Taking the Future Into Our Hands
We’d come to the Catskills to be on the land, in community, open to what we could discover together about committing to the creation of a future we want to be a part of.
The Hudson train station is the oldest continually operating station in the state of New York. For over 140 years it has been a high speed portal between the Hudson River Valley and the great city of Manhattan; bringing country folk to the commercial mecca and city folk to a pastoral idyll. Each time I approach that red brick building on my way into or out of town, I feel a part of history. But, one Sunday in late August, the feeling I had upon arrival was slightly different: I felt a part of the future.
I was on my way to attend a retreat on the topic of regenerative culture. I’d been invited by Daniela Plattner, a close friend and collaborator. Over the last couple of years, she and I have worked on several projects related to climate change and innovation. In our work we’d been coming across the concept of regenerative culture with increasing frequency.
The term, regenerative culture, has been gaining popularity, supplanting “sustainability,” as a description of the kind of future we need to step into now if we’re going to not only survive on the planet, but thrive. This spring Daniel Pinchbeck and I co-wrote an article on the topic. It was he who introduced me to the term. Daniel has been writing about the climate crisis and current state of transition on the planet for many years. His new book, How Soon Is Now, is the result of decades of research. It is a beautifully written manifesto and plan of action for humanity’s awakening and global transformation in the face of the current ecological crisis.
Regenerative is now a philosophy of thought that encompasses both systems design and human consciousness itself. As the saying goes, we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. The idea behind regenerative culture — simply put — is that we REALLY leave our world a better place than we found it. This requires a clear, informed, and morally mature conception of what “better” means. It’s about systems — belief systems, structural systems, and human behaviors — that align the needs of society with the integrity of nature.
But, before we can build a regenerative future, we need a significant internal state change. It’s no coincidence that the consciousness revolution/wellness movement that has generated so much interest and participation over the last couple of decades is unfolding in tandem with the ecological crisis. To me it’s clear we are preparing ourselves to weather the storm and tapping into sources of higher intelligence, even profound wisdom, to invent a better tomorrow.
While there is a vast body of knowledge available and currently in development on the topic of regenerative culture, the event I was on my way to attend would not be a gathering of experts. It would be an earnest and open exploration of the topic by a group of friends, collaborators, culture makers and influencers — mostly young, urban, and progressive — who had come together with a shared sense of urgency and a belief that it lies to us — as Gandhi may or may not have said — to be the change we want to see in the world.
Daniela, was there to pick me up at the station, standing in the parking lot with a radiant smile and a bunch of dead wildflowers in hand.
We embraced and she offered me the dry stems,
“Happy birthday! These are from the house. And on this special day I’d like to offer you a ritual. Take these and see them as a representation of anything you’d like to leave behind this year, anything you want to discard or eliminate from your life.”
I closed my eyes and filled the stems with unwanted anxieties and fears for myself, my daughter, my family, and friends. I filled them with old habits and emotional crutches, wounds, and compensations. And then I dropped them dramatically at the base of a tree, hearty and capable enough to handle the psychic garbage. “Let Mother Nature recycle these doubts into certainty and courage!” She and I smiled warmly at each other and the adventure that lay ahead of us.
On Monday we eased into our surroundings: a large 10-bedroom hermitage on the banks of the Hudson River, originally intended as an experimental theater community. While that dream never fully materialized, the spirit of self-expression, performance, and storytelling is still present.
The guests, about 15, arrived gradually. Some were partners, some friends, some strangers. Eleanor was the only child, but fit in perfectly and reminded us to be playful. What was clear to me immediately was that the relational field and group dynamic we established was going to be essential to the study we hoped to do on regenerative culture. I felt we were held by the spirit of Gurdjieff and Gabrielle Roth, by the work of Thomas Hübl and Thomas Merton, by the thinking of Philip Slater, Vandana Shiva, and Daniel Pinchbeck. At our opening ceremony, Daniela led us in a meditation that included a call to our ancestors and spirit guides, our role models and teachers. Each of us brought an army of support. The atmosphere was rich.
Even in this auspicious atmosphere, I noticed how I was constantly dealing with my own stuff. And I know this was true of others, too. Humans are funny creatures and we are out of practice living in close community. Tensions arose and subsided; were dealt with or ignored. Private conversations and sidebars were had in bedrooms and back rooms. Here someone felt under-appreciated. There someone else felt insecure. Vulnerabilities surfaced and called to be addressed.
