Consciousness in Action: The Power of Beauty, Love and Courage in a Violent Time by Andrew Beath




Conscious Activism in Practice
Julia Butterfly Hill

This article is an excerpt from Andrew Beath’s book Consciousness In Action: the Power of Beauty, Love and Courage in a Violent Time (Lantern Press, 2005)

Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the Earth.
--(Rumi, thirteenth-century Sufi poet)

Introduction (Andrew Beath)
Our actions reveal our depth of connection. I define conscious activism as engagement in the world that expresses our most profound understanding of the nature of reality. It is imbued with appreciation and reverence and encourages compassionate connection—the basis for lasting social change.

Many of the most effective activists I know exemplify the qualities I am elaborating here. One moving example is Julia Butterfly Hill. Her story provides a grounding to consider seven attributes of conscious activism as a personal practice that creates transformation.

Julia spent more than two years living 180 feet up in an ancient Redwood tree known as “Luna” to protect it from being cut. Her notoriety stems from the courage and perseverance that kept her perched in Luna’s branches in the face of on-going assaults from the weather and the lumber company and from her heart-felt presentations of what the Redwoods taught her. I discussed Julia’s personal story with her, and we framed our conversation in the context of the seven attributes of conscious activism. Her example brings life to these concepts.

In her youth Julia accompanied her father, an evangelical preacher who traveled the country giving sermons in tents. By her early twenties she owned and operated a restaurant. Then an auto accident changed her life. Her old personality patterns disintegrated because her injuries caused short-term memory loss. But they also expanded her emotional vulnerability. She was forced to leave the business world behind.

To allow herself time to heal she traveled across the country. In northern California she happened upon the majestic groves of cathedral-like Redwoods while these ancient trees were in the process of being commercially logged. The activist group Earth First! was attempting to save some of the oldest trees by living on platforms high up in their branches. If the loggers cut a protected tree, the fall would kill the person living in it.

Julia’s injury, and the winds of chance that blew away her former reality, combined to show her the urgency of defending these ancient trees. She volunteered for a two-week turn, but her dedication extended the adventure beyond two years.

Know what is enough, and you’ll be rich.
--(The Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu)

The Nonviolence of Letting Go

When I spoke with Julia, I could feel her words coming from a deeply informed place within her. As a result of her relationship to the forest, she emerged from the tree as an eloquent spokesperson for the natural world. I asked her to talk about her personal transformation while in Luna and about how the elements of conscious activism apply to what she had experienced. Here is what she told me:

"I changed while in Luna, but it was through understanding myself. The experience gave me an unshakable belief in the interconnection of life, because the only way I could survive was to become one with the tree, to merge with it, to absorb it and have it absorb me.

The trees and storms taught me. In my struggle to say I was something separate from the storms I was going out of my mind. I heard the trees say, “Julia, we become one with the storms. We don’t fight them.” The trees and the branches that fight the storms are the ones that break off. The ones that make it through are the ones that just give in and flail and bend and do whatever they have to do to become one with the storm.

For me, part of getting to know Luna involved getting to know myself as Luna and Luna as me. There is no separation. Once I understood this, I changed dramatically.

People say, “We hear you talk about prayer all the time. Who or what do you pray to?” I pray to what I call the Universal Spirit. That’s one of the ways I have of describing it. There’s also the Greater Self and the Consciousness of Oneness. These titles denote the same thing for me.

When I pray I put it out to the Greater Self, of which the individual is an integral part. There is no time, space or separation. Some people respond and I’m grateful for the opportunity to mirror the wisdom we already know. It’s been said before, but I say it through the lens of my experiences and style. This awareness is universal. It was the forest that helped open the pathway back into my deep self through Luna. For others, something else will provide this opening.

There Is No Enemy

The source of the solution is inside all forms of life. It’s in the seagull flying over us now. It’s in the trees, wind and rain. It’s in George Bush and in Bin Laden. Some people get angry when I make that assertion. “How can you say those evil, terrible people have this within them?” And I think, well they’re doing some pretty terrible things, yes, but that sacred point of life is within them, as well. They are lost from it, but it’s there.

People who do destructive things are sometimes my greatest teachers. When people hear me talk about the message of love, transformation and spirituality, a lot of them assume I was in a fairy-tale forest with birds around me chirping and lush greenery everywhere. They see me sitting in the lotus position at the top of the tree contemplating the meaning of the universe. But I sat through the most painful journey a person who loves the forest could have immersed herself in. I sat in a forest being cut down. I sat through hours and hours of chain saws buzzing every day, destroying one tree after another, helicopters hovering above me, napalm smoke burning my lungs and eyes, and emotional assault from people within the environmental movement I thought I could trust.

