…it is possible a great presence is moving near me. I have faith in nights.
~Rainer Maria Rilke~
In her November 25 article, “Becoming One Of ‘Them’,” Sharon Astyk offers powerful vignettes from shelters where middle class Hurricane Sandy victims have been attempting to cope not only with their losses but being forced to live alongside the homeless, encountering marginalized immigrants and the physically and mentally ill. Exuding terminal entitlement, these individuals have projected an air of superiority and horror regarding their surroundings and their shelter mates—the usual aura of “This isAmerica, and I shouldn’t have to live this way.”
Such vignettes allow us once again to witness how woefully unprepared for the collapse of institutions and infrastructure most Americans are in comparison with the indigent and dispossessed who have lived with and repeatedly survived the ground under their feet being swept away more times than they can probably remember. One cannot watch these scenes, as I have many times on television news reports of Hurricane Sandy devastation, without also feeling compassion for the white, middle-class, hysterical, deer-in-the-headlights survivors whose worlds were shattered with loss and trauma in the course of a few hours. At times I have wanted to take each person by the hand and force them to watch Chris Martenson’s “Crash Course” or read James Howard Kunstler’s Long Emergency. At other times I’ve found myself erupting in anger that these entitled and infantilized individuals could be so abjectly clueless.
But without exception I have kept coming back to my training and the over-riding theme of any form of collapse, whether acute or protracted, namely trauma. And asSharon says: “The wild shift in expectation that is required when the world shifts under your feet can break people – far more than the actual physical circumstances. Indeed, it probably broke many of their shelter mates the first time it happened.”
But perhaps the most important aspect of the Astyk article is the question:
So how do you navigate that sense of loss, the trauma of changed expectations, the sense that all the things that you once believed you had a right to are now things you are a supplicant for? Because let’s be honest, as offensive as entitlement can be, it has its uses – the sense that something should be some way, that this is totally unacceptable can move mountains. The parents who say “Not good enough, my kid needs the best, most appropriate education for her special needs,” the grownup who says “Not acceptable. We need this fixed today, not three weeks from now,” the person who can demand, more often gets more. In a world of abundant resources, outrage that you are forced to suffer to live with something utterly inadequate is a tool, advocacy is a gift. Knowing when it becomes an abuse, or looks like high-handed entitlement can be hard – and we all have to know when that moment is (if you are yelling at waitresses or anyone with LESS power than you, btw, that’s a clue).
Sharon’s principle suggestion here is that we change our attitude from “I’m not one of ‘them’” to “Yes, except for a few differences which I can easily lose in one hour, I am pretty much like ‘them,’ and there but for fortune go I.” And I heartily agree with Sharonthat poverty, disenfranchisement, and marginalization is where we are all headed whether we choose to admit it or not. But I want to take the question, “How do you navigate the sense of loss and trauma?” to a deeper level of awareness. I want to embrace the sociological and historical realities that Sharonasserts but also explore the resources each individual carries in his/her own psyche. In fact, for me, this is the bedrock question of our predicament and the ensuing collapse of industrial civilization: How do we navigate it emotionally and spiritually? How do we not only shift our attitude to the proverbial level playing field perspective, but how do we cope with our fear, anger, grief, and despair? What internal resources do we have or can we develop for doing that?
Probably nothing since watching many hours of footage from Hurricane Katrina has validated the commitment I have to what is now my life’s work of preparing people emotionally and spiritually for a daunting future as witnessing the terror and loss of clueless, crazed, emotionally unequipped survivors of Hurricane Sandy. Certainly, if many of these individuals really did watch the Crash Course or read The Long Emergency this side of the disaster they have just lived through, they would resonate with the contents much more profoundly than before Sandy, but the question for all of us remains: How will I manage and utilize the power of my emotions in a similar scenario?
The challenge is not so much that one develops expertise in managing emotions but that one is at least willing to acknowledge their relentless presence in the body and do something about or with that. It is safe to assume that the overwhelming majority of middle-class disaster victims, or any cross section of the population of industrial civilization for that matter, devotes almost no time whatsoever to emotional literacy. The closest most modern humans come to feeling fear is when they are comfortably ensconced in their rocking-chair seats at the local movie theater stuffing their faces with popcorn while watching a horror or suspense thriller. In fact, amid the emotionally numb milieu of modernity, millions flock to disaster flicks precisely because those allow them to feel something and reassure them that they are among the living. Few modern humans acknowledge the presence of personal fears on a daily basis or have any sense of how they might constructively work with them for their own emotional well being.
