Sarah Pirtle and the Discovery Center

Interesting Reading

Our Rope Teams

by Sarah Pirtle

One of the most powerful images about courage that I’ve found comes from mountain climbing: the image of a rope team. A friend, Andrea Ayvazian climbed Mt. Denali in Alaska. She didn’t climb it alone. Every morning, standing in the howling wind, the party of climbers divided into rope teams. She joined up with a group of three other travelers for mutual protection.

Each person attached themselves to a longer rope, and as they adventured, they spread out and kept the rope taut. Walking along the fragile ice, hidden chasms could crack open at any moment with a single step.

As any member of the team fell downward, the others would pin themselves with an ice pick and hold firm. Then the trapped individual had the support to climb out and emerge back on the safe surface once again. If they couldn’t get out, the leader of the team came to them and gave aid, bringing additional ropes, pulling them out if necessary. In the training before the trip, they prepared for the various dangers they might encounter. Now on the mountain, they had their rope team to count on.

Who’s in your rope team? How do they hold you up when you fall into a chasm? Who else could you add to this team? Who are the people faraway geographically but close in heart who are on board? Are there people no longer living, perhaps those you’ve read about but haven’t met personally, whose lives inspire you with the strength of their character? Are they also part of your larger rope team?

Martin Luther King says, “Violence has perpetuated evil throughout our civilization.” Violence is like a chasm. A person facing violence of any sort can have the experience of disappearing from the surface of human interaction and tumbling into a realm out of sight where just moral agreements and expectations no longer apply. This is true whether the violence is directly physical or the many-levels of violence of poverty or racism or anti-Semitism or other oppressions.

I hold the vision of a beloved community where the chasms of violence are addressed and people act as rope teams for each other.

I’m engaged in offering Blessing Ceremonies of Restored Community for people who have been affected by violence—veterans, survivors of torture, people who have experienced domestic abuse, incest, and other violence. These ceremonies say: we bear witness to what should not have happened. We see the work you have done in healing. We stand with you. You are restored. What else can we do to support you?

In an article in “Mother Jones” magazine, Adam Hochschild described how a small group of British citizens ended slavery in the British Empire through a campaign of widespread education that became the “first sustained mass campaign anywhere on behalf of someone else’s rights.”  Against all odds, people overcame slavery. Imagine how hopeless the effort may have looked at first. The institution of slavery was completely embedded in society. In this era, ending racism, sexism, and other aspects of violence, also can feel hopeless, but what we alive at this time are called to do together is assist in transforming violence.

As we face a world fractured by layers of warfare, torture, and mistreatment, this expanded idea of a rope team—of people connected in alliances—stretches “courage” and “bravery” from something personal to interpersonal.

The Civil Rights Movement wasn’t envisioned when Juanita Nelson at age sixteen sat down on a segregated train in 1939. Child Wise and the Congress that meets on behalf of ending child exploitation, described in Song 8, “A Million Flowers,” may doubt that their actions will create evident change, but they are taking action nonetheless.

Social change movements of the 1980’s and 1990’s developed a deeper understanding of what it means to be an ally. Here in the next century, we share responsibility for changing injustice, inequity and violence. When we take part in alliances, we add ourselves to rope teams that are crucial to this world.

I used to think that bravery meant effort and willpower, that it involved gritting my teeth and pushing forward. Now my experience of bravery is that it begins with receiving and arriving in a force bigger than me. I land in who I am right now with all the complexity of what I’m really feeling.

I arrive in the help that is here
and let myself be affected by a larger force
that is supportive of transformation
and is as real as gravity.

“I don’t feel effective. I can’t figure out how to offer my voice,” I have heard myself and others say. And deep despairing feelings surface like, “I want to stop war and all forms of violence. I want to stop so many actions that are taking part not in my name. I don’t feel like it’s possible to have an impact. I can’t determine what is the most important thing I should be doing.”

