Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
—“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats
Shortly after the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, we agreed to write this book because we were certain that people who have begun to awaken to the global crisis, those who had been awake to it for years, and even those who were not quite able to own it, let alone metabolize it, would need such a book. As we pondered numerous possibilities for a title, we chose Savage Grace: Living Resiliently in The Dark Night of The Globe because we believe that only unprecedented, savage grace can carry us through this era and that resilience is the absolute crux of how we must respond to the terrifying and daunting events unfolding in our time. The definition of resilience we prefer is: The life-giving ability to shift from a reaction of denial or despair to learning, growing, and thriving in the midst of challenge.
In order to grasp and live resilience, it is imperative that we become, as Jesus said, “wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” Early on in this book, we share excerpts from an article we wrote together shortly after the election entitled, “The Serpent and the Dove: Wisdom for Navigating the Future.” We are embracing living purposefully beyond illusion but also open to possibility even in the midst of what seems hopeless catastrophe.
What we did not quite understand initially was the extent to which we are now living in a post-truth, post-fact society—and the gruesome toll that is taking on all of us emotionally and spiritually. The ultimate danger in living in a post-truth world is that eventually we develop the desire to be lied to. Soon, we encountered an article by psychiatry professor, Ronald Pies, entitled “Alternative Facts: A Psychiatrist’s Guide to Twisted Relationships to Truth”[i] in which the author states that the ultimate danger to us in a post-truth world is that eventually, we develop the desire to be lied to. Similarly, Adam Kirsch wrote in his New York Times article in January, 2017 “Lie to Me,” that, “The problem with our ‘post-truth’ politics is that a large share of the population has moved beyond true and false. They thrill precisely to the falsehood of a statement, because it shows that the speaker has the power to reshape reality in line with their own fantasies of self-righteous beleaguerment. To call novelists liars is naïve, because it mistakes their intention; they never wanted to be believed in the first place. The same is true of demagogues.”[ii]
A crisis of the magnitude we are going through demands the two most difficult things for human beings: Knowing how to negotiate extremely stressful ambiguity at all times while remaining humbly in a state of radical unknowing that is always open to the sometimes overwhelming shifts of an exploding disruption.
The great prophetic poet Milosz, poignantly attuned to the collapse of civilization in our time, wrote:
When gold paint flakes from the arms of the sculptures
When the letter falls out of the book of laws
Then consciousness is naked as an eye.
When the pages of books fall in fiery scraps,
Onto smashed leaves and twisted metal,
The tree of good and evil is stripped bare.[iii]
As individuals who have stepped into the spiritual and cultural role of elder, our commitment is to speak to you with a consciousness as naked as an eye, without any desire to scare or flatter you. Because of that, we are presenting our material in as direct and precise a manner as we can.
However, as elders we know that reality always transcends any concepts that can be made of it, especially in a crisis as vast, volatile, and maddeningly complex and constantly evolving as this one. The concepts and maps we are going to share represent the distillation of our lifetimes of experience; they must be treated not as finally definitive but as pointers to what we believe is likely to happen and to the shifting responses that we believe now could be most effective and necessary as the crisis inevitably deepens.
Milosz wrote that in a time like ours, the tree of good and evil is stripped bare. Those who know and suffer this are compelled to speak without any adornment or fear, since everything is at stake.
To some readers, our words may appear harsh, scolding, and impossibly demanding. We make no apology for this. Just as parents when faced with real problems or dangers to their children don’t mince their words, we don’t mince ours, out of urgent and surgical compassion. When a child is dancing toward the edge of a cliff unconsciously, a parent may scream and gesture wildly and if necessary, grab the child fiercely, but only to save the child’s life. Great indigenous elders whom we revere have taught us that divine ferocity is an essential weapon in the armory of love.
In a time where denial reigns supreme and there is a corrupt emphasis in spiritual circles on a fake compassion, cheerfulness, and too-easy forgiveness coupled with a complete inability to face or respond to dire structural injustice, it is a very difficult task to tell the truth. People have been trained in habits they call spiritual but which really are designed to reinforce bypassing and dissociation.
