HOW TO STAY SANE IN AN INSANE WORLD
But the time is not a strong prison either.
A little scraping of the walls of dishonest contractor’s concrete
Through a shower of chips and sand makes freedom.
Shake the dust from your hair.
This mountain sea-coast is real
For it reaches out far into the past and future;
It is part of the great and timeless excellence of things.
From the poem ‘A Little Scraping’ by Robinson Jeffers
All of us here are alive at a very unusual time in the history of the world. Some scientists are warning that humanity may not survive beyond this century and all sorts of predictions about impending catastrophes are being evoked, often in relation to the year 2012. So these are worrying times to be alive.
Some people respond by saying that every age has been scared of extinction – Millenarians prepared for the end of the world in 1000; prophets predicting doom have regularly appeared and have disappointed their followers by continuing to be alive beyond their ‘due date’; during the Cold War we were scared of humanity being destroyed by nuclear warfare, and here we still are, and so on. But a little thought tells us that the situation we are now in is different.
At least five factors are all converging to make the present status of civilisation unsustainable. Something has to give, something has to change. These five factors, all interrelated, are: the population explosion, climate change, resource depletion, environmental degradation from pollution and the destruction of habitats, and species extinction.
Like five runaway trains heading for the same destination the outcome is hardly going to be pleasant, and their arrival seems imminent. The trouble is we’re all sitting right where these trains are headed – in the eco-system itself.
So this is a very frightening thought. We’re at a time of crisis. There’s plenty of information out there about these factors, and indeed about what we can do individually and collectively to try to mitigate the situation – from living in a more eco-friendly way to looking at community and global solutions. So in this talk I’m not going to address these – not because they are not important – quite the contrary – but because others are doing this very well and there is a wealth of resources to turn to for this information.
The Gold Hidden in the Darkness
Instead I want to focus on the question of whether there is anything positive hidden within this time of crisis. Psychotherapy and the metaphor of alchemy are good at attempting to unearth the gold hidden in the darkness of the prima materia, or in the ‘darkness’ of a person’s experience or unconscious. In the past, alchemists even reasoned that if the ‘highest’ was hidden in the ‘lowest’ then gold or the elixir of life would be hidden within the lowest of matter: excrement. And so they tried working with that to get their results. Although they were wrong at a material level, at the psychological and spiritual level many believe they were on to something, and since humanity is now in ‘deep shit’, maybe an alchemical perspective can help us understand what is happening – to extract whatever gold there is out of the situation.
Some thinkers are now talking about this time as one of great potential – as a time of collective initiation, or of a great ‘shift’ in consciousness. And it’s not just New Age prophets who might be deluded, who are saying this. Deep thinkers like the neo-Jungian analyst James Hillman writes: “The world, because of its breakdown, is entering a new moment of consciousness: by drawing attention to itself by means of its symptoms, it is becoming aware of itself as a psychic reality.”
Now either this is all just nonsense – we’ve made the most incredible mess of the world and the ship is about to go down, and experts as we are at rationalisation, we are telling ourselves that something wonderful is really occurring, or it’s not nonsense and we are in fact living through one of the most exciting and potentially rewarding moments in the story of humanity.
Even though we might be tempted to say “Oh I just can’t cope with this New Age mumbo-jumbo. I’m off to the wilderness to grow beans, or – more likely – pour myself another drink and switch on the telly,” I think it’s worth pursuing the question “What if it’s true? What if there is gold hidden in the depths of this situation that seems so hopeless?”
The reward, if this is the case, is huge – which is why it’s worth pursuing this question. If it’s true, we can move from living in a state of fear to living with hope and trust in life. Given the size of the pay-off it’s worth a few minutes of our time, so let’s go!
Our Response to the Present Situation – a Third Way
I don’t know how you’ve been feeling lately, but I would imagine we are all sensing roughly the same things. An image of how I’m feeling is this: my duvet doesn’t work any more. When things got bad, when I read or heard too much about how deeply we are in a mess, I used to be able to hide under the duvet. It was warm in there, there was someone to cuddle up with, a glass of whisky, even a television, so it was a sort of hide-out against the harshness of the world. But the water has got in now, the draught keeps coming in. I can’t hide from the painfulness of reality – of food riots, micro-plastic in the seas, the melting of the Tibetan plateau – with those strategies any more. It feels like there’s nowhere for my consciousness to hide.
