I write this article for the activist, for anyone who is engaged in the work of systems change. That’s my basic working definition of activism: working for change at the system level. Since the Transition movement is about creating sustainable alternative systems, it is inherently activist in nature. If the word activism gives you heartburn, for whatever reason, I invite you to put that aside for at least the time it takes to read this article.
Many readers of Transition Times will know that what we are facing is the collapse of civilization as we know it. What seems to be less well understood are the psychological roots of the environmental, economic, and social crisis that humanity currently faces. Insight into the importance of the psychological aspects of collapse can add much needed psychological sophistication to our responses and activism. Many people in the United States share the desire to create a life-affirming and sustainable society and yet the widespread and culturally accepted avoidance of personal psychological work is a serious impediment to progress.
Without introspection and conscious effort, activists are as trapped by unconsciousness habits and beliefs as the rest of the public, and this can easily result in ineffective tactics, burnout, and intolerance. In the same way, spirituality is often not deeply integrated into activism and this too sets the stage for reactionary approaches and emotional turmoil within the individual activist and in activist communities. I suggest that an integration of the psychological and the spiritual is one response to collapse with the potential for individual and collective benefit, increasing resilience at the personal and community levels, much needed features of any sustainable society.
Psychological Roots of Collapse
In light of the reality of collapse it is appropriate to explore its roots. The psychiatrist Roger Walsh noted: “The crises we face today, though unprecedented in scope, complexity, urgency, and potential for disaster, all have their roots in psychological causes and mechanisms” (1984, p. 42). Seen from this perspective, the myriad crises giving rise to collapse are symptoms stemming from short-sighted human thinking and behavior. Walsh summed up: “The threats to our survival can be traced to psychological and social immaturities, inauthenticities, and pathologies” (p. 42). By inauthenticities I believe Walsh means a lack of psychological and spiritual awareness, a failure to experience and cultivate the true self that lies beyond the limits of the ego. Ecophilosopher and activist Joanna Macy echoed this view, noting that “the crisis that threatens our planet…derives from a pathological notion of the self (2007, p. 152).
The field of ecopsychology contributes greatly to the understanding of the psychological roots of collapse. Ecopsychology is the study of the human-nature relationship. It considers human development in an ecological context, and attempts to understand and suggest ways to heal the human-nature split that has developed. Ecopsychologists argue that human development in contemporary Western culture results in psychopathology (Metzner, 1995), a kind or arrested development whereby the result is not true adulthood, which entails caring for the earth (among other things), but what the depth psychologist Bill Plotkin (2008) calls “patho-adolescence.”
Ecopsychology suggests that unhealthy adolescents, masquerading as adults, have created a society where individuals are deeply out of touch with themselves and the earth. The ecopsychologist Andy Fisher noted: “The childish narcissist of today is simply not capable of the reciprocity, humility, and service to others that authentic dwelling on the earth requires (2009, p. 64). Understanding the widespread psychopathology that exists points to the need to undertake deep psychological work as a fundamental response to collapse. Walsh explained:
We have created a world situation that appears to demand unprecedented psychological and social maturation for our survival. Until now we have been able to cover or compensate for our psychological shortcomings….It is time for us to grow up, and we ourselves have created the situation that may force us to do so. (1984, p. 81)
The importance of work with the psyche – the word psyche comes from the Greek and means “soul” or “mind” or the “breath of life” – extends to our organizing and group work. The writer, historian and psychologist Carolyn Baker noticed that:
Without exception, every time I have been involved with other activists in promoting change, personalities clash, egos become bruised, people tantrum, become disillusioned, and walk away….We will transform this pattern as civilization collapses, or we will perish. (2009, p. 64)
The ecopsychologist and activist Sarah Anne Edwards (2010) wrote that many activists are experiencing burnout, intolerance, and resignation, and that the stress giving rise to these symptoms can be expected to worsen. She concluded by asking how tolerance and compassion can be cultivated. My own process of moving from angry, unconscious activist to peacemaker and ecopsychologist leads me to suggest some foundations for an integrated response.
