Transcript 1: John Seed’s Introduction to THE COUNCIL OF ALL BEINGS

Transcripts by Chris Lehman from the Council of All Beings workshop at Northern Pines Lodge (Maine, USA) on 24/25 October 1992.

There are as many ways to conduct Councils of All Beings as there
are people facilitating this form. Having introduced hundreds of
these workshops, lots of people have asked me for a transcript of
my typical intro and here it is.

I Introduction to the Workshop

“…I’m doing this workshop partly because I think that, for reasons that I’ll go into, the experience of interconnectedness with nature is the crucial piece of wisdom that’s missing from the environment movement that we need to make us more effective, and partly because I need this kind of thing so badly for myself that I just can’t get enough of it. So, although I am facilitating this workshop you will really see that I am completely a participant, and in fact this is one of the only times that someone will be talking AT you during the entire weekend. The rest of the processes are experiential and I’m here because it’s an experience that I need for myself. I suppose it’s because I’m such a denatured person from having absorbed by osmosis so many aspects of the society that I grew up in, and there’s a lot of healing to do.

To introduce the Council of All Beings I’ll start by telling you a little bit about my own background. I graduated in psychology from the University of Sydney, but went onto become an artist and worked as a sculptor for some years, with exhibitions in London, Sydney and around Australia. After that, I lived in London for 5 years and worked as a systems engineer for IBM.

Then, in 1973, I left that job and traveled through Asia for about a year studying meditation in Nepal and India, before returning to Australia where I helped create a land-based community. It was a time when there were a lot of intentional communities forming, going back to the land, growing organic food, delivering our own babies, burying our dead and catalysing social change in the region where we lived.

The land that we bought was in the bush, it was surrounded by trees. Though we loved the trees, I had no particular interest in ecology. We built houses, grew vegetables and meditated. The extent of my lack of interest in ecology is best shown by the fact that only 5 miles walk from where I lived, there was a remnant of The Big Scrub, the last piece left of the largest sub-tropical rainforest in the world and, in the 5 years that I had
lived nearby, I had never visited it.

In Australia in the mid ’70’s, the rainforest was referred to, rather disparagingly, as “the scrub”, and viewed as if it was slightly un-Australian. It was thought to be a recent intruder, probably came across a land bridge from Asia during the last ice age or something. It wasn’t like eucalyptus or the REAL Aussie bush. Anyway, in 1979 I and other members of our community were invited by our neighbors to help protect this rainforest at
Terania Creek.

They had been struggling for five years to prevent the logging of that little piece of remaining rainforest. I think it was about 1/10 of 1 percent of The Big Scrub remaining, and the Forestry Commission of New South Wales wanted to log it. There was a non-violent direct action in defence of that forest and somehow I found myself a part of it. We stood in front of the trees, laid down in front of bulldozers, and did what we had to do, and I have never been the same since. All that meditation must have made me ripe, and I think the rainforest decided “I’ll have him” and She did!

At the time it was totally bewildering to me. Within the conceptual framework that I was living in, it didn’t really make any sense to me, how was it that I could hear the forest screaming? How was it that I could feel something o strongly as this? The whole of my Buddhist training was to remain cool and somewhat aloof and just to watch things come and go, to rise and pass away, not to become embroiled this way in passions. But, it was undeniable.

In later years as I studied the rainforest it emerged that, far from being a recent invader, this rainforest was the original flora of Australia. 130,000,000 years ago Australia was part of the mighty super-continent Gondwanaland, joined to South America and Antarctica. Gondwanaland was covered in rainforest. As the continents drifted apart and Australia moved thru drier times, the rainforests retreated to the east and the north of Australia, and threw out the eucalyptus, acacia, grevillea and all the flora that we think about to-day as being uniquely Australian. I also learnt that I as a human being had evolved within these very same rainforests during nearly all of that time, and that it is only during the last few million years that I have sought my fortunes outside the forests. So it became less surprising that some kind of psychological or spiritual contact with the rainforest was possible, and it became rather more surprising that many other people didn’t seem to be experiencing it.