How do we find the depth of courage to be alive to these concerns? We are in a world that faces enormous challenges, not only of environmental degradation but degraded global leadership. Corrupt world leaders feed and depend upon our hopelessness and fear. They telegraph a disempowering message:  “We are in charge, and what you want doesn’t matter.”

However, the nervous system of a healthy body operates on feedback. A strong nervous system takes in complex messages from all quarters and makes decisions from this input. The natural world operates with intricate responsiveness. No healthy organism can afford to close down key messages about the good of the whole system.

Like Richard Sitcha reclaiming a House of Hope, we can reclaim the global body as it is meant to be—one with a nervous system alive with communication and creativity. I believe there is a way to acknowledge what is real, acknowledge the impunity of corporate and political leaders who function like runaway cancer, yet not be crushed by them.

It is an enormous evolutionary discovery to stand with each other when violence
has lit its match. Amnesty International says, “Hope is Power.” Cultural hopelessness can shift if we claim our interconnection and place ourselves in a shared nervous system with the multitude of people in the world who truly care about transformation.

We can regard ourselves as important neurons with needed voices. We can telegraph, “We are here. We matter to each other. We have allies worldwide. Our voices carry to each other, and our efforts have impact.”  We walk as individuals protecting the light inside us like a candle with a flickering flame. At the same time we walk together inside a network of light.

Let us place ourselves in the shared global neural network
of the sacred body of Earth..
The situation isn’t hopeless.
The bravery we create matters to all of us.
We empower each other through the steps
we take to keep our common flame alive.
Come, teach us what you know.

 – Sarah Pirtle

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Locating Courage Through the Universe Story

by Sarah Pirtle

Published in EarthLight Magazine Vol. 14 No. 3 Winter 2005

When I tell the Universe Story to children, we start by imagining the choice at the very beginning: shall we take the risk to flare forth and create matter? In fact, at one storytelling session two girls developed a dialogue between two parts of Nothing to portray that moment: “Hello, Nothing,” they said. “Do want to become Something?”

It’s the moment of Primal Courage. When I’m afraid, I literally replay that first moment of choice in my mind. Personally I don’t picture Source at the origin as nothing. I picture “Something” talking to “Something.” I picture that Source, back then billions of years ago, was like today full of complete creativity, able to address any challenge and meet any crisis. But Source was at that point invisible, non-physical. I envision Invisible Something asking, “Shall I jump into the risks and joys and possibilities that being physical will make possible?” I like to feel the “yes” reverberate inside me. I need to feel it.

Karen Hartwell from California said, “Enlightenment is an expanded awareness of belonging.” If I can identify myself as that Source, fear shifts. I am buoyed up when step by step I see the initial fireball, the particles and anti-particles, and the dance of the quarks creating atoms. I feel how Source stays Source through thick and thin, and how that constancy and primal power is today embedded in all of us, for this is who we are. Visualizing the first transformations helps me tap into primal courage. I ask myself—How can I remember that I, too, being part of Source, have untapped innate creative potential to face challenges? Then I invite myself to risk moving into the unimaginable, going into the unknown in my own life.

Courage is a visceral feeling. I have needed courage to meet many things. As a teenager I had to face unusual danger when a person was intent on killing me. Others who have also had bone-chilling experiences may know these same sensations: instant courage in your eyes, courage in your toes gripping the earth, courage up and down your spine. I also remember what might be called a more-than-body experience. I remember reaching beyond my everyday self to a broader force-field. I survived. As I recapture the feeling of the help that was available, I realize it felt as firm and available as gravity. I experienced directly the presence of basic Source. How do you endure in the face of life-threatening danger? For me it meant staying absolutely connected to divine light, linked securely to the source of life. I call upon this presence still everyday.