To those who are just waking to the truly horrifying, even unbelievable severity of the crisis in which we find ourselves, we would like to say: Please listen to what we have to say, do the research that will validate what we say, and when you find yourself overcome by fear or the desire to turn away from what is now before us, don’t judge yourself, because what you’re feeling is entirely human. Instead, however shattered you are, and you inevitably will be, and however overwhelmed you find yourself by the facts, have the courage to do the deeper work of both creating a larger container from which to listen to stark news and advice and plunge into shadow work on yourself which will enable you to identify why you react in such a manner. This will enable you to become strong enough to resist the devouring madness and develop strategies with others of remedial and potentially inspired action.
We draw on all of the spiritual traditions and their wisdom because we realize that a new universal mysticism is being born that recognizes the contributions and wisdom of all the traditions. The necessity in our time demands that we listen to all of them for whatever guidance they can offer us in what is the defining evolutionary crisis of our entire human journey.
Some sections of this book will be challenging to read. We are not writing to persuade and convince those who have not yet understood the depth of our predicament. We are writing this book for those who know we are in a global dark night that could lead either to an unprecedented transformation or to extinction. The choice of “dark night of the globe” in our title is intentional because we believe that just as individuals experience a dark night of the soul, our species, indeed our planet, is experiencing a dark night.
Author and spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle describes the dark night as “a collapse of a perceived meaning in life . . . an eruption into your life of a deep sense of meaninglessness. The inner state in some cases is very close to what is conventionally called depression. Nothing makes sense anymore, there’s no purpose to anything. Sometimes it’s triggered by some external event, some disaster perhaps, on an external level. The death of someone close to you could trigger it, especially premature death, for example if your child dies. Or you had built up your life, and given it meaning—and the meaning that you had given your life, your activities, your achievements, where you are going, what is considered important, and the meaning that you had given your life for some reason collapses.”[iv] In his writings, Eckhart states that he experienced his dark night almost continuously from early childhood until his thirtieth birthday, feeling suicidal daily. In his first spiritual book, The Power of Now, and subsequent books and teachings on being fully present, he describes his journey of awakening—a journey which is not unique to him but has been experienced by myriad individuals from numerous spiritual traditions.
Carl Jung also experienced a severe dark night of the soul at the age of thirty-eight, when he became emotionally overwhelmed by an invasion from the subconscious and saw visions and heard voices. Somehow, Jung had the clarity—and had built a container strong enough–to realize that what was happening was revelatory, and he brought himself back from disintegration, not by resisting his experience, but by having the fierce, sober courage to continue to dialog with it through journaling and a process he called active imagination. In a dark night experience, repressed contents of the unconscious surface, Jung concluded, to grab our attention, and through journaling, art, and dream work, one develops a dialog with these contents in order to integrate their extremely valuable messages into the psyche.
Without this difficult passage of integration, the psyche will either disintegrate into madness or maintain a precarious false stability which can easily be subverted and destroyed from within. The hundreds of millions of us now plunged into dark nights that are at once individual and collective need all the tools necessary and available to help us acquire what Jesus called “the wisdom of the serpent”—that wisdom that as Blake said, “is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy.”[v] Only the marriage of this dark wisdom with the inner knowledge of our sacred identity with the divine which Jesus called “the innocence of the dove,” can engender in us both the strength and the skillful suppleness of heart and mind that survival in our time demands.
