Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to be a psychotherapist in Ancient Rome in 350 AD. The usual problems would have brought people to my office, of course. Personal troubles, sexual difficulties, family quarrels, mental imbalances. But as I listened daily to my clients’ tales of woe and also picked up wider news in the forums and gossip from my slaves I would have become more and more aware of the larger issues intruding on the decreasingly comfortable lives of all Romans — shortages that our overextended armies could no longer control, the changing complexion of the Roman Legions themselves, northern tribes in rebellion, the gradual disintegration of our political systems, roads and infrastructure. What did it all mean?
I’ve just discovered a new book, Navigating the Coming Chaos: A Handbook for Inner Transition, by Carolyn Baker, Ph.D., a former psychotherapist and professor of history and psychology. Combining the perspectives of historian and mental heath professional, Baker offers a unique analysis of life in the late phases of Western industrial civilization. While she casts an unblinking eye on the decline of public and private life in a society challenged by the 3 E’s — problems with energy, the environment and the economy — she focuses on practical advice about how to stay sane in troubled times, offering a wide array of psychological and even spiritual advice for the troubled soul living in the late stages of the American Empire.
One may disagree with her diagnosis of our Empire’s state of health, of course. Perhaps the general degradation of our climate commons, our political system, our economy, our place in the world isn’t as bad as she thinks? It’s wise to remember that the Roman Empire also had its ups and downs, its recessions and recoveries. But the trajectory was certainly trending in a certain direction and of course in hindsight the signs are all too obvious. Perhaps even in 350 AD the average Roman had no idea that the party was coming to an end.
If you agree with Baker’s diagnosis of our collective jeopardy, reading this book may have much to offer. In addition to a clear, unblinking presentation of the facts of our current collective situation, she offers wise counsel as to how we can cope emotionally and spiritually with the spiraling traumatic changes of our era. She grounds us in nature, community, beauty and Spirit, encouraging us to find our calling and purpose in helping ourselves and our fellow beings to survive and thrive in troubled times. In this endeavor she discusses not only practical survival tactics like permaculture but urges us to find strength and meaning through the arts, beauty, dreamwork, meditation, ritual and depth psychology.
The book is peppered with wisdom from a wide range of inspirational voices: Rumi, C. G. Jung, Bill McKibben, Thomas Moore, Joanna Macy, poet Mary Oliver and even mythologist Joseph Campbell, who reminds us that “One thing that comes out in myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation.”
The foreword is by Andrew Harvey. The book is recommended by Caroline Myss and includes insights from people like Richard Heinberg, John O’Donohue, Bill McKibben, John Michael Greer, Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Malidoma Some, Michael Meade, Pema Chodron, Eckhart Tolle, Carl Gustav Jung, Joanna Macy, Bill Plotkin and many others who have or are exploring the outer limits of successful living in radically changing times.
I’m wondering if for some of us this book might be a good way to get a “Heart and Soul of Transition” group going? It has useful chapters and exercises to kick off discussion and action.
Here’s the description of the book: “The collapse of industrial civilization, well underway since at least 2007, presents humankind with unprecedented and daunting challenges in the area of energy, environment and economics. Just as The Transition Handbook of 2008 provided specific strategies for addressing these changes logistically, Navigating the Coming Chaos provides a toolkit of emotional and spiritual preparation for an uncertain future. It offers us an opportunity to step across an evolutionary threshold in order to become a new kind of human being living in conscious self-awareness of our intimate connection with all life in the universe.”