An excerpt from Love In The Age of Ecological Apocalypse
In Greek mythology, Eros was the son of Aphrodite, goddess of romance and passion. His divine task was to initiate the bonds of love between gods and between mortals, often doing so illicitly. Eros, of course, was hardly all work and no play, and at one point, he himself fell in love with Psyche. However, Eros had the curse of having an intensely jealous mother, Aphrodite, who resented Psyche’s beauty and commanded Eros to cause Psyche to fall in love with the ugliest creature on earth. Eros would have none of this and took Psyche to his own home where both of them believed they would live happily ever after.
Soon enough, Psyche’s three jealous sisters arrived and tricked her into betraying the trust of Eros. Deeply hurt by Psyche’s betrayal, Eros left her, and Psyche began wandering the earth in search of him. Eventually, she encountered Aphrodite and asked her for help. The treacherous mother of Eros assigned Psyche three gargantuan, seemingly impossible tasks which Psyche fulfilled with the help of divine intervention. Ultimately, she and Eros were reunited and lived together in peace, later conceiving a daughter Voluptas, meaning pleasure or bliss.
While I could devote this chapter to a purely symbolic interpretation of the Psyche and Eros myth, what feels more relevant, and indeed urgent, is an understanding of how we apply the principle of Eros in our lives and relationships in the Last Emergency. In the story of Psyche and Eros, although he is male, Eros symbolizes the feminine principle of relatedness. Unfortunately, in contemporary culture, Eros has become synonymous only with sexual attraction and sexual pleasure. As we noted in the introduction of this book, Eros represents but one aspect of love depicted in Greek mythology in contrast with Philo and Agape.
Wikipedia’s page on the concept of Eros states: “In essence, Jung’s concept of Eros is not dissimilar to the Platonic one. Eros is ultimately the desire for wholeness, and although it may initially take the form of passionate love, it is more truly a desire for ‘psychic relatedness’, a desire for interconnection and interaction with other sentient beings.” Indeed, that is the manner in which I use the terms Eros and erotic. In other words, our longing for wholeness within ourselves and our desire for connection with the other is Eros writ large on the soul.
For the ancient Greeks, Logos represented the masculine principle of reason versus the feminine principle of Eros. Sophia, goddess of wisdom, and Eros were eternal companions in Greek mythology, and the supreme expression of Eros was not human sexuality but rather, it was believed that Eros penetrated the body and heart with both sensuality and suffering in order to prepare Psyche for Sophia. Thus Eros, Psyche, and Sophia are connected because as the individual allows him/herself to experience the delights, as well as the distress of these three archetypes, wisdom matures within that individual.
Eros also encompasses the physical and emotional aspects of relatedness. For example, on a balmy summer night, you may exit your house and enter a sensuous, nocturnal ambience. You inhale a particular quality of air that may differ from the air of mid-day. The ground is soft, and you may opt to remove your shoes and walk barefoot in the moist grass, allowing the feet to be caressed by the soggy soil. Meanwhile, the fragrance of flowers, herbs, and the earth itself become hypnotic. Frogs, crickets, and even some species of birds may be audible, invoking particular body sensations and memories. You may become enchanted by this carnival of sensory delights and succumb to a delicious reverie that surpasses the mundane monotony of interacting with a computer screen or the toil of an afternoon of housecleaning. Eros is lurking, offering you a delicious opportunity to indulge in the emotional and physical ecstasy this moment affords.
On another day, friends come to the door with flowers and food in response to the dinner invitation you have extended. Family members sit around the table and allow themselves to become immersed in the joy of extraordinary cuisine and conviviality. The wine, the food, the camaraderie, and the caring are palpable. At the end of the day, all of you exchange warm hugs, and everyone departs with an abiding sense of kinship and deep gratitude for such moments of meaningful connection. Once again, Eros is present, orchestrating relatedness and all of the emotions that accompany the experience of it.
All of this is lovely, you say, but what about the role of Eros in the darker moments of the Last Emergency? As our lives become more stressed and perhaps more about survival from moment to moment, how do we allow Eros to bathe us in sensuality and pleasure? How do we create and deeply savor moments of kinship in the turmoil of keeping ourselves safe and fed? After all, when we are in a state of fight, flight, or freeze, our principal concern is staying alive, and as adrenalin surges through the body, it is nearly physiologically and psychologically impossible to access Eros.