This natural, human emotion is an evolutionary gift. We have been wired with a capacity for fear as a survival mechanism which automatically warns us when we may be in some sort of danger. Sometimes we are in danger but are not aware of it, and therefore, we feel no fear. At other times, we don’t appear to be in danger but may feel fearful and not know why. While it is true that some individuals as a result of past traumatic experiences feel fearful most of the time, when we feel fear, we should pay attention.
Fear is uncomfortable, and no one enjoys feeling it. However, to deny its presence by distracting ourselves from it or by embracing a false piety that tells us that fear is unspiritual or that if we feel fearful, we can’t be loving, is to deny what our bodies and psyches are telling us is true. To acknowledge fear does not require us to become its captive or live in a state of fear most of the time. We simply acknowledge its presence and become curious about what it is attempting to reveal. If, however, we find ourselves in a constant state of fear, then we may want to seek professional help for chronic anxiety, and that does not mean simply acquiring anti-anxiety medication. It means getting to the bottom of our incessant state of fear so that we can work with it. Working with something means that we attempt to discover not only the cause but how the very issue with which we feel discomfort can actually be utilized to empower us and enhance our wholeness.
I recommend dialoging with fear, either internally or through journaling or art. Internal dialog involves sitting quietly in a place where we are unlikely to be interrupted and listening to the fear then asking it questions as if it were another person. Perhaps the most obvious question is: “What do you want? What are you trying to tell me?” The answer may not be immediately evident, but if one is persistent with the dialog, clues may begin to emerge. This is an example of how one cultivates and utilizes one’s internal resources.
In terms of our fears of the future, it is crucial to take action. We should not be ruled by fear in preparing for the unraveling of life as we have known it, but we should become pro-active, and often fear is part of what motivates us. A useful exercise might be to stay with the question: “How do I want to respond if I find myself in a shelter like the ones described bySharonin her article?” Anyone who has been preparing for a world unraveling and who ends up in a disaster shelter is likely to discover many things. The first is that the entire experience is not a surprise. That person is well aware of climate change and its ramifications. They have been toEmeraldCity, peered behind the curtain, and discovered the house of cards on which industrial civilization has been constructed. They have few or no expectations about how any government might help them in a time of loss. They watch, respect, and learn from those persons who have been even more marginalized by the society and who have been stealthily navigating myriad forms of collapse all their lives. And very importantly, the preparing person experiences her presence in a disaster shelter not as a place primarily to receive help but to assist and even learn from others who are far less prepared and who probably have not tapped into many of their own internal resources.
Emotional Literacy Now, Not Later
Other emotions I mentioned above and focus more specifically on in my 2011 book, Navigating The Coming Chaos: A Handbook For Inner Transition, are grief, anger, and despair. The time to deal with these emotions is now, not when we find ourselves in a disaster shelter or on the street. I consider conscious work with grief, anger, and despair as necessary as preparing to survive the future by way of storing food, water, and medical supplies. In fact, I would argue that if people are not consciously working on emotional literacy and these four so-called “negative” emotions, they are going to discover that they are no better prepared for the future than the most clueless, entitled, arrogant inhabitants of industrial civilization.
I sometimes suggest that people keep these four emotions at the forefront of consciousness by asking themselves at the end of the day: What did I feel fearful about today? What did I grieve today? (If the answer is “nothing,” then what needed grieving today?) What was I angry about today? What did I feel despair about today? As we become more emotionally literate, and therefore more emotionally present, we are likely to have many more answers to these end-of-the-day questions over time.
And of course, as all wisdom traditions teach, paradoxically, all of these so-called “negative” emotions ultimately lead us to incredible joy and gratitude. We live in a joyless culture that believes happiness and joy are the same thing. We are happy, we are told, if we have money, success, status, possessions, family, and lots of toys to play with. Yet millions of people throughout history and in present time who have none of the accoutrements of happiness, experience deep joy. Joy is an inevitable result of allowing ourselves to feel fear, grief, anger, and despair. It erupts spontaneously as we savor the blessings and challenges of our lives—as we appreciate and honor our human companions and all members of the earth community.
This culture has yet to learn that one cannot fully experience joy without opening to tragedy. Our deepest suffering ultimately initiates us into a fullness of joy that the heart can scarcely contain. I invite you to check out Trebbe Johnson’s article “Gaze Even Here: Opening Our Hearts To Brokenness” and her website Radical Joy For Hard Times.
As Sharon Astyk notes:
The time of unparalleled prosperity is over. The shelter denizens went back – or will hopefully go back – to their lives. Some are lives of unbearable strain, misery and fragility. Others are lives of comfort…and fragility, because the one can so rapidly become the other. Many of us will be lucky enough to survive one disaster, to rebuild after that first time – but what about the next time, and the one after that? How many hundred year storms before the strain affects your health?
