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Spring Fast: Re-attuning to Life in a Climate of Extremes

Updated: Mar 14


Spring is such a time of mysterious transformations. The first flowers pushing through the still cool earth are a wonder to me as their beautiful colours begin to sprinkle a feel of life amidst the browns and greys. Children and adults cannot help but stop, look and express joy at this living sign of spring’s return. Gentle, fragile, and yet hardy, these first buds stand right between the polar extremes of winter’s deep cold and summer’s intense heat.

The reality for us today is that the in-between space of spring is increasingly confused, muddled within the rising intensities of climatic changes that are being fueled by our still rising greenhouse gas emissions. Warm spells start earlier as budding saplings and singing birds ready themselves too soon, and then suffer when the cold returns. A heat wave in April, a cold spell in May, droughts that threaten the flow of Maple syrup, an ocean steadily warming, hurricane season intensifying, and the threat of another ever-lengthening defense against forest fires on our urban doorsteps.

Even the purple flower I see each morning has pushed through the ground a few weeks earlier than usual following the warm winter. Our human communities are in a lockstep dance with these intensifying climate changes as we descend into the polarizing politics of wars with deep tribal histories, Trumpism and related partisan party divisions, and the racial injustices that are fueling identity conflicts around the world. Trying to find a space of dialogue in-between these stark polarities seems like a forgotten art, and as such the feel of spring-like renewal continues to virtually recede.

Despite the state of uncertainty swirling around us, I cannot help but feel an energetic jump in my step at this time of year. It is a kind of natural call to wake-up and partake of this season where life takes root once more. About a month before the first flowers, the sap of Maple trees begin flowing in the lands north of the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes where I live. The arrival of syrup has long been a sign for the Haudenosaunee and others Indigenous to these lands that Mother Earth is awakening and people should prepare to receive Her gifts. As Haudenosaunee elder Gae Ho Hwako Norma Jacobs writes in her book Ǫ da gaho dḛ:s: “the first gift being the maple sap that cleanses, rebuilds, and replenishes our bodies and minds.” The maple prepares people for spring’s arrival by reminding us of our responsibilities.

Cultures from around the world have long honoured this time of transition. There is the Easter of Christians and the preceding Lent for Catholics. Over the last decade of teaching with Norma Jacobs, I often reflected on how my approach to Lent could be better attuned to spring by learning about the value of seasonal ceremonies like Maple tapping. I began looking for complementary understandings in the tradition, and it was in that search that the Catholic monk and social activist Thomas Merton became a vital guide. The purpose of Lent fasting is, he explains, not a denial of life as is often assumed in the heaven-focused Christian traditions, but rather should “lead to a positive increase of spiritual energy and life.”

Such an attuning of spirit to ways of living was learned by Merton not only from tradition, but also from the forests where he lived as a hermit. “Buds are not guessed at or thought of, this early in Lent. But”, Merton writes, “the wilderness shines with promise. The land is dressed in simplicity and strength. Everything foretells the coming of the holy spring.” The fasting of Lent is likewise a way of dressing our modern lives in simplicity and strength. Many other cultures have their own fasting practices tied to their sacred calendars, including Jews, Buddhists and Muslims who are celebrating Ramadan this year as the flowers push through the ground. Spring fasts are also central to many Indigenous cultures. And while Jacobs’ preparation for the flowing Maple sap is not the same as fasting, I can sense a complementary practice in the way people make space in their life so as to tap the tree and give thanks for the syrup.

In our time of ever-changing extremes and virtual relationality, acts of naturally attuning our lives can seem very difficult to foster. A case can be made that our social extremism is being fanned by the algorithm at the heart of our virtual web of relations. Each day I am shown how the act of clicking an item of interest me quickly brings more information that is likable to my searches. An inquiry into questions around spring ceremonies and fasting across cultures brings forward links that might interest me, though often do not. I constantly have to remind myself that the primary goal of the algorithm is to keep me online. To do this, it directs me toward virtual experiences that evoke intense emotions, and as the research tells us these are often marked by fear, anger and a search for belonging. It is not a long journey to evermore radicalized views, all replete with a community of supporters.

Over the last two decades our use of screens as a mediator for communication has steadily grown, but with the Covid-19 pandemic this way of relating intensified. On average, the use of digital screens increased by 5 hours per day, with the result being that heavy users are now on their devices about 17.5 hours per day and moderate users 30 hours per week. While a balanced approach to virtual sociality has positive mental health benefits especially for those who are isolated, it is also clear balance is not common these days. In contrast, our addictive use of screens is associated with mental health issues like attention-deficit symptoms, impaired emotional and social intelligence, isolation, depression and anxiety.

