Editor’s Note: As a result of numerous requests for publication of this entire series I have condensed all five parts below–CB
Part 1: What Collapse Feels Like: Becoming A Student Of Fear
Lest anyone assume that this series is a rehash of my 2011 book Navigating The Coming Chaos: A Handbook For Inner Transition, let’s dispense with that assumption immediately. Two years and a boatload of human and ecological suffering since the publication of that book have produced much more to explore beyond what I wrote in it. In fact, most of what I have been forecasting for the past seven years about how people will respond emotionally to collapse has unfolded and with surprising rapidity. Not surprising, however, is how many collapse-aware individuals are eager and open for the level of exploration I am proposing.
What is more, I notice that people who have been attending to consciously working with their emotions in the wake of collapse are faring better than those who aren’t. The fact that some people are still resisting doing so and calling my offerings “psychobabble” is telling in terms not only of the brokenness of people in our culture but in terms of the fear we all have at some level of getting out of our heads and into our hearts and guts. That’s exactly how industrial civilization has programmed us to function—or dysfunction.
“No Fear”, KNOW Fear
So speaking of fear, perhaps that is the emotion that is calling to us with the most volume and vigor at this point in the collapse process and the one we should consider first in this series. I’m certain that regardless of how collapse unfolds or for how long, we will be confronted with fear, for how could we not be terrified to confront, at whatever speed, the end of life as we have known it?
And whatever fears we were facing five years ago, we have new and even more formidable events that cause us to shudder. Speaking for myself, and I’m sure many readers, the “disaster that keeps on giving,” namely Fukushima, in tandem with the likelihood of near-term extinction as a result of catastrophic climate change is horrifying on a daily basis.
Our fundamental premise when confronting any emotion, whether it feels positive or negative, should be one of viewing the emotion as instructive. Emotions are far more than random synapses firing in the brain, more than mere physiological phenomena. And whether or not one concurs with William Blake that “emotions are influxes of the divine,” at the very least, it behooves us to open to the possibility that not only are emotions aspects of our survival mechanism but may well serve an evolutionary function by perpetually inducing us to experience a higher quality of life.
Thus, when I am afraid, my fear serves the survival function of motivating me to explore what feels dangerous so that my well being remains intact. Yet I have the choice to do something more than simply preserve my life. I can also utilize the fear as an apparatus for deepening, amplifying, and enhancing my consciousness. In fact, my willingness to adopt the latter approach may not only result in my becoming a more wizened individual, it may also increase my empathy, compassion, and motivation to defend and protect my community.
The human psyche consists of many parts, but the two that are most relevant here are the ego and the deeper self. We have been enculturated to believe that we are the ego, and the ego is us. In some cultures, the ego is less esteemed than it is in industrially civilized cultures, and in those cultures, the deeper self or what I call “the sacred” is more valued. Both the ego and the sacred are essential aspects of who we are, but this value has been greatly imbalanced by civilization. I believe that one of the reasons we exist on this planet is to restore the proper balance between the ego and deeper self, and working consciously with our emotions is one avenue for doing so.
So what to do about fear? Well actually, there’s nothing to do about it, but there is much that we can do with it. Sadly, most of us instinctively attempt to flee from our fear or shut it off as quickly as possible. Often this works—for the time being, but fear, and all other emotions, really do have messages for us, and so when we ignore or flee from them, we can be absolutely certain that they will come back and bite us. In fact, they will bite us even harder and perhaps in more painful ways. If we are lucky, the fear will persist or even increase as it doggedly attempts to get our attention. If we are not so lucky, it will submerge into the body and somaticize in the form of physical illness or symptoms. But of course, the choice is up to us.
Another response to fear is “manning” or “womaning” up. We don’t want to be a ‘wus,’ so we channel all of our energy into doing, believing that if we stay busy or take action, we can keep the fear at bay. Not uncommon is hyper-logical self-talk like, “What’s the use in worrying? Get busy and make change happen.” Taking action is laudable and useful to the community, and yes, it often helps us feel better, but when we take action instead of feeling the fear, we are attempting to flee in yet another way, all the while assuming that the fear has nothing to teach us.
As unscientific as it may seem, I like to imagine emotions as sentient beings or energetic allies in the psyche that have extremely important information for me that will serve to protect, correct, or direct me in some fashion and ultimately serve to make my life and relationships more loving, fulfilling, harmonious, or dynamic. Paying attention to and working with my emotions serves everyone and everything around me. In other words, doing any form of inner psycho-spiritual work benefits the entire earth community as well as myself. Railing only against the collective, the macrocosm, as if all of humanity’s darkness resides there is to abdicate personal responsibility as a member of the earth community and actually serves to hold collective ignorance and oppression in place.
So for me, fear has many faces and forms. Chronic fears or fears that feel especially life-threatening are vigorously clamoring for my attention, so I oblige them. I find particularly helpful, sitting quietly without the possibility of interruption and just allowing the fear to be present. First, I relax with eyes closed and take a series of long and slow breaths. When I feel relaxed and grounded, I inwardly invite the fear to show up and talk to me. I accept whatever form it takes and whatever it may communicate. Somewhere in that process I consciously ask the fear what it wants, what it is attempting to tell me, what it would like me to see. Very importantly, all the while I breathe into and through the fear. I understand intellectually that I am not my fear, and my fear is not me. I am much more than my fear, but while breathing into it, I allow it to pass through me. In this way, I experience in my body that fear is not going to kill me, that I can sit with it, learn from it, and that doing so empowers me.