Recently I needed a lot of courage. Out of the blue I learned that one of my kidneys had swollen to three times its size, engulfed by a tumor. It felt excruciating to tell my son. I phoned him at college to say that in a week I’d be having a major operation to remove my kidney. Courage was what I wanted to have in the face of the operation. Courage was the lost river I wanted to be back inside. Worry thoughts have a particular texture. When I’m afraid, I feel lost and parched. I feel like I’m flopping in a dried up place where water no longer flows. In meditation I asked to talk to my cells. I asked to remember that I’m powered by tremendous unseen forces with the same life pulse as inside a seed, forces that I can rely upon for support. I told my cells that the procedure I was about to have was for healing. It wasn’t invasion, or threat. It was for restoration.

As I went through medical appointments and a grueling CT scan, I would say over and over, “I breathe in the healing love of the Universe and I am healed. I am in the loving arms of the Universe, and all is well.” I typed these words up in big letters and posted them in my house.

I experience courage as both individually summoned and socially co-created. Four friends said they would stand by me through the operation, the weeks of recovery, and through whatever the outcome would be. They offered to be a support team coordinating help. During the five hour operation, friends folded paper origami cranes, knitted with rainbow-colored yarn, and cut out brightly-colored paper maple leaves in the waiting room. A singer gave a bedside concert the next day in the hospital, other friends offered prayer circles and long-distance reiki. The support team created a temporary “Care Page” at a website called, where people could get news and send me messages. All of this made a tremendous difference.

When my doctor first gave me the diagnosis, she’d asked me if there was anyone who would be able to help me. I answered in tears, “I don’t know.” I learned. As cards, flowers, and visits with food multiplied, I realized I was surrounded by help. I learned that not only my physical body but my social body was being healed. I went from feeling like the atom falsely depicted in my 1950’s science books—isolated, independent, toughing things out alone—to the atom as it more accurately functions—living in constant interaction, mutually supported. To feel my friends’ love was as if I had called into the yawning dark, “Hey, Something, can we come through this transformation together?” and Source answered through these friends and caring strangers, “Yes.” When I heard the results from the post-surgery lab tests, I learned that the tumor was benign and now that it had been removed, its force was gone from my body. A network of people shouted and celebrated with me, like an invisible choir now made manifest.

This leads to the broadest question of courage. At this time we are called as a species toward a leap of growth and evolution. Fervently I want us human beings to wake up together, to meet our current crisis and move into an Ecozoic Era. I want us to claim our identity as parts of Source, and like parts of Something talking to other parts of Something, say to each other, “Shall we co-create the earth-cherishing future that we yearn for in our deepest being? It feels as if we have no map for it, but maybe the map is inside us, yet to be discerned. Shall we build and live into this future together?” 

In daily prayer I picture us agreeing to do everything it takes to place ourselves within the fertile forces of the Universe, growing and making the changes necessary. Part of the wonder of being human is that we cannot decide for anyone else. But the power I do have is the power to decide for myself. I want to claim that power. I want to do whatever it takes, face what needs to be faced. I want to step into that unknown just as Source has been doing for billions of years. The tiniest bits of matter in the quantum world have been engaged in co-creating wondrous developments. This particular quantum community that has become myself, flesh and light ingeniously joined, wants to truly comprehend how much help there is for us. I want to open to it and act in such a way that I can contribute toward the shift. I believe that if I learn to listen, I can hear the Universe talking inside me, nudging me, providing direction.

The day before I had surgery was the opening day for the Tree of Life School which a friend and I had recently created. The foundation for the school is the Universe Story. We work with children ages 5 to 10 who are home-schooled, teaching earth skills, expressive arts and social skills from the perspective of the new cosmology. That first day was sparkling warm, the first day of autumn After lunch we sat on a rolling green hillside of Red Gate Farm in western Massachusetts. I asked everyone to count ten blades of grass and hold them in a bundle, then cup their hands around what they thought would equal about ten of these bundles to get a feeling for the size of one hundred. From there we sensed what would be a thousand blades of grass, ten thousand, up and up, until we concluded that all around us we were looking at at least a billion blades of grass waving in the wind. We were inside something both vast and immediate, immensely powerful and immensely caring.

