Perhaps the last emotion a collapse-aware reader would expect to see in a series on “What Collapse Feels Like” would be joy. Fear, anger, grief, and despair yes, but not joy. Yet I believe we have every reason to expect that the end of life as we have known it will be attended by joy as much as by any other of the so-called “negative” emotions.
To reiterate from other contexts where I have mentioned joy, I believe that joy always needs to be differentiated from happiness. The latter is circumstantial, depending on things like one’s financial security, physical well being, the status of one’s love life, whether or not the kids are doing well, or when we might be able to take the next vacation. Joy, however, has nothing to do with these, and even when all of these factors register well below negative, it is possible to experience joy.
Joy is a sense of connectedness with one’s deeper self and with life itself. Joy is a natural, irrepressible response to resonance with the earth community and our human allies within it. Experiencing joy is a byproduct of a bone-marrow awareness of “The Thread” of which the poet William Stafford wrote:
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
Joy is possible, even under horrendous external circumstances because one is intimately connected with “the thread.”
Unfortunately, some individuals do not understand this principle and assume that because humans have so abhorrently trashed the planet, they do not deserve to experience joy or cherish any part of themselves that may hold kindness, compassion, empathy, justice, and generosity. Occasionally, I receive feedback from such individuals who label me as naïve because I find anything valuable in humans or argue that we deserve to feel any joy whatsoever. I can only wonder what the emotional state of such individuals is and what it is like to be in their presence. No, strike that. I already know the answer because these people are essentially dead, and their contempt for humanity and the emotion of joy give new meaning to the word “zombie.”
The Civilized Cerebesphere
However, we should not be surprised at this unbridled suspicion of joy because joy has been hijacked in the culture of industrial civilization. The two culprits are what I call “the Cerebesphere” and New Age Nausea.
The Cerebesphere is the domain of intellect and reason. It was canonized in the eighteenth century by what was dubiously named “The Enlightenment” which, unfortunately, shed a great deal of light on the human mind but left the soul pathetically in the dark until some of the remarkable luminaries of the nineteenth century such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, George Sand, William Blake, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau championed its indomitable reality.
Sadly, since the triumph of the Cerebesphere, men have been socialized to live in that domain to the exclusion of the territory of heart and gut, relegating those functions to the domain of women. The result: A binary culture in which a false dichotomy exists between intellect and emotion, not to mention endless, heartbreaking conflagrations between men and women in virtually every type of relationship—romantic, professional, or platonic.
Confinement to the Cerebesphere necessarily produces a reaction to the word joy as naïve, fainthearted, overly-optimistic, and of course, impotent. Impotent is important because that’s what this is actually about, isn’t it? For some, experiencing joy “has to” be about abdicating one’s defense structures, surrendering one’s sense of empowerment, and risking getting whacked by the powers that be or a culture in chaos in the aftermath of the collapse of industrial civilization.
Joy immediately takes one to the heart, and the heart is an exceedingly dangerous place to be when one believes that one can control outcomes. Feeling joy softens the physiology and blurs the bulwarks of hyper-vigilance. In the Cerebesphere, the closest thing to joy are those wispy, teal-blue scenes in Viagra commercials where the nitty-gritty tough cowboy with horsetrailer in tow behind his pickup finds his way home to the “little woman” in the dark of night after a long, hard stint on the road. The Cerebesphere, untempered by the heart, is patriarchy’s most ghastly gulag.
Looking out through the dingy windows of the Cerebesphere, we analyze our predicament with polarized vision. On the one hand, we’re screwed, and damn it, we should act that way, whereas if we allow ourselves to savor or express any joy, then we are naïve, sycophantic twits who have no idea how dire the situation actually is and will be. How dare we experience joy when we orchestrated our predicament in the first place! We have no right to do so as a result of our status as human scum who have trashed the planet! Furthermore, considering the plethora of suffering beings that inhabit the earth, how could we possibly feel gratitude for being alive at this time in human history? After all, near-term extinction is upon us. What the hell is there to laugh, dance, sing, paint, or write poetry about, unless of course our artistic expression is dripping with rage and despair?
I cannot thoroughly answer these questions, but they catapult me to a number of indigenous elders I’ve been privileged to know. Incisively knowing in every cell of their bodies how precariously we stagger on the knife-edge of death, they do not live as if that were so. Instead, on the same day that they may find themselves in the wilderness wailing and sobbing for the loss of the earth, they might join with other elders around the fire to tell jokes or bounce a grandchild on the knee, playfully telling her stories of the ancient ones with reassurance that the community will always be there for her no matter what. Carrying the gargantuan burden of a dying planet, these elders dance, play music, initiate their young, and give thanks for every new day they are fortunate enough to greet, holding both joy and sorrow in the cup of their broken hearts, and thus walk, talk, and exude the most profound essence of joy. Their connection to “the thread” is rarely far from their awareness.