Make no mistake, the answers are not always pleasant nor the results peachy. Sometimes the messages I receive from fear evoke other emotions such as sadness or regret or anger. Often, the fear has layers, and in sitting with it, I discover deeper and more intense textures of it that I was not aware of. I take plenty of time to just be quiet and listen, notice, and pay attention.
Huge fears about the macrocosm such as our fears about planetary radiation poisoning or near-term extinction obviously evoke our fear of death. Ultimately, invariably, and unequivocally, this is precisely the reason that we seek to escape our fears so automatically and reactively. It’s all about dying, and at the slightest suggestion of the notion of dying, the ego catapults into total panic. While on the one hand we can argue that the fear of dying and the wish to survive are “only natural,” we probably all know of countless instances, perhaps some of them very personal, in which people have been able to surrender consciously and with great clarity to their own death.
On several occasions in my workshops I have led participants through a “Die Before You Die” exercise in which they have the opportunity to imagine and walk through their own death. Without exception I have noticed that when people are able to complete the exercise, they report feeling much less anxiety or fear regarding collapse. And of course, the denial of collapse and humankind’s insistence that it isn’t happening and won’t happen is all about the fear of death. When that fear is dealt with, it then becomes much easier to talk about and prepare for collapse.
In fact, in a patriarchal culture, that is to say, one embedded in the values of power and control, people, particularly men, are disconnected from the earth and from life and death. Women, on the other hand, have the capacity to bear children and know the life/death/life cycle somewhat more intimately. However, this enormous death denial in any culture allows people in general, and particularly men, to live in the intellect and rarely move into the heart and emotions. Therefore, much of the work that men must do if they desire to learn the value of emotion is to confront their fear of death.
So back to the process of sitting quietly with fear. As we let it pass through us, we listen and intentionally ask what it wants from us or wants us to see or wants to teach us. We will probably need to do this process more than once because our fears are enormous, and we have so much to learn from them. When we feel complete with our sitting, then we take some deep breaths and slowly and gently open the eyes. Afterward, it is very useful to journal or draw something about our experience of sitting with fear.
Almost without exception, this process is extremely useful in learning from fear. In all my years of suggesting it, no one has ever told me that it was a waste of time or that they learned nothing from doing it. Rather, I have heard many more stories of empowerment and courage and unexpected awarenesses as a result of consciously sitting with fear. Frequently, people discover, paradoxically, that working consciously with their fear has resulted in feeling more grounded, more present, and more resolute in facing and preparing for collapse.
Lone Rangers, Marlboro Men And Women
Feeling overwhelmed with fear in itself is frightening enough, but feeling fear without support is cruel and unusual punishment. When we are feeling fearful about collapse, it is crucial to share our fears with other collapse-aware individuals. At least ninety percent of people who contact me for life coaching are struggling with feeling alone and isolated with their awareness of collapse, and they experience a significant emotional shift just by connecting with another person who is aware and with whom they can openly dialog on the topic.
If you are the only one in your family who is aware, and you are unable to discuss your fears with other family members, then finding support should be a top priority. Is there a sustainability or Transition group in your community or region where you might find folks of like mind? If not, look for conferences or speaking engagements sponsored by groups or organizations who are aware, even if you need to travel there. If there are no like-minded people in your community and you are not able to travel to events that resonate with you, then at least become part of an online community by way of comments on blogs or via social networking.
Confronting one’s deeper fears is courageous work, and we should acknowledge and reward our willingness to do it. After sitting with fear, do something fun, relaxing, and nurturing. Remember always that if we work with our fear and follow it to its ultimate destination, it will take us to love, and of course, when our empathy and compassion are strengthened as a result of working with fear, we invariably become kinder and more caring human beings. Thus, conscious engagement with the emotions of collapse is anything but narcissism or navel-gazing. Everyone we care about benefits from it, including perhaps people we don’t even know.
Yes, collapse is scary, often terrifying. Fear hovers and waits in the wings, and we can continue fleeing from it, or we can face it with intention and a desire to be taught by it. Billions of people are ignoring collapse and will consequently learn nothing from it. However, the individual who is awake to it and willing to be taught by the emotions it evokes may be the most fortunate of all.
Part 2: What Collapse Feels Like: Anger: When Rage And Cynicism Aren’t Enough
Anyone who doesn’t feel angry, make that enraged, about what is being done to the earth community by its human inhabitants and what they are doing to each other has been totally anesthetized by the soporifics of civilization. If you aren’t angry, not only are you not paying attention, as the bumper sticker adage goes, but you really need to ask yourself what you have done with your anger to cause your numbness.
Not only is anger one of the sanest responses to our predicament, but we need to find ways to express it that do not harm others. Impassioned service in the world, blogging or other forms of writing, artistic expression, or making an agreement with another trusted person to vent in their presence while they witness the expulsion of anger are all channels for externalizing anger energy and not simply, toxically holding it in the body. We should not vent at people, but certainly we can vent with them or witness their venting with us.