In the mid 80’s, I co-produced a film for ABC television in Australia, about the struggle for the Australian rainforests, where we protected one rainforest after another, until now nearly all of the rainforest in public hands in Australia are now safe from development and exploitation.

Somehow, we were very successful in moving public opinion from “they’re just a bunch of hippies trying to protect their backyard” to opinion polls two years later showing that 70% of the Australian public understand the issues and was resolved to protect these forests, even at the expense of jobs and the like.

Being a part of that movement right from the beginning was an incredibly powerful experience for me. As we slowly discovered the global implications of the local issues we had been drawn into, we discovered also that there was not a single group anywhere in the world that had the world’s rainforests on it’s agenda. Even though the IUCN had noted that the rainforests were “the worlds most important conservation priority”, there was actually nothing being done. In 1981 we started the Rainforest Information Centre, and started publishing World Rainforest Report to try and create a climate where the really hard questions like “what about Brazil?” and “what about Indonesia?” could be asked. That is what I have been doing ever since.

1981 was also when I first left Australia and began working in anther country. I was invited by the Koroga tribe in the Solomon Islands to help create a conservation strategy to stop a large multinational company that was destroying the rainforests of North New Georgia. From there I went to Papua New Guinea and I have been kinda traveling ever since.

Working on this political level, we’ve had a lot of success in Australia, and have had some successes in other countries, and also in reigning in some of the institutions like the Word Bank that are funding the destruction. We started to have some effect too on industries like the hamburger companies that are destroying most of Central America to cut a few cents of the price of a whopper.

Nonetheless, it soon became clear that for every forest that we saved, a hundred forests were lost and there was no way that we were going to be able to succeed one forest at a time. Indeed, while we were struggling for the forests, the rest of the Earth was disappearing, no ozone layer no forest. It was clear that the planet couldn’t be saved one issue at a time, and it was then that I really began to inquire deeply into the psychological or spiritual disease that allows human beings to destroy the Earth as though it was something other than our very selves. It seemed so ridiculous that we would destroy the very biological fabric out of which we ourselves were woven. How could we do this? 

James Lovelock, the British scientist who popularized the Gaia hypothesis (which proposes that the Earth is not a lump of rock with “resources” growing on it but is a living integrated being), has said that what we are doing to the rainforests is as if the brain were to decide that it was the most important organ in the body and started mining the liver!

I guess the rainforests had already taught me that they are one of the vital organs of the living planet. Trying to use merely utilitarian, economic arguments to save them just was not working. We could save a little piece here, and a little piece there, but that was like trying to keep a tree alive with a few “representative areas” of bark on its surface. It’s true that a tree can lose a certain amount of bark, but at least 2/3 of the bark has to remain or the tree will die.

If this is indeed a correct metaphor for the world, then the “national parks” model, the “representative areas” model, wasn’t going to be good enough. The rainforests are necessary to us, not just for the foods, medicines, and industrial products that they provide, but as the very basis of our life support systems. The rainforests maintain the balance of gases in the atmosphere in the proportions necessary for complex life to continue; The hydrological cycle also would be irrevocably disrupted by the destruction of the Amazon and the Indonesian rainforests. These large rainforest areas are responsible for cycling fresh water around the world: we are dismantling the thermostat.

People don’t realise. They think of it only in terms of “aesthetic values”, “the wildlife” or something. Somehow we don’t get it that it is actually a part of ourselves. Merely by naming it “the” environment, we are sort of pushing it “over there” some where, we are turning “it” into an object, turning it into something outside ourselves. Through our language, our economic system, through the very conceptual air that we breathe we have succeeded in creating this incredibly pervasive illusion of separation from nature.

Now the fact that this IS entirely illusory can be easily demonstrated simple by holding your breath for about 3 minutes. I am not talking about anything particularly mystical here, it is very straightforward.

We can call it “the atmosphere” of course, and we can say “oh what a good person, sacrificing their self interest by working to protect the atmosphere instead of making lots of money “. As though the atmosphere was “out there”. But it is not “out there”, none of it is “out there”. It is all constantly migrating and cycling through us, whether it’s the atmosphere, the water, or the soil that is cycling though us. There is no “out there”, it is all “in here”. But we don’t feel that.