An Integrated Response
As Rob Hopkins, the originator of the Transition movement, and others have noted, rebuilding community resilience is essential in addressing collapse. Hopkins described resilience as “the ability of a system, from individual people to whole economies, to hold together and maintain their ability to function is the face of change and shocks from the outside” (2008, p. 12). This holding together must include psychological health. Edwards noted that many activists understand that “we need a populace with mental resilience if we are to have local resilience” (2010). Baker wrote: As I interact with others who are well aware of collapse and even preparing for it, I am most frustrated by those who focus on the logistics of preparedness [and] ignore or neglect the emotional and spiritual dimensions…(2009, p. 268). Understanding both the psychological roots of collapse and the psychological context of people in our society helps us see that attending to the psychological is not a luxury, especially for activists.
A proactive approach would acknowledge the individual and collective need for deep psychological work and spiritual practice, and the sooner the better, before circumstances worsen. The nondual nature of reality means that body, mind, psyche, spirit, and action all interpenetrate to form the whole individual. Thus, an integrated approach to building psychological resilience will be most effective. In such an approach the body is exercised and cared for, the cosmic properties of mind are cultivated, the psyche is explored with openness and honesty, and spirit is welcomed through the alignment of one’s being with the universe.
An integrated approach includes the understanding that interior/exterior, personal/political, psyche/society are just more dualisms needing to be overcome, and that the time is now to do so. The psychologist John Welwood put it this way: “After centuries of divorce between the spiritual and the worldly life, the increasingly desperate situation of a planet that human beings are rapidly destroying cries out for a new kind of psychospiritual integration” (2000, p. 197).
The beauty of bringing an integrated view to activism is the opening to healing and wholeness inherent in that move. Activism can become restorative practice. While Edwards, as noted above, found many activists to be experiencing burnout, intolerance, and resignation, she added that the most dedicated activists were “generally of good spirits” (2010). And a recent study reported in the Guardian linked activism with personal “flourishing” and “vitality” (Chakrabortty, 2010). Based on my own experience, I suggest that the key lies in the transpersonal forces unleashed in the integrated approach. Moving beyond the personal brings one into more conscious communion with life and the way things are.
What follows are four foundations for restorative activism. The concepts and practices presented set the stage for a lifetime of personal growth, build relationship skills, and lead to more effective and sustainable activism.
Telling the truth is a basic measure of adulthood and yet there are many ways that most people deceive themselves and others every day. In the context of collapse we might begin by admitting that on a personal level we experience denial, blame, resentment, and anger, and that our lives have only just begun to be turned upside down. Macy calls the realization that humanity may not have a future, “the pivotal psychological reality of our time” (2007, p.18). Can we own that level of reality?
The importance of truth-telling is covered in much of the literature addressing collapse (Baker, 2009; Macy, 2007; Randall, 2009). Macy (2007) noted that optimism is part of the dominant worldview and that our pain for the world simply cannot be banished by positive thinking. Climate campaigner Rosemary Randall wrote that in moving toward integrative solutions, “the first move is to start telling the truth about loss. We need to withdraw the projections of loss from the future and make the loss real in the present” (2009, p. 125). The second move, according to Randall, is to “encourage realism about the nature of the transitions we face and what they mean to different people” (p. 125).
Telling the truth about collapse is the foundation of Baker’s book Sacred Demise. She wrote that she often hears the position that things such as massive die-offs, extinctions, and the destruction of ecosystems should not be talked about. She makes the important point that in so far as such topics bring up fear in people, it is “a natural, human response to threat of harm,” serving a potentially vital purpose that should not be ignored (2009, p. x1i).
Walsh makes the point that “denial, repression, or other defenses are always purchased at the cost of awareness, authenticity, and effectiveness. When we deny reality we also deny our full potential and humanity” (1984, p. 76). At the same time, denial “can be an important protection, allowing the most painful truths to be assimilated piece by piece” (Randall, 2009, p. 122). Nonetheless, telling and knowing the full truth is essential to responding in a mature and informed way to collapse. Macy and the despair and empowerment work she has popularized is a stellar example of the benefits of radical truth telling.