What makes this marriage of serpent and dove in us both imperative and extremely difficult is that in addition to living in a post-truth era, we’re also now clearly entrenched in a time of explosive, omnipresent, and potentially annihilating uncertainty that constantly shreds our minds and swirls darkly in our dreams. We do not know from one day to the next, sometimes from one moment to the next, what new manifestation of chaos will erupt: extreme weather, war, financial insecurity, mass shootings, revelations of extreme corruption in all of our institutions, and more. The global dark night we’re in ensures that we are all in a state that mirrors in some ways advanced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Studies of individuals living with PTSD suggest that the most distressing aspect of the trauma they suffered was the uncertainty of their predicament. According to Liji Thomas, M.D., “Uncertainty about the future makes us less capable of coping with negative events when they happen. It also disables us from taking effective and efficient steps to avoid them. This negative reaction is actually a maladaptation of the intrinsic ability of the human brain to predict the future, based on knowledge and past experience.”[vi] One of the characteristics of a dark night, as St. John of the Cross, Rumi, and others make devastatingly clear, is that nothing is predictable, and all systems of previously-achieved clarity collapse because they are now absurdly inappropriate.
What the great mystics of all the traditions who have survived this terrible passage tell us with one voice is that when we come to a dark night, we have only one resource: To remain in a state of radical unknowing. This will have two effects. It will crucify the false self’s perpetual hunger for certainty, and it will flay us humbly open to the guidance that can only come if we are totally receptive to it with no preconceptions.
In Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, Jamie Holmes examines the concept of ambiguity and what often happens to us in the face of it. “The mind state caused by ambiguity,” Holmes writes, “is uncertainty, and it’s an emotional amplifier. It makes anxiety more agonizing, and pleasure more especially enjoyable.”[vii] Holmes explicitly states that he wrote the book in order to convince us that “in an increasingly complex, unpredictable world, what matters most isn’t IQ, willpower, or confidence in what we know. It’s how we deal with what we don’t understand.”[viii] [Emphasis ours]
In reading Nonsense, we were riveted by the author’s statement that “Nazism was partly fueled by the dangerous pairing of a hateful ideology with its adherents’ inflated aversion to doubt.”[ix] As we attempt to navigate industrial civilization in collapse and a global trend toward authoritarian government, we feel in our own bodies and in our interactions with other individuals and communities the heightened anxiety produced by uncertainty. Even among many of our friends and acquaintances who are awake to the potential for near-term human extinction, we notice an implicit and almost-pathological demand for certainty. Many are obsessed with the year they believe humans will become extinct. Is it 2026, 2030, 2050, next year? As if we could know.
As elders we have been compelled to understand that authentic wisdom only arises out of a constant embrace of unknowing and uncertainty. This demands adamantine spiritual strength and a constant readiness to sacrifice even our most righteous certainties and every illusion about ourselves, human nature, and the purposes of the divine. In the Koran, Allah says, “For with God are the keys of the unseen; no one knows them but God. [x]
Our experience and our spiritual journeys have taught us that on myriad levels, age exacerbates uncertainty. In our youth we were far more “certain” about life and the future. We were “certain” in the 1960s that cultural revolution would lead to political revolution and the sudden death of capitalism. At times we were “certain” that a nuclear war was baked in the cake, and we would not live to see our fiftieth birthdays. We were certain in the early stages of the New Age that a massive spiritual movement would transform humanity. In fact, this movement failed to galvanize and transform. Many aspects of it were narcissistic and addicted to easy ways of transcendence. On the other hand, the sacred body was celebrated, and more radical forms of science were honored, alongside an increased tolerance for all paths. Yet given the scope of the crisis confronting us, the so-called New Age movement has failed spectacularly to inspire individuals to make radical enough changes both internally and in terms of external action.
This movement is now morphing among youth into yoga, mindfulness, and a variety of neo-shamanic practices that rather than deepening awareness, are providing endless forms of spiritual bypassing. This is not to say that every person who engages in such practices is avoiding deepening, but frequently, the emphasis is on having ever- newer feel-good experiences rather than allowing oneself to be dragged by the anguish of the human condition into the depths of one’s psyche.
All of our illusions have bitten the dust, and we are standing naked before a disintegrating history. Yet as we have increasingly claimed the role of elder, we have come to understand that real power lies not in certainty, but in un-certainty. As the poet, Jane Hirshfield, writes in her poem, “Against Certainty”: “There is something out in the dark that wants to correct us. Each time I think ‘this,’ it answers ‘that.’. . . Between certainty and the real, an ancient enmity.”[xi] What has increasingly amazed us, however, is that this ‘ancient enmity’ if you can endure it and make it conscious, becomes the dearest friend and shrewdest guide.
