The Council of All Beings

by Pat Fleming and Joanna Macy

This piece was originally published in Home! A Bioregional Reader, edited by Van Andruss, Christopher Plant, Judith Plant, and Eleanor Wright, New Society Publishers, copyright 1990.

Some twenty-five of us are gathered at a riverside wilderness site in New South Wales, Australia. Last night we shared stories from our experiences which awakened our concern—even anguish—over what is happening to the natural world in our time. Although we come from different backgrounds, we have this concern in common and it has brought us here to work together. We want to strengthen our courage and commitment to take action to heal our world.

We took time to honor that intention as we first sat down together last night. It has called us to experiment with new ways of healing our separation from nature which is at the root of the destruction of the forests, the poisoning of the seas and soil.

This morning we engaged in a number of group exercises to help make us more conscious of our embeddedness in the web of life. They helped us remember our bio-ecological history, as our species and its forebears evolved through four and a half billion years of this planet’s life. They helped us relax into our bodies, into our intuitive knowings, and our trust in each other. Now, after clearing up after lunch, we assemble to prepare ourselves for the promised ritual of the Council of All Beings.

Instead of beginning right away, we receive from our co-leader Frank an invitation to disperse and go off alone for an hour.

Find a place that feels special to you and simply be there, still and waiting. Let another life-form occur to you, one for whom you will speak at this afternoon’s Council of All Beings. No need to try to make it happen. Just relax and let yourself be chosen by the life-form that wishes to speak through you. It could be a form of plant or animal life, or an ecological feature like a piece of land or a body of water. Often the first that occurs to you is what is right for you at this gathering.

Even before I sit down quietly on the warm sand beside the river I have a sense of the “being” that waits to emerge in me. It is Mountain.

Brmm, brmm…the drum calls us back. It summons us all back to take time to make our masks and to explore further together our various life-forms. In companionable silence our hands reach for paper, colors, paste-pot. Under the rustling trees are sounds of cutting, folding, breathing.

Brmm, brmm…the drum calls us once again, this time to enter the ritual ground and convene as the Council of All Beings. Wearing my Mountain mask of earth, stone, leaves and grasses, I move heavily and slowly toward the ritual ground. The water of the stream that borders the site is cool, washing away the old, preparing us for the new, the unknown. As we gather in a large circle I look around at all the assembled Beings—such an array of forms and colors, some brash, some shy and subtle. An air of uncertainty, yet expectation hangs between us.

Frank briefs us first on the structure of the ritual. I recognize a blending of different native traditions of our planet’s peoples. Through fire and water, we will ritually cleanse ourselves and the ritual ground. To acknowledge the full breadth of our concerns, we will invoke and invite into our circle the earth powers and beings that surround our lives in this space and time: the powers of the four directions and the beings of the three times. Then as the Council proper begins, we will, as the life-forms we have assumed, speak spontaneously, letting be said what needs to be said.

These utterances, we are told, will fall into three stages. From the perspective of the other life-forms we will speak spontaneously among ourselves. We will say why we have come to the Council and be free to express our confusion, our grief and anger and fear. Then, after a while, to the signal of a drumbeat, five or six of us at a time will move to sit in the center of the circle to listen in silence as humans. We’ll each have the opportunity to shift between human and nonhuman roles. And lastly we will have the chance to offer to the humans (and receive as humans) the powers that are needed to stop the destruction of our world.

Now with the slow beat of drum and the lighting of fragrant leaves, the Council ritual begins. An abalone shell with burning sage and cedar passes from hand to hand; we inhale the sweet pungent smoke, waving it over our faces. We acknowledge our kinship with fire. Next a glass bowl of fresh water comes round the circle. Each dips into it to anoint the head of the next person, acknowledging our need for cleansing and refreshment.

As the four directions are invoked, we turn to the East, to the South, to the West and North. Drawing on the ancient lore of the Medicine Wheel, we all face in each direction, arms upraised, as one of our number evokes in turn and aloud the meaning it can hold. “We invoke and invite the power of the East…the power of the rising sun, of new beginnings, the far-sightedness of eagle…” As Mountain I feel special kinship with the North, “powers of stillness and introspection, of waiting and endurance…”

After each invocation, we all join in with a simple, deep, two-tone refrain: “Gather with us now in this hour; join with us now in this place.”

Frank, as the ritual leader, now helps us invite the Beings of the Three Times.

Spontaneously and all intermingled from around the circle comes the murmur of randomly spoken names: first, those who have gone before; then the beings of the present time; and, lastly, beings of the future time.