Now this kind of conceptual framework that I’m weaving here, I don’t think that it’s all that controversial any longer in circles of people who care for the environment, whether we call it deep ecology, or give no name at all, that feeling of interconnectedness we feel when we read Chief Seattle or the vision of other indigenous peoples, and feel the beauty and the truth of their participation in nature. Well this is all very well, but somehow it doesn’t make any difference. The momentum of 2000 years of that particular strain of the Judeo-Christian tradition we come from and all the other traditions, that lead us to feel that humans are the crown of creation, that we are the measure of all being, that the Earth was created by an old man with a white beard a few thousand years ago as some kind of a stage for the human drama to unfold. We don’t have to BELEIVE in these things because we are on a huge ocean liner, built on this belief, and it’s traveling with vast momentum towards oblivion. It doesn’t matter what we believe, this is the whole culture, everything is moving this way. It is very difficult for an individual, or even a group of individuals, merely by shedding one set of ideas, and getting another set of ideas, to really change our behavior, and to start to change our society, start to influence our friends, to really move things back to the correct respect for nature, where we behave as if it were true that the Earth is not a pyramid created with humans on top, but that the Earth is a web and we are but one strand in that web and that as we destroy the other strands we destroy ourselves. It is not enough to believe this. Our whole lives and our societies have to reflect that truth, otherwise we won’t be sustained on the Earth.

The director general of the United Nations Environment Program, Dr. Mustafa Tolba, said in the introduction to the World Conservation Strategy, which is the basis of the conservation strategies of most countries including this one (USA), that “we face, by the turn of the century, an environmental catastrophe as complete and irreversible as any nuclear holocaust”.

So, he may be exaggerating, maybe it’s not quite as complete as a nuclear holocaust, maybe it’s not quite as soon as the turn of the century, who can say, but it is undeniable that something of this sort is happening, and that no-one is addressing it as if this was so. We are still behaving as if we have some choice in the matter, we are still behaving as though business as usual, is somehow a tenable proposition. It’s remarkable that we as a species are capable of going to war, dying and killing each other by the millions in defence of one social fiction after another, whether it’s a country , or an ideology, or a religion, and yet when the very biological fabric that underpins all of these things, out of which everything we know is woven, when this is being torn to shreds, somehow sending $25 to Greenpeace is more than most people can manage. It’s like there is a spiritual disease, it seems to me, and unless we can address that, all of the other work that we’re doing will in the end come to nothing. These were the sort of conclusions I was reaching in the mid 80’s when I had the good fortune to meet Joanna Macy when she came to Australia doing workshops called Despair & Empowerment.

We had been struggling with sandminers and police to protect the beautiful ancient forests growing on the frontal dunes of a beach that we loved and had lost that action. One day they had arrested everybody, they cut down all the trees, they just brought in huge teams of men and cut down all the great trees so that there was nothing left to defend, everything was gone. So we had our despair pretty well together, and decided that this would be a good test of the workshop, that if empowerment could come from the despair that we were feeling then we would like to know about it, and indeed it did !

I had at this time been steeping myself in the philosophy of Deep Ecology which sees the root cause of all of these problems as being our human centredness, that chauvinism that leads us to prize humanity over everything else. It’s like prizing one part of the body over the rest of the body. No part of the body can live unless the whole body lives ! No species can live without the Earth to support it, no place can be protected unless there is a planet for it to exist on. Somehow our focus is always too narrow and if we want to have a healthy humanity who are truly human, then it isn’t enough just to try and protect human interests, we have to protect the matrix within which humanity exists. Somehow, it seemed to me that this wasn’t reflected in this Despair and Empowerment workshop. The workshop was very exciting because it really encouraged us to feel things that we had been denying. It encouraged us to look at the denial of our feelings – of the fear, the horror, the rage at what was happening to our world. The likelihood of nuclear war at that time seemed very strong, and rather than hide these things away, rather than imagine that we could feel good by pushing these things away from us, Joanna encouraged us to feel these things and to share them with each other. Through various exercises she made it safe to explore, to be vulnerable, and in the final ritual, the despair circle, people were calling out, and crying and wailing, yelling in their anger, and it was kind of like any New Age therapy workshop, except that people were crying out about what was happening to the Earth and I had never seen that before. It wasn’t just about themselves, and it was a very powerful experience. But still there was this human centredness. When people cried about the threat of nuclear war, it was very much about the effects of nuclear war upon one species, the humans, and future generations of that species, and only lip service was paid to the 10,000,000 other species that would be affected. Somehow, we were still the centre of everything. In the sharing at the end of that workshop I shared that the sense of empowerment was undeniable, it was incredible what happened when we acknowledged these feelings and shared them with each other, the sense of apathy and paralysis seemed to evaporate as Joanna had promised. But it still seemed as though there was something important missing – deep ecology.