We must face that industrial civilization and its specific institutions totally dissociated from nature and indigenous wisdom are inherently traumatizing in ways we hardly recognize because we have lived with them for so long. We recommend further reading on the issue of trauma in industrial civilization as articulated by Judith Herman, Bessel van der Kolk, Peter Levine, and Gabor Maté. Any serious study of trauma in our culture quickly reveals that trauma is so pervasive and so normalized that we may easily miss that one of its central features is inevitably a dangerous obsession with certainty. How could it be otherwise in a culture that has provided us no sacred containers with which both to endure and to work with the potentially transformative nature of chaos? And yet, in our crisis of the global dark night, it is precisely this obsession with certainty that fuels catastrophe and makes almost impossible the creation of a new path that responds authentically to constantly shifting and explosive situations. Such a path cannot be wholly predictive, comforting, or clear-cut. It must embrace at all moments, paradox, ambiguity, and the prospect of extreme events and circumstances that compel wholly new alignments.
In this book we will speak about what we believe to be the potentially different stages of the unfolding crisis. In each stage, even the last, terminal one, we will suggest appropriate and helpful tactics. We know at this stage of our evolution that there dwells in us a force of awareness, truth, love, and commitment to service that will not be shaken by whatever happens. Our hope is that by the end of reading this book, you will not only be awoken to the severe truth of what’s going on, but inspired to discover in yourself that Self that has never been born and will never die and that lives in a subtle and calm joy that no circumstances, even the most terrible, can destroy. The Reconnection, Resistance, Resilience, and Regeneration that we are going to celebrate in this book, arise from this Self and return to it. Our vision of resistance and activism does not depend on hopeful outcomes. It depends only on a resolute commitment to uphold, honor, and implement the dignity and consciousness of interrelationship that arise from the Self.
Let’s get real and face together the likelihood that the human race now has two possibilities before it: An extreme crisis that leads to the survival of a bedraggled and traumatized remnant in a vastly degraded world, or the total annihilation of that world. We can never rule out, of course, the possibility of a sudden evolutionary leap in humanity or even miraculous divine intervention, but we would be narcissistic fools to count on them. We have come to the current situation because we have drunk a deadly cocktail of illusion. Our only hope now, rugged though it is, is in daring to live beyond the need for any kind of magical thinking—beyond, in fact certainty of any kind. We must take complete responsibility for the horror we have engendered and for the response we are now called to make to that horror, whatever happens. Such a response demands of us something far deeper than what conventional religions and visions of activism call for–nothing less than living and acting from the Self, both without illusion and totally committed to compassion and justice even, if necessary, in hopeless situations.
In this dark night of the globe, we have come to understand that four crucial strategies must be employed not only to survive the dark night, but to inhabit our bodies and our lives with passionate authenticity, honesty, vigilance, community, compassion, and service. These strategies are Reconnection, Resistance, Resilience, and Regeneration.
First of all, it is imperative that we understand how we arrived at this tragic juncture in the history of our species. We believe that our predicament is a result of profound disconnection—from our sacred inner wisdom, from all other living beings as a result of our delusional belief in separation, and from Earth and the reality that we are not only inherently connected with Earth, but that in fact, we are Earth. Thus, the first strategy must be a commitment to Reconnection.
Secondly, we must discern the nature of the myriad enemies of mind, body, and spirit with which we are being confronted in the current milieu and learn strategies of Resistance in order to take a stand in the Self for transparency and integrity in the face of massive assaults on our fundamental humanity.
Thirdly, we must cultivate extraordinary physical, emotional, and spiritual Resilience in order to navigate the plethora of dangers and uncertainties with which we are incessantly confronted. Resilience is an essential life skill that we have now to fine-tune both amid the turmoil of our daily existence as well as the monumental, explosive uncertainties we increasingly encounter in our communities and our world.