Poverty and loss are the new normal, and very few in our culture are emotionally equipped to deal with this reality. The headline of a September 24 Alternet article says it all: “Suicide Overtakes Car Accidents As Leading Cause Of Death—Is The Economy To Blame?” Does the specific cause really matter? Can it even be named in a milieu that is wholly in decline?
Those who are willing to name our predicament not merely as the collapse of industrial civilization but as mass suicide by our species—who are willing to prepare logistically, emotionally, and spiritually will not be spared suffering; however, they are more likely to become students of their plight and metabolize the meaning of it rather than become engulfed in its madness.
The Ultimate Taboo Subject
That would be death, and of course, we can’t talk about that in this culture—not at Christmas time, not now, not ever! Yet whether you anticipate peak oil eliminating millions of humans from the earth, climate change making the planet uninhabitable, or global pandemics recreating plagues of biblical proportions, humans are killing the planet and everything on it, and we may succeed in wiping out most of life on earth, not 500 years from now, but perhaps even this century. Watch Guy McPherson’s excellent presentation on climate change at Bluegrass Bioneers last month or listen to Professor Kevin Anderson’s Radio Ecoshock presentation on November 6 and tell me that we have 500 years—or 100 for that matter. We’re not talking about a 2-degree Celsius increase, but rather an increase of 6 degrees Celsius. At that point, the planet becomes uninhabitable.
Most human beings yawn at the hard core reality that at least 200 species per day are being extinguished on this planet—that is, until massive numbers of their own begin to vanish. Since that may well occur this century and perhaps even be inevitable before 2100, should we not be contemplating, as opposed to just thinking about, death? “Oh, that would bring me down,” you say.
Well, actually “down,” is exactly where we need to be. In his November, 2011 blog post, “Bringing It Down To Earth,” John Michael Greer summarizes the paramount theme of my work: The technical dimension of our predicament is less important than the inner dimension because until we address the inner, we are doomed to worsen the severity of our situation. “Down” does not have to be synonymous with chronic depression, but it does necessitate a reconciliation and intimacy with our inner world. Some of the most vital and enlivened Tibetan Buddhist monks, including the Dali Lama, spend at least one hour a day contemplating death. As part of their training, many spend hours sitting silently in morgues being fully present with dead bodies.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, one of the great minds of the Enlightenment was René Descartes who succinctly articulated the essence of his era, namely, “I think, therefore, I am.” This from a man who was virtually never held as a child and rejected by his father when his mother died from giving birth to René. Since Descartes, the Enlightenment and its inevitable legacy, industrial civilization, have endeavored to take us far away from our bodies and souls and seduce us into being somewhere else.
But in order to be fully here, we have to descend. The Enlightenment took us “there,” but the Endarkenment, a phrase coined by author Michael Ventura, will compel us to be “here.” The Enlightenment doesn’t like darkness, but in fact, all creativity, even life itself, comes from darkness and emptiness. So when the darkness descends, a time of extraordinary creativity is available to us.
Navigating the Age of Endarkenment is not about physical survival although who would not prefer survival to the alternative—unless the alternative is a fate worse than death? The Enlightenment was all about becoming something other than human—other than we are. Endarkenment demands that we come into intimate contact with the deeper self within us and within all beings. The way out is through, not above, under, around, but through. Yet even as we descend and then soar, it is crucial to remember that, at some point, another descent is inevitable. The life/death/life cycle is inherent in our existence.
Greer’s blog post is asking us to “learn how to get along with the non-rational side of our inner lives.” He is extremely vague in telling us how we might do this but suggests general study of psychology, philosophy, religion, and magic, emphasizing that we pursue whatever in these disciplines appeals to us. All he asks, really, is that we open to the non-rational side of ourselves and allow it to call us to whatever paths resonate. Moreover, says Greer, “The recognition that these two transformations, the outer and the inner, work in parallel and have to be carried out together is the missing piece that the sustainability movements of the Seventies never quite caught.” And I would add, that a plethora of movements have not caught this piece precisely because they did not deeply examine the binary legacy of the Enlightenment.
The haunting question of the moment is: Will we again miss the fundamental integration of the inner and the outer, or will we at last recognize their inextricable correlation? Will we be so obsessed with surviving that we fail to enliven ourselves by way of rich contemplation of our own death?
One of my favorite questions to those who argue against the relevance of the non-rational is simply: How will you live with yourself as poverty/disease/ collapse/climate change/peak oil/ intensifies? I heartily concur with author and storyteller Michael Meade when he asserts: “When a person learns to become who they already are at their core, they find a way to live with themselves in dark times.”