The more conscious we can become of our anger, the less harmful it is to ourselves or others. The less conscious of it we are, the more it is likely to become lethal to our own bodies and impede our relationships. I believe that beneath all anger about our predicament is deep grief, but that does not for one moment invalidate the feeling of anger or our need to express it. What is also true is that the relief we ultimately experience from feeling our anger and expressing it over and over again has diminishing returns. Unless our feeling and expressing anger takes us to deeper places within the psyche, we end up spinning our wheels and cycling and recycling through a redundant pathway in the nervous system that really is not unlike spinning the wheels of a vehicle in an attempt to become “un-stuck” from mud or snow.
Something in the psyche—call it soul, spirit, the deeper Self, the sacred, our core, something greater, inner wisdom, consciousness—whatever we choose to name it, wants to take us into more profound places of awareness. We share in common with other animals a nervous system that needs to discharge anger from time to time, but what do our fellow earthlings do after they discharge it? They return “home” and focus on feeding the family, nurturing their young, or just lying around in peaceful repose. Unlike humans who possess conscious self-awareness, they do not need to make sense of their anger or their predicament. They live only in the moment, and despite all exhortations by spiritual teachers to do exactly that, it is not possible for humans who live in a body to “be here now” every second of their human experience. We need, not just want or desire, to find meaning in our experience. In order to do that, sometimes we need to consider the past and future. We are inherently creatures who make meaning. Perhaps that is the fundamental difference between ourselves and robots who merely receive and report information.
And before you argue that life is meaningless, consider the brilliant men and women throughout human history who have demonstrated the opposite through their art, music, drama, poetry, prose, and storytelling. Yes, even our friend Friedrich Nietzsche, who is frequently quoted in order to reinforce the notion that life is meaningless, said that, “To live is to suffer; to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”
So why is the owning and naming of our anger not enough? And in fact, how do we prevent our anger from having a deleterious effect on ourselves, other humans, and the earth community? How do we avoid the trap of so-called “righteous” anger in a mad, homicidal and ecocidal world?
Every emotion contains its own unique set of biochemical components that impact the physiology. Anger releases adrenalin (epinephrine) and also norepinephrine, and these are experienced in the body much like an amphetamine. On the one hand, anger can feel energizing, but after a huge surge of these chemicals, one may feel depressed or lethargic.. When we consciously feel our anger or vent it, we understand the chemical rush that it evokes, and in the aftermath, we are able to take care of ourselves, rest, take a hot bath, meditate, and overall “chill” for awhile. However, when we aren’t conscious of our anger and its effects, we might feel the surge of anger, then feel depressed afterward and use a chemical stimulant or perhaps another angry outburst to elevate our mood once again. This is precisely the dynamic that occurs in PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), and it explains how some soldiers become “addicted” to war or some first responders become “addicted” to the drama of emergency scenarios.
More common is the harboring of resentment which from the Latin root simply means to feel anger over and over again. It is a state of chronic anger which we may or may not be aware of. It is very closely connected with despair in that we may feel that holding onto resentment is the last defense between ourselves and depression or giving up.
Sometimes when people read or hear my comments about holding the tension of polar opposites, they do not understand what I am saying for a number of reasons. First, very little in our culture supports this notion. Industrial civilization blatantly demands a binary perception of life. Things are either “this” or “that.” For example in terms of the collapse of industrial civilization, one may believe that “Either I have to be angry or resentful, or I’m a wus, a clueless person in denial, or a sychophantic twit who doesn’t ‘get’ how bad things really are.” So when someone like me comes along and says, “You can really acknowledge how hideously bad things are and at the same time create beauty or walk a spiritual path or recite poetry or immerse yourself in joy and play from time to time,” the chronically angry or despairing person may immediately become more angry at the suggestion (and at me) that there is something for her/him to experience besides anger and despair. Often my comments are erroneously labeled “New Age,” but if only the person making this accusation understood what New Age actually means.
The notion of holding the tension of polar opposites in one’s consciousness is anything but New Age. The philosophy of life which has come to be labeled New Age originated in the Transcendentalist movements of the late-nineteenth century. Some of the purveyors of this perspective were Mary Baker Eddy, Ernest Holmes, Emmanuel Swedenborg, Alice Bailey, and others. To their credit, all of these individuals departed dramatically from Judeo-Christian theology and the notion of a vengeful God of judgment and eternal damnation. However, they chose to embrace instead, a perspective of living only in the “light.” One of the hallmarks of a truly New Age perspective is the notion that goodness and “light” are true realities, and evil and “darkness” are illusions. Thus an authentically New Age person would deny the reality of the collapse of industrial civilization and name the concept as “error” or “negative thinking,” essentially denying its validity. Additionally, a genuinely New Age perspective assumes that anger is a “bad” emotion which one should not feel, but rather that “love and harmony” should replace feeling angry. He or she would never, ever assert that, for example, anger and joy or anger and compassion can be held together in one’s consciousness—polar opposites residing in one psyche and one body.
As my friend the mythologist Michael Meade says, the most distressing problem with the New Age is that it has disregarded ancient wisdom. Not only did it reject Judeo-Christian theology, but it overwhelmingly ignored the wisdom of indigenous, earth-based spirituality which for thousands of years has realized the necessity of acknowledging both the darkness and the light as equally real and equally present in human consciousness.
Thus, it is important to be cautious about how one uses the term, “New Age” because if a particular person or group reverences ancient wisdom and respects both darkness and light, then attribution of the term “New Age” is not accurate. Why have I chosen to elaborate on this point? Because often labels such as “New Age,” “air-fairy,” “touchy-feely,” or other terms do not arise as a result of reasoned investigation but often as a result of anger or resentment. And this is yet another reason for addressing them.