Allowing Eros in our hearts and bodies probably will not happen in the midst of traumatic or life-threatening situations. However, as soon as possible after the emergency passes, the body and psyche need the comfort and healing salve of Eros. It is normal and salutary to seek soothing, comfort, and pleasure after a stressful event. Consider that soldiers immersed in combat situations which create Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) frequently commit sexually violent acts or indulge in casual sex after life-threatening engagements with the enemy. People who have developed an ongoing, conscious relationship with Eros understand that they can express and experience erotic energy in myriad ways. Without this awareness, the natural hunger for Eros following a traumatic situation is often acted out sexually as if sexuality were the only option for experiencing Eros. Moreover, when a human psyche is flooded with trauma and emotions such as rage, terror, and grief, sexual behavior is often attended by violence so that Eros becomes not an ally of pleasure and comfort, but yet another weapon used to inflict trauma on other human beings and oneself.
We all need to discern the difference between sexual and non-sexual experiences of Eros so that we may soothe ourselves and be soothed by others without confusing soothing and sexuality. The more we can give and receive nurturing and non-sexual pleasure, the less baggage we are likely to carry into our sexual relationships.
Whatever relationship we have with Eros in the Last Emergency, it will be stifled or nurtured by the relationship with have with Eros in present time. If we have lived only in our heads in preparation for collapse, we are likely to attempt to remain there as the unraveling intensifies. However, if we have befriended Eros and allowed ourselves to bathe in his salutary, restorative magic, we will find it increasingly difficult to abide exclusively in the “cereb-esphere.” Heart and soul will compel us to widen our experience to touch, taste, smell, hear, see, and feel those aspects of life that reconnect us because, in fact, that is the work of Eros, the lover of Psyche.
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.
Outside The Prison of Intellect
I do not wish to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Today, I love thinking and reasoning as much as I did in my twenties and thirties, but I have come to know their limits and lethal consequences if I lock myself in their prison and throw away the key. Outside such incarceration is a world that feeds other aspects of me without which I now know I cannot live.
In recent years I have been eminently inspired by the work of mathematical cosmologist, Brian Swimme, professor of Evolutionary Cosmology at the California Institute of Integral Studies and Director of The Center For The Story Of The Universe.37 Working closely with the late Thomas Berry and Berry’s assistant, Mary Evelyn Tucker, Swimme writes and teaches what is sometimes referred to as “the New Cosmology,” in which science and spirituality are intertwined and both the heart and mind are engaged. American astrophysicist, Eric Chaisson, describes Swimme as a mathematician by training, who seeks a larger, warmer, more noble science story. “Our story,” says Chaisson, “is not merely a collection of facts; science should be a student’s guide to a grand world view, including, if possible, meaning, purpose and value.”38
For Swimme, humanity stands on the threshold of destroying the planet because humans have not understood that they are the instruments of conscious self-awareness, in other words, the means by which the universe is consciously aware of itself. This, above all else, is our authentic identity as humans. To that end, in 2004 Swimme produced a video lecture series entitled “The Powers Of The Universe,” in which he articulates ten fundamental functions of the universe and explains how our species can and must partner with and participate in those powers in order to restore the integrity of our planet and transform our own consciousness.
In a later chapter, The Powers of The Universe will be further explored, but at this juncture, let us consider one of them which is, in fact, the essence of Eros, namely, the power of allurement.
During the past 13 billion years, humanity has become an enormous presence on earth as if it were an envelope surrounding the planet. All other species are now influenced by humanity, and humanity is literally determining the genome of the earth community. We affect how the rest of the planet survives—or not. The one notion that not only envelopes but suffocates the planet is that of industrial growth which inherently fosters the perspective of the earth as a resource rather than a relationship that we must cultivate. Humanity is now being challenged to replace the resource concept with a deeply emotional experience of the earth as a being with which we are related.