New Age Nausea
One of the natural outcomes of centuries lived in the Cerebesphere with its “Enlightenment” origins is New Age Nausea, that is to say, the delusional cult of positive thinking. Barbara Ehrenreich has written extensively on positive thinking in which she criticizes the “happiness industry” for encouraging the poor to look on the bright side of things and all of us not to look at things as they are.
Some three decades ago the New Age movement began its rise in popularity in the United States. Drawing from the teachings of non-traditional, metaphysical movements in the Middle Ages, Eastern spiritual traditions, and the Transcendental movement of the nineteenth century, the New Age movement offered an alternative to the rigid theology of orthodox religions by emphasizing positive thinking and personal growth. While incorporating a plethora of teachings from ancient traditions which address both the light and dark sides of the human condition, the focus of New Age thinking has been on “living in the light” while negating (denying) darkness.
Not unlike its predecessor, the Christian Science religion in the United States based on the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy, the New Age concurs with William Shakespeare when he stated, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” New Age teachers emphasize the power of one’s mental attitude to draw to oneself either adversity or advantage. A number of New Age teachers such as Ernest Holmes, Eric Butterworth, Alice Bailey, Louise Hay, and others have written extensively on the power of positive thinking to manifest personal, financial abundance in one’s life. Drawing (largely erroneously) from the principles of quantum physics, many New Age teachers speak of the “law of attraction” or the notion that like attracts like. That is to say that if one is thinking positively about one’s financial situation, one may draw abundance to oneself; whereas, if one is feeling deprived or focusing on a lack of monetary resources, such negative thinking is likely to perpetuate or even worsen one’s financial situation.
It is worth noting that New Age teachings on abundance and the law of attraction have consistently arisen in the context of wealth or in a time when an emphasis on wealth rules the day. Just prior to the Great Depression, in 1928 Napoleon Hill wrote the book, The Law Of Success In 16 Lessons, and in 1937, influenced by steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, Hill wrote Think And Grow Rich. In the 1980s when the Reagan Administration was in power in the United States, New Age spirituality achieved unprecedented popularity. Reagan referred to his election to the Presidency as “morning in America,” and his administration marked the beginning of some of the most dramatic cuts to social and poverty programs in the history of the nation.
In 2006, during the Bush II Administration, the film The Secret was released, followed by The Secret book in 2007. According to Wikipedia, the film, “consists of a series of interviews designed to demonstrate that everything one wants or needs can be satisfied by believing in an outcome, repeatedly thinking about the outcome, and maintaining positive emotional states to ‘attract’ that outcome.” The book and movie were touted by celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, and Larry King, and millions of readers and viewers began practicing the principles of the law of attraction.
Attend any Unity or Science of Mind church in the United States on any Sunday morning, and you are likely to hear or read about some aspect of the law of attraction and how positive thinking can manifest abundance in one’s life. Similar to Christian Science, the Science of Mind or Religious Science denomination trains practitioners to be available to those who desire healing in a variety of areas of their lives. At the Science of Mind-oriented website, Enrichment, the reader will note an article entitled “Treating For Abundance And Supply In Challenging Economic Times.” The article states:
These economic times are stirring great anxiety among many; and at Enrichment.com, we wish to share the thought that it is more important now than ever to remember that the Universe is infinitely abundant, which it surely is, and that as individuals we can connect in mindset and consciousness with this Infinite Spirit of Abundance. Science of Mind teaches that out-loud “treatments” – statements of affirmation as to what one hopes for as that which is already real – leads to a connection with the All-giving Source – and combined with creative action, results in manifestation from the higher plane of consciousness to this material plane.
The late Dr. Holmes, the founder of Science of Mind, would counsel us not to give in to fear, for fear closes opportunities for prosperity – but rather through intention to stay positive, optimistic and open to receiving the blessings of abundance. Another great New Thought teacher, Elizabeth Scovel Shinn, offered one of many treatments in this area, such as, “I draw upon the abundance of the Spheres my immediate and endless supply.” It is important to follow treatment with action, and to be open to new vocational and entrepreneurial possibilities, if needs be.
The reader may argue that in a time of economic collapse, whatever one finds useful in terms of economic sustenance should not be judged. If the law of attraction helps an individual keep his or her head above water while facing all manner of economic challenges, what’s the problem?
Understandably, people in dire economic straits are desperate for quick fixes. However, The Secret is yet another gimmick of individualistic entitlement devised by privileged, white purveyors of New Age Nausea. Currently, every developed nation in the world is in one stage or another of economic collapse. This conundrum is larger than any individual who attempts to remain financially solvent by being employed, saving money wisely, investing, or making charitable contributions. In the macrocosm of collective consciousness on planet Earth, we are experiencing a state of profound contraction, and none of us is exempt from the deprivation that global economic collapse is already visiting upon our communities. We will not all suffer in the same ways, but we will all suffer, and no amount of positive thinking or practicing the law of attraction will spare us from living on and with less. Rather than seeking to “have it all,” one of the fundamental tenets of New Age Nausea, we must transform the way money works and find refuge in sharing, mutually-supportive human community as elucidated in Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics—a splendid antidote to The Secret.