Cynicism is closely related to resentment. One definition of a cynic is: “a person who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions and who disbelieves in or minimizes selfless acts or disinterested points of view.” In other words, compassion or selflessness do not exist. Every human being is looking out for his/her own interests, period. If one truly embraces this perspective, then one must admit to one’s on narcissism, and for the most part, that makes living with oneself quite challenging and meaningful relationships with other human beings next to impossible.
In ancient times, the cynics were a members of a Greek sect who championed self-control above all other virtues and sought to free themselves as much as possible from social control and the influence of public opinion. The word cynic at its root was related to the word dog, not only because of the cynic’s sneering sarcasm, but because it was said that the cynic was like a dog gnawing on the same bone incessantly until the bone had been consumed.
When I encounter cynical, resentful, angry people, I have to wonder where they would be without their cynicism/resentment/anger. What exactly is it doing for them? The fallacy they often cherish is that these emotions will serve and protect them in the throes of collapse, and there is a grain of truth in this assumption, but unless their bone-gnawing proclivities are tempered with grief, joy, beauty, gratitude, compassion, generosity, and humor, their survival is in fact, untenable.
Not surprisingly, some people react negatively to the notion of emotional and spiritual preparation for collapse. Given the betrayal and wounding many of us have suffered from religious or spiritual groups or from mental health professionals, this response is natural. Sometimes people have experienced such overwhelming, incomprehensible levels of betrayal that their ability to trust anything that might inspire or nurture their spirit is immediately scorned and the source of these viciously attacked.
Some individuals seem to have developed a fine-tuned combative radar apparatus in anticipation of any mention of emotional or spiritual preparation for collapse and are hyper-vigilantly predisposed to attacking the entire notion as delusional. Others are so heartbroken over humanity’s behavior which has brought us to this juncture in history that they admit feeling caustic rage toward their own species. I thoroughly appreciate how one might arrive at this level of contempt for humanity. Yet once again, this perspective represents one end of a polar opposite and does not reveal the entire spectrum of humanity’s constitution.
To detest all of humanity is obviously to detest oneself, and I do not believe I am exaggerating when I state that this perspective is a suicidal one. Moreover, it is a masochistic orientation to life in which one has determined that one does not deserve one shred of joy, beauty, peace, love, or well being because one is a member of that despicable species called homo sapiens, and one should only suffer as a result. With this dynamic, no amount of mea culpas is enough, and there is probably no chain saw on earth capable of cutting through this level of rage and despair. Nevertheless, we can be certain that beneath it lie inconsolable rivers of grief.
Many individuals who minimize or overtly deplore the notion of emotional and spiritual preparation for collapse do so for a variety of reasons, and anger is but one of those. If one is committed to ending one’s life, from my perspective that is tragic, but in the larger picture, who can know with certainty what is best for that individual even though I personally would not wish for their demise? What many collapse-aware individuals who do want to live have not yet come to understand is the degree to which their survival depends on feeling the feelings that the end of life as they have known it entails. As Jack Adam Weber states in his brilliant article “Radical Embrace: Breaking The Cycle Of An Unfertile Demise”:
This is not hippie talk; it is cutting edge survival strategy.
Resilience in the face of collapse is a skill that must be developed, but it cannot be if our anger occupies such an enormous space in the psyche that the benefits of feeling, making sense of, and sharing our feelings have no space to inhabit the psyche or body. What are those benefits? Wisdom, discernment, compassion, letting go, clarity, generosity, patience, loyalty, balance, and joy—to name only a few.
Questioning, distrust, skepticism, and remaining uncertain about a particular idea is a healthy, discerning response for refugees escaping the tyranny of industrial civilization. Yet at the same time we distrust, we need to inwardly explore the origins of our distrust—and what it feels like. What emotions does the new idea evoke? What incidents in our personal or family history may have served to engender the distrust in relation to this idea? And most importantly, what is the grief, underlying our skepticism? Ultimately, what is the most useful investment of one’s time and energy: attacking an idea and the person promoting it or investigating what dynamics within one’s own psyche are operating in reaction to the idea? Ah, but this, as Jack Weber names it is “Occupying Oneself,” and that, as you may have discovered, is the most formidable space on earth.
Anger is useful only if it works for us. When it works against us by keeping our minds and hearts sealed off from other emotions, then not only is it not enough, but it becomes profoundly toxic.
So back to our friend Nietzsche again, who was way more touchy-feely than we may have thought:
And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh.
Part 3: What Collapse Feels Like: Resilience Begins With The Heart: All Roads Lead To Grief
According to the Johns Hopkins Medicine website, “CHF [congestive heart failure] occurs most frequently in those over age 60 and is the leading cause of hospitalization and death in that age group. In over 50 percent of cases, sudden death occurs due to a cardiac arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat. Unfortunately, anti-arrhythmic medications may not be effective in controlling arrhythmias caused by CHF.”
Overwhelmingly, civilized people have congested hearts. Whether speaking physiologically or metaphorically, this ailment is rampant in industrial societies where conscious, intentional, unrestrained grieving is virtually unheard of and where “bereavement leave” and other arbitrary parameters around loss dictate that we are only allowed a ridiculously brief time for grieving, if any time is allowed at all.