Once you’ve taken on board the enormity of the situation it’s hard to go back to being in denial. But of course there is a great swathe of humanity who simply aren’t aware of how serious things are. Their thoughts and concerns are focussed on other issues – getting enough food to eat, struggling with economic and health problems, or perhaps just shopping.
Once you’ve woken up to the situation, though, it can feel very odd – there is a sort of mismatch between the information you have and what is happening in your daily life. You know this stuff intellectually, you may feel the pain of it emotionally, but experientially in your day-to-day life you are driving into town, going to work, and everything seems to be ‘business as usual.’ This creates a peculiar kind of discomfort: like dishonesty it produces a split in your awareness – it’s as if we’re all living a kind of lie that at some moment will get found out and will bring the world as we know it crashing down around us.
So is that it? Do we have to be either informed and therefore scared and miserable, or uninformed and therefore as happy as larks? I believe we don’t have to be caught between the ‘devil and the deep blue sea’ of being either unaware, and hence ignorant, or of being aware and consequently frightened and confused.
Instead there is a third way that faces reality – recognising the critical nature of this moment in the world’s history – but which is also hopeful: that is anchored in a different way of understanding and experiencing life, a way that is open to the opportunity for transformation this moment represents.
Finding a Safe Harbour
Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.
Images related to water come naturally when contemplating this issue. In the Druid tradition Spirit is depicted as emerging from springs or wells as a force that brings inspiration and life to the world. It comes from deep underground, and in the Irish myth of King Cormac and Manannan MacLir the source of the river Boyne is depicted as feeding five streams, which represent the five senses. The wise are said to drink from each of these streams and from the pool itself. Part of the spiritual journey can be characterised as reconnecting with your ‘source’ of spiritual nourishment, your sense of who you are as a spiritual being in the world, and connecting with an awareness of something beyond you, or deep within you, that is transpersonal, which nourishes you at a soul level.
In psychology, the unconscious is often depicted as a sea, which can be calm and tranquil on the surface but which can have monsters lurking in its depths. But once we learn how to swim and dive – how to negotiate the realm of the unconscious through dream analysis, through befriending it, and as we go deeper, with psycho-spiritual techniques, such as meditation and shamanic journeying, we discover that the ocean is full of wonders. And this metaphor teaches us that to gain wisdom we need to dive, to go deeper, beneath the surface, and to do that we need two things: courage and techniques. Courage to face our fears, to dare to ‘lose sight of the shore’, and techniques to help us navigate and avoid drowning.
As we go deeper in confronting our fears about what is happening to the world we are likely to discover that we have been frightened of allowing into our consciousness a full awareness of the truly awful state of affairs and the suffering involved. We have been scared of allowing more fear into our lives, and of opening even more than we have already, to the grief and sense of loss we would feel. This is important work to do, but again this is not the focus of this talk. The Buddhist teacher Joanna Macy has developed a very good way of working with this, and I’m sure others too, so let’s not reinvent the wheel (Joanna Macy terms this process ‘the Work that Reconnects’ which is designed to assist the ‘Great Turning’ that she sees happening, saying “The Great Turning is a name for the essential adventure of our time: the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization.” See www.joannamacy.net). Instead let’s note it as an important work to be done and move on, to try to answer the question “After we’ve fully allowed ourselves to get upset about what is happening, what shall we do next?”
We need to dive deep, to drink from the source, to connect to meaning and purpose, and work out how we can maintain some sense of stability in this crazy world. But how do we do this when we sense a storm coming? Economist are talking about ‘the perfect storm’ that may be on its way, but an economic storm is only the tip of the iceberg – to keep using these watery analogies. To remain anchored, or to find our anchorage we need to find a safe harbour.
Getting Into Position – From Fearfulness to Fearlessness
In trying to find a safe harbour many people are now scrambling to position themselves so they can weather the storm, but the position they are seeking is a material one – trying to ensure that they will physically survive. Of course it is perfectly reasonable to be taking steps to downsize, to move to the country and so on, but there is a line we want to avoid crossing, that moves us from trying to live more sustainably, to adopting a ‘survivalist’ mentality where we are living out of reactivity and fear.
How can we move from a position of fearfulness to fearlessness when contemplating the future?
In the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway bet ten dollars that he could write a complete story in just six words. He won the bet by writing: ‘For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.’ The BBC are now encouraging readers to write six-word stories or autobiographies. Here’s one that very much relates to the topic we’re exploring: ‘Wasted my whole life getting comfortable’.