I mention this because we rarely report on the dynamics that inform our work and time together as human beings. This is what fiction is built on: our interior lives. But, these interior lives are present in non-fiction, too. We hide so much of ourselves from others. I once heard it said that 80% of what’s important in any meeting of people is what is unsaid. It’s the subtext, the story, the web of energies and emotions that contribute to what actually happens, that we need to start paying attention to. This is an aspect of regenerative relating that interests me very much:
How do we create the conditions for individuals and groups to collaborate from their highest selves; to shed the baggage that keeps us mired in the past and feeling a false sense of separation from each other?
It’s Monday afternoon and Daniela and I are busily trying to get some work done. Half aware that the goal-oriented, stressed out manner in which we’re doing it is completely antithetical to our purpose for being here. Dara passes through the room and though we are deeply involved with each other and with our computers, she asks, “Can I have a seat here?” We nod. Dara’s presence changes everything. She sits quietly in an armchair near us. She has no phone, no book, nothing to distract her. She just sits peacefully staring ahead and listening passively to our conversation.
Gradually, then suddenly, I recognize a pressure building in my chest and gut. My mind floods with all I have to do and a perceived lack of time to do it. I feel overwhelmed and tell Daniela I can’t work on this anymore. I jump up and fold my computer under my arm. I start to walk out of the room.
Something stops me. In a microsecond, my higher self has recognized that I am triggered. I know that if I am truly going to walk the talk of regenerative culture, the last thing I should do is proceed in this depleting manner. I pivot quickly and find Dara’s eyes. I say to her as a plea and confession, “I feel totally overwhelmed…” She asks the right question, “Do you just want to feel that together?” I walk back and sit across from her. We are now at a distance of about five feet. She inquires, “Where in your body do you feel it?” I scan my body and find tension in my ankles, my legs, my gut. I tell her this and then recognize it’s my whole right side. “The right side represents the future,” she says smiling and I can see how that makes perfect sense. I consciously bring my attention to my right side and I describe to her how the sensations are moving as we sit together.
Daniela has looked up from her computer and is now bearing witness. I am in the fire. I breathe deeply. “It’s changing,” I say and Dara nods. Minutes pass. After a few deep breaths I’ve released a lot of the tension and along with it the thoughts about not having enough time, about letting people down. Dara says, “On a scale of 1–10 how intense was the feeling when you first sat down and how intense is it now?” I check in with myself and tell her I was at an 8 and now I’m at a 4. She smiles and says, “That’s pretty good,” which takes me to a 2 or 3. I feel such deep gratitude. “Can I hug you?” I ask. We stand and embrace. We hold each other a long time. I come away believing her presence there was no accident.
Tuesday night we convened for dinner at Chris Lindstrom’s family farm, Churchtown Dairy, a beautiful, biodynamic farm in Claverack. We all stood in a circle; sharing with each other our interests and intention for being a part of this experience. We thanked the land as Abe, a farmer and expert in the growing of topsoil, told us about his work.
Abe has been working with the neighboring farm, and will likely start working with Churchtown, to restore thousands of acres of healthy topsoil to this region. This is the crisis no one is talking about: we are running out of usable topsoil globally due to factory farming, deforestation, development, and general negligence. This would be devastating to our ability to grow food on the planet. Abe told us emphatically that by some calculations there may only be 50–60 harvests left. As dire as the situation is, he also helped us understand how quickly a large parcel of land can be transformed and restored. “We are not ‘building’ topsoil,” he admonished, “We are growing topsoil…and at that, we’re not really doing much. Nature is doing the work. We’re just providing the space and the conditions for her success.” Abe taught us that topsoil needs biodiversity, air/porousness, water, microorganisms and organic material. “People need to know what it takes to grow food, how water flows through the land, how to read the land. And we need a better bridge between the city and the country,” he told us.
As the sun set, we moved inside to continue the conversation around a long farm table set with locally-harvested foods and raw milk from the dairy. Everyone was hungry and ready to align around our intentions and agenda for the next few days. Our first order of business: to create a shared definition of regenerative culture.
I’ll capture here some of the highlights of what was said. I noticed that night and in the writing of this, too, what a gorgeous and rich definition we got to…together. We each brought to the table, an aspect of the whole. And still there were pieces missing. We were just fifteen friends and friends-of-friends who decided to spend our evening in a collective, active imagination on a topic we care deeply about. And the result was inspiring and also grounding. This night’s conversation set the tone for the next day of work.
Here is some of what was said in response to the prompt: “What is regenerative culture to you?”