I have written much about grief over the past few years, but as I develop this series of articles on “What Collapse Feels Like,” I am newly-inspired and incisively aware of the urgency with which our predicament has foisted itself on the human heart. It is asking, no make that demanding, that we evacuate the “cereb-esphere” and descend, both literally and symbolically, into the region of the heart because our profound rejection of its territory has brought us to exactly where we are in this moment.
The Safety Of The Cereb-Esphere
For the first half of my life, I navigated the world through the intellect. Education had liberated me from a stultifying, abusive childhood where Calvinistic, fundamentalist Christianity proclaimed that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” and indeed for my parents who were committed to keeping a naturally curious, vivacious child in check, it absolutely was. In grammar school I had superb teachers who instilled in me a passion for writing, reading, and history. In college I reveled in more history, philosophy, and psychology. I abhorred the “irrational” as reminiscent of the anti-intellectual, blind-faith milieu in which I was raised. Yet in my own way, I embraced a trajectory that was as rigid and intransigent as the ideology of my parents. Within that sealed chamber of intellect, the mystery, uncertainty, and inexplicable vicissitudes of the human condition could not survive without being torn to pieces by reason.
In my early forties, my life fell apart, and I found myself in Jungian therapy. I soon attempted to read and comprehend everything Jung had written, but I realized that I could not metabolize his wisdom through the intellect alone. Jung’s perspective is one that utilizes what he called the Four Functions: Thinking, Feeling, Sensing, and Intuiting. I soon discovered that my wounded psyche could not be made whole through reason alone and that reading the words of Jung is no substitute for experiencing a descent into the inner world where healing and transformation await our willingness to explore the depths of the soul. Through a lengthy process of enduring and witnessing the unraveling and demise of my own psyche, I reclaimed many parts of myself that had been sent away in order to survive—the very best aspects of me that generated my creativity, my passion for life, and my capacity to love and be loved. The price for such reclamation: a willingness to feel both the wrenching anguish and the unspeakable joy of my humanity.
In a sense, I lived through a personal collapse—a collapse of an inner empire that served only to oppress me and all who attempted to join their souls with me in loving and living. Perhaps this is why I write so freely about collapse. I have survived many, and I not only know that it is possible to do so, but I know in every cell of my body the incalculable mystery, yes miracle, of surrendering to a collapse, slogging through its misery, then suddenly realizing that one has survived and was not annihilated by it.
None of this is for the faint of heart, which is why remaining in the cereb-esphere is so tempting. Talking about the collapse of industrial civilization, reading articles, watching documentaries, and debating issues such as: when it will happen, how long it will take, the best locations suited for surviving it, and how much food, guns, and ammo to acquire—all of this, in my opinion and my experience, is supremely soul-stifling mental masturbation that misses the entire point of the momentous, unprecedented, species-altering phenomenon into which we have already descended. And yet, so many of us are willing to remain in this nether-world of collapse consciousness in order to spare ourselves the agony of feeling our emotions about the fact that our species is murdering and may succeed in annihilating this planet.
We love to speak of resilience—as long as it allows us to remain ensconsed in our cereb-esphere outposts. And if we allow ourselves to feel anything, those other emotions like fear, anger, and despair are permissible, but grief? Not so much.
As I interact with other collapse-aware individuals around the civilized world, I am consistently astonished at how forbidden the emotion of grief has become for us. Somehow when we feel our grief, we feel more vulnerable than when allowing any other emotion. Our personal and cultural histories are teeming with anti-grief messages that have convinced us that if we feel our grief: we will die; we will be too vulnerable; it means we are being wussy when we need to be strong; there’s no point in feeling it because it doesn’t change anything; if we start feeling it we will never stop, and then we’ll become incapacitated and on and on ad infinitum.
Since most of us born into industrial civilization are living with personal and cultural trauma, it makes sense that our defenses around feeling grief are so robust. After all, when you live in a war zone or have survived one, it’s much easier to become a bad ass than to allow a lump in the throat to dissolve into a river of tears that feels eternally inconsolable and ultimately feels like it’s dissolving you. We have so little support and safety, both of which are necessary for feeling the depths of our grief, that it’s much easier to suppress it under mega-layers of reason, anger, anxiety, or other emotions and distractions because actually feeling our grief seems life-threatening. All the while, grief is congesting our hearts and doing its multi-faceted, subterranean work creating symptoms in the body.
Heartbreak Heals And Fosters Resilience
We say that we want to become resilient, but we continue to shut off the heart as if resilience is something that gets engineered in the head. In fact, if resilience doesn’t begin with the heart, we can never become authentically resilient.
If we are not first heartbroken by what is happening to our planet, the earth community, the people we love, and ourselves, all other forms of preparation for our daunting future are quite simply, incidental. The collapse of industrial civilization will result in unimaginable loss of life, and those who survive will either become bigger people, or they will be emotionally and spiritually decimated. The heart, not the head, determines the outcome of that reality.
So how do we become bigger people now, not in the throes of horror? How do we allow grief in our bodies in a milieu that counters every attempt to do so?