There are valid truths being brought to the surface by social media, but these are often undermined by the polarizing effects they tend to foster. For many, the norm has become an uncertain social climate marked by anger, fear and longing. We are moving in erratic ways that are similar to those feedbacks that are intensifying more extreme climate events. A warming winter leads to a warmer ocean, and that warmth energetically feeds the hurricanes that funnel up more water, pack stronger winds, unleashes more devastating floods, and results in rising losses of human, animal and ecological life. Our emotional intensities are taking on an unpredictable form that is remarkably similar as we embattle each other in ways that dehumanize and creates unbridgeable divides.

When reflecting on such feedback dynamics, it is important to remember that the algorithm has not been birthed from nowhere, but rather is the progeny of a particular modern culture struggling with a complex world. The social media programmers have largely been young people, often men, who graduated from higher education institutions like MIT, Stanford and other universities not unlike where I learned and now teach. In other words, much of the social polarization, immature emotionality, and resulting mental health issues are related to a virtually stunted adolescent way of relating.

Much in social media recalls for me the anxiety of high school socialization, with the cliques, bullying and young men fist-fighting over imagined territories. The anxiety and fear associated with peer pressure was often a strong motivation in my search for belonging somewhere. Once you found an affinity group, we would often become defined in contrast to those of other groups. In the mid-1980s of my youth in rural white Ontario, there were the sport jocks, nerds, metal-heads and preps, all classifications that have changed with time. Dressing like others to define your little box, and then acting like that box was the world. On some level we knew this was not real, and yet it was very difficult to find a way out. Today, it feels like we are back in those boxes, except that this anxious climate is virtually everywhere and all the time.

The beauty of spring seems so far away these days, even when we are living within the emerging life of that season. There is little space today for what Thomas Merton describes as communion. In a spirit like the attuning of spring ceremonies, communion is an act of relating where we learn more about ourselves through reaching into dialogue with the diverse realities of other people, cultures, faiths, races, and even ecologies. As he writes, at “the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. [And it is beyond social media.] Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity... we are already one. But we imagine that we are not.”

From an Indigenous perspective, this is similar to what Norma Jacobs describes in her

recent book as ǫ da gaho dḛ:s, the sacred meeting space where friendship treaties like the Two Row Wampum were collectively envisioned. What makes such a space sacred is the way people relationally embody values like peace, friendship and respect. In the words of Jacobs: “It is always about nurturing ǫ da gaho dḛ:s between us so that we can communicate with one another and be really clear about who we are in these relationships. We each need to discuss and understand what the other is saying by asking ourselves, “Do I really understand what you mean and where you are coming from?”

As our conversation evolves, we can come to a real understanding of what the other means. This is what… is needed to come to ǫ da gaho dḛ:s.” The intention is, as with Merton, to commune with each other while honouring our unique cultural grounding in this world. But as we know from the residential schools and so much more, such a meeting in ǫ da gaho dḛ:s has been rare. It is becoming more so, despite the abundance of “social media”.

            Many of us are caught in-between these polarizations, not knowing what to do or fearing even an attempt of coming together. The conflicts that are happening across cultures, races and nations are also conflicts that many people are internally struggling with in relation

to their identity and political choices. Despite the apparent social extremes, a sense of clear racial, cultural or national identity associated with one group is increasingly a fraught concept, as can be seen in my Canadian context where about 35.5% of the population indicates multiple ethnic origins. Similar stats can be found in countries like the United States and much of Western Europe. Maybe there is a hope of spring in the fluidity of this demographic shift, like the sap of a great Maple or a flower pushing in-between the seasonal extremes of winter and summer.

At the same time, the reality is that whole ecologies are in the process of transforming from one state to another because of global climate changes, and these shifts will continue to disturb ecological communities and further polarize human groups. Our present conflicts are a diversion from attending the real common planetary issues that threaten all of us. Our global climate of change is calling for a change of heart, a unity of response that can affirm diversity. The polarization of this moment makes even simply imagining a sustainable response seem impossible, and yet that is what the Earth is asking of us.