Abe: “I’d recommend not just asking what it is, I’d ask something substantive like, ‘What would be the outcome of a regenerative culture?’ Let’s make sure it’s not just an abstraction. We want to make sure that the change is fundamental; that regenerative culture is a logical outcome of our economy; the economy we build in the future…Tom Brokaw talks about The Greatest Generation. I see us — all of us alive at this moment on the planet — as the Re-Generation. It’s the set of people alive today on the planet who are either going to do this now or not. As farmers — we are NOT cynical about the term, regenerative culture, we feel we created it, it fits what we’re doing, working our asses off, every day. We’re dead serious when we talk about regenerative culture. We’re doing it.”
Chris: “To me it’s reclaiming a sense of the regeneration of the Sacred and the whole community of life. There’s something mysterious — Regenerative culture is remembering our place in the harmony of life; this orchestra we have a part to play in. And it’s about re-learning our rightful place as stewards of the land. This is a moment to recognize spirit and matter are not separate. We’re redefining what church is: church is the earth itself, our bodies, the vessels in which we bear witness. We need to learn to read the land again, a new literacy is necessary.”
Dara: “I feel we’re up against a wall; there’s a great sense of urgency, but also a sense that the complexity of the problem is too much for us. We don’t currently have the cognitive capacity or consciousness to solve it. I’m interested in that aspect of this evolution. I also think the notion that nature is something ‘out there’ and away from us is very telling and problematic.”
Jeff: “Nature is a set of constraints that we emerged from…and are also bound by. We have to re-learn those constraints. When we do, we just live regenerative culture as a result of an innate intelligence.”
Daniel: “I grew up in Brooklyn, but have always loved being in nature. I think we have to learn to live in the land but also keep the ties to the city. I consider myself a bridge between the city and the country. I want to help them understand one another better. I feel like that’s a role I can play.”
Erica: “Regenerative Culture is a dialogue…like life itself. I see a nautilus shell or a turtle shell. Regeneration isn’t something we can just ‘grasp.’ It’s like the concept of ‘the nested whole,’ ever expanding. We’re human and more than human. Regenerative culture doesn’t exist alone in a vacuum. There is a celebration of friendship and belonging. We need more poetry and other ways of understanding the Sacred. Dialogue with the Sacred, deep wisdom, many traditions coming together…It’s PURE creativity.”
Pip: “I grew up in the Berkshires among some pretty ‘enlightened’ people, progressive people. Conservationist ideas and preservation of the environment were very present. The question I ask is this: How can our generation affect the change our parents’ didn’t and that we are still avoiding? To me, one essential piece is the necessity of changing the system from within, i.e. impact investing. We need a revolution, but within the realities of our current system. We need to create measurable results.”
Schuyler: “For me, the re-integration of the Sacred Feminine is the key to this change. It’s already happening with or without us. She is rising up, looking for entry points and access points. She is looking for those noble souls who will do Her work in the world. Restoring this balance is our first order of business because it changes everything. Even the language we use to instigate and navigate this change. Erica used the word ‘poetry,’ Chris talked about ‘mystery.’ We need a whole new vocabulary. Our words need a new softening and expansiveness.”
Kalika: “I am passionate about these topics and dedicated to spending time with other people asking these questions. Spirit, the Sacred, not seeing Nature as separate. Going back to a childlike wonder; a spiritual, physical remembering of that state. What would it look like to go back and live that way again? Also looking to older cultures and lineages that you could say are still regenerative.”
Luke: “Recycling…a failed solution. We need new language and a new paradigm to change what’s going on. It can’t just be progressive people in the Berkshires, but everyone…the mainstream. How to make it digestible for everyone? How can we “wrap it” in a package people can understand??
Grace: “I want to feel empowered to make everyday decisions in a regenerative mindset. Today, I don’t even though I want to. I want to make decisions that put more IN than extract OUT. Regeneration is Nature’s path.”
Craig: “Regenerative Culture as a term and idea holds space for something new to happen. It holds space for something larger than the current Us vs. Them paradigm we’re in. This has to be a human shift, not just us over here doing it and them over there not doing it. We have a responsibility to ourselves to become the type of people who can lead us forward. We need to be physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually equipped to lead this transition. Blaming is not helpful. We can take responsibility for this. I may not have created it, maybe I was born into it, but I can take responsibility for it. In a badass way. There needs to be a recognition of the constant back-and-forth between the internal growth necessary and the external conditions present.”
