Spiral spiritual practice

Spiral spiritual practice

How might we make our way through this strange and scary time called COVID-19, resilient and pointed toward collective liberation?


If we were to be given a pill to be convinced, “Don’t worry. It’s going to be okay,” would that elicit from us our greatest creativity and courage? No. It’s that knife edge of uncertainty where we come alive to our truest power.

—Joanna Macy

How might we make our way through this strange and scary time called COVID-19, resilient and pointed toward collective liberation? What spiritual practices are available to help us? I commend to you the four-point Spiral from Joanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects practice.

Macy, a Buddhist teacher and compassionate deep ecologist, developed ways to approach overwhelming circumstances of a global nature by thoughtful, intentional, spiritual, and political engagement. Macy speaks of the Great Turning, which understands that our planet is a living system, an organism, not a constellation of mechanical processes and not an evolutionary breeding ground that humans dominate. The Spiral, one of the concepts Macy and the community of students and teachers that has developed around her have generated, is one that I find myself turning to over and over again.

Think of the Spiral as an open invitation to a spiritual practice in hard times or overwhelming circumstances. While we can follow the spiral on our own, the depth and breadth of possibility grows when done in a communal context—even online, as is asked of us during this crisis.

Grounding ourselves in gratitude: Gratitude is not dependent on external circumstances.

We can face more resiliently the dire circumstances of our time or of our own personal lives if we start by grounding ourselves in gratitude. While some people are temperamentally oriented towards seeing the positive in situations, others of us (myself included) are not.

The good news is that gratitude is not an innate talent, but a skill that can be learned. Gratitude is not dependent on external circumstances. Practicing it, even in difficult times, allows a kind of spiritual gratitude muscle to grow and strengthen.

Honoring our pain: The only way out is through. And with.

If we were to stop at the first point at the spiral, feeling grateful might make us feel better, but not for long and not as deeply as possible. The Work That Reconnects tells us that to be able to move and shift out of stuck places, both emotionally and intellectually, we must do the hard work of facing complex, difficult emotions: we must honor our pain by naming it, even feeling it. It is in doing so that we are a part of creating liberation from it, dissipating the power of pain to contort our behaviors into ugly or harmful shapes.

Many of us choose to numb out rather than approach the pain in our lives. Substances, screens, snark, and snacking are numbing defenses against the dread, the grief, the despair that this pandemic has amplified. Greed is another defense. So is arguing to avoid the tension of terror—as those of us who are sharing confined spaces with other people, even ones we love, know well.

In this culture, we do avoidance of pain really, really well. This second part of the Spiral does not come easy. Finding and creating both safe and brave space to be able to give shape and name to our pain, especially when done in community, allows transformation to take place: We not only learn with our heads, we experience with our selves, that the pain we think is ours is really part of a greater pain that our existence touches. We can begin to see that we are not our pain; we are a part of a great collective existence that holds pain, yes, and holds other possibilities.

Seeing in new ways: You have to believe it to see it.

If we equip ourselves with the protection of gratitude, and if we have journeyed into the land of honoring our pain, what we just might find on the other side is a new way of beholding our circumstance that generates healing and moves us away from harm (of ourselves or others).

Some of us find a strange yet human comfort in pain or certainty. That’s okay. The third point on the Spiral journey adds to the gifts those perspectives offer, opening to additional possibilities.

Leaning into our connection with others, we can consider new perspectives that help us entertain other possibilities. These connections include our ancestors, and we can look to sources of Indigenous wisdom and the perspectives of those with marginalized identities, whose contributions and realities have often been erased.

COVID-19 is a terrible pandemic; at the same time, it may also make new things possible.

Going forth: “It is not enough to weep for our lost landscapes; we have to put our hands in the earth to make ourselves whole again.” —Robin Wall Kimmerer

With the first three points of the Spiral, we are cultivating resilience, building stamina, and growing emotional and spiritual intelligence. This fourth, but not final, point on the Spiral is where collective liberation takes shape, for this is where we take what we have integrated as individuals and as a group practicing together and apply it to our lives, to our communities, and to society. The hope is that in going forth, you have been strengthened so that you can be of service to what Macy calls the Great Turning, that you might now embody the courage and creativity that is required of all of us in this time of crisis, in this time of opportunity.

Adapted with permission from an essay first published on Medium on March 26 and republished among other COVID-19 resources on the UUA’s LeaderLab Library on March 27, 2020.

stock photo of a cross section of a spiral shell with a black background.

© 2015 AdrianHancu/iStock

© 2015 AdrianHancu/iStock