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Rob Hopkins and Michael Brownlee: A Discussion about 'The Sacred' and 'Deep Transition'

There is an interesting situation currently in the Transition movement, revolving around Transition Trainer, Transition Colorado founder, and former Transition US board member Michael Brownlee, and his call for Transition US to embrace what he calls "Deep Transition," which includes putting "the Sacred at the very core of our work and at the center of all our activities."

Rob Hopkins has responded openly and transparently in a recent blog.... His position is as follows: "Making a central and explicit connection with the ‘Sacred’ would be a sure-fire way to consign Transition back to the left-field, far away from businesses and communities everywhere."

He also writes, "the future of Transition, in the US, or anywhere for that matter, would stand the greatest chance of being successful if it is based on a blend of practical action, community engagement, ‘inner Transition’, social entrepreneurship, social justice, paying careful attention to deep engagement, basing its choices on the best evidence available, creating new economic models for inward investment, and finding skilful ways to engage local businesses and local government. "

More brief exerpts from both Brownlee and Hopkins are at the bottom of this post. My take, in brief:

The genius of Transition Initiatives is, for me, found in the somewhat bland word “balance.” Balancing head, heart, and hands. Balancing inner and outer work. Balancing the framework (steps/ingredients/principles) with the freedom of how an initiative develops and expresses itself in any given community. Finding the right balance is what will allow a greater inclusiveness and diversity - engagement with the widest possible range of people.
I personally resonate with many of the concepts Brownlee puts forward – there’s much to be learned from people like Matthew Fox, Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, etc, around the concepts of emergence, self-organization, permaculture principles and ethics, and the New Cosmology/Universe Story. However, I absolutely agree with Hopkins' reply. The key phrase for me: “what he [Brownlee] has set out here isn’t Transition, or rather it is one take on a small aspect of Transition developed by a small group of people…”
The Inner Work of Transition Initiatives is vitally important, but we must realize that there are many, many possible expressions of this. It’s understandable that people will think the path that they’ve found is “the” answer, but if Transition were to explicitly side with a particular religion or path, it would automatically cut out and alienate many people from participation.

There can be a place within Transition for the kind of approach Brownlee talks about - I am excited to see how this might develop; but for it to become the explicit path of Transition would, in my opinion, be a huge mistake.

Based on comments on Hopkins' blog by Don Porterfield and Bruce Rogers, it's looking like Brownlee's presentations at Transition Trainings formed at least a small part of the impetus that led to a discussion previously posted on Rob Hopkins' blog, entitled "A Discussion About Ways of Knowing in Transition." This was a very important discussion between Rob, and other key thinkers from the Transition Network about the role of inner work in transition, the role of spirituality in transition, and what (relative) emphasis should we give to the various ways of knowing. Rob wrote, "I came to the discussion with concerns about reports that one Transition Trainer had recently begun adding an explicitly spiritual piece to the Transition Training."

In reading the notes about that discussion, I resonated most with Sophy Banks' position, where she stated: "I think there are clear reasons why we should speak about the spiritual dimension of Transition providing we’re clear about what that means (see that document), and don’t start to emphasise, or devalue, any particular tradition. We need to take the term spiritual in its widest terms, be careful about what language we use, respecting that spiritual traditions are both close to many people’s heart and lives, have done lots of good in the world, and have also been the cause of much suffering.”

So yes, we should all be able to speak about the spiritual dimension of Transition, and at the same time be careful not to either emphasize or devalue any particular tradition.

Also of interest on the topic of Heart & Soul, you can download a recording of the discussion about Heart & Soul group... in September (listen hard to see if you can identify my voice in there). Vicki Robin made some excellent comments that helped steer the discussion, and are related to this issue about being careful in how we bring spiritual and religious ideologies into Transition.
You can find this recording (and other Transition Summit info) on this page:

The Evolution of Transition in the US by Michael Brownlee
Short excerpt below. For complete text see

" the long run, I feel our Transition efforts may not be sustainable or resilient or self-reliant unless we place the Sacred at the very core of our work and at the center of all our activities.

For Transition is not a movement for bringing about change. Change is coming, with us or without us, whether we want it or not—profound change. Transition is a movement for preparing our communities for the changes that are coming. And our preparation is likely to crumble unless we are able to connect with and cultivate the aliveness, the wholeness, the healing, and the sacredness that underlies the Transition process.

...I’d like to close with an authentically American perspective, from the late Floyd Red Crow Westerman, speaking from the Native American tradition:
Time evolves and comes to a place where it renews again. There is first a purification time, and then there is renewal time. We are getting very close to this time now.

We were told that we would see America come and go. And in a sense, America is dying—from within—because we forgot the instructions of how to live on Earth. Everything is coming to a time when prophecy and man’s inability to live on Earth in a spiritual way will come to a crossroad of great problems.
It’s our belief that if you’re not spiritually connected to the Earth and understand the spiritual reality of how to live on Earth, it’s likely you will not make it.

I think that’s true for each one of us, for this nation, and for the Transition movement itself. We need to regain and reclaim the sense, as Red Crow proclaims, that everything is spiritual, that this planet, this Universe, this continent, and this movement are all about the Sacred. Perhaps this is ultimately the only thing that will truly ignite the Transition movement in America, and the only thing that will enable this land and its people to fulfill our common destiny."