How do we find a way back to ǫ da gaho dḛ:s, a meeting place where we can foster a nuanced sense of diversity while in communion with each other, or with our own internal diversity? Wisdom keepers like Merton and Jacobs have learned to enter such sacred relational spaces through cross-cultural dialogue. They commonly teach that in these spaces it is possible to learn more not simply about others, but also about who we are and the unique gifts of our cultural traditions. As Merton wrote after years of interfaith dialogue: “The more I am able to affirm others, to say “yes” to them in myself… discovering them in myself and myself in them, the more real I am… I will be a better Catholic.” Similarly, Jacobs teaches that affirming our cultural grounding while learning in relation with others is the core wisdom of the Two Row Wampum.

Real communion is what was violated through colonialism, and a comparable social disregard is currently fueling our climate of internal and external extremes. Our entangled situation recalls for me a story told to Carl Jung by Richard Wilhelm about a rainmaker who came to his village in China as it was experiencing a lengthy drought. After trying many things to change the situation, the community reached out to an old man from another province who was known for his rainmaking gift. Upon arriving in the village, he locked himself alone in a little house for three days. On the fourth day a great storm broke the devastating dry spell. Later he explained that he was not responsible for bringing the rain. Rather, in his words: “I come from another country where things are in order. Here they are out of order… Therefore the whole country is not in Tao, and I am also not in the natural order of things because I am in a disordered country. So I had to wait three days until I was back in Tao, and then naturally the rain came.”

            Slowing down, patience and coming into a still quiet place as a first necessary step to becoming re-attuned with ourselves and thus the world can seem to us, in a time of climatic changes, such a paradoxical and useless action. Surely we need to act fast, search online for as much knowledge as we can! Yet, such age old wisdom can be found across the cultures of this world, and these philosophies were never meant to be kept separate from how we live in the world. These traditions are commonly meant to attune people to the world and the mysterious spirit behind it all, with all the messy contradictions that arise in any complex relationship.

Attending such contradictions and paradoxes are far beyond what the algorithm of social media brings us into relation with. On a more fundamental level, they are also deeply problematic for the policies and regulations of modern institutions that desire automated ways of acting. We need a different way of approaching a complex world that is forever changeable, nuanced and relational.

Communion is a central feature of the sacred in-between season that is spring. It is a time for embracing change and opening into relations so we can partake in the bringing forth of more life. Reflecting on the role of fasting in Catholic Lent and other traditions across the planet, perhaps there is something in this practice that could help us deal with our polarizing realities. The Earth Hour does serve as a reminder of the need to reduce our energy-use and slow down our ways of being. Doing this in a sustained manner beyond one hour will also entail broader systemic change so our ways of being can be re-attuned with Earth relations. But for the value of that kind of slowing down to really be entertained, another complementary fast is also required.


Spring Fast: Some Guiding Questions

BodyWhat bodily desires can I reduce that will help my whole being feel healthier?

Energy – What opportunities do I have for reducing my energy use in ways that can trickle into my daily life? Are there ways that this small change could energize my support of initiatives aimed at systemic change?

Emotion/Mind – In what ways can I reduce my screen time generally, and specifically fast from social media that evokes anger, fear, and paranoia in my being?

Culture/Spirit – How can I support the re-attuning of certain ancestral spiritual/cultural practices to the seasonal movement of life where I live on our home, Earth?


Just as with the rainmaker’s first non-actions in the village, we need to reduce our social media addictions. We need to fast from sites that promote fear and anger. Just as with the intensifying feedbacks of extreme climate events, it is our energy in the form of what we attend that is adding fuel to many intensifying social conflicts today. This fasting is about coming into a slower and more patient stillness where we can begin to reconnect, with the mysterious ground from which our life arises. Rather than cancelling each other, can we learn to nurture ways of supporting a seasonal composting of that which will sustain life in the seasons and years ahead?

Within the generative in-between space that a spring fast can open, we can then foster relations that more closely embody a spirit akin to the flow of Maple syrup and a strong first flower. This is all communion and transformation through affirming the sacred space, ǫ da gaho dḛ:s; that still point from which is birthed new life, new possibilities. We need to foster such spaces if we are to have even a small chance of communally re-attuning ourselves to our changing home. Perhaps it is in-between our climatic extremes that we may find the energy to open like spring’s first flower into the abundance of summer, into the abundance of our common humanity in a creation that gives us everything we need and more. In the words of Merton: “what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”


Links for Learning More:

Thomas Merton, https://merton.org/

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