After a moment of silence, a silence for the generations we hope will come after us, we chant again the refrain that has followed each invocation.

“Gather with us now in this hour; join with us now in this place.”

Now we are ready to speak as a Council. We sit and take our masks. We ease out of our solely human identification; we settle into the life-forms that have come to us and that seek expression.

We hold a roll-call of the assembled beings. One by one around the circle, speaking through our masks, we identify ourselves: “I am wolf and I speak for the wolf people.” “I am wild goose and I speak for all migratory birds.” “I am wheat and I speak for all cultivated grains.”

We meet, Frank says, having donned his mask of prickly stalks and leaves, because our planet is in trouble. We meet to say what is happening to ourselves and our world. I come to this Council as weeds. Weeds, a name humans give to plants they do not use. I am vigorous, strong. I love to thrust and push and seed—even through concrete. Pushing through paving I bring moisture and life. I heal the burned and wounded earth. Yet I am doused with poison now and crushed, as are creatures who live in and through me.

In acknowledgment we all reply, “We hear you, Weeds.”

I am black and white cow, fenced in a paddock, far from grass, standing in my own shit. My calves are taken from me and, instead, cold metal machines are clamped to my teats. I call and call, but my young never return. Where do they go? What happens to them?

“We hear you, cow.”

The shells of my eggs are so thin and brittle now, they break before my young are ready to hatch. I fear there is poison in my very bones.

“We hear you, wild goose.”

One by one they speak and are heard. Rainforest. Wombat. Dead leaf. Condor. Mud. Wild flower.

I know that it is my time to speak out.

I am Mountain. I am ancient and strong and solid, built to endure. But now I am being dynamited and mined, my forest skin is being torn off me, my top-soil washed away, my streams and rivers choked. I’ve a great deal to address to the humans today.

“We hear you, Mountain.”

The drum beats again, announcing the next stage of the Council. It summons humans to enter the circle to listen. Five or six of the beings put aside their masks and move to the center. Sitting back to back, facing outward, they attend silently as the Council continues. When the drum beats again after several more beings have spoken, they return to the periphery to be replaced by others; and the process continues until each of us will have had the chance to listen as a human.

Hear us, humans, says Weeds. This is our world, too. And we’ve been here a lot longer than you. For millions of years we’ve been raising our young, rich in our ways and wisdom. Yet now our days are numbered because of what you are doing. Be still for once, and listen to us.

I am Rainforest. Counted in your human years I am over a hundred thirty million years old. If I were one of your buildings, you would take precious care of me. But instead you destroy me. For newsprint and cheap hamburgers you lay me waste. You destroy me so carelessly, tearing down so many of my trees for a few planks, leaving the rest to rot or burn. You push needless roads through me, followed by empty-hearted real-estate grabbers who purport to own me. You cause my thick layer of precious topsoil to wash away, destroying the coral reefs that fringe me… Your greed and folly shortens your own life as a species. When you leave me wasted and smoldering, you foretell your own death. Don’t you know that it is from me that you have come? Without my green world your spirit will shrivel, without the oxygen my plant life exhales, you’ll have nothing to breathe. You need me as much as your own lungs. I am your lungs.

Oh, humans, as Clean Water I was a bearer of life and nourishment. Look at what I bear now that you’ve poured your wastes and poisons into me. I am ashamed and want to stop flowing, for I have become a carrier of sickness and death.

Brmm, brmm…the drum sounds into the circle. The humans in the center, looking relieved to be leaving, return to the wider circle and resume the masks of their other life-form. A half- dozen others move to the middle as humans and sit close together, some holding each others’ hands as they listen.

I feel myself beginning to boil inside and know again I must speak.

Humans! I, Mountain, am speaking. You cannot ignore me! I have been with you since your very beginnings and long before. For millennia your ancestors venerated my holy places, found wisdom in my heights. I gave you shelter and far vision. How, in return, you ravage me. You dig and gouge for the jewel in the stone, for the ore in my veins. Stripping my forests, you take away my capacity to hold water and to release it slowly. See the silted rivers? See the floods? Can’t you see? In destroying me you destroy yourselves. For Gaia’s sake, wake up!

Look on me, humans. I am the last wild Condor of that part of the Earth you call California. I was captured a few days ago—”for your own good,” you tell me. Look long and hard at me, at the stretch of my wings, at the glisten of my feathers, the gleaming of my eye. Look now, for I shall not be here for your children to see.

