During the weekend of February 25-27, hundreds of people gathered at the Millenium Harvest House in Boulder, Colorado to attend the “Our Local Economy: Lives in Transition” conference organized by Transition Colorado founders, Michael Brownlee and Lynette Marie Hanthorn. While the official topic of the conference concentrated on food security and the local economy, it appears participants were ready and willing to have a more fundamental discussion of how to shift the collective mindset to a more thoughtful, intentioned, and collaborative way of living—especially from within the community’s own means.
Inherent in the discussion of how to best support local farms and food producers, as well as the local economy, was the question of how to find and communicate this way of living. This “different” way of living, known well by the majority of our ancestors, many current indigenous populations , and those still on the fringes of modern globalized culture, is based on a set of straightforward values: the need for community with one’s neighbors, strong relationships to the food and land on which one lives, the importance of contributing to the welfare of those people, beings, and ecosystems that in turn provide true security and “life insurance” in a constantly changing world, and thinking ahead to the long-term consequences of individual and collective decisions for how to eat, work, spend money, and play.
Perhaps provoked by the kick-off premiere of the 2011 documentary “The Economics of Happiness” on Friday night, discussions in the conference seemed to repeatedly take a turn toward mentioning the need for a new framework of living, based not on greed, selfishness, or scarcity, but instead on collaboration, creativity, and generosity.
When reflecting on the notion of transitioning to a new way of life, it’s worth considering the concept of “Transition” in general. Perhaps best known in psychological circles, author and scholar William Bridges popularized this term in the 1980s after publishing the bestselling book “Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes”.
Bridges identifies three stages of transition, simplified loosely as: letting go (or Endings), “The Neutral Zone”, and new beginnings. These stages, while deceptively simple and straightforward in their categorization, provide a helpful framework for understanding what happens to the human psyche when faced with life changes one chose, or was chosen by. Bridges concentrates on the personal transitions so common to human life: moving, finding or losing work, redefining one’s life purpose, gaining a family member, losing a loved one, undergoing a major illness, or the ultimate transition of death.
Bridges eventually expanded his work to include organizational shifts, and what happens within work culture that creates psychological ripples for all involved. Of course, communities go through transitions as well: Think how New York City needed to adjust after 9/11, or New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Life, as known by the people living and working in those cities, was radically altered within a day. This sort of collective transition has also been happening throughout the span of human history; crops upon which a community depends may get wiped out in an afternoon hail storm, earthquakes shake down a village, new political or military regimes take control.
Surely, the current examples of community-wide, country-wide, world-wide transitions are abundant. For better or worse, the paradigms which groups of people constellate around get shaken, and crumble. Natural disaster, political change, a wave of unexpected violence, an industry shuts down; basically, some way of living—or indeed, some aspect of life once taken for granted– ends, and there is inevitably a period of groundlessness wherein no one knows exactly what may happen next. Perhaps some have a desire to hang on to the old way—through denial, or actions that try to take back what was lost, to restore some sense of normalcy.
While some may argue that they have the answers for exactly why something happens or what needs to happen next, in reality, no one does. In a true transition, this period of groundlessness is an in-between state that can produce feelings of insecurity, fear, confusion, and the sense of being lost.
All of this groundlessness, this “Neutral Zone”, as Bridges calls it, is a necessary phase in any true transition before new beginnings can take form. In other words, this lost, in-between zone after something has ended and before something new takes its place is a fertile time that could be used to make the internal shifts necessary for a new beginning to be, well, new-–more than simply a recapitulation of old ways of operating, dressed up in a new costume.
In a subsequent 2001 text titled The Way of Transition: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, Bridges makes the distinction between change and transition: “The relation between change and transition is further complicated by the fact that some people actually utilize external changes to distract them from the harder business of letting go of their subjective realities and identities. They make changes so they won’t have to make transitions… they are addicted to change, and like any addiction, it is an escape from the real issues raised by their lives.”
The theme of the Boulder conference constellated around changes many attendees expect to come within the next decade: financial insecurities including the possibility for hyperinflation or deflation, the possibility of industrial food shortages and disruption to the supply chain, increasing oil prices, political upheavals, problems with meeting energy needs, increased climate change making for curious weather patterns and altered growing seasons, and more potentially volatile situations that effect “life as we know it”.
When considering the changes that we may face as a regional community, it helps to have some system of working with the questions and emotions that inevitably arise. It appears that having an understanding of, and allowance for, trust in the process is useful—that is, a willingness to hang out in the Neutral Zone without needing to react defensively, act reflexively, or trying to control the outcome through manipulation based on “knowing what’s best.”