Expanding the Sense of Self
As noted above, Macy maintained that “the crisis that threatens our planet…derives from a pathological notion of the self” (2007, p. 152). By this she meant a narrow and limited sense of self, a separate self. The ecological self is a key concept in ecopsychology that helps expand the sense of self. It is awareness and experience that results in personal identification with the whole of the earth and biosphere, including all beings, soils, rocks, water, etc. It is a revised view of the individual human’s place in the world. Macy (2007) noted:
The ecological self, like any notion of selfhood, is a metaphoric construct, useful for what it allows us to perceive and how it helps us to behave….Because it’s a metaphor…choices can be made to identify at different moments, with different dimensions or aspects of our systemically interrelated existence—be they dying rivers or stranded refugees or the planet itself. (p. 157)
This is not an academic or theoretical shift, but a felt sense, an embodied truth and experience unmediated by concepts. Macy pointed out that the ecological self is credible to most people because their pain for the world is real (2007). With this shift alienation subsides and one comes more fully home to the earth and becomes more empowered to speak for the whole. Macy referred to this expanded sense of self as a source of courage and “sustained and resilient action on behalf of life” (2007, p. 150).
Developing the ecological self builds ecological identity. Plotkin maintained that ecological identity is the hallmark of the initiated adult” (2008, p. 326). Rainforest activist John Seed’s statement “I am part of the rainforest protecting myself” epitomizes ecological identity and demonstrates its potential to transform perspective in profound ways (Seed et al., 1988, p. 36). Macy summed up the significance of the ecological self: “This shift in our sense of identity will be life-saving in the sociopolitical and ecological ordeals that lie before us” (2007, p. 147). A specific practice that supports cultivation of the ecological self is repeated visits to the same wild, or relatively wild, place at different times of day and seasons in order to become intimately familiar with it. Ecopsychologists refer to this as place bonding.
A felt sense of the ecological self transcends dualities and separations between humans and nature. Cultivating such interconnectedness can also set the stage for an even deeper, more radical and spiritual experience of oneness: the nondual reality that underlies the entire world of forms, a reality known to all wisdom traditions (Macy, 2007, p. 27). The renowned Buddhist monk and peacemaker Thich Nhat Hanh coined the word interbeing to describe this reality. He used a sheet of paper to describe how it works (imagine you are reading a book!):
If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper….If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. Without sunshine, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. (1991, p. 95)
And so it is with human beings, flowers, beetles, and the entire manifest world. Forms co-arise with the sun and elements and processes of biosphere, but also with something even more mysterious. Since all forms lack permanent, solid, and independent identity, what is really happening is perhaps most accurately thought of as forms arising from the Ground of Being. The implications for activism of such a deeply interconnected and spiritual understanding of reality are vast. In obliterating the notion of separateness, enemy images and ideas of “us versus them” fall away. Political action becomes about relationship building and defeating injustice as opposed to defeating people. The realization and experience of the ecological self and nondual awareness is greatly enhanced through mindfulness practices.
Given that much of what drives thoughts and behaviors stems from unconscious and habitual processes, finding a way to bring consciousness to those patterns is crucial if we are to change them. Practicing mindfulness is one of the best ways to do this. According to the psychiatrist and educator Daniel Siegel, mindfulness “in its most general sense is about waking up from life on automatic” (2007, p. 5). Ron Kurtz, the originator of the Hakomi method of psychotherapy, wrote that mindfulness “is a distinct state of consciousness, characterized by relaxed volition, a surrender to and acceptance of the happenings of the moment, a gentle, sustained focus of attention inward…” (1990, p. 3).
Simply put, mindfulness is conscious awareness that connects one with his or her felt sense of things. This serves as an antidote to the numbing so prevalent today. The industrial growth society and the materialist paradigm that underlies it has worked to cut humans off from their bodies and the intuition and knowing that resides there. It has also separated humans from their larger body—the earth (at least intellectually). This has, according to the clinical psychologist Sarah Conn, “truncated and deadened human experience” (1998, p. 181).