The power of allurement is inherent not only within us, but within the universe itself, most obviously, of course, in the gravitational force that holds the universe together. While gravitation is a physical force, Swimme notes that allurement expresses itself in other forms of “gravity” between humans and the earth. For example, says Swimme, “The beauty of the universe allures us, and we become captivated by something that shapes our lives. We don’t know why, but we respond to this deep, powerful draw.” Industrial civilization has endeavored to erase allurement by destroying our sense of being captivated by the universe and does so through the notion of the natural world as a resource.
Yet allurement is an extraordinarily powerful force both in the universe and in the human psyche, as anyone knows who has ever fallen in love. Our allurement to the natural world is inherent, and while it may seem as if it has been socialized out of us, if we can allow ourselves to reconnect with and open to it, we are likely to experience the same quality of intimacy with it that we might experience with another human.
From the perspective of allurement, Swimme asserts, “We are an industrial envelope drawing the earth in and destroying it as well. By releasing ourselves into allurement, however, we will move into a pursuit of beauty instead.” Thus we stop commodifying the earth and begin communing with it.
Driven Out Of Our Minds By Beauty
Since its publication in 2004, I have been enthralled with John O’Donohue’s extraordinary book, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace. Time and again I return to the dog-eared and heavily highlighted pages of my copy of the book for comfort, inspiration, and creative stimulation, particularly as the Last Emergency produces a world that is woefully less than beautiful.
Whether it be the rotting, gray carcasses of bleak, boarded up city blocks of abandoned store fronts; suburban cul de sacs consisting of vacant, foreclosed homes; countless crumbling bridges and pot-hole-pocked roads; tasteless, thoughtlessly-constructed high rises; irredeemably scarred mountaintops; or charred forests ravaged by the worst infernos in recent memory, the landscape of our planet is becoming increasingly dull, drab, and downright dismal.
But not only our landscape lacks luster in this time of daunting and depressing changes. So does the soul of our nation and our communities. Economic downturn, an epidemic of senseless violence, resource depletion, extreme weather, media marinated in consumeristic blather, and a pervasive sense of loss that signals an inexorable departure of meaning, creativity, inspiration, and compassion from the modern world—all of this leaves us so hungry for beauty that we do not even recognize our longing. And then from time to time, we hear a note or see a color or read a poem that stirs the ache in the soul for beauty. Perhaps we immediately quash the impulse because we feel too busy, too tired, too burdened, too despairing, or too fearful that if we surrender to it, we will be forced to confront the vapid grayness of the lack of beauty in our lives. Or perhaps we follow what is stirred by a glimpse of beauty, and we allow ourselves to indulge, even revel in the body sensations and soul restoration that bathe us for a time in our humanity and shine an inextinguishable light in the darkness of our time.
In such moments we rediscover on a cellular level what Piero Ferrucci, author of Beauty And The Soul declares near the beginning of his book: Beauty is the affirmation of life. What is more, beauty grounds us in life and in the body. “The more we can perceive beauty in our surroundings,” says Ferucci, “and also inside us, the more we will feel at home and glad to exist.” (p.5) In fact, he points to a Swedish study of 12,000 people which indicated that “those who go more often to the theater, movies, to concerts and exhibitions, have a greater chance of longevity.” In other words, beauty increases the will to live.
What is more, beauty has the capacity to “drive us out of our minds,” in the sense that it woos us away from the cereb-esphere and into the heart and body. For those of us who have come to believe that unless we are thinking, we are “wasting time,” it may be challenging to simply linger with a beautiful sunset, an exquisite painting, or an arresting piece of music. The intellect often reacts to the seductions of beauty by attempting to recapture us. “You have work to do,” it may inwardly shriek as Eros hypnotizes us with extraordinary allurement.