Ask yourself this: “How much of my life have I spent getting into position?” In other words, how long have you spent manoeuvering yourself towards the point at which you can say ‘This it! This is the life I want to be leading!’ Psychologists sometimes call this ‘provisional living’, whereby you tell yourself that you’ll truly come alive, truly be fulfilled and optimally creative when you’ve moved, married, divorced, retired or whatever. So much of our culture is based on it, it’s hard to resist. When the mortgage is paid then you’ll really be free, when you move to the country, when you no longer have to earn a living, when, when, when…and then of course you die.
Most people in the developed countries suffer from this. Most of us are trying to ‘get into position’, and the current time of concern about the future is increasing the sense of having to do this to a fever pitch. Most of the people I know are in this boat – trying to downsize, or second-guess the situation so they can ride out the storm and stay safe.
Truth is paradoxical and at one level it is reasonable to work towards goals such as sustainable living and decreased work loads, but at another level we need to stop ourselves and ask “To what extent am I being driven by the story line: ‘I’m wasting my whole life trying to get comfortable?’ Or perhaps: ‘Wasting my life trying to escape what may happen.’
The Moment of Initiation
It’s so easy to fall into the trap of worrying about the future, and in fact anyone who read the Club of Rome’s report on the state of the planet thirty years ago could well have been worrying for the last three decades. And worrying makes you sick.
I followed a spiritual teacher for a while in the 1980s who taught that world disasters were on the horizon, and as a result some of his followers didn’t bother to paint their houses or take university courses, and here we are 20 years later.
When AIDS first hit a friend tells me that many gays in the USA maxed out their credit cards because they thought they would be dead long before the bailiffs arrived. Many of them are now struggling to pay off their debts.
So worrying about the future to such an extent is a mug’s game. But there is another approach we can take – which is to stare the future in the face, without denial, fully acknowledging the risks we perceive, but also aware of the fact that we do not really know what will happen. And at the same time we can open ourselves to the enormous potential that exists in the present moment.
Becoming aware of the current situation can actually provoke us to make a choice between a life of fearlessness, living in the present moment, or a life filled with fear for the future. Eckhart Tolle in his books The Power of Now and A New Earth deals with this subject with great clarity and wisdom, and it is heartening to see how many people are responding to this idea: his webcasts with Oprah Winfrey on ‘A New Earth’ have been downloaded 11 million times just in the last few weeks.
Here’s the question to entertain: What if this present situation is it? What if the moment of initiation, the moment of opening to your true nature at the soul-level and surrendering to it, is now, not tomorrow, when you’re in the ideal rustic situation that combines wilderness with easy access to facilities?!
When the home of our planet is threatened, our feelings of homelessness are intensified, and we want more than ever to feel at home in the world. But throughout the ages spiritual teachings have explained that our home is at a very deep level beyond the physical. This is not to deny the importance of the physical manifest world, but simply to acknowledge that it is only one level of reality.
Perhaps the potential contained at this time of crisis is this: that it can help us to let go of provisional living precisely because it intensifies the search to ‘find our home’ to an almost unbearable point. And if we will let it, the intensity of this yearning can lead us to the point of surrender, to acceptance of the ‘What Is’, that will lead us to break through, to find the safe harbour, the farther shore, which is not outside, but inside.
And in doing this, the distinction between inner and outer, manifest and unmanifest worlds, dissolves and we find ourselves here – now – at home in the world at last, cherishing the Earth and all of Nature.
From this overview or ‘primary perspective’ let’s move on now to look at some specific suggestions as to how we might be able to not only ‘stay sane in an insane world’ but how we might actually use this time as an opportunity to develop spiritually.
As a reminder, the focus here is not on the legitimate questions ‘How do we solve the world’s problems, or how do we create a better future for the Earth and humanity?’ Instead this essay is attempting to answer a different question, which is ‘How can we relate to our perception the world situation in a way that is positive – that moves us from being fearful to being hopeful’. To explore the former questions a good starting point is The Club of Budapest’s site and this introductory video:
You might also like to look at fellow Chief Druid, John Michael Greer’s blog, The Archdruid Report, which offers excellent analysis of the current situation and informative comments from readers. You can find his April 30th post ‘Not the End of the World’ here.