Mindfulness cultivates connection with our deepest truth and the ecological self, resulting in more authenticity and empowerment. Plotkin included mindfulness practice in his list of “soulcraft skills,” practices for experiencing one’s soul and connection to the earth and cosmos. He wrote: “Mindfulness practice gradually cultivates courage, wholeheartedness, and the capacity to remain present with all experiences” (2008, p. 285). Well-known meditation teacher Jack Kornfield put it this way: Mindful attention to any experience is liberating.
Mindfulness brings perspective, balance, and freedom (2009, p. 97). Part of this freedom lies in the connection with basic goodness, an innate quality of every human being according to Buddhism. The Tibetan master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche wrote:
If we are willing to take an unbiased look, we will find that, in spite of all our problems and confusion, all our emotional and psychological ups and downs, there is something basically good about our existence as human beings. Unless we can discover that ground of goodness in our own lives, we cannot hope to improve the lives of others….When we feel that our lives are genuine and good, we do not have to deceive ourselves or other people. We can see our own shortcomings without feeling guilty or inadequate.
(1984, pp. 29 – 33)
Meditation is a time-tested technique for cultivating mindfulness. Meditation, according to Walsh and Vaughan:
Refers to a family of practices that train attention in order to bring mental processes under greater voluntary control and to cultivate specific mental qualities such as awareness, insight, concentration, equanimity, and love. It aims for development of optimal states of consciousness and psychological well-being. (1993, pp. 52 – 53)
Meditation and mindfulness have been used systematically for 2,600 years to cultivate self-understanding, self-acceptance, and other insights into the way things really work. Without such understanding, tolerance and compassion for others will be fleeting at best. A specific practice that cultivates both mindfulness and expansion of the sense of self is nature mirroring—taking questions or just openness into nature and letting nature provide answers or guidance. The more-than-human world reflects our experience of being alive back to us.
Being an Adult
As noted above, immaturity is a fundamental aspect of today’s widespread psychopathology. Walsh listed “fear, greed, aversion, ignorance, unwillingness to delay gratification, defensiveness, and unconsciousness” as traits of psychological immaturity (1984, p. 41). One does not need to stretch the imagination too far to realize that these traits are rampant throughout American society. Also, as noted above, ecopsychologists would add lack of a responsible and reciprocal relationship with the earth as an additional trait of immaturity.
Walsh made the point that ordinarily immaturity of this magnitude is regarded as unexceptional. He wrote: “We do not recognize it because practically all of us share it in one form or another and because its impact is usually limited to our immediate contacts” (p. 41). But in the face of collapse, we no longer have the luxury of turning a blind eye to individual and collective immaturity.
The good news is that psychological tools and practices exist for helping to move one into an adult way of being. Truth-telling, expanding the sense of self, and mindfulness all serve this end. Psychotherapy can also help. I offer one additional tool, a variation of the “Above the Line” methodology presented in the book The Oz Principle: Getting Results Through Individual and Organizational Accountability by Connors, Smith, and Hickman (2004). The basis is the following diagram:
Accountability (to self and others)
Be in the Present Moment
Blame, Justification, Resentment, Need to be Right
Above the Line is the way of the adult, of responsibility, accountability, and relationship. Below the line are some of the fundamental mental states and behaviors associated with immaturity. The beauty of this model is that in only a few words and concepts, much is captured and it can provide no nonsense support for being an adult. One can commit to staying Above the Line, and develop the self-awareness and practices to stay there much of the time and get back up when noticing he or she is below the line. The implications for the activist are profound: no more blaming and shaming as tactics, no justification of violent means for peaceful ends, no more unchecked self-righteousness, and the list goes on.
Prioritizing relationships is the very essence of activism that is restorative for both the activist and the world. Our relationship to the earth and all beings can also be prioritized with this reorientation. Once we make the commitment to prioritize relationships everything changes because nothing puts us on the spot like relationships. We accept that we will be continually challenged to move beyond habitual patterns of self-defense and apathy. When relationship is prioritized, on-going personal psychological work becomes essential.