For so many, beauty is seen as a luxury which they cannot afford, but John O’Donohue states in Beauty: The Invisible Embrace:
Beauty is not an extra luxury, an accidental experience that we happen to have if we are lucky. Beauty dwells at the heart of life….To recognize and celebrate beauty is to recognize the ultimate sacredness of experience, to glimpse the subtle embrace of belonging where we are wed to the divine, the beauty of every moment, of every thing. (p.50)
Pierro Ferucci is an Italian psychologist who writes prolifically about the healing power of beauty in his work with emotionally wounded people. In my work as a former psychotherapist, I also witnessed the salutary effects of various forms of beauty in the lives of people who were tormented by depression, despair, and self-loathing. Often when we think of beauty, we erroneously separate it from all that is ugly and broken, yet O’Donohue says:
Beauty is such an attractive and gracious force precisely because it is so close to the fractured side of experience. Beauty is the sister of all that is broken, damaged, stunted, and soiled. She will not be confined in some untouchable realm where she can enjoy a one-sided perfection with no exposure to risk, doubt, and pain. Beauty dwells in the palace of broken tenderness. (p.194)
Beauty emerges, sometimes erupts, from a deeper place in us than the rational mind and the human ego. It is a visitation of the sacred from a place beyond but also within us. Beauty reconnects us with the soul and also with the universe. It mirrors in the external world the treasures of our inner world. Allowing beauty to penetrate the heart naturally results in a love relationship with the beauty we behold. For example, we may see a beautiful lake and want to preserve it because it is beautiful, and this is certainly a noble and heartfelt motivation. However, nothing motivates us like love. That is, when we see the lake not as an entity outside ourselves, that is to say, a resource, but as ourselves—we are likely do whatever it takes, including risking our own lives, to preserve it.
Thus, from the words of Ferucci and O’Donohue, it makes sense that the more we witness the descent of civilization and the decline of our communities, the more we and our world require conscious experiences of beauty. We have already seen that beauty affirms life, but in a declining world, it serves other purposes as well.
Allowing ourselves to bathe in beauty stimulates the imagination. When the imagination is activated, we are able to envision new possibilities. Obviously, we live in a culture that abhors limits of any kind and is wedded to the notion of infinite growth and unimpeded progress. But limits are a fact of life on earth. Often, when we confront limits, we find that we simply need to live with them. However, when the imagination is activated, we awaken to the beauty of our creativity which frequently changes the way we view our limits. As O’Donohue notes, “The beauty of imagination helps you to see the limit as an invitation to venture forth and view the world and your role in it as full of beautiful possibilities.” (p.135)
When tragedy occurs and lives are lost, survivors bring objects of beauty to a wounded place and create beautiful altars and shrines. In Newtown, Connecticut where the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre occurred in December, 2012, the town witnessed a historical outpouring of sacred objects brought to the scene of the tragedy by mourners from far and wide. Newtown has now declared that it will collect all of those mementos and turn them into “sacred soil” for a permanent memorial.
Wounded places cry out for beauty, and activist and author Trebbe Johnson writes of “making beauty for wounded places.” One way of doing this is what she describes as an “Earth Exchange”:39
An Earth Exchange is part ceremony, part social event, part Happening, part nature walk. An Earth Exchange might consist of one person or a hundred, can be planned weeks in advance or occur on the spur of the moment, can last a week or a few minutes. All it takes it going to a damaged place, opening up to what’s there now, and making some beauty of and for this place that has given so much to the people who live among it or love to visit it.
Whatever next culture is created on the ashes of the current one by those who survive its unraveling will evolve not only from the efforts of those who are clear-eyed and clear-headed thinkers but also from the creativity of artists and any others who seize every opportunity to create beauty. In the absence of sophisticated technology, the only music of the future may ultimately be that made by the most primitive, basic instruments in the hands of highly imaginative musicians. The only visual art may be that shaped from the most fundamental elements of nature—branches, leaves, seeds, rocks, hides, and the pigments of plants. The demise of industrial civilization will compel us to redefine beauty and what we have previously deemed “necessary” in order to savor it.
The soul-stirring documentary, “Landfill Harmonic,” reveals the uncanny ingenuity of young people in Paraguay who have created a symphony orchestra from objects of trash. For the most part, their lives are about grinding poverty and little beauty, but they have proven that beauty can be created anywhere under any circumstances.40
Creating beauty is an act of simplicity and service, but most importantly, of love that invites the sacred into the ordinary spaces and times of our lives and facilitates healing and wholeness in an increasingly broken world. Let beauty heal your world and inform your journey of service in an age of decline, and as the poet Rumi writes: Let the beauty you love be what you do.