STRATEGIES FOR STAYING SANE IN AN INSANE WORLD
Strategy 1 – Finding the Doors, Holding them Open, Showing them to Others, Walking Through them
‘In every human being there is a Heaven – whole and unbroken.’
Roger and Joan Evans at the Institute of Psychosynthesis in London developed a helpful way to relate to therapy clients. Adopting a stance which they termed ‘bifocal vision’ they suggested that you see your client both as ‘messed up’ and ‘whole’ at the same time – as if wearing bifocal glasses. Rather than being idealistic, focusing just on their ‘perfect soul’, or purely pragmatic, just focusing on their woundedness, the Psychosynthesis therapist is urged to relate to their client in the belief that they’re both whole and broken – at the same time – at different levels.
We can apply this same method of perception towards life and the world – facing the fact that it is messed up in many ways and yet seeing its beauty and sensing its perfection. This perspective avoids the traps of both denial and despair.
At the heart of all spiritual approaches lies the belief that this world that we know through our five senses is not the only reality. Instead ‘earthly life’ is seen as just one expression of Life, and there is a belief in other worlds, a heaven or heavens, or even parallel universes – an idea now being explored at the farther reaches of physics.
Many of these approaches also believe that the physical universe emerges out of this Otherworld, and in certain cosmologies this emergence is seen as cyclical so that the ‘Manifest (physical) world’ is periodically reabsorbed by the ‘Unmanifest (Other)world’.
This idea parallels the conception of the soul which ‘manifests’ in a physical body for a certain time before returning to its source. With this understanding, both the Earth and our bodies are manifestations in the dimensions of Time and Space of Beings whose source is in the Otherworld, in another dimension.
If you believe this, then adopting bifocal vision means simply that you remember to be aware of both levels, and you sense yourself as being anchored in the world of Source and Soul. The story of the source of the river Boyne, the Well of Segais, mentioned earlier, offers a graphic description of this process by reminding us to drink from the well as well as from the five streams that flow from it.
The prime function of a spirituality can be seen as this: to provide doorways, portals, gateways through which people can access the Source, the Otherworld, (or Deity in other ways of speaking about these things). People, books, organisations and places can all act as these portals between the ‘messed up’ world and the ‘parallel universe’ of the Otherworld – the Source.
Pilgrimage to sacred places, reading books that awaken our spiritual awareness, talking to, listening to, or communing with spiritual friends and teachers, following a particular path, meditating, and so on are all ways of opening to the Other – of switching our vision for a time from the bottom lens of the bifocals to the top, or to use a more evocative image: of finding the doors, holding them open, showing them to others, and walking through them.
We see this idea reflected in children’s fiction that deals with magic, since almost always the story is based upon the process of moving from the everyday world into another more magical world, as in C.S.Lewis’ Narnia stories where a wardrobe acts as a portal.
This idea of ‘Gateways’ between the realms is central to the spiritual path. Each tradition will speak about this in different ways – as an example, in the Jain tradition the 24 great teachers are known as Tirthankaras, which means ‘Ford-makers’ – suggesting they help create a bridge/ford/gateway between this and the Otherworld, between normal consciousness and a spiritualised consciousness. The founder of the Baha’i religion was known as ‘the Bab’ which means ‘gate’. In Druidry, natural features or deliberately placed stones or trees form magical gateways that can help us access other realities, and the banner photo on this blog shows the ‘Long Man of Wilmington’ in the Sussex landscape, who also seems to be creating a gateway for us, reminding us of Novalis’ statement that ‘Visible and invisible, two worlds meet in man.’ This idea is strongly evident in shamanism in the process whereby the shaman makes journeys into the Otherworld to bring back healing, or knowledge that will help in the manifest world.
All these things – teachers, teachings, sacred places, practices such as ritual and meditation – have as their purpose the creation and maintenance of gateways so that there can be traffic, commerce, connection – a flow – between the worlds. And in this period of instability they take on an increasing importance as anchor points that can help to stabilise us by anchoring us in Spirit.
Strategy 2 – Using the Crisis as a Call to Presence, to Source, to True Identity
Have you ever had the experience when a crisis is occurring that a part of you is excited, pleased even? I’m thinking here not of a crisis that involves suffering, but one in which there is some danger and drama that wakes you up so you become suddenly fully present. This was strongest for me in my first experience of an earthquake in New Zealand, and then later in a bush fire that threatened the house we were staying in. At one level I was scared and yet at another level I was excited – suddenly everything was so intense, so vivid.