Joanna, it seems, had been coming to similar conclusions and we talked afterwards, we went for a long walk in the bush, and out of that grew the idea of the Council of All Beings – a synthesis of despair and empowerment and deep ecology. It brought a biocentric flavour to the despair work, and a process to deep ecology, whereby deep ecology wasn’t just ideas any more that passed through the mind but somehow left behavior unchanged. These ceremonies and rituals seem to be a profound way of moving us to that place where our values can change, where it isn’t necessary to make sacrifices to change our lifestyle, but rather where we find that when values change then changes in lifestyle just happen by themselves. It’s like shedding a skin or something like that.

When we think “oh, I’m going to have to give this up, have to give that up…”, there seems no way that that kind of sense of duty or responsibility is going to be enough. It’s clear unless we can joyfully leap into a new way of living in harmony on the Earth, then all is lost.

Joanna and I went on to do the first Council of All Beings on the following weekend. Joanna canceled a scheduled Despair and Empowerment training workshop and instead we did the first Council of All Beings. I facilitated another 10 or 12 Councils in Australia and Joanna had facilitated many in the States before I next met up with her in the United States. I guess it was in 87 or 88 that we did our next workshop together at Ben Lomond in California and at that time we discovered that we had both experienced that in some incredible way this particular workshop always seems to work.

It didn’t matter how lacking in confidence I felt. It was some times extremely difficult for me to lead a group, far more difficult than standing between a tree and a bulldozer. But it didn’t seem to make any difference, somehow the processes always worked. What Joanna and I concluded was that anytime that a circle like this one meets with a shared intention to heal the Earth, heal that illusion of separation we feel from the Earth, some miracle always take place. The Earth always responds to our prayer and we have experiences which transform us. It is not due to the particular processes that we use; we have experimented with many different processes and all of them work. Anything that feels like it is congruent with that sense of interconnectedness with the Earth is a sound vehicle for this work.

It is not due to the skills of the workshop leader. By the time I met her, Joanna was an incredibly skillful workshop leader but I certainly wasn’t. In fact I like to remember the first workshop that I facilitated by myself where I was so anxious about doing it, that I ended up throwing up under a tree during the middle of the Council of All Beings and everyone had to do it without me. Yet it didn’t make any difference, it was a very powerful workshop! Pretty soon I realised that the depth of connectednes that participants experience has got nothing to do with me.

So the processes that we’ll share are the ones than I like, or Chris likes, or Peter likes, but you could do totally different exercises and it would work just the same, I’m just saying this now and would ask you to keep in mind over the weekend. What this means is that you don’t need to have any training for this work, that any of us could leave here, put up some flyers, get together with a circle of people and do this. In fact the only qualification is that we recognise that the sense of separation from the Earth is an illusion. There are people who have facilitated this workshop without even having attended one, after reading the book alone. There was one woman who wrote me that she had only heard a description of the workshop from a friend, didn’t know there WAS a book. She organised and facilitated a Council and it worked beautifully.

The book that I just mentioned is called Thinking Like A Mountain – Towards a Council of All Beings. Joanna and I wrote it with Pat Fleming and Arne Naess. The latter was Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Oslo University, and it was he who coined the term “Deep Ecology” to describe this bio-centric view of nature. In an essay in the book he concludes with the statement that it is not enough to have ecological ideas, we have to have ecological identity, or ecological self. But how are we to do this? Naess proposes that what we need are “community therapies” to develop this ecological self. When I first read this I was very excited because it seemed to me that this is exactly what we were doing in the Council of All Beings! It’s a therapy which heals our sense of separation from the living Earth. It is practiced in a circle, in community and helps us move away from that sort of “skin encapsulated ego” sense of self, to a wider sense of self where we realise that we can hear the trees, the animals, we know what the water is saying to us.

