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Climbing The Ladder Of Awareness, By Paul Chefurka

When it comes to our understanding of the unfolding global crisis, each of us seems to fit somewhere along a continuum of awareness that can be roughly divided into five stages:

  1. Dead asleep. At this stage there seem to be no fundamental problems, just some shortcomings in human organization, behaviour and morality that can be fixed with the proper attention to rule-making. People at this stage tend to live their lives happily, with occasional outbursts of annoyance around election times or the quarterly corporate earnings (http://www NULL.paulchefurka NULL.ca/LadderOfAwareness NULL.html#) seasons.
  2. Awareness of one fundamental problem. Whether it’s Climate Change, overpopulation, Peak Oil, chemical pollution, oceanic over-fishing, biodiversity loss, corporatism, economic instability or sociopolitical injustice, one problem seems to engage the attention completely. People at this stage tend to become ardent activists for their chosen cause. They tend to be very vocal about their personal issue, and blind to any others.
  3. Awareness of many problems. As people let in more evidence from different domains, the awareness of complexity begins to grow.  At this point a person worries about the prioritization of problems in terms of their immediacy and degree (http://www NULL.paulchefurka NULL.ca/LadderOfAwareness NULL.html#) of impact. People at this stage may become reluctant to acknowledge new problems – for example, someone who is committed to fighting for social justice and against climate change may not recognize the problem of resource depletion.  They may feel that the problem space is already complex enough, and the addition of any new concerns will only dilute the effort that needs to be focused on solving the “highest priority” problem.
  4. Awareness of the interconnections between the many problems. The realization that a solution in one domain may worsen a problem in another marks the beginning of large-scale system-level thinking. It also marks the transition from thinking of the situation in terms of a set of problems to thinking of it in terms of a predicament. At this point the possibility that there may not be a solution begins to raise its head.

    People who arrive at this stage tend to withdraw into tight circles of like-minded individuals in order to trade insights and deepen their understanding of what’s going on. These circles are necessarily small, both because personal dialogue is essential for this depth of exploration, and because there just aren’t very many people who have arrived at this level of understanding.

  5. Awareness that the predicament encompasses all aspects of life.  This includes everything we do, how we do it, our relationships with each other, as well as our treatment of the rest of the biosphere and the physical planet. With this realization, the floodgates open, and no problem is exempt from consideration or acceptance. The very concept of a “Solution” is seen through, and cast aside as a waste of effort.

For those who arrive at Stage 5 there is a real risk that depression (http://www NULL.paulchefurka NULL.ca/LadderOfAwareness NULL.html#) will set in. After all, we’ve learned throughout our lives that our hope for tomorrow lies in  our ability to solve problems today.  When no amount of human cleverness appears able to solve our predicament the possibility of hope can vanish like a the light of a candle flame, to be replaced by the suffocating darkness of despair.

How people cope with despair is of course deeply personal, but it seems to me there are two general routes people take to reconcile themselves with the situation.  These are not mutually exclusive, and most of us will operate out of some mix of the two.  I identify them here as general tendencies, because people seem to be drawn more to one or the other.  I call them the outer path and the inner path.

If one is inclined to choose the outer path, concerns about adaptation and local resilience move into the foreground, as exemplified by the Transition Network (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Transition_Towns) and Permaculture Movement (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Permaculture). To those on the outer path, community-building and local sustainability (http://www NULL.paulchefurka NULL.ca/LadderOfAwareness NULL.html#) initiatives will have great appeal.  Organized party politics seems to be less attractive to people at this stage, however.  Perhaps politics is seen as part of the problem, or perhaps it’s just seen as a waste of effort when the real action will take place at the local level.

If one is disinclined to choose the outer path either because of temperament or circumstance, the inner path offers its own set of attractions.

Choosing the inner path involves re-framing the whole thing in terms of consciousness, self-awareness and/or some form of transcendent perception.  For someone on this path it is seen as an attempt to manifest Gandhi’s message, “Become the change you wish to see in the world,” on the most profoundly personal level.  This message is similarly expressed in the ancient Hermetic saying, “As above, so below.” Or in plain language,  “In order to heal the world, first begin by healing yourself.”

However, the inner path does not imply a “retreat into religion”. Most of the people I’ve met who have chosen an inner path have as little use for traditional religion as their counterparts on the outer path have for traditional politics.  Organized religion is usually seen as part of the predicament rather than a valid response to it. Those who have arrived at this point have no interest in hiding from or easing the painful truth, rather they wish to create a coherent personal context for it. Personal spirituality of one sort or another often works for this, but organized religion rarely does.