First, we need to understand that grief is already present within us and all around us. All we need to do is open to it. However, we need to consciously attend to our grief and create the conditions necessary for feeling it safely and thoroughly. One useful possibility is spending solitary time in nature in which we open to grief. In a natural setting, we need only look around us to see what will not be there in another fifty to one hundred years. How do we feel about that? The trees, streams, birds, animals, soil, and natural healing beauty of such a place—gone, and gone forever. A back leaned against a tree, the belly of a face-down body lying on the earth—conduits to and for our tears. Let them come. Honor and bless them because they are sacred solutions designed to cleanse the wounds of civilization.
It may also be heart-meltingly useful to look deeply into the eyes of an animal. Commune with some wizened animal being. Let the animal heart in you be touched by the animal heart in it. After all, why do so many war veterans with PTSD and people in stifling, stultifying literal and symbolic prisons of both concrete and trauma, begin to reclaim parts of themselves when they have intimate contact with an animal?
Create with your grief even as you commune with it. Express it in art, music, dance, storytelling, and ritual. Contrary to the model of industrial civilization, grief has never been and never will be “private.” In indigenous and ancient cultures, grief was a community issue, and people understood that the processing of accumulated sorrows was necessary for the tribe. They viewed grief as a toxin that is meant to be regularly emptied out because if it isn’t, collective grief harms the community whereas grief openly expressed heals the community and provides food for the ancestors.
Can you let your heart be broken by madness over which you have no control? Andrew Harvey says that the only heart worth having is a broken one. Why? Because as Joanna Macy notes, “The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe.” That’s called “becoming a bigger person.” If the heart is not softened, it becomes hardened which only perpetuates the paradigm of civilization and guarantees that whatever “next” culture humans might create will be a retread of this one.
Part 4: What Collapse Feels Like: Despair: Every Hour Offers A Choice
Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.
Similar to our siblings in the animal kingdom, we humans react instinctively to stimuli that we perceive as threatening. The heartbeat speeds up, blood pressure elevates, muscles contract, and we are poised for fight or flight. If we are bombarded with this kind of stimuli repeatedly over time, such recurring stress pummels the nervous system, and we are usually worn down into depression, despair, or both. While our physiology is similar to that of other animals, our nervous systems are more sophisticated, and in spite of the plethora of ways in which we have reprehensibly applied it, we do possess more complex consciousness than other mammals. While other life forms experience despair as unequivocally as humans do, in most cases, humans have the capacity to choose how they will manage despair, and other living beings do not.
But what is despair? Most dictionary definitions offer “the loss of hope” as the ultimate answer to this question. As I have written many times in many places, “hope” is one of the most seductive and loathsome soporifics of modern culture. In a majority of instances, hope is the last holdout of the human ego which says, “Oh, I don’t have to stare reality fully in the face. I can hold onto ‘hope’.” Clinging to hope is indicative of abdicating agency and is often one of the most perilous bulwarks of the denial infrastructure.
Why We Need Despair
However, when we consider issues such as the collapse of industrial civilization or Near-Term extinction resulting from catastrophic climate change—our role in it and how we might want to respond it, the first order of business is that we lose all hope. In the context of collapse, hope is personified in things like the notion of technology as our ultimate savior, shale oil as the antidote for peak oil, Bill McKibben as the answer to climate change, Barack Obama as Messiah (with “The Audacity of Hope” in tow), the agenda of Progressive Democratic politics as a feasible alternative to Tea Party politics, and geo-engineering as a panacea for global warming. If we prefer to keep one foot in Disneyland denial, then any or all of these are an option. If, however, we are committed to facing and telling the unmitigated truth of our predicament, then all hope must be eviscerated and as quickly as possible. Hope serves to prevent our descent into the only state of mind that offers any possibility of making sense of our predicament, namely despair.
Notice that I am purposefully reviling the word “hope.” Hope, that ‘waiting for Santa Claus’ chimera of the subservient subjects of industrial civilization, is, however, very different from “options,” “responses,” or “resilience.” The latter result not from civilization’s refusal to come to terms with a tragic sense of life, namely, that all things have a beginning, middle, and end. Rather authentic options, responses, and resilience embrace the tragic sense of life alongsideutter hopelessness.
When we engage in exercising options, considering possible responses, and creating for ourselves and our communities a state of resilience, we are doing something besides allowing despair to kill us on a variety of levels. We clearly understand that longevity is not the ultimate objective. Our bodies are guaranteed to die, but choosing to develop resilience is choosing not to die just yet. And why would we want to do that? Because despite how it feels, despite the suffocating, cloying blackness of despair, some part of us knows that there is some possibility of meaning in it. In that regard, we are not alone; we stand alongside millions of other human beings throughout history who have written, spoken, composed songs, and made all manner of art—and meaning, in the face of their despair.
So if you want to insist that life is meaningless, which by the way even Nietzsche did not believe, you probably should stop reading right here. If you want me to convince you that life isn’t meaningless, well, I can’t do that, nor do I want to. It’s really none of my business, but if you have some inkling that it’s possible to find/make meaning in the throes of despair and that doing so matters in any way, you may want to continue reading.
My ultimate heroes and she-roes are the men and women who survived the holocaust and were able to write about their experiences afterward. One of those is Victor Frankl who gave us a treasure-trove of insight and inspiration as a result of his hellish ordeal. For Frankl it was all about discovering the rich and wrenching textures of his inner life. In fact, he considered “the intensification of inner life” to be one of the principal gifts in the nightmare he endured.