Daniela: “I think of bees as wisdom holders and representatives of the feminine energy. Bees are constantly ‘in service.’ You can be extractive, in equilibrium, or regenerative. We can ask: How can we — in our conversations and ventures — give back and add to? Leaning back, holding space. Regeneration is a state of being. Each conversation can be regenerative. It’s about creativity and being in our hearts. A movement from our heads to our hearts. This is the freshest possible conversation we can have.”
Wednesday morning we woke early and enjoyed a beautiful breakfast. We moved out onto the lawn together where Daniela led us in a guided visualization and then Omar helped us stretch and come into our body. We were again in a big circle on the land. I felt close to everyone and uninhibited as we breathed and laughed and moved together. My mind jumped — understandably — to the hippies.
That morning, I pulled together an exercise for the group; trying not to get bogged down in details or worry about outcomes. My hosts had given me ample space to do whatever…almost too much space. I was unsure about the group’s appetite for detail-oriented work versus a more theoretical approach to the topic. I chose to stand on the shoulders of giants; bringing in a framework proposed by Philip Slater in his brilliant book, The Chrysalis Effect. I read a passage aloud explaining the metaphor:
A caterpillar happily eats its way through the leaves that surround it, consuming hundreds of times its own weight daily. Then one day it slows down and begins spinning a chrysalis…Tiny new cells — what scientists call imaginal cells — now begin to appear in the caterpillar’s body, and start to multiply. The caterpillar’s immune system reacts to these new cells as foreign — as a disease, an infection — and quickly attacks and destroys them…But more and more imaginal cells appear, and begin to link themselves together. Finally, the caterpillar’s immune system is overwhelmed and the caterpillar is liquified. The imaginal cells then recycle the liquified mass into a new entity–the butterfly…This is much the way cultures change…Today we’re in the middle of such a metamorphosis on a global scale.”
And then we worked within a simple framework of “From → To” trajectories to paint a picture of the culture we’re inhabiting now (dominant: control culture; our chrysalis phase) and the shift we want to make (emergent: integrative culture; our butterfly future). We took a hard look at our current situation and together identified some shifts we’ve been witnessing:
In closing the session we each identified the role we felt most suited for in the transition; acting as part of the solution:
>>Helping people UNDERSTAND what’s happening;
>>Helping EASE the anxiety around what’s happening; or
>>Helping people EXPERIENCE the new paradigm by creating opportunities for participation and play.
Later we gathered on the lawn as Erica and Grace led us in a discussion about the importance of developing a deeper connection to the land we live on/with and a sense of place. We broke out into pairs and gave each other the space to share an “eco-duction” a biographical sketch of the environments and landscapes that have shaped us as individuals. Friends who had known each other a long time learned things about each other they’d never known; while others found unexpected common ground. Two in the group learned that they’d been born at the same hospital within two weeks of each other. We all imagined the possibility that they might have “met” in passing during those first hours and days on the planet.
The group is coming together; beginning to gel. It is at various moments inspiring and then humbling; ecstatic and then frustrating to watch people in the social dance. We perform for others in order to hide insecurities. Then in those rare moments we feel safe enough, we reveal a genuine part of ourselves. This fragility is nearly unbearable when the group is new and the feeling of ‘safety’ tenuous. Our sincerity has its own weight; it changes things for other people. One is forced to respond with more authenticity in the presence of it. Can we handle this kind of honesty? Everyone voices a deep desire for honesty and authentic communion. We all say we want to bring our whole selves, our wounds and our blind spots. We ask each other to be mirrors in this process. And yet…in practice this is a tricky thing to achieve. I wonder if it is possible at all?
There is a moment in the afternoon session on the lawn when it feels for a split second like we might break through to a heightened state of awareness, an elevated state of collective consciousness. Something shifts in the space between us and everyone becomes aware of the possibility that something profound might emerge. Intimacy. That’s what it is. A group intimacy. And it is intense. I notice it. I see two others notice it. Immediately one backs down, averts her gaze, turns her attention outside the group. Another chooses not to step in at all and this breech in the collective field prevents us from getting there to a place where we might actually be able to solve something together. I am mildly disappointed, but the experience gives me hope.
As evening fell, Lauren led us through a session in which we applied the principles of regenerative culture to two real projects. The first was the house and land we were on: 100 acres on the Hudson River in the town of Athens, New York. The second was Churchtown Dairy, Chris’ family farm, and our setting for dinner the night before. Our task was to figure out how to integrate regenerative practices into those existing structures.
We broke into two groups and got to work using an Integral framework for the brainstorming. This is an elegant construct for parsing out the myriad aspects of big projects. It reminds us to account for and incorporate all aspects of the experience and needs of participants: the internal individual, internal collective, the external individual and the external collective.
