The traveler has to knock at every alien door to come to his own, and one has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost shrine at the end.
Nearly every day I speak with people who are confused, bewildered, disoriented, or conversely, extraordinarily clear about what is happening to them. A few years, months, or weeks earlier, they began waking up to the predicament of earth and its plethora of species. I often ask them to tell me their story—not so much their personal story, but the story of their awakening to the collapse of industrial civilization or peak oil or catastrophic climate change. As they unpack their story, we often begin speaking of it as a journey—a journey of epiphany, of awakening, of coming to consciousness.
What I invariably recognize in my own journey of awakening and theirs is that once any human being allows certain realities to penetrate a few layers of denial, they have embarked on a journey from which there is no return. The unconscious mind in concert with the denial mechanisms, some of which are innate and some of which we have been inculcated with, tend to work overtime to ensure that specific realities will be almost immediately excluded from our awareness. Nevertheless, as hard as the defense mechanisms may exert themselves, occasionally, and for the most part for reasons we cannot yet ascertain, some disturbing facts take root in the brain and nervous system. This triggers certain bodily and emotional responses whereby one has the choice to ignore, rationalize, minimize, or unequivocally reject the facts, or on the other hand, ask more questions, delve deeper, and risk receiving even more disturbing information.
People often ask me: Why is that some people wake up, and others don’t? I can’t answer that question. What I do know with certainty, however, is that once one has allowed certain facts to implant themselves in consciousness, there is no turning back. Often, without consciously realizing it, we “sign up” for a journey from which there is no return and which will alter everything in our lives, including and especially, ourselves.
For example, let’s say that a hypothetical guy named Gus somewhere around the year 2002 hears about peak oil. His interest in energy and technology engenders a certain fascination with the topic. He continues to research the concept, and eventually he realizes that peak oil necessarily means the end of industrial civilization, the dissolution of all institutions and centralized systems on earth, and eventually, the death of a significant number of human beings. Perhaps Gus is deeply disturbed for many weeks or months, consumes more than the usual amount of alcohol, and yet, he cannot extricate himself from researching the topic. Perhaps he’s convinced himself that if he just knows more and more and more and researches the topic until he cannot read another word, somehow, his intellectual understanding of the topic will provide him with some advantage over the other poor bastards who don’t know what he’s finding out. But with every new piece of information, Gus has to choose whether or not to continue researching the topic or go back to sleep.
After many months or years of research, Gus begins preparing himself and his family for the eventualities of peak oil. You know the drill: food and water storage, solar panels on the house, reskilling, permaculture courses, weapons training, first responder training, and everything else that usually follows the typical “End of Suburbia” moment.
And then a few years later, Gus hears about climate change. It’s bad. He knows this. But peak oil is really bad, and now he’s hearing about climate change, and he’s also hearing people talk about a global economic crash—and worse, he’s hearing some people connect all three of these terrible realities and refer to them as the “Three E’s.” Gus thinks to himself: Damn, peak oil is enough to deal with, but now I have to worry about climate change and economic meltdown.
Again, Gus has a choice. Theoretically, he could go home and announce to his wife and kids that all this stuff about peak oil was wrong and apologize for being so extreme and just go back to the trance of his ordinary life. But something happened to Gus on the way to the fiftieth peak oil website. He learned more than he is now capable of denying. One of the choices Gus has is to end his life, but more is at stake here than his own peace of mind. He adores his wife and kids, and so he chooses to go on.
The climate change thing is getting far worse, and now it’s beginning to look like it’s driving the train, so to speak. It’s the engine, economic collapse is the freight car, and maybe peak oil is now the caboose. So now he begins researching climate change like there’s no tomorrow (again, so to speak), and his mind is flooded with numbers like 350 parts per million and 4 degrees centigrade and words like self-reinforcing feedback loops. He’s really worried about the future of his kids and all of life on earth. At this point, Gus would really like to return to just thinking and talking about peak oil, but he can’t because deep in the pit of his stomach, he knows that climate change is happening much faster than the consequences of peak oil. And in fact, even if he just focused on peak oil, he’s watched that movie “Gasland,” and he now realizes that peak oil, fracking, and climate catastrophe travel together.
Then one day, Gus hears a presentation by Guy McPherson, and he’s reeling. There’s nothing that can numb what he’s feeling. But wait. Maybe McPherson’s research isn’t quite accurate. Maybe all this stuff about near-term extinction and the planet becoming mostly uninhabitable by 2030 is just bad science. So Gus spends another ten hours online and compares McPherson’s facts with those of another one hundred people. A little extreme, he thinks to himself about the McPherson data, but it’s now 2012, and he’s reading all those disastrous extreme weather reports in mainstream news. Oh my God, he thinks, this climate change stuff is really happening fast. The planet is heating up more rapidly than anyone could have imagined.
