Deep Time and the Moral Imagination

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by Molly Brown

In the Work That Reconnects, “Deep Time” refers to a sense of time that extends far beyond our lifetimes–including all that has gone before and all that comes after.  This might seem contradictory to many spiritual teachings that counsel us to focus on the present moment in order to avoid obsessing about things that happened in the past or may happen in the future.  We are encouraged to pay attention to the present moment and how we can respond in “the now.”

Portrait of the Fourth Time © by Carolyn Treadway

However, in my understanding, this spiritual present moment contains the past and the future within it. Where we find ourselves in any given moment includes all that has gone before–that has shaped us and our world–and a sense of how our actions now will shape the future.  In other words, the present moment exists in Deep Time.

Unfortunately, the Industrial Growth Society (IGS), with its focus on short-term goals such as the next quarter’s profits, tends to trap people in a fragmented present, cut off from the past and the future.  The IGS discourages us from appreciating how our present resources and capacities have been passed on to us by our ancestors—and considering the effects of our individual or collective acts on future generations. It suppresses the imagination, intuition, and creative thinking.

To reconnect with the past and the future in a meaningful way, we can draw upon what Joanna Macy often calls our “moral imagination.” In today’s rapidly changing world, we also need our moral imagination to grasp the reality of the perilous crises we face, as well as the possibilities for a Great Turning.  If we can’t imagine something, we can’t include it in our version of reality. Perhaps climate change denial occurs when people with stunted imaginations cannot “imagine” the reality of what is actually happening.  

The Moral Imagination in Deep Time Practices

As described in the introduction to this issue, the idea of Deep Time initially arose from practices of the Nuclear Guardianship Project, which grapples with the challenge of long-term containment and care of radioactive materials from both nuclear weapons and energy production.  I joined this group after a workshop with Joanna Macy in 1990 because I felt such a karmic connection to the nuclear challenge since growing up in Los Alamos.

We in the Project envisioned future Nuclear Guardianship sites at former nuclear power plants and weapons depots where radioactive wastes would be stored and monitored forever.  Using group improvisation, we acted out an imagined pilgrimage to such a site. One third of the group took the role the onsite Guardians, and the rest were pilgrims coming to honor the sacred responsibility carried out there.  The idea was to look back to the present from the future, asking “How did we do it? How did we move from recklessly producing these toxic materials to safeguarding them into the far future?” From this perspective, our imaginations could kick in to help us see how we might get from here to there.

Our moral imagination can help us to understand more deeply who we are, what our choices are, and to tap into the sources of strength and wisdom that lie within and around us.

This experiment demonstrated what could happen when people give themselves over to their moral imaginations, and the roleplaying becomes real. Our moral imagination can help us to understand more deeply who we are, what our choices are, and to tap into the sources of strength and wisdom that lie within and around us. These practices help people develop a larger temporal consciousness as well as a sense of collective moral responsibility–which paradoxically give rise to vision and creativity.

The Seventh Generation Practice

One powerful Deep Time practice arose directly from this early experiment. The “Seventh Generation” practice (initially named “Double Circle”) puts us into dialogue with future beings–who become very real to us.  When we speak as future beings to someone in the present, amazing compassion and wisdom pours through.

We have to engage our moral imaginations for such practices to be helpful; we have to act them out with full commitment, no holding back. This is crucial, because in today’s world, our imaginations are often atrophied.  Everything is presented fully formed in mass media, and we have few opportunities to act things out ourselves. We rarely hear stories told while we picture within our own imagined versions of the characters and events. It’s all laid out on our TV and computer screens.  

However, when people can give themselves over to a ritualized practice like the Seventh Generation or the Council of All Beings, the emotional truths they experience together become real to them.  It’s as if they rearrange the boundaries of their personalities in the process, possibly even change circuits in their brain and nervous system. They see themselves as part of a greater whole, part of the web of life; they see their lives in the context of Deep Time, rooted in the past and continuing on into the future.  They may assume a sacred, moral responsibility (without necessarily using those words) to carry on the life bequeathed to us by our ancestors and to create the conditions for future generations to live in health and beauty.