It was an attack on every level and that’s why I know the importance of love and sacred spirituality. They are the essence of life. This is what enabled me to get through the experience. I learned it by having to use it in order to survive and stay sane. So now this knowledge is unshakable. Some people think the message of love and spirituality is all fluff, or not really dealing with the issues, as though I’m just avoiding the tough stuff. But that is definitely not so. I learned about the power of love through direct confrontation with hostile forces. Love goes right to the heart of the matter, to its source. That’s why it has the potential to transform any situation.

Introspection and Self-Discovery

I am sometimes greeted with violent responses, verbal, energetic or physical, when I talk about what I discovered about myself, and all of us, while in Luna. Opening a pathway into consciousness can be frightening, especially if you don’t know it’s closed. When it’s brought to your attention, it’s a shock. It was for me with my experience in the Redwoods.

When I first entered the forest, I became conscious of an essential piece of my being that had been hidden underneath religion, society, even my concepts of who I am. These blockages began to dissolve as my tears fell onto the forest floor. I sobbed because the beauty around me reminded me of the forgotten beauty within. I could not have explained it at the time. Later I realized the heart hurts when it grows. My naiveté washed away as I began to see something unexpected within my center in the middle of the woods.

This was in July of 1997, before I went into the tree. Just a few weeks later I found out the forests were being destroyed. I saw my first clear cut, mudslides, destroyed homes and police using pepper spray on the activists. I sobbed, screamed, raged and cried because it hurt so. It was very painful. The more you immerse yourself in the forest’s sacred presence, the more you learn. The loss overwhelms many people, but for me, it became a reason to live.

Before climbing into Luna I didn’t know I had reason to look for anything, but I had a vague sense I needed to find purpose for why I’m here on Earth. I knew I needed my purpose and my essence. I compare it to the caterpillar. It feels compelled to spin into a cocoon. It doesn’t have a teacher showing it how, or telling it what’s going to happen. It just has this innate knowing. That was the intensity of my tree sit. It immersed me in the innermost depth of my being. That’s why I say I don’t see something other than me when I look at Luna or anything else. I see another face of the divine, of which each of us is a part --one of many facets reflecting the One Self back to the other.

Living One’s Vision Creates Social Transformation

For me, one of the most beautiful results of one’s journey is that it shines out to others, like a beacon. When we go all the way through the transformational process and integrate the changes, so they are alive within us, we become not only a guide but also a catalyst for other people who are at critical points in their transformation. As one of us transforms we activate transformational energies in others, which enables them to more readily reconnect with the wisdom of their innate creative source.

I saw this when a woman approached me after I came down from Luna. She was crying and said, “I have a story to share. A little while before you went into the tree I was diagnosed with terminal cancer and I was given six months to live. I heard you on the radio one day, and then I heard you a month later. Not only did you climb into a tree and live there for two years, you did it in the worst winter of recent memory. You were on the radio during a terrible storm and you talked about the trees teaching you how to bend and flow with the wind.” She said that as time passed and she heard more of my reports on the radio my voice changed: “As the way you said things changed, I started feeling the transformation you were going through. I decided that if you could go through that and change as you were, then I could live through cancer.” She told me two and a half years later and she had been in remission for a year.

We are like the caterpillar when it goes into the cocoon and becomes liquefied; it’s a total acceptance of death of the self we were attached to and a willingness to become something we never believed we could be. I’ve talked to people who have had serious injuries that led to their transformation. But some people don’t have to go through anything so intense. They just walk to a mountaintop at the right moment and it clicks. Something connects and they come down changed. That’s their spark of inspiration to take the next step, to search out what they felt, why they felt it, and what they are to do with this new understanding.

Not Knowing

I want to give people both the inspiration and means to undertake their transformational journeys. The impetus for change need not be a life-and-death crisis. But the process usually includes a stage of letting go of the familiar, as with the caterpillar in its cocoon, so the unexpected can emerge.

I tell people if they wake up every day and ask the question, how may I offer my life today in loving service to the world, then they’ll intuit their own answers. That’s really what I did up there in the tree and it’s what I do now. That’s what kept me up there in Luna for so long.

I could not have stayed in the tree for 738 days if my focus had been on destroying the loggers—which it was in the beginning because I was so hurt by what was happening. When an animal is hurt or afraid it’s instinctual response is to strike out or to run. I went through both of those reactions. Later, I woke up and asked, “How can I offer my life today?” I also asked myself questions like, “Am I more effective in the tree or on the ground?” By these means, I brought my emotions, spirit and mental processes together.

The number one factor is taking the time to be still. That was a crucial part of what I did. I sat in one place for two years. This world compels us to be bigger, better, faster, now. So to take a moment to be still each day is one of the most revolutionary acts a person can undertake. The second step requires us to be willing to be open. We get so convinced of who we think we are, what the world is, and what our place is, that we close off. But there is a larger world that you don’t realize exists until you open to a wider spectrum of perception. It requires an act of courage to face what you have not wanted to see, both internally and externally.

