathered and we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now, we give greetings and thanks to each other as people.
Now our minds are one.

The Earth Mother

We are all thankful to our mother, the Earth, for she gives us all that we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk about upon her. It gives us joy that she continues to care for us as she has from the beginning of time. To our mother, we send greetings and thanks.
Now our minds are one.

And it concludes:

The Enlightened Teachers

We gather our minds to greet and thank the enlightened teachers who have come to help throughout the ages. When we forget how to live in harmony, they remind us of the way we were instructed to live as people. We send greetings and thanks to these caring teachers.
Now our minds are one.

The Creator

Now we turn our thoughts to the creator, or great spirit, and send greetings and thanks for all the gifts of creation. Everything we need to live a good life is here on this Mother Earth. For all the love that is still around us, we gather our minds together as one and send our choicest words of greetings and thanks to the creator.
Now our minds are one.

Closing Words

We have now arrived at the place where we end our words. Of all the things we have named, it was not our intention to leave anything out. If something was forgotten, we leave it to each individual to send such greetings and thanks in their own way.
Now our minds are one.


The Spiral

There are hard things to face in our world today, if we want to be of use. Gratitude, when it’s real, offers no blinders. On the contrary, in the face of devastation and tragedy it can ground us, especially when we’re scared. It can hold us steady for the work to be done.

The activist’s inner journey appears to me like a spiral, interconnecting four successive stages or movements that feed into each other. These four are 1) opening to gratitude, 2) owning our pain for the world, 3) seeing with new eyes, and 4) going forth. The sequence repeats itself, as the spiral circles round, but ever in new ways. The spiral is fractal in nature: it can characterize a lifetime or a project, and it can also happen in a day or several times a day.

The spiral begins with gratitude, because that quiets the frantic mind and brings us back to source. It reconnects us with basic goodness and our personal power. It helps us to be more fully present to our world. That grounded presence provides the psychic space for acknowledging the pain we carry for our world.

In owning this pain, and daring to experience it, we learn that our capacity to “suffer with” is the true meaning of compassion. We begin to know the immensity of our heart-mind and how it helps us to move beyond fear. What had isolated us in private anguish now opens outward and delivers us into wider reaches of our world as lover, world as self.

The truth of our inter-existence, made real to us by our pain for the world, helps us see with new eyes. It brings fresh understandings of who we are and how we are related to each other and the universe. We begin to comprehend our own power to change and heal. We strengthen by growing living connections with past and future generations, and our brother and sister species.

Then, ever again, we go forth into the action that calls us. With others whenever and wherever possible, we set a target, lay a plan, step out. We don’t wait for a blueprint or fail-proof scheme; for each step will be our teacher, bringing new perspectives and opportunities. Even when we don’t succeed in a given venture, we can be grateful for the chance we took and the lessons we learned. And the spiral begins again.

Then all the work I put my hand to
widens from turn to turn.
—Rainer Maria Rilke

This essay is drawn from a new chapter in the revised edition of Joanna Macy’s classic World as Lover, World as Self. © 2007 Unified Buddhist Church. Reprinted in the November 2007 Shambhala Sun magazine and online here with permission from Parallax Press. 


 




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