It’s worth mentioning that there is also the possibility of a serious personal difficulty at this point.  If someone cannot choose an outer path for whatever reasons, and is also resistant to the idea of inner growth or spirituality as a response the the crisis of an entire planet, then they are truly in a bind. There are few other doorways out of this depth of despair.  If one remains stuck here for an extended period of time, life can begin to seem awfully bleak, and violence against either the world or oneself may begin begin to seem like a reasonable option.  Please keep a watchful eye on your own progress, and if you encounter someone else who may be in this state, please offer them a supportive ear.

From my observations, each successive stage contains roughly a tenth of the number people as the one before it. So while perhaps 90% of humanity is in Stage 1, less than one person in ten thousand will be at Stage 5 (and none of them are likely to be politicians).  The number of those who have chosen the inner path in Stage 5 also seems to be an order of magnitude smaller than the number who are on the outer path.

I happen to have chosen an inner path as my response to a Stage 5 awareness. It works well for me, but navigating this imminent (transition, shift, metamorphosis – call it what you will), will require all of us – no matter what our chosen paths – to cooperate on making wise decisions in difficult times.

Best wishes for a long, exciting and fulfilling  journey.

13 comments to Climbing The Ladder Of Awareness, By Paul Chefurka

  • Hotspringswizard

    I’m definitely a Stage 5, inner path sort continueing to work on living more simply as a path forward in these difficult times. You can try and fight the ” flow ” of events but the great river of human endeavors will run its course as it will, washing away your attempts to obstruct or divert it. Living simplicty allows you to find secluded and calm niches along the rivers edge, and as the waters of the whole continues to move downstream, you will be moving along with it, but in a slower and more peaceful fashion :-)

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/hotspringswizard/7960807424/sizes/l/in/photostream/ (http://www NULL.flickr NULL.com/photos/hotspringswizard/7960807424/sizes/l/in/photostream/)

    The above shows a river stone I placed on the playa in the Black Rock Desert. The stone was actually purplish brown but I turned it black with photo tools to make the overall image look to me like the eye of some ancient scaled being :-) Become like the rounded stone and let the roiling waters wash over and around you. The stones shape is a simple and natural response to its surrounding conditions, and that is the wisdom of its form and way of being :-)

  • Martin

    I seem to have arrived at stage 5 some time ago, but it came on gradually over a period of a few years as my income declined (I’m retired, living on SS), my monetary reserves dried up, and my resolve to “Do Something…” about “The Situation in General” (i.e.; all the items in stage 3) disappeared and I realized that “The Game is Up”.

    So, am I coping outwardly or inwardly? A bit of each, I suppose. I volunteer a couple of days per week at a local community garden that provides fresh, organic produce to the indigent and on the days in between I’m working on a book (fiction, of course) about how people might adapt their lives to what appears to be around the corner for mankind. Otherwise I basically “Enjoy the Moment” and tend to realize that my only purpose is to “Be”.

    Will I ever finish the book and seek a publisher? Don’t know – for now it’s a useful way for me to maximize my energies toward manifesting what I see as a possible future.

  • buz painter

    At stage five I find myself emphasizing first outer then inner in sequence. I preach both to those closest to me- sort of an equal opportunity preacher. The truth is that if I lose sight of either for a while depression sneaks in to torture my soul. I truly believe that we need both aspects of fifth stage work to retain reasonable health within the decaying physical and mental environment around us.

    Pain is the Universe’s way of showing us that we still alive.

  • Damfino

    Thanks for this article; a well-defined ‘Step Program’ of awareness growth.

    I would suggest that there is a 6th stage, the realization that there is no solution, because humans are progressing according to the mandate buried in DNA, a species karyotype which assures a predisposition for collapse. Our ecological predicament arises not from inappropriate economic models, failed political systems, or greedy thinking, but from of our engrained nature.

    A reading of “Too Smart for our Own Good: The Ecological Predicament of Humankind” by Craig Dilworth, a scholarly endeavor, will bring home this unsettling truth. “The Spirit in the Gene: Humanity’s Proud Illusion and the Laws of Nature” by Reg Morrison offers a further explanation of our anthropocentric nature and why cosmic and earth-bound systems must cycle and end as they do.

    Ninety-five percent or more of humans are at Stage 1 – “Dead Asleep”. The cultural narratives (memes)which we are born into are incredibly strong and make true awareness difficult. Even if you are at Stage 5, you are drifting in and out of the meme which has guided and anchored your life to date.