Eros, the Art of Loving-Kindness

The root word for courage is the Latin word “cor,” which means heart. That’s where true courage comes from. It is the heart that motivates our greatest acts of courage and kindness. Courage is not an act of bravado. It has nothing to do with ego or adrenaline. It has to do with falling in love, and having the courage to give over fully to it. I learned this in the tree after I said, “Okay teach me this lesson; allow me to love.”

By that point I had given myself over to it all. My pain consumed me. It hurt to sit in the middle of a clear-cut forest. I became one with it. To become one, and then watch yourself being destroyed, hurts. I cry every time I talk about this, even in front of large groups. I don’t suppress these feelings because it is crucial to me that I never shut down again. And the flip side of my pain is the joy I’m connected to again. In the beginning of the tree sitting I didn’t know I would ever experience joy again. I was too devastated. I became anger that wanted to strike out. It was taking me over completely.

I almost gave up and came down. Then I prayed and said, “If I’m going to be able to do this, I have to find another way. I’m willing to surrender, but teach me how to love.” Then it was one hardship after another. I prayed, “Would you please give me strength. I need strength.” Then, I’d get another hardship. What kind of karma am I working off, I wondered. Finally, this understanding came: Julia, do you get muscles by doing nothing? No. Strength is not something that can be handed to you. You asked for strength, I’m giving you the tools you need to become strong.

I think it’s crucial to remember that when we surrender we are going to experience growing pains. They’re inevitable. And if we stay rigid with resistance to the pain, it can break us. Transformation threatens everything we take for granted. And yet it will ultimately lead us to joy, courage, commitment and compassion that we couldn’t imagine before and we didn’t know we needed to be whole.

From Anger to Eros

In the first step toward healing there must be feeling. If we don’t feel that connection and the pain this brings, how can we heal? In today’s world, it’s not only our right to be angry, it’s our responsibility. The question is, do we act out of anger or love? That’s what makes the difference. The reason I feel it’s our responsibility to be angry is that anyone who looks at the world will recognize that we hurt innocent life, and bring more children into the world who will be injured. The anger comes from knowing we have the potential to do it another way and yet we don’t. Then we let go, and the anger becomes secondary. I do what I do because of my love, not my anger.

My prayer is that I may be an open heart. When I become angry at what we’re doing, I take it in and say, “Okay, anger through love becomes fierce compassion.” Anger is a powerful energy and I’m all for using energy, whatever form it comes in, but using it for the good. When at first I got stressed out in the tree, I’d take a deep breath in and say, “Stress in and stress out.” I don’t want to lose the passion of anger. It’s a vital life force. Later I changed that practice and said, “Stress in, love out,” with each breath. Because anger through love becomes fierce compassion, I make use of the energy. I still have passion, but I can look at someone who threatens to kill me, and my heart melts. I see their injury makes them act that way. It helps me transform difficult situations.

Eros as Intimacy

Listening to Luna helped me understand how to survive the storms. People ask me to tell them about her voice. Normally, voices are how we relate to something that comes from the outside into the ear. But the information from Luna was coming from within me. Luna was the mouth of the divine teacher. I think transmission is a good way of saying it. I’ve always had a hard time articulating it because we are taught to speak about things strictly from the human perspective. How do you describe a voice that doesn’t come from the outside in, but rather comes from the inside, yet derives from another source?

The book The Secret Life of Plants shows that they have their own way of communicating energetically. That’s why transmission is a great word, because it’s more like an energy wave that conveys information directly into our psyche, if we are open to receive it.

Finding Joy Anywhere

People thought I was going to break down when I came out of the tree. Thirty-six hours later I was in New York City. I find joy in the challenge to be a living example of transformation. That to me is the butterfly. If it doesn’t get launched in reality, it just sits there and moves its wings but it can’t quite fly. I see a lot of people who go through transformations, but they get comfortable in the cocoon. It’s a little cramped, but you know what’s in there.

It’s one thing to learn it, but it’s another to become a shining example of the divine, as much as possible, in every moment of every day. It won’t be destroyed by what it encounters. It will transform it.

I came down from the tree and saw how many people of consciousness shop at these wonderful Eco-friendly cooperatives. Then they order a coffee in a to-go cup. I can’t stand it. I look at what a disposable world we live in. I see in that cup a tree, and I see in the plastic lid an indigenous culture somewhere being pushed into genocide from oil drilling, and I see the destructive drilling in Alaska. People say, “No drilling in Alaska, no drilling in Alaska”, and then they have their food in a Styrofoam container and their non-shade, non-organic, non-cooperatively farmed coffee in a paper cup with a plastic lid.

Courage in daily life means you become an embodiment of what you know to be true. It’s not enough to know it. We have to be it in every moment. If we can’t do that, then we aren’t transformed. Words are great, but if they do not manifest as compassionate action, they are hollow. A lot of my zest comes in the doing regardless of the outcome.


©2005 Consciousness in Action | All Rights Reserved