All human beings are victimized at some time or countless times in their lives. Repeated victimization carries with it not only the emotional pain of the victimizing experience but conditions the nervous system and psyche to expect and become tragically familiar, even comfortable with, being victimized. Over time, people can develop a victim consciousness in which they may become incapable of discerning their personal adult responsibility, that is to say, “one’s part” in a particular situation. Or conversely, one can become so enculturated in victimhood that one begins to despise humanity in general and one’s own humanity in particular. Despair and victim consciousness often travel together, and it takes a great deal of self-love and commitment to one’s own inherent value to avoid the pitfalls of self-loathing and humanity-hating vitriol. If one intends to weather the storms of planetary demise, this perspective will not serve. Nor will the commitment to meaninglessness as one’s “true north.” Says Frankl, reflecting on his Auschwitz experience, “Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost.”
What will serve (which is not synonymous with staying alive) is a commitment to finding/making meaning in one’s predicament.
Victor Frankl repeatedly emphasized our capacity to choose how we want to meet suffering. Specifically, he wrote:
Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.
Frankl recognized suffering as an “essential piece not only of existence but of the meaningful life.” If there is meaning in life at all, he wrote, “then there must be meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.”
As you know, dear reader, industrial civilization does not prepare us for adopting this perspective. It fosters Victim-Tyrant relationships and constantly sends us beautifully engraved invitations to claim one or both roles, and sometimes we find ourselves alternating roles from moment to moment. But real suffering—the kind produced in holocausts, the collapse of empires, and extinction events compels the people weathering those to choose whether or not they will find meaning in their suffering or not. Or as Frankl writes: “Everywhere man is confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through his own suffering.” The “something” that we have a chance of achieving is to be found in whatever “something” we choose to live for. Frankl tells us that in the camp, the people who were the most resilient were those who found some very small thing to live for each day. And yes, it was our friend Nietzsche who said, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”
But in fact, according to Frankl, the years in Auschwitz taught him something more fundamental than the meaning of life:
What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves, and furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
As I sit with the possibility of Near-Term Extinction (NTE) and Frankl’s words, I am driven to fall on my knees and make a conscious, heartfelt amends to the earth community—not once but many times. I prefer this practice to berating and beating up myself and my fellow earthlings for our multitude of sins against Gaia. If this feels like an absurdly useless activity to you, ask yourself if generalized contempt for the human race is any more useful.
Yes, our species has collectively participated in murdering the planet, but that is not all of who we are. According to Frankl, “Is it surprising that in those depths we again found only human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil? The rift dividing good from evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths and becomes apparent even on the bottom of the abyss which is laid open by the concentration camp.” Indeed there is a Goldman Sachs CEO and a greedy fracker in all of us. Until we accept that, we are still ingesting “hopium” into our veins. There is also within us a Beethoven, a Van Gogh, a Joan of Arc, and a Helen Keller.
To embrace unbridled nihilism or eschew those who speak of creating joy, beauty, humor, and moments of caring community is to enlist in the armies of the high priests of religious fundamentalism who flagellate themselves with whips of caustic cynicism and grandiose self-censure. If you think I’m talking about “feeling good” or “being happy,” you’re absolutely not hearing me. None of this is about being happy in hell, but it is all about working to keep one’s heart open in hell.
Anyone committed to nihilism and reveling in cynicism has not done the work explained in the last segment of this series of articles on “What Collapse Feels Like,” entitled “All Roads Lead To Grief.” In fact, grief work is one of many tools for living with and through our despair.
While none of us welcomes despair and most of us seek to dispel it as quickly as possible, let us learn from people like Frankl and his death camp peers. I believe that on the one hand, we need to open to being taught by our despair and at the same time, we must alleviate it by taking action. Edward Abbey declared that action is an antidote to despair. Indeed, let us take action, but at the same time understand that the horrific experiences of Frankl and others are sublime “teachers” bearing “lesson plans” for exquisitely facilitating our wholeness and spiritual evolution.
Are we willing to be taught by our despair? Taught what exactly? From Frankl’s perspective, not so much what the meaning of one’s life is, but who is asking the question. “In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
Two things sustained Frankl and tens of thousands of others in death camps: Love and humor. Love expands far beyond the physical being of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in the inner self of the other, whether or not that person is actually present, or even if that person is not alive at all.
Frankl’s love for his wife gave him an invaluable sense of meaning:
We were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces. I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. “Et lux in tenebris lucet” — and the light shineth in the darkness. For hours I stood hacking at the icy ground. The guard passed by, insulting me, and once again I communed with my beloved. More and more I felt that she was present, that she was with me; I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch out my hand and grasp hers. The feeling was very strong: she was there. Then, at that very moment, a bird flew down silently and perched just in front of me, on the heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch, and looked steadily at me.
Most people reading this article are not living with hardship even remotely approaching the hell of Auschwitz which Frankl describes. Yet we live daily in the emotional and spiritual hell of empire and the concentration camp of Near-Term Extinction where, as Guy McPherson writes, “Only Love Remains”:
The privilege to be here, on this life-giving planet at this astonishing time in human history, is sufficient to inspire awe in the most uncaring of individuals. At this late juncture in the age of industry, at the dawn of our day on Earth, we still have love: love for each other, love for our children and grandchildren, love for nature. One could argue it is all we have left.