The four foundations outlined above clearly set the bar high. And yet this makes sense given the fundamental nature of the challenges we face. The writer Duane Elgin articulated this moment in history:
Hard material necessity and human evolutionary possibility now seem to converge to create a situation where, in the long run, we will be obliged to do no less than realize our greatest possibilities. We are engaged in a race between self-discovery and self- destruction. (1993, p. 250)
We can view these challenges as a collective rite of passage. To be worthy of continued life on earth, the human race will have to grow up. This, of course, means that we as individuals have to grow up. It is not easy work, and yet, we can imagine that there is nothing more satisfying than waking up, living as an empowered human being, and playing one’s unique role in the creation of a life-affirming society.
Notes: An Appendix of Recommended Reading and other Resources can be found at:
The full paper which the above article is excerpted from can be downloaded at:
Baker, C. (2009). Sacred demise: Walking the spiritual path of industrial civilization’s collapse. Bloomington, IN: IUniverse.
Chakrabortty, A. (2010, March 2). Brain food: Does activism make you happy? The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk
Conn, S. (1998). Living in the earth: Ecopsycology, health and psychotherapy. The Humanistic Psychologist, 26(1-3), 179 – 198.
Conners, R, Smith, T. A., Hickman, C. R. (2010). The oz principle: Getting results through individual and organizational accountability. Paramus, N.J.: Prentice Hall
Edwards, S. A. (2010, February 21). Once awake: The waking up syndrome two years later [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://eco-anxiety.blogspot.com/
Elgin, D. (1993). The tao of personal and social transformation. In R. Walsh & F. Vaughan (Eds.), Paths beyond ego: The transpersonal vision (pp. 246-250). Los Angeles: Tarcher/Perigree.
Fisher, A. (2009). Ecopsychology as radical praxis. In L. Buzzell, & C. Chalquist (Eds.), Ecotherapy: Healing with nature in mind (pp. 60-68). San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
Hanh, T. N. (1991). Peace is every step: The path of mindfulness in everyday life. New York: Bantam.
Hopkins, R. (2008). The transition handbook: From oil dependency to local resilience. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.
Kornfield, J. (2009). The wise heart: A guide to the universal teachings of Buddhist psychology. New York: Bantam Books.
Kurtz, R. (1990). Body-centered psychotherapy: The hakomi method. Mendocino, CA: LifeRhythm.
Macy, J. (2007). World as lover, world as self. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.
Metzner, R. (1995). The psycho-pathology of the human-nature relationship. In T. Roszak, M. E. Gomes, & A. D. Kanner (Eds.), Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth, healing the mind (pp. 55-67). San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
Plotkin, B. (2008). Nature and the human soul: Cultivating wholeness and community in a fragmented world. Novato, CA: New World Library.
Randall, R. (2009). Loss and climate change: The cost of parallel narratives. Ecopsychology, 1(3), 118-129.
Seed, J., Macy, J., Fleming, P., & Naess, A. (1988). Thinking like a mountain: Toward a council of all beings. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers.
Siegel, D. J. (2007). The mindful brain: Reflection and attunement in the cultivation of well-being. New York: W. W. Norton.
Trungpa, C. (1984). Shambhala: The sacred path of the warrior. Boston: Shambhala.
Walsh, R. (1984). Staying alive: The psychology of human survival. Boulder, CO: New Science Library.
Walsh, R. & Vaughan, F. (1993). Meditation: Royal road to the transpersonal. In R. Walsh & F. Vaughan (Eds.), Paths beyond ego: The transpersonal vision (pp. 47-55). ). Los Angeles: Tarcher/Perigree.
Welwood, J. (2000). Toward a psychology of awakening: Buddhism, psychotherapy, and the path of spiritual transformation. Boston: Shambhala.
Scott Brown, MA is co-founder of Open Path and Restorative Divorce. He lives in Boulder, Colorado and is trained in peacemaking, restorative justice, and the Hakomi method of psychotherapy. He holds a master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology and Ecopsychology. Scott worked as an environmental campaigner for 15 years with Greenpeace, the Idaho Conservation League, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. He may be contacted at: Scott@OpenPathTrainings.com