When a crisis occurs, or there is a threat to our survival, we can function at the level of a stimulus-response mechanism, just seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, or we can use the immediacy of the drama unfolding to awaken to a way of being that goes beyond the survival instinct to locate our awareness at a level that feels more real, more like our true identity. This is why it is a mistake to think only of the current situation in terms of ‘How can I save my skin?’ Running away from something never feels as good as running towards something.
I am not suggesting we run towards danger or life-threatening situations, but instead that we don’t ‘waste our lives trying to get comfortable.’ When life is too soft and easy we can feel trapped in meaninglessness, cocooned in a safety-net underpinned by an existential void. And we don’t need to seek out a crisis to awaken to this sense of being more fully aware. The crisis is already here, wherever we are located in the world.
A cautionary note needs to be sounded though. It is one thing to use a crisis to wake ourselves up and engage more with life, and quite another thing to gloat or ‘feed’ off the drama to satisfy what Eckhart Tolle terms the ‘Pain Body’. And there is no doubt that some doom-sayers get a mysterious kick out of envisioning the worst possible outcomes, just as much of the media feeds off human misery and suffering.
One of the appeals of Nature religions like Druidry is that they encourage us to get out of the cocoon and into the wild. You know the feeling: you are sitting at home with the TV or a book, a friend says ‘Come on let’s go for a night walk’ and the lazy part of you wants to stay sitting inside, but if you accept the invitation, you find yourself wide awake as you look up at the stars and engage with world of Nature once again.
So you don’t have to use this strategy just in relation to how you think about the world situation. You can use it in how you act in the world too; by going towards experiences that engage you with the wild, and away from experiences that keep you locked in the ‘box mentality’ that tells you we must all live in a box, get our breakfast out of a box, travel in a box to a big box, where we work at a box all day, before getting back in a tin box to our brick or wooden box to relax in front of the box, before going to sleep. Until, of course, we are carried out in a box…
Instead this strategy calls us to embrace life – even the unpredictable, wild side of life – and to use the urgency of the current situation as a call to a greater engagement with the world. To do this, the next strategy will help us…
Strategy 3 – Embracing Uncertainty
‘Non-egoic consciousness is characterised by freedom from having any investment in things being a certain way and, above all, being willing to enter death fearlessly. Non-egoic consciousness is free from emotionality and characterised by clarity, wisdom and compassion.’
‘My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.’ Michel de Montaigne
Human beings are natural scientists. As part of the evolutionary process to ensure our survival our minds are constantly hypothesising about the future and making predictions about it based on past experience and the information that we have available to us. Our minds want to cling to certainty, but the fact is that we live in an increasingly uncertain world. And if it is hard to know what the future will bring in the physical world, how much harder is it to be certain about what we call the spiritual world! Druidry is a spirituality that is deliberately agnostic with regard to theology and cosmology. Druid teachings do not specify the nature of Deity or the After-Life, which can be frustrating to the mind which longs for certainty, but which is satisfying hopefully to the Spirit, which knows that these matters lie beyond the reach of the intellect. The apparent weakness of Druidry in its lack of a defined theology and cosmology becomes its strength.
When it comes to the everyday task of living in a world of stress and worry, if you can embrace uncertainty – allowing yourself ‘not to know’ what’s going to happen to humanity and the world – you not only free yourself of anxiety, but also open yourself to the possibility of the inspiration and enthusiasm which would be denied to you if you had created ‘closure’ in your mind by believing in a certain outcome. The emotional equivalent of embracing uncertainty, surrendering to it, is the movement from fear to trust.
The bottom line is that we cannot be certain about what is going to happen, and trying to guess or predict this may be intellectually interesting, but at a practical level can lead to the problem of provisional living mentioned earlier and a ‘confusion of levels’ whereby you pin your hopes on securing a material future, rather than on obtaining the really valuable things in life: happiness, clarity, wisdom and love.
I’ll never forget a story told to me years ago by a friend who knew someone who spent his entire working life dreaming of his retirement. With great effort he saved enough money to buy a villa in Spain. On the day he retired he flew out there to fulfil his dreams. He got drunk with friends in celebration, and for a moment he forgot that the swimming pool had not yet been filled with water. He dived in and was killed instantly.