Right here, Gus has another choice to make. He can keep arguing about the science, which he has every right to do, or he can do something else. He can admit to himself that he’s profoundly scared. But then he was profoundly scared when he first heard about peak oil and when he first learned about global economic collapse. Yet he didn’t go back to sleep. Fortunately, Gus can discuss these issues with his wife, and he’s also found a Transition group where he can talk about some of this stuff. He’s on Facebook every day, and there’s a Near-Term Extinction support group there, and he’s networking with those folks like there’s no tomorrow (so to speak).
Well, as if all of this weren’t bad enough, it’s been over a year since the Fukushima disaster, and the Internet is now flooded with conflicting reports about what happened there, how much radiation was blasted all over the planet, and what the long-term effects for life on earth might be. Another choice-point. Damn, Gus thinks to himself—peak oil, economic collapse, catastrophic climate change, near-term extinction, and now Fukushima. At this point, Gus stops thinking just about the future of his children and starts thinking about his own future as well. Then it hits him like a ton of bricks: I’m going to die. Yes, my children won’t have a future, but perhaps I don’t either. At the age of forty-something, he’s in the midst of an existential crisis.
Gus finally has the worst of all realizations. He’s a huge fan of bringing down industrial civilization as quickly as possible because of what it’s doing to the planet and all species, but now he realizes that if civilization were to collapse, in a short time, over 400 nuclear power plants around the world would begin to melt down because they require an electrical grid in order to operate. Another “Oh my God!” moment. Now Gus realizes that humanity is between the most dire rock and hard place it’s ever experienced. Bring down civilization, and the planet gets thoroughly radiated. Don’t bring down civilization, and catastrophic climate change kills the planet anyway.
It’s as if back in 2002 Gus reluctantly boarded a train somewhere in Pleasantville. The name of the station where the train originated was “Peak Oil.” The next stop was “Climate Change.” Gus could have gotten off there and returned to Pleasantville, but he chose to stay on the train. Next stop: “Global Economic Collapse.” Again, a choice to dis-embark. He didn’t. Now the tracks to and from all three stations are connected. But somewhere in the maze of those tracks, he encounters another station, “Catastrophic Climate Change,” where Gus does not get off but rides on to the next station, “Near-Term Extinction.” Staying on the train at this point was almost unbearable, but after all the miles and miles of track, after all the time, resources, and emotional energy invested, how could he just get off the train? Thinking that “Near-Term Extinction” was the very worst destination imaginable, Gus learns that the next station is “Fukushima,” and now he knows he can’t even think of getting off the train because Fukushima isn’t a destination. It’s a place one passes through on the way to the end of the line where the tracks end, and all life forms dis-embark.
I suspect that if you are reading these words, you can identify with the previous story because you are on a similar journey. Perhaps you have not framed your experience in terms of a journey, but for me, the image is useful. It is a journey characterized by a number of distinct features.
1) When confronting a new piece of information about our planetary predicament, each of us chooses whether to ingest and assimilate the information or not. If we are kind to ourselves, we ingest a bit of it, allow it to distill, and then acquire more when we feel ready. Furthermore, genuine kindness to ourselves also means that we pay attention to the emotions that are stirred—fear, anger, grief, despair, and more. Rather than attempting to flee from uncomfortable feelings by engaging in intellectual debates about the accuracy of the information with which we are confronted, we notice our emotions even as we engage in deliberation.
2) Early on, our journey appears to be nothing more than a project of gathering information. As we progress, we may experience it as our principal survival tool. As with the hypothetical Gus, we tell ourselves that because “knowledge is power,” the more we know, the more can protect ourselves and our loved ones.
3) At some point in the journey, we move beyond simply gathering information, and rather than our owning the journey, it begins to own us. Invariably, whether we consent or not, we enter territory that I can only describe as “spiritual.” In writing about spiritual journeys, my friend and colleague, Terry Chapman defines it as “the ongoing, transformative, experience of intentional, conscious engagement with what the sojourner perceives as the presence of divinity.” Another word for divinity might be “the sacred,” or “something greater or even “existential” —issues having to do with meaning and purpose. Typically, people on such a journey choose to arrange their lives not so much around survival as around service. The core issue of one’s life becomes not, how long can I stay alive, but how can I contribute to the earth community? One becomes infused with compassion and gratitude. No day, no being, no experience is ordinary, but rather, imbued with meaning.
4) Whether we acknowledge it early or late in the journey, we eventually grasp that what we are ultimately confronting is our own death. The sooner we can honestly confront our mortality, allowing ourselves to actually feel it in the body, the easier it becomes to ingest and assimilate more distressing information. For example, when I have led some people in a “die before you die” exercise, they have often told me that once they sat with their own death and how it might actually feel, they felt more capacity to face not only near-term extinction but a variety of losses and catastrophes.