On Sunday afternoon at the conference, attendees had an opportunity to participate in an “open space technology” lab which allowed those who felt called to initiate a conversation had a chance to do so. Conversation topics were supposed to revolve around creating positive change for the local food system. Those who wanted to initiate a conversation needed to write on a large sheet of paper what their topic was, and then be open to forming groups with the audience to discuss the issues and write the results of the collective brainstorm. The rules included: “whatever happens is what is meant to happen” and “whoever shows up is who is meant to show up”and “it’s over when it’s over.” Perhaps unsurprising to a creative process, the methods and outcome were unclear. Nobody knew what exactly would come of the spontaneous aggregation of people and conversations. It was a bit messy; there was confusion about who would meet who where, and who was to take charge. This is classic neutral-zone: Confusing at points, a lot of unknowns, and no guarantees of any specific outcome. Nonetheless, the underlying message inherent in the instructions–whether or not it was heard– was to trust the process.
One could argue that the principles common in addiction recovery hold much wisdom for a transition process. To truly “recover” from an addiction one must go through the transition of recognizing first that one’s way of life is not working—the compulsion with the behavior or substance is getting in the way of one’s relationships, health, future well-being, and growth. In other words, one recognizes their desire to consume is insatiable and destructive, and a change is needed. Once this realization happens, there comes the need to wander in the unknown, not having answers for what to “do” about it. The questions, “how exactly do I get from this destructive way of life to something healthy and useful—a way of living that doesn’t hurt me or others?” How must I change my thinking and acting in order to step into this wholly different way of life?” The answers to these questions are not easily won; oftentimes, people find they need to find some personal sense of spirituality or meaning in order to find answers.
In 2007, Chellis Glendenning updated her provocative 1994 eco-psych. text, My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization, in which she draws parallels between the symptoms of individual and collective trauma and addiction. As arrogant as the premise sounds, it does seem as if Western culture, as currently operating, is addicted—not only to oil, but also to numbing through entertainment and materialism. It appears that most of us are addicted to some activity that distracts from the scary realities of climate change, continued population growth, the growing divide between rich and poor, or the collective stresses that seem to be consuming the citizenry. This makes sense, given the scary realities of this time. It’s a bit mind-boggling to try and process this level of information without feeling overwhelmed.
These distractions, whether due to collective issues or more personal manifestations of life stressors, come in many forms– including busyness, making money, compulsive eating or exercising, alcohol, drugs, the internet, TV, or texting and checking email. Even trying to control others can be a compulsive, distracting process. This desire to step away from fear, anxiety, grief, despair, and anger is inborn—as humans, we are designed to protect ourselves from pain. However, whether or not we are consciously seeking personal growth and awareness, it’s clear that our lack of willingness to deal with the realities of our lives at this point in history is going to catch up to us sooner or later, likewise with every person suffering from an addiction.
Similar to the destructive and harmful behaviors inherent in an active addiction, the average American way of life, (what Dick Cheney referred to as “non-negotiable”) is unsustainable. It’s clear that we can no longer continue consuming as we have been. The question then becomes, how do we get ourselves out of this mess?
Twelve Step programs, brought to the world first through Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1930s and now operating in hundreds of fellowships internationally, offer some guidelines for how to recover from destructive behavior. The following suggestions, when adapted for the collective issues at hand, seem especially relevant to the changes needed at this time: admission of insanity with regard to how we are living; willingness to trust there is something greater than the human will that could restore a sane way of living; need for a moral inventory of our collective behavior; a willingness to make amends for the harms we’ve caused; a need for widespread contemplative practices in search of guidance on how to live; and continued acts of service for the greater good.
The last event of the conference allowed attendees to share in one word their predominant feeling as a result of the weekend. “Hope”, “excitement”, “love”, “inspiration” were shared—perhaps seemingly incongruous terms for a group of individuals ready and willing to delve into the difficult issues facing the world today. However, due to the willingness to take an honest look at what problems we currently face, what actions can bring about a more resilient community, and a desire for a better quality of life in the future, it appears that, at least in this one community of individuals brought together by a common desire, a true transition is taking place. If nothing else, it may be helpful to remember the message behind the often-cited Serenity Prayer shared at the end of 12-Step Meetings: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Teri Dillion, MA, offers psychotherapy and coaching services in the Boulder/Denver area to individuals and groups seeking greater clarity and meaning in their lives. Her website can be found at www.WakingHeartTherapy.com.