And finally, we must commit to living lives of Regeneration in all of the stages, even in what could be the terminal one. Even if humanity is destined to vanish, those of us who are awake to the responsibilities of love will work to ensure as far as possible that we leave the planet still just able to sustain and evolve new life. As with Sacred Activism[xii] and the work of cultivating a vital spiritual path for our lives, what matters most is not the outcome of our efforts, but rather, our inmost intention.
Buddhist teacher and author, Margaret Wheatley, in her forthcoming book, Who Do We Choose to Be? states,
This needs to be stated clearly at the outset: we can no longer solve the global problems of this time at large-scale levels: poverty, economics, climate change, violence, dehumanization. Even though the solutions have been available for a very long time, they require conditions to implement them that are not available: political courage, collaboration across national boundaries, compassion that supersedes self-interest and greed. These are not only the failings of our specific time in history; they occur in all civilizations at the end of their life cycle.
This is a bitter pill for activists and all people with discerning, open hearts. We understand the complexity of global problems, we have thought systemically to define root causes, we have proposed meaningful solutions, but we are impotent to influence those in power who ignore our efforts.[xiii]
Wheatley states that she learned years ago that large-scale change is not possible because of the power of corporations, politicians, and leaders who treat people as units rather than as humans. The collapse of this system is now certain. What is also certain is that powerless though we now are to reverse the catastrophe of collapse, we are not powerless to create islands of sanity, rugged compassion, and dignified defiance amid a sea of chaos. How is this possible? By searching our souls in order to answer these questions:
- Who do I want to be in this devastating time?
- Who must we be together as we navigate the dark night of the globe?
If we are willing to focus with laser intensity on Reconnection, Resistance, Resilience, and Regeneration regardless of the eventual outcome of this crisis—regardless of whether or not it is even possible to survive it physically—in the words of Yeats, a “Second Coming” is possible. We can live passionate, purposeful, inspired lives even in terminal disaster. The only force stronger than hope is love, and love will be ours if we make it ours. And love, even in final circumstances will give us dignity, joy, and purpose. Thus a transformation of consciousness and relatedness can occur even more profoundly as that “rough beast—its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born.”
Andrew Harvey, Oak Park, Illinois
Carolyn Baker, Boulder, Colorado
[i] “Alternative Facts: A Psychiatrist’s Guide to Twisted Relationships to Truth,” Ronald Pies, The Conversation, March 1, 2017, http://theconversation.com/alternative-facts-a-psychiatrists-guide-to-twisted-relationships-to-truth-72469
[ii] “Lie to Me: Fiction in the Post-Truth Era,” Adam Kirsch, New York Times, January 15, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/15/books/lie-to-me-fiction-in-the-post-truth-era.html?_r=0
[iii] “Czeslaw Milosz’s Battle For Truth,” Adam Kirsch, New Yorker, May 29, 2017, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/05/29/czeslaw-miloszs-battle-for-truth
[iv] “The Dark Night of the Soul,” Eckhart Tolle, https://www.eckharttolle.com/newsletter/october-2011
[v] William Blake, The Four Zoas, Create Space, 2015, p.49.
[vi] “Why Uncertainty Can Cause Stress,” Liji Thomas, M.D., Medical Net News, http://www.news-medical.net/health/Why-can-Uncertainty-Cause-Stress.aspx
[vii] Jamie Holmes, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, Broadway Books, 2015, p. 9.
[viii] Ibid., p.15.
[ix] Ibid., p.12.
[x] Andrew Harvey, The Essential Mystics, Holy Quar’an, Surah 6, Harper One, 1997, p140.
[xi] “Remembering Stanley Kunitz,” by Jane Hirshfield, author of “Uncertainty,” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/features/articles/detail/68569
[xii] Andrew Harvey, The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism, Hay House, 2009.
[xiii] Margaret Wheatley, “Who Do We Choose to Be?” http://margaretwheatley.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/MW-WhoDoWeChooseToBe.pdf
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