    Depression? No. there is something quite relieving and comforting to know that ultimately everything we think, do, or say is on a path which is preordained and inescapable.

  • GammaKaren

    Very insightful piece – and the comments so far. I think I am in stage 5. Drift into depression, but my innate cheerfulness pulls me out. I do a great deal of volunteer habitat restoration work with native plants – both our prairie ecosystem and forest understory plants. As I am laboring away I have plenty of time to muse on — is what I am doing worth anything with what the world is facing?? I just concentrate on loving my kids and grandchildren (only 3), and doing my tiny bit to heal the soil and plant cover of my special places…

  • Hotspringswizard

    Damfino, regarding your suggested Stage 6 and this ” the realization that there is no solution “, it seems to me the last sentence in the articles Stage 5 definition ” The very concept of a “Solution” is seen through, and cast aside as a waste of effort ” is expressing the same sentiment, that being there is no solution to the dire path humans are on. And I agree with your observation that what ails the human species is precipitated by ” our engrained nature “, which blooms out in action and creates all of the myriad complex synergistic unsolvable problems.

    And referencing this you wrote ” there is something quite relieving and comforting to know that ultimately everything we think, do, or say is on a path which is preordained and inescapable “, the various evidence I have seen suggest to me that our paths, and that of everything else is ” inescapable “, predistined, cause and effect. Now as to the ” flow ” being ” preordained “, that sounds like a ” created ” template which defines the course of the flow. And if the above is true then what makes the design for the template as it is. Of course humans have come up with myriad notions/explanations.

    But like wondering about the impossible to understand idea that all came from a singularity, such things I think have no answers when it comes to considerations of infinite realms, because there is no end to layers of this knowledge Onion. We all are on our own unique jouneys of the mind in this respect, and that is a wonderful thing :-)

    GammaKaren, I think your innate cheerfulness is so important, just as I value my sense of humor that helps me always have a brighter day. I find with my aly of humor, and my work towards creating a simpler life in the way I live, that my mind becomes more and more free through this process, and these things help clear our mental vision of useless fog that does inhibit ourselves in finding a way of being more aligned with our true inner nature.

    Accomplishing simple good deeds is what your are doing from what I can see, and that is a healthy endeavor. These activities could be any number of things as per your own temperment and taste. But beyond having our very basic needs met, like food, shelter, time with the ones we love etc, greatly piling on further layers of activities and material ownership can dim the light of that which is truly important and satisfying, the life well lived. It will always be a work in progress, striving for a more worthy an fullfilling life, but each new day offers us fresh opportunity to do the work towards these simple goals. The above is just the way I try and approach things. The road ahead we know will be very troubled in many ways, but there are many wonderful people to make the journey with, and we can simplifiy our lives, do good as we can, and this is a way forward :-)

    In consideration of the infinite template of our amazing cosmos, here is a tiny and ephemeral piece of it. Just something to perhaps brighten your day :-)

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/hotspringswizard/7418341174/sizes/l/in/photostream/ (http://www NULL.flickr NULL.com/photos/hotspringswizard/7418341174/sizes/l/in/photostream/)

  • Pete Soderman

    What an insightful piece! I can trace my own progress through the five stages, leading to an “outer” personal solution. Over two years ago, seeing no solutions to the problems the US was facing, and no chance of real changes after the election of Obama, I moved to an small village in central Mexico, located in a nearly self-sustaining area. There’s no guarantee that I’ll be any better off here, but at least I’m creating a niche for our children and grandchildren should they need a place to go.

    Once it became clear that all of the problems were interconnected and systemic, the decision to leave was clearly the best for us.

  • KiwiArtist

    Thank you for this insightful piece. In my part of the world (NZ) things are not quite as bad as in many places but we ‘re getting there. My frustration is that we actually have a window in which we can see into the future by observing the course of events over seas and yet still are mostly following blindly along the same paths. It seems that it is hardship that will eventually open the eyes of those asleep but I am an artist (artists in this country are mostly financially poor) and I’ve noticed among my friends it’s the creative people who tend to be more open to seeing. Having said that very few here are anywhere never stage 5 as I am. Which can be a lonely place, however I am lucky to live is such a place. I am wary about too much sharing as I’ve notice many are just not ready or willing to open up to the truth – this doesn’t stop me posting info on my FB page though, then people can take or leave as they are ready. Even if I can encourage people to choose love over fear this is still awareness though on a more personal level rather than global.