As I started telling the first section of the Universe Story, we imagined we were invisible Source. “Shall we take the risk to become matter?” “Yes!” they answered. I told them about the heat and density of the first fireball, and I told them about the first crisis of the new Universe before it was even a second old. Anti-particles tackled each of the particles. They listened, open-mouthed, to hear of the life force that brought us through. There were one billion and one particles for every billion anti-particles. One-billionth of the first particles remained and survived. That’s us. I need to remember who we are as I move through my personal physical healing and lean into and join the co-created healing of our species. We are made of that indomitable force, that bias toward life, that irrepressible leap like wildflowers pushing through stones. We’re made of courage. And that’s why we’ll face each crisis. We are the Earth, we are the Source, we pull new strength from deep in ourselves for the changes ahead.

 – Sarah Pirtle

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Community and Peace Cosmology

by Sarah Pirtle

Revision of article published in EarthLight Magazine Vol. 15 No. 1 Fall 2005

Inside us, Earth is growing peace. Inside us, Earth is establishing new dimensions of cooperation and co-creation.

I think of “peace” and “sustainability” as putting into practice the three fundamental principles or central ordering tendencies of the Universe as described by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry in their book, The Universe Story.

These are:

  • Mutuality, communion.
    Everything is connected. There is an “inescapable togetherness of things.”
  • Differentiation, diversity.
    Everything is new and different.
  • Interiority, self-manifestation.
    Everything has its own interior reality.

Whatever community we are part of can be consciously structured to rest inside of these ordering tendencies. We discover and enact peace as we develop mutual respect, support diversity, and treat each other as sacred subjects.

The very reason we are able to be cooperative, to be creative, to be patient, to be responsive, to be compassionate, the reason we are able to think about the needs of a whole community, is because we are Earth and this is how Earth is. When we contribute to a local food bank, when we transform inner chaos or grow more skillful in communicating, we are tapping the fundamental nature of this self-organizing Universe.

In western Massachusetts, a new coordinating group is developing around the theme of building a sustainable future. Called the Valley Council we have enumerated over a hundred existing organizations that already develop community stability—food banks, mediation centers, social services for elders, community supported agriculture farms, dairy coops, homes for battered women, peace education centers.

We are living on a planet engaged in a worldwide conversation on world peace. An emerging consensus is saying with increasing clarity: we envision and commit to a just world organized for peace. We have the potential to coordinate together in our own multi-cellularity.

I believe if we think about these central ordering tendencies of the Universe, it helps us find those dynamics inside of ourselves and draw upon them. For instance, our “interiority” means that we all grow and have our own power to create. We have an inner voice, an inner reality that we can hear. We have the means to guide ourselves and take responsibility for what we do. We grow and change like acorns becoming oaks, and seeds becoming flowers.

Whenever we communicate and share power—be it globally, regionally, locally, interpersonally—in such a way that we are living these fundamentally shared values, we are making a powerful contribution to changing the modes of domination that encrust our social institutions, our culture and our personal lives. When we act with mutual respect, we are speaking the language of the Universe and have that full power behind us.

I’d like to share three more images: quarks becoming atoms, bacteria sharing knowledge, and cells becoming multi-cellular. These refer to cosmological moments in our shared life story. These are germane today in locating deep resources of new power dynamics.

When we set up a social community inside the three fundamentals—a community that connects rather than reinforces domination, a community that protects and builds upon diversity and a community that requires self responsibility—we are coming together like the quarks creating an atom. Imagine how it must have felt to be a quark synchronizing and dancing with other quarks to establish a new level of stability in the world. Instead of being bombarded by photons, the quarks moved in relationship until after 300,000 years the first fundamental form existed.

Similarly we are in relationship with the people all across the planet who want to create world peace. We can’t see each other, but we can feel each other present to the task. And here in our own organizations, families, workplaces, we can be aware of each person and form a new invention—a community.

