Connections and reconnections

by Karl Perrin

Years ago it became apparent to me that dealing with the grim uncertainty of environmental issues such as climate change needed the balance of creativity and the support of a spiritual community. Eighteen years later I can report that balancing science with the arts and with the mutual support of others has indeed worked. I will probably continue environmental work till 2030 when I will be able to say “I did my best.” But this work is no martyr’s sacrifice. It is “The Work That Reconnects” to use Joanna Macy‘s term. It is play, like playing a fiddle – the more you do it, the more fun it is.

The Work That Reconnects” is the title of Joanna Macy’s DVD. In her late 70’s she, and her husband Fran, gave a final grand teaching on how to take negative emotions, which are a frequent part of work and which tend to isolate us, and re-work that energy into something positive and beneficial. To achieve that, we need connection with each other and with the beauty of nature, and we need to hold fast to our truth as it changes and matures.

This reconnection happens when we take a step back to see the world in a different way. Marcel Proust wrote, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” When we see that our opening up allow us to benefit from unlimited support, we gain the courage to see the vibrancy and the sanctity of all existence. We humbly see that we are a small part of all existence, and that this doesn’t diminish our individual importance.

In about 500 B.C. Lao Tzu Tao wrote the Tao Te Ching. The English translation by Stephen Mitchell goes as follows.

Verse 1:

The tao that can be told

is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named

is not the eternal Name.


The unnamable is the eternally real.

Naming is the origin

of all particular things.


Free from desire, you realize the mystery.

Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.


Yet mystery and manifestations

arise from the same source.

This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.

The gateway to all understanding.”

This is about the radical connectedness of all things, and how human minds tend to forget about that connectedness as we learn to discriminate this from that, and then add labels to create a world of categories which we take to be the only reality. The problem with this reductionist approach is that we end up with a heap of lifeless separate things and forget the relationships, the profound inter-dependence of all existence, which is an equally valid way of perceiving the world. This perspective has much in common with the systems view of things. Joanna Macy refers to the Buddhist concept of inter-dependent co-arising. James Lovelock calls it Gaia and refers to nested ecosystems in a self-regulating bio-sphere. “Co-evolution” is Stewart Brand’s term.

Tao” is sometimes translated as “the Way”, referring to its dynamism, but Lao Tzu reiterates that words are inherently misleading. Words require a categorizing mind, which emphasizes differences rather than fundamental continuity. Therefore the mystic’s direct experience of the divine is a more reliable indicator.  By holding fast to the search for truth, unpleasant and difficult as that may be sometimes, and by putting our truth into action in this world, we approach our own experience of the divine. But our fundamental motivation is our love for the world’s children and grandchildren. We simply wish to give them a healthy earth, and a good and just human world.

The term “desire” in the Tao Te Ching quote above refers to the attachment we feel towards those things we love or want. Desiring not to desire sounds tricky, and it can be if it becomes…trying not to try. But having natural desires without attachment is not so hard once one sees through the pointlessness of attachment, especially since it is only the illusory ego which is doing the attaching. Also, for this “I” to have “it” reinforces the belief in the reality of “I” . Realizing our radical connectedness and interdependence allows that small “self” to fade a bit, as we realize our existence in a much greater Self. St. Francis of Assisi got it: “Brother Sun, Sister Moon…”

Some humility, some humour, some gratitude, and some discipline are all useful…as is reading sources like the Tao Te Ching.

Verse 2:

When people see some things as beautiful,

other things become ugly.

When people see some things as good,

other things become bad.


Being and non-being create each other.

Difficult and easy support each other.

Long and short define each other.

High and low depend on each other.

Before and after follow each other.


Therefore the Master

acts without doing anything

and teaches without saying anything.

Things arise and she lets them come;

things disappear and she lets them go.

She has but doesn’t possess,

acts but doesn’t expect.

When her work is done, she forgets it.

That is why it lasts forever.”

There is a Taoist term “wu wei“, which is hard to translate, because it means “not doing”. But it is neither laziness, nor passivity. It is doing one’s work without being attached to results. It’s hard for us to think in terms of not being goal oriented. But it’s not exactly that either. It’s seeing whatever results occur as a useful lesson, so being grateful for failures as well as successes.

It takes humility to see the world by working through one’s mind and body and without taking credit.

Together we can do the “work that reconnects“. As elders, we’ve been waiting for so long to enjoy the fruits of our labour and our good luck to live in such abundance. We love the beauty, the promise, and the hopeful energy of youth, and we want to tell our stories, honestly and playfully. We like to play, too. Doing this work is the best play I know.

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  • It is like play to have time to think, even if (or especially if?) the mind goes off on a tangent. For some reason, reading these verses brought to mind my mother reading the fairy tale about Rumpelstiltskin, a nasty gnome who hid his name. When someone found out, he died. At the time, I thought it meant that if people didn’t know your name, you’d be safe, so when I was five, I didn’t tell people my name. In nature, newborns that can’t be seen, heard, or smelled are more likely to escape predation. Flying under the radar, we might say, or not standing up above the crowd. With that attitude, the tree of life might have stopped branching after slime molds. We’re here because of mutations, because something was different and stood out.

    But these verses of the Tao seem to say that placing a name on something diminishes or defines other things. My mother collected strange sayings. One of them was “Comparisons are odious.” It’s amazing how often this needed to be repeated as I was growing up, although I admit that it didn’t sink in. I’m a reductionist, and I’ve spent a lifetime making comparisons and looking for patterns. Like most scientists, I want things to be connected in logical, predictable, and repeatable ways. I see that as beauty. A poet once said, truth is beauty and beauty is truth, but he might have been wrong. They’re only names.

    Einstein said that everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler (Generalizations are odious?), and I didn’t listen to that warning either. But Science is now trying to see the connectedness through analysis of systems and networks, using populations not individuals. I’d like to think this approach will get us further ahead in understanding the world around us, but at the back of my mind, I wonder it may be a case of not seeing the trees for the forest. For me, it’s easier to reconnect with a tree than the idea of a tree.

    Wu Wei has meaning for those who search for truth, whether it supports or refutes some preconceived notion. Not being attached to the outcome, but just wanting to know, has driven questioning minds for centuries. I interpreted the last two lines as saying that we keep rediscovering ideas that were forgotten, and it keeps our minds occupied. A case of “doomed to repeat” perhaps, but maybe when we misplace an idea, we can have the thrill of discovery all over again. Thanks to Karl, I’ve rediscovered the other verses of the Tao. ( Have a look at verse 60, and think about our upcoming election.

  • Karl, I found your reflections to be spiritually nourishing.

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