There is a danger in the current situation that we obsess about the future and seek out certainty in people or ideologies that profess to know what will happen. The way to enhance a personal relationship is simply to be fully present to it, and not to be concerned about the ‘future of the relationship’. Perhaps this applies to our relationship with the world too.
Strategy 4 – Cultivating the Mystery – Constantly turning to Source – Spiritual Practice
‘Perhaps there is something in us that needs to surrender to the mystery at the heart of this troubling uncertainty. True surrender takes trust; it is that moment when the tightness of a clenched fist relaxes and opens; it is receptiveness, a willingness to be filled no matter how empty we feel. Surrender is arms stretched wide, feeling the full force of life moving through you, trusting where it will take you, engaging with each Goddess/God given moment. We can become so paralysed by pain and fear that we forget how wonderfully joyous, vital and meaningful life is, even in the midst of the most awful challenges. When we open, when we surrender, we make space for the Mystery to enter. It is this Mystery that I trust and believe in, whether we survive or not.’
The spiritual, emotional, psychological goals we seek – of love, peace, trust, wisdom and so on – need time and the space to ‘arrive’ in our lives. It is in the silence, the gaps, the waiting, the ‘not knowing’, the reverence for the ‘Other’, that we have a chance to connect ourselves to something more than our wandering minds and anxious hearts.
Of course they’re not really ‘arriving’ – they are always there, we just need to still ourselves enough to become conscious of them, which is why spiritual practice is important. If the first strategy suggested in this essay involves finding the door or doors, then this strategy involves making sure one returns to make use of them often.
Here the time-honoured methods shared by most paths offer ways we can do this: by meditating, taking retreats, observing sacred times and honouring sacred places. By taking advantage of these we can build the spiritual practice best suited to our needs, our temperament, and our circumstances. And in following this practice we can cultivate the Mystery and return constantly to our Source.
The hope in the present time of humanity is that more and more people are discovering this – and this is what is meant by the Great Awakening, the Great Turning that we are witnessing. Finding a safe harbour involves not so much altering our physical circumstances as finding our spiritual home – the spiritual practice best suited to anchor us in our sense of the Source, the Great Mystery at the heart of Creation. This is why 11 million downloads have been made of Tolle’s work – people are turning now from a preoccupation with externals to an inner awakening.
Some, particularly those who are keen to actively fight against injustices in the world, might think this approach is selfish: “Oh great! Your solution to world problems is navel-gazing!” But to take this position would be to fail to understand the lesson of the goose that laid the golden eggs. Stephen Covey uses this idea as one of the cornerstones of his highly pragmatic and ethical approach to living effectively, as set out in his books, such as ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People’. In Aesop’s story a farmer becomes fabulously wealthy because one of his geese lays eggs made of solid gold. After a while the farmer becomes greedy and kills the goose to get the eggs out of her, rather than waiting for them to be laid. Covey suggests we need to take care of the goose (ourself) to ensure that it continues to lay golden eggs, rather than killing it through greed or neglect.
If we nourish our needs – and particularly our spiritual needs – we will be more effective activists, and less likely to suffer burn-out.
Spiritual practice offers a safeguard against burn-out. Nowadays it is so easy to feel swamped by too much information – without care it is easy to get pulled from your anchored centre by becoming preoccupied with the details of the changing world. Every day depressing and upsetting news can be heard on the radio or television. For your own sanity you need to balance the effect of this information with a turning inward to draw strength and calm, otherwise you are likely to feel destabilised – pushed off-centre – and your ability to be of help to others will be diminished. To function effectively in this world long draughts from the still pool of Segais – from the source of Awen and Nwyfre (inspiration and life-force) are vital.
Strategy 5 – Hallowing Limitation
When we can no longer change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
When faced with Parkinson’s Disease, the Quaker writer John Yungblut wrote an essay entitled ‘On Hallowing One’s Diminishments,’ in which he described a different way of thinking he had developed about his progressively diminishing capacities. Rather than grieving over loss he decided to ‘hallow’ it – to make it holy.
Sharon Astyk has taken this idea and applied it to the environmental crisis. She has a blog called Casaubon’s Book, which she describes as ‘my explorations of our future, one that cannot but be shaped by peak oil, climate change and economic instability. I believe passionately that these crises are not the end of our world, but that they must be faced squarely, honestly and with integrity in the true sense of the world – the integration of our whole lives into our ethical principles’.
