Deep Ecology and the Work that Reconnects in Vietnam: April-May 2018

By Della Duncan


Over the last three weeks, I was invited by Dr. Tho Ha Vinh and Lisi Ha Vinh of the Eurasia Learning Institute for Happiness and Wellbeing (ELI) to come to Vietnam to lead a few retreats on Deep Ecology.

According to Deep Ecologist Dr. Stephan Harding, Ecology is the study of nature and Deep Ecology is the study of how we relate to nature. How we view and relate to nature is important because it impacts the state of our climate, the quality of our lives, and the wellbeing of future generations.

I facilitated the retreats in Vietnam using the ‘Work that Reconnects’ (WTR) framework developed by the root teacher Joanna Macy, an eco-justice Buddhist philosopher and activist. The WTR invites participants to reconnect the divides that we have between ourselves and each other, between ourselves and nature, and between ourselves and our potential to contribute to a more life sustaining society.

The first retreat was for staff and community members of the Peaceful Bamboo Family community in Huế. The intention was to support participants to be able to utilize Deep Ecology lessons and practices in their work with children—especially through the Happy Schools Program (a partner-project between ELI and the Department of Education of the Thừa Thiên-Huế Province).



The second retreat was next to the Cát Tiên National Park, at Xứ Sở La Vie Est Belle, a beautiful volunteer-run community space. The founders Phuc and Philip base the space on the values of affordability, wellness, and living in harmony with nature. They make their own natural soaps and shampoos, grow and cook vegan food, and emphasize minimizing waste. This retreat was open to the public and drew people from all over Vietnam from fields as diverse as business, law, eco-tourism, and education.

Hai Nguyen Phuoc led us in meditation and mindful movement every morning, mindful eating at meals, and noble silence at night to encourage a deep retreat experience. Ngan Bui sat by my side the whole time, translating both words and the sentiments of what we were communicating to make sure that the experience was inclusive. One of the highlights of this second retreat was a surprise thunderstorm that struck while our group was visiting the Cát Tiên National Park.




It is because of Deep Ecologists like Joanna Macy, Stephan Harding, Arne Naess, and many others that I was able to offer this work. I am grateful for Dr. Tho and Lisi for inviting me and the amazing Eurasia team including Hai, Ngan, Camille, Jana, Arnaud, and Katja for hosting me. I am also thankful for Giau from Authentic Live Learn, Ha from Scivi Travel, and all of the Peaceful Bamboo Family volunteers for all of the behind the scenes work to make the retreats run so smoothly. And I feel so fortunate that my dear mother, Carol Duncan, was able to join me and share in this wonderful adventure.



The WTR offers a safe and supportive space for us to explore our pain for the world.


As poet Khalil Gibran wrote:

“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so you must know pain. And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy.”

Pain for the world shows up differently for each person and is related to our various cultural contexts. Although perhaps the specifics of the pain I feel as an American differs from that of the Vietnamese people I met, we were still able to empathize and relate to each other’s pain and cultivate deep compassion for one another. Some of the biggest challenges that people in the workshops expressed were runoff pollution from agriculture in the Mekong Delta, widening national wealth inequality, unsustainable development projects, young people feeling unable to choose careers that bring them meaning and fulfillment, rising sea levels causing massive flooding and beaches to disappear, and growing trash in the oceans surrounding them.




The workshops allowed participants to explore these issues from their own perspectives, empowering them to find strength and courage through sharing their pain for the world with others. We also explored these issues from different viewpoints: other living beings also affected by the situation, human beings seven generations from now, and people perceived as holding ‘opposing views’ to ours. Doing this allowed us to develop new insights about the issues we care about. One of the main results was that we developed a great amount of empathy and understanding for those with opposing views. Putting ourselves in other’s shoes, we were able to better understand the complexity of the situations and find new ways to move forward.

Through this experience and other practices, we were able to widen our sense of self to include others and the more-than-human world as well as to find a stronger connection within the web of life.



The fruits of these retreats will manifest in many ways. Participants took time to reconnect with nature, make connections with others, and explore ways they could each contribute to more life-sustaining societies. Some vowed to plant more trees, others to start gardening, and a few people committed to leading Work that Reconnects workshops in their own communities. Each person left with a buddy to follow up with one week after the retreat to ensure that insights and plans were successful.


It was an honor to share this time with the retreat participants, co-facilitators, and volunteers. I wish everyone well as they take the next steps in their work in the world.


Wherever you are in your journey, I leave you with gratitude, a poem, and a photo.

Start Close In

by David Whyte

Start close in,

don’t take the second step

or the third,

start with the first


close in,

the step you don’t want to take.

Start with

the ground

you know,

the pale ground

beneath your feet,

your own

way of starting

the conversation.

Start with your own


give up on other

people’s questions,

don’t let them

smother something


To find

another’s voice


your own voice,

wait until

that voice

becomes a

private ear


to another.

Start right now

take a small step

you can call your own

don’t follow

someone else’s

heroics, be humble

and focused,

start close in,

don’t mistake

that other

for your own.

Start close in,

don’t take the second step

or the third,

start with the first


close in,

the step you don’t want to take.



Della Z Duncan is a Deep Ecology, Work that Reconnects, and Alternative Economics teacher for the Eurasia Foundation. She holds a Master of Arts in Economics for Transition with Distinction from Schumacher College, a graduate certificate in Authentic Leadership from Naropa University, and has completed Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects Intensive Program. She is also a Gross National Happiness Trainer. When she is not teaching, Della produces the Upstream Podcast and serves as a mentor and consultant for those individuals, local governments, and organizations committed to transitioning to more beautiful, sustainable, and just alternative economic models. Website >>