Any journey of consciousness eventually, in one way or other, compels us to confront two very different aspects of ourselves, namely the ego and the deeper self. We need both in order to function in a body on this planet. During the first half of life the ego drives us to acquire knowledge, forge a career, establish significant relationships, and hone our skills. We make our way and our mark in the world through the ego and its machinations. Then at some juncture during midlife, the human psyche begins to expand beyond ego pursuits and gratifications. We enter a time of reflection in which we are quite naturally drawn to ponder not merely the contents of our earlier life, but more specifically, the person who lived it.
To those who argue that there is no meaning or purpose for our human experience, I would first of all say: I’m sorry for your loss. I would then wonder about the age of the person making the statement. “Life is meaningless” is a first-half-of-life declaration. Yet even if one makes the statement in the second half of life, I must ask: If life is devoid of meaning, why have humans for billions of years attempted to make meaning of their experiences? I do not know if other species attempt to find meaning in their experience, but I can’t imagine telling Beethoven or Van Gogh or Shakespeare that life is meaningless.
Throughout human history our species has used both art and ritual to make meaning. Not surprising since the literal definition of ritual is “to fit together.” Art serves a similar purpose in that it gathers the fragments of sound, color, texture, light, shadow, movement, and poetic verse to heal what is broken within us or simply offer new opportunities to recognize our wholeness. When we make either art or ritual, we are acknowledging that making meaning is possible and that it matters to our soul and the soul of the other.
Someone has said that the difference between a Greek comedy and a Greek tragedy is that when the play ends, the protagonist in the comedy knows who he is, whereas the protagonist in the tragedy does not. Indeed this is the difference between a life committed to meaninglessness and one committed to making meaning.
Waking up to anything—collapse, near-term extinction, the aftermath of Fukushima necessarily involves suffering. However, before the reader infers more from this word than is intended, let me emphasize that whatever form, texture, or degree of severity suffering takes, it can most fundamentally be defined as the loss of control. Moreover, I believe that this is the most terrifying aspect of making the choice to stay on the train and not dis-embark until the end of the line because loss of control and the end of the line are inextricably connected. For the industrially civilized psyche, loss of control feels like death because it is the death of the ego. And in fact, our consummate duty in the journey of consciousness is to intentionally assist the ego in breathing its last breath on a daily basis. Obviously, we need the ego in order to function in a body on this planet, but in this culture, the ego has been forced to ingest a regimen of steroids since birth.
Becoming conscious means that we flush the steroids and have a serious conversation with the ego about its proper place in the psyche. If we are committed to waking up, it will feel as if the ego is (and we are) dying many times throughout the day. However, in this constant conflagration between the ego and the deeper self, we have an advantage in the form of another aspect of the psyche that we might call the “neutral witness.” It is the part of us that can stand outside the ego and simply observe its incessant flailing. The neutral witness doesn’t have to do anything but simply observe the entire drama. The more time we spend in neutral witness, the easier (never easy) it becomes to allow the ego to find or flail into its proper place.
As we continue our ticklish and tricky dance with the ego, we are likely to experience more compassion, more generosity, more open-hearted receptivity, more spontaneity, more harmonious human relationships, more intimacy with the earth and the more-than-human world, and more passion in our resistance to the civilized death machine. Additionally, we are likely to become more aware of and sensitive to what Paul Levy describes as Malignant Egophrenia or the “ME Disease” of our culture. With time and commitment to the practice, that is, the practice of staying on the train and abiding in the neutral witness position, it may become possible to begin each day by asking, “What needs to die in me today, and how can I assist the process?”
Eventually, death becomes not a symbolic surrender but a literal necessity, and the question of what needs to die in me today becomes a declaration that today is a good day to die. For this is indeed is the culmination of all spiritual teaching and the destiny toward which every being is headed from the moment of birth.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that staying on the train is a full-time job and that in doing so, there is little chance of maintaining business as usual. Sometimes the speed of the train feels painfully slow, as if one is riding on the little engine that could. At other times, one feels hurled through time and space on a bullet train. In either situation, whether consciously or unconsciously, all passengers on this train have signed up for a spiritual, as well as historical, intellectual, and physical journey, and it is no longer possible to live ordinary lives in extraordinary times.
You may have boarded the train believing that you were on a journey through literal time and space, encountering the dissolution of the external landscape. In fact, when you boarded the train, you embarked on a journey in quite the opposite direction which Rumi describes brilliantly:
You lack a foot to travel?
Then journey into yourself
And like a mine of rubies
receive the sunbeam’s print
Out of yourself such a journey
will lead you to your self,
It leads to transformation
of dust into pure gold!