Later I had the good fortune to witness some ceremonies that the Hopi were doing in one of their villages. It was so like the Council of All Beings though masks of course were much more magnificent. I think this village was described to me as the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the Western hemisphere and during all of these thousands of years, they had been doing these ceremonies and rituals, it had never stopped. It was then that I realised that “therapy” was the wrong concept, the wrong metaphor to understand the Council. Therapy is supposed to have an end and you might think that if I do enough of these Councils, I’ll get to the end of my therapy and I’ll be connected and that’ll be that. But it is not like that. The Hopi have been doing this for more than 10,000 years and haven’t come to the end of it yet.

Which leads me to think that there is some tendency that we humans share to lose our sense of interconnectedness with the Earth. Not just modern humans either, because these rituals and ceremonies which acknowledge and nurture the interconnectedness of the human family and the rest of the Earth family are universal. I have not heard of any culture, no matter how “primitive”, no matter how embedded in nature the people’s lives are, which does not have such ceremonies at the very root of their culture.

It seems to me then that for such reasons, “ritual” is a better word than “therapy” to understand what we’re doing. Ritual has no   end. Such rituals binds human culture to it’s Earth matrix, and the healing of modern culture is what we are doing here by reclaiming the rituals that we have lost. It’s not individual healing that is necessary here so much as a social healing.

We realise the arrogance of the way that for a century or two we have dismissed such things as “mere” ritual, or “empty” ritual, and how we assigned them to the realm of superstition or mumbo jumbo and thought that we could live out of our frontal lobes alone. Look around. all you have to do is read the papers to see where that arrogance has led us, sure it has led us to the Moon and Mars, and it has also led us to the point where many scientists believe we are within a decade of the point of no return as far as the life support systems of this planet are concerned. I think that reclaiming these rituals is a very central part of the real work for me.

To do ONLY this, to confine our work for the Earth to such rituals, isn’t enough either. Somehow we have to take that empowerment that we receive from our circles and spread it through our lives, through working for the protection of nature. And then always come back to these circles in order to get the renewal, the fellowship and the sense of rootedness in nature, the empowerment and nourishment. We’ve been participating in such ceremonies for a long time, hundreds of thousands of years, and so we shouldn’t wonder it comes very easily and naturally to us. Even those of us who feel very skeptical at this point thinking for instance that allowing aa non-human being to speak through you is ” just a projection of our personality”, or it’s “just psychodrama”, it doesn’t matter, you don’t have to believe any of this, all you need to do is just join in with an open mind and see what happens. Something amazing will happen, it always does.

Like I said earlier, many different processes may be part of a Council of All Beings. In the end, there are really just two defining characteristics: one of them is the intention which I have alluded to, that we are here together for the healing of our Earth and the healing of the separation that we feel from Her, and the second is that no-one is allowed to make any money from the Council of All Beings, it is a gift that we give to each other, a gift that we give to the Earth, and all the proceeds beyond legitimate expenses incurred in holding the workshop, (rent, facilitators travel expenses etc.), go back into nature. The point is that it’s not like doing an encounter group and then driving off in your BMW because you are a successful workshop leader, it’s more like standing in front of a tree saying “over my dead body” – no-one ever pays you to do THAT kind of work . I believe that the reason why the Council of All Beings works as beautifully as it does is because of those two things, the financial aspect and the intention.

To conclude this introduction, I’d like us all to get comfortable. Then I’ll read an invocation from Thinking Like a Mountain and then we’ll spend about 5 minutes in silence, looking at our intention for being here and trying to make this intention as solid, as palpable, as we can. The depth of our shared intention will determine the quality of the workshop. Our intention that the Earth shall be well, that the Earth shall survive, that complex life shall survive, that we’ll do everything we can that that shall be so. Let’s find that intention within ourselves and really dedicate these next 36 hours to that.