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Report on Berry Forum Conference: Hope and Healing in the Anthropocene


Hope and Healing in the Anthropocene: Inspiration, Conversation, Transformation

Why Anthropocene? Anthropos is the Greek word for “human,” so the “Anthropocene” is understood as “relating to or denoting the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.” 

Musicians performing at the Berry Forum Conference.Photo by: Monica Hoyt

A Day of Conversation, Music and Mindfulness. In Berry’s words, the tools for doing the great work of reinventing the human are story and shared dream experience. In other words, we can only address the challenges of our “anthropocene” epoch by orienting ourselves within the coherence of the universe story. We began the full day conference with the 60+ participants by laying out our desired outcomes for the gathering that included an understanding of what is really going on beneath all the rhetoric around climate change and its impacts. Br. Kevin Cawley, executive director of the Berry Forum, set the scene by quoting from the powerful Encyclical (Laudato Si) of Pope Francis who remains one of the few world leaders to offer direction on this unprecedented challenge: “…the urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development” (13). 

Glory of the Human. Berry Forum co-founder, Dr. Brian Brown, showed how Thomas Berry’s vision is at the heart of any true response:

“The glory of the human has become the desolation of the Earth and now the desolation of the Earth is becoming the destiny of the human. From here on, the primary judgment of all human institutions, professions, programs and activities will be determined by the extent to which they inhibit, ignore, or foster a mutually-enhancing human/Earth relationship.” Noting that the day’s gathering anticipated by but a few days, the anniversary of the birth of Thomas Berry born on November 9, 1914, Brian Brown reflected on the opening lines of Berry’s essay “Reinventing the Human at the Species Level.” 

“The present human situation can be described in three sentences: In the twentieth century, the glory of the human has become the desolation of Earth. The desolation of Earth is becoming the destiny of the human. All human institutions, professions, programs and activities must now be judged primarily by the extent to which they inhibit, ignore, or foster a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship.” 

“… [I]t is proposed that the historical mission of our times is: 
To reinvent the human 
At the species level 
With critical reflection 
Within the community of life systems 
In a time-developmental context 
By means of story and 
Shared dream experience.” 

Berry’s call for the reinvention of the human is a reflection of the hazardous conditions that now threaten, arising out of a pathological human self-regard and simultaneous disregard for a world which it sees as separate and apart from itself and over which it has entitlement to dominate and exploit. Human movement into the future, depends in large measure by its success in reading the map of its past. Beyond the limited identities of racial, ethnic, and national narratives, the story of the universe reveals human identity at its species level and the indispensable role that it is designed to play in celebrating,preserving and fostering the universe’s self-expressiveness as Earth. The human re-invents itself, to the degree that it orients itself within the great story of the universe’s coherence and expansive unfoldment. The universe story bears fruit only in the active translation it elicits in concrete human behavior. 

Attendees at the Berry Forum Conference Photo by: Monica Hoyt

Religious Traditions. Sr. Kathleen Deignan, co-founder number three, pointed to the kind of resources that we have in our various religious and philosophical traditions, while co-founder number four, Danny Martin, spoke of the essential importance of coming together to form “communities of possibility” in order to take on this amazing task of reinventing the human. Sr. Kathleen enhanced the artistic celebration of the day's experience by offering a number of musical performances accompanied by Beth Begley on guitar. 

Loss of Maternal Ground. The keynote speaker, Professor Mary Beth Morrissey, is a phenomenologist who has explored the phenomenon of suffering. Mary Beth described our present situation of fragmentation, polarization, confusion, chaos and violence, as caused by the loss of the maternal ground that enables us to live in the face of the mystery of existence. In other words, we suffer because we no longer feel connected to the world we live in or to each other.  Professor Morrissey clearly reflected the vision of Thomas Berry, adding to it the reality – the phenomenon – of suffering that is involved now in the collapse of an old order and in the emergence of a new one. The other speakers took up the task of reflecting on what this – being together in a new way – entails. 

Speakers at the Berry Forum Conference.Photo by: Monica Hoyt

Shifting Energy. Dr. Orla Cashman spoke of the power of connection for shifting the sometimes overwhelming energy of anxiety and enabling us to find balance, inside and out. She led us in an exercise of listening to our bodies – to the stress and anxiety we feel and the thoughts they engender – and then to take a ‘flash inventory. She continued by inviting us to find a stranger and to share with them something we are anxious about. When we had finished this exchange she asked us once again to take a quick inventory of our feelings and thoughts. Orla noted how the energy in the room had shifted from tense to relaxed, and from low to high energy – even joy. It was as if, she added, oxytocin – the so-called ‘love hormone’ – had been released in us. 

Addiction and Mindfulness. Professor Diane Abatemarco who spoke about her work with addiction, specifically addicted mothers, at Jefferson Memorial Hospital in Philadelphia, pointed to mindfulness as her core tool for helping the mothers rediscover what Professor Morrissey had earlier called their “lost maternal ground.” Addiction to opioids is now the biggest killer in the country, Diane began, while, among mothers, addiction of this nature has increased 500% within a couple of decades.  Diane’s program – Maternal Addiction Treatment Education and Research (MATER) – focuses on Mindfulness as its essential approach, with the methadone that assists withdrawal from the addiction, seen as a support rather than a solution. She noted that Mindfulness allows the mothers to access their executive function and the choices it enables in order to counter the limbic “fight or flight” response that otherwise drives their actions. She spoke of how many of the women who went through the intensive 30-day program spoke of rediscovering their lost capacity to mother from the mindfulness-inspired experience of the maternal ground that underpins all life. 

How to Respond. The conversation that followed touched on how addiction of all kinds is part of our (lack of) response to the enormous challenges that the Anthropocene has brought us. Some were responding for example, with “small acts of kindness” described by speaker Dr. Nanako Sakai reporting from Fukushima, where a tsunami caused a nuclear accident whose proportions are now only partly appreciated but will have permanent impacts for thousands. Other examples include local communities in this country where citizens are participating in efforts like the Zero Waste program that formed the backdrop for our conference lunch. 


Refreshments were served and the entire event was zero waste.Photo by: Monica Hoyt

Growing Resilience. Dr. Karen Killeen described what she called “resilience tools” that can help us find internal balance by awakening “the intentional field” and the “energy of centration” that Teilhard de Chardin described in terms of “love.” Dr. Killeen spoke of this period – the anthropocene – as a transition space when the veil between worlds (or dimensions) is thinner making it easier to access this energy. Dr. Vin Maher added what he called “modern beatitudes” that we need to regulate and direct our actions in this complicated period of our journey. 

Zero Waste. The entire conference day at Iona was planned as a zero waste project in keeping with the theme of care of earth. Our facilitators for the zero waste component were Ron Schulhof and Michelle Sterling of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y. All utensils were compostable. Water and other beverages were served in large carafes; no individual aluminum cans or plastic bottles permitted. Michelle and Ron first launched a composting program in Scarsdale's elementary schools four years ago. “It makes sense to start in the schools because this is all about education. It's about not wasting food,” Schulhof said. “The next step is all these parents and kids say, ‘How do I do it at home?’” 

Conclusion. Throughout the conference, which was truly a conversation, we used music and poetry and art, and silence and mindfulness to help us experience what we were discussing. We finished our sharing in this fashion with a ritual of anointing each other for the work we must undertake for ourselves and for our children. 

Editors: Kevin Cawley, Danny Martin, Brian Brown