    I know I need to be careful I don’t become depressed apart from my awareness it’s not been an easy time in my personal life – so I have been mainly on an inward path, but would be happy to join others locally on an outward path if it existed. Meanwhile though I have had great comfort in learning to understand the essence of my own being. Having never had any interest in organised religion, through internet resources I am now starting to understand what I’ve always had an intuition about and that is our own divinity.

    I have recently become aware of the true story of Anita Moorjani’s near death experience and then miraculous healing from the lymphoma that had destroyed her body. http://anitamoorjani.com/ (http://anitamoorjani NULL.com/) – Her story is remarkable and has made me realise that we will never actually die but merely move onto another realm where the only judgement that that of our own. She talks about how love is the key to all things and fear breeds illness – Learning not to fear and knowing how love for ourselves foremost will transcend whatever challenges we face – I have found this message very empowering and it has given me a sense of peace. I hope it may be of use to others who are struggling with this time of transition.

  • Hur Medveten Är Du? – Galen? | Peak SWE (http://peakswe NULL.se/2012/10/hur-medveten-ar-du-galen/)

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  • Derek Tennant (http://www NULL.derekjoetennant NULL.net)

    Wonderful piece, even if incomplete. I would offer a different Stage 6: Resistance. Yes it is politically and spiritually correct to be against violence; indeed, I still profess nonviolence myself as I move into Stage 6. But to be clear, that would be nonviolence against life, not inanimate objects. Truly our dominant culture does not respect life in its many varied forms; awaiting the culture’s collapse, even if attempting to build systems that may someday replace today’s dysfunctional paradigm, is like standing by while a relative is raped, looking for the bandages I will need when the rape has finished. How many species went extinct today? How many will be left when this culture finally collapses? If Dr. M. L. King, Jr. had insisted that his movement’s energy be focused on building separate schools for blacks, and separate bus systems for blacks, and separate businesses for blacks, so that they would all be ready when the white racist society finally collapsed, we would still be waiting today; and how many more would be dead? There is inner work, and there is outer work; but once you see that they are interconnected, you begin to see that there is a SYSTEM that overlays it all: it is the system that needs our attention if we are to succeed in making effective, lasting change. What makes this all so difficult is that we in America benefit from the system: we have food on the shelves of the local market, power to light up our many electronic devices, gas for our many trips a few blocks down the street in our personal transportation system; all without having to face the death involved in bringing these comforts to us. It is part of the prior stages, 1 through 5, that we think we are where we need to be in our awakening, at whichever stage we happen to be at. Speaking from Stage 6: can more of us get beyond 5 and get on with Stage 6 please? Time is running out…

  • Paul Chefurka (http://www NULL.paulchefurka NULL.ca)

    Derek, I might call what you’re advocating a manifestation of the “Outer Path” of Stage 5, though i see it most oftewn in those who are stuck at Stage 2. If you draw the obvious parallel between this framework and Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief, the anger that is so evident in your desire for resistance is a Stage 2 reaction. I definitely don’t see resistance as a natural progression from acceptance.

  • Tim Wickstrom (http://thegreenmagician NULL.blogspot NULL.ca/)

    In a very human sense it’s comforting to see that I’m not the only one experiencing the emotions and thoughts that I have regarding our uncertain future. I could clearly see myself at every stage described, and I believe I’ve recently graduated to stage 5. (yay?)

    I’ve been tackling with the telltale signs of depression. It’s like a shadowy presence reaching its tendrils slowly into my subconsciousness. My way of battling it has consisted of both the outer and inner paths. Finally exploring the spiritual elements of my existence feels very much like coming home. Volunteering with local transition communities allows me to affect my immediate environment in a positive way.

    My nature is to be optimistic, and that’s been sorely tested over the past five to six months as I come to terms with the possibility that the bright, shiny future I was promised is an illusion. I’m glad for this opportunity, and it is an opportunity, because the rude awakening has been a very real test of my character, and I like what I’m seeing in myself, and what I’m capable of.

    • Thanks for your comment—and your honesty. It is so much easier to live in one of the opposites you’re describing. That is, living in complete pessimism and despair or living in optimistic denial. What is so much harder to do is what you’re doing, namely, allowing yourself to be optimistic but sometimes struggling with depression. Both are real, and both are authentic parts of you. However, as you already know, holding the tension of those opposites can lead to transformation of them so that a third option (or several) can open up to you. We cannot avoid collapse, but we can utilize the reality of it to do our inner work and become more of who we came here to be.

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