In an article on her blog (quoted and developed here) she explains Yungblut’s idea and then applies it to the coming diminishments she expects we will all experience as Peak Oil, Climate Change and the economic downturn really start to bite. She calls this ‘Hallowing the Descent’, and explains how Yungblut suggests we adopt a friendly rather than adversarial stance towards our sufferings or privations, which – since they won’t go away – will help us live with them more effectively. Yungblut points out how each diminishment comes with gifts, as Astyk explains: ‘the physical limitations that come with aging also bring with them ‘the reconversion from earning a living to cultural activity’ – that is, there is time to talk to others, to think, to devote to the outside world as we retire and age’.
Yungblut then talks about the ultimate diminishment – death – and how accepting its inevitability is the most effective strategy.
I’d like to suggest another phrase which helps me apply this idea to my own life: ‘Hallowing Limitation’. Born in the post-war years, and growing up in a liberal society, I have spent most of my time immersed in a culture that has constantly pushed against limitations and restrictions. Go for gold! The sky’s the limit! has been the message, not only of consumer marketeers, but sadly of motivational psychology and much of New Age pop-spiritual-psychology – which has reached its peak in the mind-numbing materialism of ‘The Secret’, whose popularity forces us to question whether a Great Awakening really is happening!
But now we need to accept that we may be entering an era in which we will need to limit our ambitions and desires. The mind is a wonderful tool, and with the power of a good idea we can change the way we experience our lives. If rather than feeling punished by them, we are able to hallow the limitations we might start to experience, they can become our allies rather than our enemies. I wonder how many DVDs and books ‘The Next Secret’ would sell – which shows the way to happiness is the path taught by most spiritual traditions since time immemorial: that of limiting our desires and expectations, so we can open to the blissful awareness that exists beyond the desire body.
If this is too esoteric for you, here’s a down-to-earth image that illustrates the gifts that limitation might harbour – imagine losing access to the television!
Hallowing the Descent, Hallowing Diminishments, Hallowing Limitation – it all boils down to opening ourselves to the gifts that ‘Less’ has to offer: the gifts that silence can bring, that Being rather than Having or Doing can bring.
Strategy 6 – Shifting Your Focus from Money to Culture, from Owning to Learning & Appreciating, from Consumerism to Creation & Participation
Doesn’t need explaining much does it? How much richer our lives would be if we made these shifts!
Frequency Holding and Rocking the Boat
So you’ve organised your life to have enough time to take care of yourself as the golden goose – you embrace uncertainty, cultivate the Mystery, and avoid getting destabilised by too much focus on external information. You hallow limitation, let go of provisional living, and open to being fully present in the Here and Now. You develop a spiritual practice best suited to you.
These strategies can help you live more effectively in the world, and can help you relate to life and the future with less fear and anxiety. Not put into practice they are ‘just ideas’, but there is a power in ideas when they are acted upon, even when they result in only apparently minor adjustments to one’s perceptions or attitudes. Just as changing the course of a ship one degree in its direction as it leaves Europe will radically change the destination it reaches on the other side of the Atlantic, so applying these ideas can result in radical changes to our experience of being alive.
All the ideas and suggestions discussed so far have turned around the question “How can I keep myself anchored in Spirit – in hope and with an enthusiasm and optimism that will help me cope with the instability that I see around me?”
Is it all about ‘me’ then? No!
As a result of working with these strategies you should find it easier to be of service, to be a ‘force for good’ in the world. In what ways you do this will depend upon your abilities and circumstances – and indeed your life purpose or ‘mission’. And it’s important to understand that simply working with the strategies mentioned will have an impact beyond yourself – you will be thinking, feeling, and acting differently, which will change the way you affect the world around you. It is also important to realise that much of the mess we’ve got ourselves into as a species has come from our obsession with doing rather than being. Being of value, becoming a spiritual anchor or source of support in the world, does not necessitate grand gestures or ambitious projects. Simply changing the nature of our being, cultivating and enhancing it, is of itself helpful.
Eckhart Tolle gives a name to people whose primary role seems to be radiating a certain energy, maintaining a certain level of consciousness, rather than engaging in any specific outward acts. He calls them ‘Frequency Holders’: ‘Their task is to bring spacious stillness into this world by being absolutely present in whatever they do.’(Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth, Penguin, 2006 p.307) In another age they would be called ‘contemplatives’. Tolle sees their role as just as vital as that of creators, doers and reformers.