A Critical Response to Michael Brownlee's Call for 'Deep Transition' by Rob Hopkins
Short excerpt below. For complete text see

"...As I mentioned at the beginning, Transition is often subject to critiques of its approach and its underlying thinking, and it is in these discussions that the evolving edge of Transition can be found. It is here that ideas and challenges to a comfortable consensus emerge and shift the thinking out of its comfort zones. For me, this is one of the areas where Transition feels most alive. Michael is to be thanked, like others before him, for pushing Transition out of its comfort zone and asking it some testing questions. In Transition, we have tried to support an approach where these things are debated and discussed openly, and that any moves forward or evolutions to the approach are based on what emerges from that. I hope that Michael’s piece, and this response, will lead to a debate on these issues.

However, it is my sense that any new evolutions of the Transition approach should emerge from Transition initiatives on the ground, from the people themselves, from a wide background of beliefs, convictions, political backgrounds and class/racial backgrounds, who are out there, trying things out, dedicating their time to the idea that a more localised, more resilient, less-oil dependent future is the one they want to grow old in and see their grandchildren thrive in, rather than being developed in isolation.

There is something about how Transition is currently communicated that fires people, which leads to their putting their shoulder to bringing Transition into being. Insisting on the idea that ‘Deep Transition’ is the future for Transition in the US context implies that what everyone else is doing, and has been doing for the past four years is, by implication, ‘Shallow Transition’. For me, the future of Transition, in the US, or anywhere for that matter, would stand the greatest chance of being successful if it is based on a blend of practical action, community engagement, ‘inner Transition’, social entrepreneurship, social justice, paying careful attention to deep engagement, basing its choices on the best evidence available, creating new economic models for inward investment, and finding skilful ways to engage local businesses and local government. Clearly Michael is passionate about what he has set out here, and feels it to be a valuable approach and an enriching model. I wish him all the best with his work, but for me what he has set out here isn’t Transition, or rather it is one take on a small aspect of Transition developed by a small group of people, and should be seen in that context."

Comment from Don Porterfield on Hopkins' blog:
Now….The Backstory:

I have attended a Training for Transition that Michael taught and was extremely dissatisfied with that teaching. We went to the training with the expectation that what would be taught was what was described in the Handbook (which was also the description of the training in the pre-training info) but were dismayed that for a day and a half we spoke mostly about the New Cosmology. Finally a general rebellion led Michael to get to some “nuts and bolts” of organizing an initiative. But our group who attended felt cheated at missing on some badly needed basic information, that WE thought we had paid for. We came back home and got in touch with TransitionUS and with Rob to inform them of our feelings. So, yes, I have an axe to grind.
...I live in the Deep South of the USA. My county voted 79% Republican. Most of my neighbors would be completely turned off by Michael’s approach. That’s reason enough for me to reject this idea. But in addition, we have in our community many twenty to thirty year old folks who “get” the need to work on Transition, but who would run quickly away from anything that used the term “the Sacred”.
My point is that we have Transition happening in our rural area without the Sacred. And to introduce it would fragment our community.

Comment from Bruce Rogers on Hopkins' blog:

As you know I was one of the attendees at the T4T training here in the southern US where (according to Michael) he first presented to a group of novices Transition trainees his ideas put forth in his article. I, like several others at that training, openly and strongly objected to Michael personally about his presentation, using many of the same arguments you voiced in your response to him.
Our communication with you over the last several months about Michael’s position helped clarify why our objections mattered. Thank you for your considered and tempered response and open invitation to now carry this discussion out into the wider Transition US community. I am sure there will be many points of view on this and they all need to be heard and considered.
...What we do not need is any semblance of a “Transition dogma” seeking prominence with in Transition US that seeks to claim the right to know with certainty the direction that all transition initiatives must follow. To have that happen would be tantamount to declaring the launch of the First Transition Church of the ‘Sacred’. Not at all a happy thought.

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Comment by Angela MacLeod on December 11, 2010 at 10:57pm

Gosh Laura and David, what you both wrote rings true for me too, could not have said it better.


I think what Rob Hopkins did in the in the heart section of the Transition Handbook  was to offer tools for inner work but left the defining of what that work is to individuals The heart work is very personal and should be left to individuals and their immediate groups to emerge their own version of what heart (sacred) inner work is for them.  To assicuate the heart work of the Transition movement with any one path, or to identify it with any one expression of sacred/heart work would alienate many.

Comment by Laura J Sellens on December 10, 2010 at 9:03pm

I agree with Hopkins' and your take on it, David.  To me, the concept of creating a thriving post-peak, low carbon future is complex enough and confusing enough!  Learning how to do that in a big group steepens the learning curve.  Trying to even define "the sacred" and what it might mean to each individual in the entire community is way over the top.  For myself, I've taken a vow not to try to convince people of things.  It rarely gets me anywhere.  The best I can do is offer what I know or believe and if people respond positively, to work with that and if they respond negatively, to do my best to work with that.  Spirituality is something that (to me) is deeply personal and it's certainly not my job to tell someone else what the sacred is or that they should focus on it.  My focus is on creating a strong network around me and doing what I can to increase local resilience for myself and my community.  That's a plenty big chunk for me.  I acknowledge that in order to do that, there is a lot of inner work that needs to occur in tandem.  My experience of Transition is that it's inspiring, encourages heightened awareness, and has a quality of "deepening" and connection that turns my attention toward what I consider sacred, but that doesn't mean I'm putting it on the agenda at my next meeting.  I see the healing, aliveness and wholeness that Brownlee emphasizes as a very organic undercurrent of this work, that naturally occurs when people work together with clarity of intention.  That's not something you can mandate.

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