“Forever Karma”

The Industrial Growth Society is creating toxic legacies today that will affect life for hundreds of thousands–even billions–of years. If karma means the consequences of our actions, this legacy is our “forever karma,”  In addition to radioactive materials and wastes, GMOs are created with almost no research into their long-term effects on soils, plants, animals, and people, much less the pesticides they encourage. Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to access natural gas and oil makes use of hundreds of chemicals, many of them toxic and carcinogenic, which contaminate groundwater, soil, and air for eons to come.  The oceans are filling up with plastic, killing marine life everywhere. The effects of these industrial products and processes can’t be undone because they work their way into food chains, water, soil, and air all over the planet. Hoping that some vaguely imagined “they” will find a way to deal with these effects seems more than foolish, given the IGS’s track record of consistently placing profits over safety and the common good.  

the future ones are present to us today, because their well-being–even their very existence–depends on how we care for the living systems of the planet.

In a very real way, then, the future ones are present to us today, because their well-being–even their very existence–depends on how we care for the living systems of the planet.
So the Seventh Generation practice is anchored in reality. Paradoxically, as we face up to the sins of the IGS, our connection with the future is vitalized; our lives become charged with meaning and purpose.  

One example of many is the group of Nuclear Guardians working to preserve Rocky Flats in Colorado. (  Amazing creativity pours through them as they work to keep this highly radioactive site contained, to prevent it being turned into a public park that would endanger the health of all visitors.  (See “Blowing in the Wind” Deep Times, May 2017.)

Healing the Past

Our moral imagination can also help heal the wounds of the past.  In my work as a counselor and coach, I have seen this in action many times.  Through guided imagery, people recall childhood traumatic situations and imagine intervening as their adult selves to stop abuse and to comfort and affirm their child selves.  This process can yield permanent change in behavior, belief systems, and attitudes toward life and self. Perhaps in a similar way, practices can be designed to heal collective wounds of the past.   

A Cloud of Witnesses and Guides

We are affected by our environment; there is strong scientific evidence that time in nature reduces stress as measured by levels of the stress hormone cortisol and heart rate variability.  Most of us don’t need scientific studies to tell us that; we can look to our own experience.  Humans receive so much information through feedback loops that operate outside of our conscious awareness.  So too may we be unconsciously shaped by the past, as epigenetic studies are demonstrating today.

“Coming Together” by Kerstin Zettmar.

Deep Time practices have given me the experience of being surrounded by beings of the past and the future–past, present, and future all here in the present moment.  This perspective can be found in many indigenous cultures and in the writings of mystics and poets. I feel connected with and empowered by these past and future beings, with a sense that I share my life with them.

It’s as if human and other-than-human ancestors and future beings form a cloud of witnesses and guides for what we do in the present. And through our moral imagination, we can draw upon them for inspiration and guidance our work for the Great Turning toward a life-sustaining society.

Molly Brown, M.A., M.Div, Editor of Deep Times, co-authored Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to the Work That Reconnects with Joanna Macy. Molly brings ecopsychology, the Work That Reconnects, and psychosynthesis to her work writing books and essays, teaching on-line courses, phone coaching, talks and workshops. Her six books include Growing Whole: Self-realization for the Great Turning and Lighting a Candle: Collected Reflections on a Spiritual Life. With Mutima Imani and Constance Washburn, Molly directs and teaches the Facilitator Development Program for the Work That Reconnects.

3 thoughts on “Deep Time and the Moral Imagination

  1. I loved this article. The only point that I would like to challenge is that on GMOs. I think that genetic modification has been labeled as something toxically unnatural that goes against nature and furthers the divide between humans and our environment. But as a biologist, I see them in a different light. Using tools for genetic analysis and editing has allowed us in many ways to interact with ecosystems on a more intimate level. For example, we can reduce the need for harmful chemicals by making them hardier to pests; conserve water by making them drought resistant; fight food scarcity and malnutrition by making them produce more vitamins. It may even be possible to design crops with enhanced capacity for carbon sequestering and improve the quality of microbial soil communities. I’m not defending what Monsanto has done with GMOs, only the broad idea of genetic modification to better adapt our crops to the changing climate. Modern agriculture is flawed to its core, and unless we return to local, sustainable farming, GMOs are going to play a crucial role in our preservation of, interactions with, and adaptations to this Earth.

  2. Pingback: A Letter from the Future ⋆ Enough!

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