It’s evening and Eleanor has gone to find a cricket. She sets off through the field barefoot and happy. I settle into a comfortable position on the porch with my group and begin to talk about the challenge. Five minutes pass when I hear a scream ring out over the field. I can tell immediately it’s my daughter.
I spin around and see Craig carrying her towards me. She continues to scream in a way I haven’t heard before. She’s frightened. I stand and run towards them. She’s been stung on the lip by a wasp. I carry her to the bedroom and place her gently on the bed. I do everything in my power as a mother to soothe her while friends gather ice and other comforting remedies. I feel a shift inside from the working persona I was in just minutes before, to ‘mom.’ I tap into that rich wellspring of Love and infinite patience that is the Divine Feminine. Ultimately it is this Love, a story, and something sweet to eat that does the trick. She’s comforted and back to herself in no time.
When I returned from nursing Eleanor, I found I had missed most of the activity. The two groups were in the living room reviewing results from the brainstorm. I listened to imaginative plans to turn the Hudson River property into a destination to nurture self-expression and creative problem-solving; helping entrepreneurs and individuals find their way into their own authentic role in the societal transition that’s underway. This was, in effect, exactly what the land had been for us for these three days, so we could really feel the possibility. And the Churchtown group wound up being more of a confirmation for Chris than an innovation session. That group talked about how the farm can be an incubator for local farmers, producers, and those interested in new ways to live on the land, to share and support each other in their efforts.
What was clear for both groups was the importance of physical gathering spaces for the rapid emergence of regenerative culture now. Places where — in this virtual world — human beings can come together in body, mind, and spirit to connect, commune, and create. We saw the need for weaving ourselves together in these places. There was a desire for slowness and consciousness in the way people relate. Some themes emerged: a yearning to raise children in community; a longing to work with the people you love and love the people you work with; a need for new kinds of knowledge and new “literacies”; a deep knowing that conscious community is the best way to nurture human potential; a sense that we have much to learn from indigenous cultures and those still in touch with the “old ways” of being on the earth.
We finished the evening with dinner and relaxed conversation. Small groups of two and three filled the house as we got to know each other better. Each time I dropped into one of these intimate conversations I found myself immersed in a little world of magic. All around people were spinning beauty out of the fibers of relating. I went to bed full of ideas.
Time to say goodbye. We were instructed to gather at 9 am for a closing ceremony. I felt grateful to be working and co-creating with people who respect ritual; who honor the importance of creating a safe and strong container.
Daniela said a few words. We did a group meditation, and then we went around the circle sharing something about our experience of the past few days. We talked about what went well — what we appreciated in the experience or in other people — and we made commitments to carry something of the experience out into the wider world. Everyone listened with great intensity and each person who spoke was held in that field of attention.
It became clear in these closing remarks how transformative that brief gathering had been for all of us. We all felt we’d had important personal insight and learned something about ourselves as we relate in groups. We felt we’d just scratched the surface of what regenerative culture means, but we felt we’d cooperated beautifully in the creation of simple structures for the week: meals, exercises, practices and ideas. We promised to apply some of our work and learnings to our roles in the broader system we are all part of: as entrepreneurs, consultants, teachers, makers, programmers, farmers…
We made a plan to reconvene at the end of September or early October. It was reassuring to be surrounded by people so committed to growth and discovery; people who showed up and would certainly keep showing up for as long as necessary. For a few days we played and laughed, talked and created freely. We also demanded from each other a level of self-inquiry, authentic self-expression, and deep, soul-searching honesty that would be necessary to transport us across the divide from status quo to new states of being.
This is the practice of thriving through transition: showing up, being present, being willing, persistent and optimistic. And while the current culture prizes DOING over BEING and ACTION over REFLECTION and CONTEMPLATION; I believe what we generated in Hudson — like millions of other such gatherings, formal and informal, happening around the world right now — has a ripple effect. We are the imaginal cells of what is surely becoming a butterfly of humanity’s highest potential.
I sit with Craig on a bluff overlooking the river. We’re both filled with the week’s experience and also with a vague apprehension about going back to ‘real life.’ What next? What needs to happen now? We remind ourselves this is real life. Holding the perspective that these gatherings — these transcendent moments — are not something outside the day-to-day; but they are in fact the promise of what the day-to-day can be. We look at the mighty river. I am feeling very small. I think about the generations that have come before and all the people who have sat dreaming and wondering on this river bank. I feel a deep kinship with them and with nature. We are swimming in that river and we are that river of life.