“We hear you Dolphin, we hear you Rainforest…we hear you Mountain, Lichen, Condor…”

One by one our stories pour out, filled with pain, with anger, and, occasionally, with humor. We all report how rapidly and radically humans are affecting our lives and our chances for survival. Yet the words carry, too, a sense of kindred spirit, for we are all of the same Earth.

When the flow of expression begins to subside, our ritual leader Frank, taking off his mask as Weeds, comes into the center of the circle. It is the first time in the ritual that we hear someone speak as a human.

We hear you, fellow beings. It has been painful to hear, but we thank you for your honesty. We see what we’re destroying, we’re in trouble and we’re scared. What we’ve let loose upon the world has such momentum, we feel overwhelmed. Don’t leave us alone—we need your help, and for your own survival too. Are there powers and strengths you can share with us in this hard time?

No other signal or instruction is needed to shift the mood of the Council. The grim reports and chastisements give way to a spontaneous sharing of gifts.

As Slug, I go through life slowly, keeping close to the ground. I offer you just that, humans. You go too far, too fast for anyone’s good. Know care­fully and closely the ground you travel on.

Water says,

I flow on and on. I deal with obstacles by persistence and flexibility. Take those two gifts for your lives and your work for the planet.

I, Condor, give you my keen, far-seeing eye. I see at a great distance what is there and what is coming. Use that power to look ahead beyond your day’s busy-ness, to heed what you see and plan.

“Thank you, Slug…thank you, Water…Condor,” murmur the humans.

One after another the beings offer their particular powers to the humans in the center. After speaking, each leaves its mask in the outer circle and joins the humans in the center, to receive empowerment as a human from the other life-forms.

I feel Mountain wanting to speak through me again.

Humans, I offer you my deep peace. Come to meat any time to rest, to dream. Without dreams you may lose your vision and your hope. Come, too, for my strength and steadfastness, whenever you need them.

I take off my mask and join the group of fellow-humans in the center. Hands reach out to pull me in close. I feel how warm and welcoming is the touch of human skin. I am beginning to gain a fresh recognition of our strengths. For all the gifts that the beings offer are already within us as potentialities, otherwise we would not have been able to articulate them.

The last of the beings gives its blessing. Frank has taken up his mask again and speaks:

I offer you our power as Weeds—that of tenacity. However hard the ground, we don’t give up! We know how to keep at it, slowly at first, I resting when needed, keeping on—until suddenly—crack! and we’re in the sunlight again. We keep on growing wherever we are. This is what we share with you—our persistence.

We thank him and pull him into our midst. A wordless sounding arises. Grasping hands, we stand and begin to move outward in a circle, laughing and humming. Sheila leads the long line of us back in upon itself, coiling gradually tighter and closer around ourselves into a group embrace. It is the ancient form from this land’s aboriginal tradition known as a “humming bee.” The close intertwined embrace, cheeks against shoulders, skin on skin, feels good, as the humming of our throats and chests vibrates through us. It is as if we are one organism.

The hum turns to singing. Someone takes the drum. To its rhythm some move and dance, leaping and swaying and stamping the ground. Others move off among the trees and down to the waterside, to be quiet with themselves and what has happened.

Later, as the sun sets, we reassemble to release the life-forms that we have allowed to speak through us. A fire has been kindled in the growing darkness. One by one we come forward with our masks and put them in the flames, honoring the beings they symbolized and letting them bum. “Thank you, Condor.” “Thank you, Mountain.”

Tomorrow the circle will meet again, to speak of the changes we as humans will work for in our lives and in our world. Then we will make plans for action, hatch strategies, concoct ways of supporting each other. Right now it is good simply to rest upon our ground and watch the masks curl and crackle as they catch fire.

(From Thinking Like A Mountain: Towards a Council of All Beings, New Society Publishers, 1988.)

Pat Fleming is a writer, researcher, business advisor, organic medicinal plants grower, and former psychologist exploring alternatives to traditional psychiatry. She helped establish the Interhelp Network. In the 1980s, she co-created the Council of All Beings workshop, intended to address the modern human sense of alienation from the natural world. She lives in Dartmoor, England.

Joanna Macy (b. 1929) is a teacher and activist focusing on religion, peace, and justice. After earning her Ph. D. in Religion from Syracuse University, she spent decades facilitating workshops and serving as an adjunct professor at various graduate programs in the Bay Area. She co-founded both the Council of All Beings workshop and the Interhelp Network, created for those seeking integration of the political, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of social justice work.

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