Frankl speaks of humor as “another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation” because it allows us to rise above any situation if only for a few seconds.
Indeed it is possible, according to Frankl, to practice the art of living in a concentration camp even though suffering is omnipresent. In his poem, “Peace Of The Wild Things,” Wendell Berry famously reminds us of the most profound antidote to despair, intimate connection with nature:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
What does it mean to “come into the presence” of these members of the earth community? I believe that it means developing an intimate relationship with them by allowing ourselves to feel them, listen to them, witness them, smell, taste, and touch them. I also believe, as Berry assures us in the last line of the poem, that in moments when we experience this level of intimacy with these beings, it is impossible to be engulfed in despair.
Die Before You Die
An adage attributed to Mohammed and also to the mystical poet, Rumi, “die before you die,” is an essential perspective for the human species that is most likely living in a hospice situation at this moment as we confront catastrophic climate change and the horrifying repercussions of the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011. All resistance to facing the deepest truths of our predicament results from an unwillingness to grapple with our own mortality. Modern humanity refuses to confront the likelihood of Near-Term Extinction (NTE) produced by human-produced climate change. More recently, humanity cannot bear to own the frightening realities of Fukushima and what that tragedy ultimately means for the termination of life on this planet.
Nearly all non-industrial cultures in the world, and many industrial ones, are willing to deal with death. Overwhelmingly, this culture is not. Yet I notice that when people are able to do so, their capacity for confronting the larger issues of our predicament is expanded. In my work with groups and individuals, I sometimes invite people to participate in a “die before you die” exercise in which I slowly and carefully accompany them through the fantasy of their own death. The experience is profound on many levels, and without exception, I have never witnessed a person who after the exercise was not more capable of addressing the myriad catastrophes confronting the earth community. In fact, what people essentially report is that after they have consciously pondered their own demise, they feel freed up to mindfully deal with what is. At the conclusion of a “die before you die” experience, one man said, “I’ve deeply confronted what my own death might be like, and after that, I can talk about anything because in full awakeness I have confronted the worst that can happen.”
Many Buddhist monastic communities practice contemplation of dead or decaying bodies. The purpose of the practice is to instill a profound consciousness of one’s own mortality and allow that awareness to inform how we live our lives. Absent a deep awareness of death, we are less likely to make sense of our lives, nor are we likely to offer love and service to other beings. Buddha suggested that we think of death with every breath and that contemplating a dead body teaches us that when we look at another person, we are seeing only externals and that the essential person is eternal and beneath the outward appearance.
The principal task of anyone residing in hospice is preparation for death, and paradoxically, that may include living more fully, mindfully, and generously than one has ever lived before. It often means savoring every human connection and every physical sensation with more awareness and appreciation than one has ever experienced in one’s life. Living in hospice means that because we are so attuned to where we’re headed, so poignantly conscious of our ultimate fate, we cherish every experience on a cellular level and take nothing for granted. Often in hospice, people discover the full spectrum of their aliveness for the first time.
Few human beings understand how deeply the fear of death runs in us. On the one hand, we live in a culture that refuses to deal with death, but at the same time, for the human ego, anything that does not allow it to remain in control of life, directly or indirectly represents the threat of death. The losses of our lives, from the most frivolous to the most momentous stir in us a fear of death because with each one, the ego diminishes a bit. Thus, in order to actually discuss and consciously prepare for one’s own literal death, the ego is required to surrender more territory than it prefers. For this reason, spiritual practices that teach us how to surrender or temper the ego in deference to the deeper or sacred self are profoundly useful in emboldening us to confront our mortality.
In addition, allowing ourselves to balance our left-brain tendencies with what our hearts and emotions naturally seek in times of both ego and literal death is crucial. Now is the time for reading and writing poetry, speaking it to another person, composing and sharing music, creating works of art, dancing, drumming, cooking a nourishing meal for a friend, and engaging in all manner of ritual, whether spiritually-based or rituals of our daily routine that we savor with unprecedented gratitude.
Thus, as we confront catastrophic climate change and planetary game-changers such as the ever-widening implications of the Fukushima disaster, it is increasingly likely that humanity is already inhabiting hospice. As tempting as it may be to leap into the left brain and begin arguing that we are not inhabiting hospice and that the notion is absurd, it may actually be more useful to notice the potential benefits of imagining such a scenario.
While hospice may be a place of profound grief and mourning of losses and missed opportunities, it may also be the context for plumbing the depths of one’s own soul as well as discovering for the first time one’s full capacity for generosity, giving, and service to others. Hospice patients often report an enhanced quality of relationships, an unprecedented savoring of even the most mundane experiences, a previously-unimagined depth of love, the capacity to appreciate humor in the face of their demise, and an aura of gratitude unlike any they have ever known. In other words, hospice may be, not unlike Frankl’s description of his time in Auschwitz, a convergence of both heaven and hell in the same moment—an energy field in which abject suffering and ineffable joy co-exist and illuminate the innermost regions of our humanity. Perhaps the poet Rumi asked the most compelling question: “What have I ever lost by dying?”
Beyond and beneath all layers of anger, fear, and despair lies grief. All roads lead there, and until we embrace it, we can only talk about resilience from the cereb-esphere in a culture of congested hearts.
Part 5: What Collapse Feels Like: Hijacking Joy: The Civilized Cerebesphere And New Age Nausea
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 wroteThink 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.
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.