But what if you are a doer? What if you want to actively engage in trying to change the world?
Ervin Laszlo, founder of the Club of Budapest, specialises in systems theory, and in his recent book The Chaos Point – The World at The Crossroads, he uses Chaos Theory to explain how we have arrived at a critical juncture in history, where individuals can actually make a difference more effectively than at any time before – precisely because the situation is now so unstable. His book goes into the detail of how this is so, but one image should convey the process simply: imagine you are on a small boat in a calm sea. If you stand up and start rocking the boat, it is likely to stay buoyant. Imagine a storm breaking and the sea starting to churn. Rock the boat now and you might well tip it over. In unstable situations Chaos theory demonstrates that small changes can have major, and totally unpredictable effects. There has never been a better time to get radical and to act for change.
Whether you are a Frequency Holder or a Boat Rocker your goal is to be of service, to be of use, of value, to the world and to others. That’s because we all have within us a fifth instinct.
Feeding the Flame – Strengthening the Unselfish Gene
Our instincts are powerful motivators and the cause of much human behaviour and misbehaviour. When outer circumstances become difficult we have a tendency to regress to instinctual behaviour. A classic example is the way in which communities of different ethnic groups live peacefully side by side until war comes and suddenly neighbour starts fighting neighbour.
Traditionally psychologists have talked about ‘The Four Effs’: feeding, fighting, fleeing and reproducing, but I believe there is a fifth instinct which, to keep to the mnemonic, we can name the ‘flame within’ that longs to help, heal, nurture and protect, or ‘fostering’ which longs to nourish and serve. Some might see it as a feminine instinct – and the flame that of the goddess Brighid.
Think of the example I cited of different sides of a community fighting itself, such as in Rwanda, Bosnia, or Northern Ireland. Although most of the stories emerging from these regions were of conflict, we also heard of certain people who didn’t respond in that way – who acted not out of fear or aggression but out of love and a desire to make the world a better place. They were operating from the Fifth Instinct – the desire to serve, to be of use, to give to the world.
Why do so many people want to be healers? Why do so many people pay huge sums to become Reiki Masters or therapists? We can be cynical and say it is their ego that wants feeding, but I believe the deepest reason is that they have awoken to this Fifth Instinct – they want to give, to be of service.
This is why most religions place an emphasis on service, expressed as ‘charity’ in Christianity, and as ‘seva’ in the Dharmic religions. A spirituality’s job is to help us feed this fifth instinct – to fan this flame within.
Now, in our time, three rivers of awareness are flowing together. They are anguish for our world, scientific breakthroughs, and rediscovered ancestral teachings. From the confluence of these three rivers we drink. We awaken to what we once knew: we are alive in a living Earth, source of all we are and all we can achieve. Despite our conditioning by the industrial society of the last two centuries, we want to name, once again, this world as holy.
Joanna Macy, Buddhist teacher, shaman and deep ecologist
Psychology and religion, or spirituality if you prefer a less loaded term, offer themselves to us as approaches that help relieve anguish and that lead us to the realization of our potential. Of course both approaches have sometimes been spectacularly unsuccessful, as the critics of psychiatry and psychotherapy, and as the critics of religion such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins, have shown.
Anyone who is prepared to be rational and objective cannot fail to agree with much of their criticism, and yet when it comes to the questions of ‘How should I live in the world?’ and ‘How can I face the future without fear?’ religion or spirituality, infused with psychological insight, can offer ideas and methods that are pragmatic, potent and effective.
The handful of ideas and strategies presented in this essay are really built around the core ideas of religion, but expressed in a different way. The problem with most religions is that these central ideas get forgotten or distorted. They need constant re-expression to avoid fossilisation into dogma. What are they?
1. That there is a soul rooted in something other than the apparent world.
2. That meaning is inherent in life.
3. That to be of use we have to put our house in order and seek our salvation/enlightenment/self-realisation.
4. As we do this we can fulfil one of our primary purposes: to be of value to others – to love quite simply, expressed in the Buddhist tradition as the Bodhisattva vow, and in other religions in the ideal of seva, charity or service.
Just as we turn to Science and the goodwill of many beings to help safeguard the planet and all its species, so can we turn to Spirituality/Religion to help us live without fear – in peace and happiness – finding gold even in the darkest places.