Nor will positive thinking spare us from the deadly consequences of catastrophic climate change which threatens to make much of the earth uninhabitable within the next century, if not sooner.
But how has New Age Nausea hijacked our joy? Quite simply by seducing us to bypass the so-called “negative” emotions which when followed and consciously worked with, can deepen our capacity for savoring and sharing joy beyond any artificial stimulants of Disneyland happiness or smiley-faced, law-of-attraction amphetamines. And while New Age Nausea offers incessant “bliss bounces,” it is yet another mechanism for inhabiting the Cerebesphere, disengaged from the red-blooded, wild, animal angst of fear, anger, grief, or despair. Rather than joy resulting from avoidance of these, it pours forth freely in the aftermath of allowing the rivers of heartbreak to flow through us as we engage with the treasures of the inner world and the richness of human and earth community.
A Marriage Proposal In Auschwitz
Last year I received an email from a woman who told me that one of her principle goals in 2013 was to attend Bernie Glassman’s Zen Peacekeeper’s “Bearing Witness” Retreat at Auschwitz/Berkenau. I asked her a number of questions hoping that some day I might be able to attend this annual event. While I did not have the opportunity to participate this year, I had the stunning privilege of speaking last week with someone who had just returned from the retreat, and I was riveted.
This man, we’ll call him Christopher, had only been back in North America some 13 hours, and of course, many parts of him weren’t back as he sat with me and a small group of friends pensively processing his experience. Christopher related the heartbreak and horror that the retreat participants felt as they mindfully visited Auschwitz/Birkenau daily upon leaving their lodging in a nearby town. They wandered throughout the camp, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups. Some women sat mindfully in what had been the women’s barracks; some men sat mindfully in what had been the men’s barracks. There were tears, wails that echoed throughout the camp, and of course, long interludes of silence. The heaviness became heavier, the sadness became sadder, and then something shifted.
According to Christopher, after some days of sorrow, a shift began to occur in which people started feeling lighter. On one of the visits to the camp, one man brought a guitar with him. At some point he began to play, and people slowly began to sing along. The singing increased and grew louder and more vigorous. Soon people were dancing and laughing. Not censoring themselves or even noticing their joy, they surrendered to it and allowed themselves to descend into the incomprehensible paradox of the moment. One man who had been in a relationship for some time with the woman who had accompanied him on the retreat, suddenly turned to her and said, “Will you marry me?” She accepted, and they then turned to one of the rabbis in the group and asked if he would perform the ceremony. After asking the couple a number of questions, he agreed to marry them, and the singing and dancing continued.
As Christopher continued to relate his experience of the retreat, he compared it to my writing and speaking on the topic of collapse, catastrophic climate change, and near-term extinction. What most deeply moved him as he contemplated the horrors of the death camp was what he called “the death of the human dream” which he saw as the ultimate psychological effect of the holocaust on its victims.
In that moment, I realized the profound similarity between the Nazi holocaust and near-term extinction—the death of the human dream as well as the death of all life on earth. Do other species have dreams of the future? How can we know with certainty? For the most part, they live entirely in the moment, yet humans have never had and will never have the right to intentionally or unintentionally exterminate them.
Often, patients in hospice find themselves laughing or sometimes even discover that they have learned to laugh deeply for the first time in their lives. During a recent visit by volunteers to a hospice facility in Brant, Ontario, one patient remarked, “You can laugh and celebrate your life until the day you die and that’s the way it should be.”
Yes, humanity may be in hospice, as may be the entire earth community, but it is time to reclaim our joy. In order to do so, we must spend more time out of the Cerebesphere than in it, and we must move beyond the yellow smiley-faces of positive thinking and New Age Nausea. Time to feel the other emotions highlighted in this series on “What Collapse Feels Like”—fear, anger, grief, and despair, but also time to laugh, dance, create, read poetry to one another, deeply listen to each other, speak our truth with compassion, make music, make love, and make peace with our failures and our fellows.
As we allow ourselves to stare down myriad holocausts with clear-eyed honesty, as we open to the heartbreak in which we are immersed, may we viscerally grasp and celebrate the joy of which Jack Adam Weber speaks in this excerpt from his poem entitled, “Something More Than Happiness”:
The joy we see in a newborn child, in any sprout, new ground,
Is also a taste of the rebirthed, integrated human
Whose growth is checked and channeled
By the heart in full embrace, full flower
Of all experience, especially those rare beauties
We are taught not to feel only because we have lost
The way of alchemy, the intuition to allow them
To turn us into sunflowers, then meadows,
Which is fulfillment, the joy of ultimate fruiting
Made possible by all of what makes things grow and cut in flesh like the best filet knife.
Welcoming exuberance, passion, fulfillment,
Joy, purpose, courage, and the dark sisters
Of all these qualities, what is more than happiness?
Oh, the sun does not have to learn how to shine.
Clearing the clouds, effortlessly it gives its light.
[Parts 1-4 of this series may be read at Speaking Truth to Power.]