How do we meet the immense challenges of today? Be like bacteria. The first bacteria created a worldwide web, making discoveries and then encoding them in the book of DNA. We can take upon ourselves the primal activity of inventing social relationships that are mutually enhancing in every social encounter.

Another dynamic to remember and replicate is the moment on earth when single cells combined and became multi-cellular. Seven hundred million years ago cells learned how to coordinate around a common impulse, a common purpose. What was that moment like? A cell, accustomed to having one particular goal and purpose, suddenly is able to hear at the same time an organizing voice, a coordinating voice, connecting it to a larger context as well.

What is it like for us today to lean into that voice of something larger? How can we listen for a guiding voice within us and within our associates that keeps us on course, that aligns us to the whole? How can we teach ourselves to speak and live from that place so that we are in concert, so that we are multi-cellular?

The Universe is there in the inspiring voice that tells us when we feel hopeless, that there is something more. It is the calming voice that arises when we care for a child, the creative voice that bursts into a poem, the abundant voice that gives us a way out when problems feel unsolvable. We can hear the Universe singing.

When I lie in bed in the first light during that time before fully awakening, I like to tell myself to turn my inner radio dial to the Universe. It makes a profound difference those mornings I wake up intentionally inside the broadest shared context and locate immediately where we actually are—inside the Sun, inside the Milky Way, inside a developing Universe. I like to feel for the loving voices of universal forces welcoming what is ahead.

Then during the day in social situations, a quiet meditation goes on in my mind. I see people as collaborators in the Universe, like sister and brother quarks inventing the atoms of community, or like sister and brother cells joining in multi-cellularity. As I stand shoulder to shoulder in conversation, I am secretly seeing my neighbor as part of the Universe talking.

After a tumultuous rainstorm pounded our area of western Massachusetts recently, a mother and daughter climbed the mountain behind their home and watched rivulets of water cascading down the hillside as streams jumped their banks. The mother, Sandy Littell, said she felt overcome to see the devastation of the mountain path, now stripped of its sand down to rock. But her eight-year-old daughter Asia tugged at her arm. She’d found a little spider in the midst of the rain. “Look at this perfect spider web,” Asia exclaimed. Her mother commented afterward, “After that everything around us was transformed.”

In those moments when love, truth and wonder split us open, we remember our full aliveness. Here we are in this shared present moment. Here we are at once part of an unfolding cosmos. This cosmos is neither random nor determined and that helps us take responsibility for our actions. We are people of choice. We open the door to new realizations as we embrace the power that reveals deeper dynamics at work.

In each of us the human community is re-stabilizing toward a world-wide web of mutually enhancing social relationships that build our sustainable future.

There are peace discoveries that only humans can make. There are ways that humans can discover and express love that increases the love in the Universe. In fact, each of us in our daily lives is offered the opportunity to make peace discoveries. In order to be wise gardeners of our new future, we will need to encourage these seedlings to sprout and develop. We will need to promote more public conversation about the daily choices we make for justice, sustainability and peace.

Thomas Berry writes of his confidence in the future in his book, The Dream of the Earth.

“The basic mood of the future might well be one of confidence in the continuing revelation that takes place in and through the Earth. If the dynamics of the Universe from the beginning shaped the course of the heavens, lighted the sun, and formed the Earth, if this same dynamism brought forth the continents and the seas and the atmosphere, if it awakened life in the primordial cell and the brought into being the unnumbered variety of living beings and finally brought us into being and guided us safely through the turbulent centuries, there is reason to believe that this same guiding process is precisely what has awakened in us our present understanding of ourselves and our relation to this stupendous process. Sensitized to such guidance from the very structure and functioning of the Universe, we can have confidence in the future that awaits the human venture.”

And so we venture into new levels of cooperation and guidance. How can we encourage each other to contribute our insights and value them? How do we become a human species committed together to evolving peace and sustainability?

 – Sarah Pirtle

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