Open Soul Surgery

“One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast…a part time crusader, a half hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore forests, climb mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for awhile and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.”
Edward Abbey


Have you heard the one about humanity’s near term extinction, NTE? It’s all over the parts of the blog-o-sphere that concerns itself with the current ecological crises. It can really take one on a roller coaster of emotions. Or what about the one about how the decades of treating the ocean as a garbage can is removing the fish that countless millions depend on to survive? Or the real knee slapper about the kinds of world we are working real hard to create for our progeny; the one with sea levels rising, droughts in the bread baskets and all the rest of the wicked confluence of problems treating our atmosphere as an aerial sewer are sewing into the future of the planet we share.

Eventually the human comedy of errors is just not all that funny anymore. Then watch out. The whole house of cards can come tumbling down faster than you can say Limits to Growth. There is a real rabbit hole here, a real red pill – blue pill kind of thing going on. There was a saying in the ol’ 60s that ‘we would open no mind before its time’ but here in the new millennium it seems all kinds of minds and hearts are running headlong into this new ‘door of perception.’ This door is polluted, black, the guardians on this threshold are eating people alive.

I think there is a need to develop skillful means for dealing with the deep anger and hate that accompanies learning about the ecological crises. This is the best Rx I can offer, my two cents. This blog is going to range over all kinds of territory, seems best to include it right at the get-go.

The meaning of the secular society the western nations have created weaves itself around a promise of material fulfillment. The costs to the environment and the psychological health of its members have been, for the most part, seen as justified. The food security, advanced health care, entertainments and the whole host of status symbols have joined the galleries and theaters, museums and universities to deliver an abundance unprecedented in all of history. The PR of the day never tires of singing this same old song and we listen, not because we are fools or wicked but because it has been true – at least for many. But now there are dark clouds on the horizon and no-one who gives it any serious thought at all really believes things can continue as they are for another century. There simply is not enough planet earth to go around; not enough water, not enough good farm soil, not enough fish in the ocean, minerals in the ground, not enough good will for the  crowded conditions. Business as usual is a car screaming towards a brick wall – and we know it.

Once meaning is drained out of a society its members become susceptible to the types of disease Carl Jung called a loss of soul. It is as if the heart sickens and the world becomes full of cardboard people playing out selfish and deadly charades, as if the very food and water and work by which simple survival is obtained have become poison. In less poetic terms suicidal depression, anarchist rage, self-abuses from cutting to anorexia and the senseless violence of kids shooting kids are among the prices being paid for the moral bankruptcy of our times.

There might have been a time, a few decades back, when one could have asserted all was well, that the rising tide was bound to life all boats eventually, that the acceleration of the resource-to-waste industrial cycle was an unvarnished good for mankind. Though there is certainly no lack of the hawkers of the same lines today, their screed is sounding hollow. Look around, we are in the midst of the twilight of our idols, ringing louder than ever across cyberspace and into every living room; from the browser to the TV, from the smart phone to the tablet, it becomes harder and harder to ignore the clarion call.

So what is an individual to do once their heart is caught in the grinding of these wheels of our times? That is the $10,000 question isn’t it?

I do not think there are any pat answers, nothing to be said or done that will work for everyone. Each of us as individuals will need to grope our way along the rough path. Each of us brings our own characteristic pains and hopes born of all the experiences we have endured and the individual ways we have processed them into the identity we are today. There are a few guideposts though, a few archetypal forces that all of us on this journey might encounter which gives us something to talk about. In talking who knows, perhaps a piece here and there might resonate, might even open a little space in the constricted halls of horror and give the reader a little breathing room just when it is needed most.

Disillusionment with the world is the first step on the mythical hero’s journey. No wonder the experience of the pain of the ecological crises seems to be so overwhelming; it is a sharing in the collective consciousness of the whole species. Individuals tuning into these concerns are touching upon the great archetypal forces of the unconscious mind with all their power and perversity. It helps to recognize such experiences for what they are; a call to wake up, a call to courage, a call to change. Framed in this way your experience is no longer an isolated disease but an incarnation of the very problem of your generation. Instead of an isolated individual with symptoms you can learn to see yourself as an embodiment of life’s self-awareness itself unfolding in you in a unique way. With a graceful surrender, the true nature of things becomes more evident. In a very real way life lives us, we are servants of powers and forces far beyond what we are able to capture in our conceptual nets, but we are able to feel them, experience them in our bodies.

Where is the courage to take the journey going to come from? Where is the energy source when the burdens are crushingly heavy and the depressions do not go away? This is indeed a Gordian knot and unraveling it is a process that a few paragraphs would never be able to capture. There are signs posts on the path though and they are worth sharing.

The first relates to what was said about surrendering to the truth that life is a whole lot bigger than just you and I. Why do you care? Why do you care enough to hurt? Spending time with this question uncovers a wound that is so sensitive we are almost incapable of sensing its actual depths. In our heart of hearts, in the very foundation of our being there is a gratitude for being alive. The simple gift of each and every breath bringing awareness through the gates of the senses and the mind swirls energy within us like the joyful abandon we see in a child at play. Over the years our bodies have hardened around this sensitive core of our being, creating the character armor that has become our prison. The reason you hurt is because you care so much, the core is still there. Learning to touch it, to spend time sensing it without lots of thoughts about it can become like sitting before a welcoming warm hearth of Mama Gaia herself. It is the same core heartbeat and breath that animates the animals as they care for their young or leap across waves or howl in the moonlight. It is your inheritance.

Now that the source of strength is close it is possible to turn to the rest of the picture with a bit more awareness. Life is a gift but it fundamentally exists on a plane far beyond the concepts of good and evil with which a human life can become endowed with meaning. In the Buddhist view of things there is no inherent meaning in the universe, it just is. It is however possible to create a meaningful life by skillfully serving all things with compassion and wisdom.

It helps to recognize the true state of things. The massive pollution our Western way of life creates in the external world is reflected in equally massive pollution of our internal worlds. The mass media has almost become a caricature of itself in its ever more extreme efforts to shock and titillate. Appealing to our basest desires the non-stop onslaught of sex and violence endows advertised products with a kind of numinosity and certain cultural rewards such as fame and riches, with a luster of the sacred. Few, if any, are able to resist these allures. After all, they work on the level of Darwinian evolution, you know, the four Fs: fight, flight, food and, ah, fornicating (trying to be a family friendly blog here).

So recognizing the true state of things includes seeing how you yourself share in this pollution. To aid in the developing ability to sense the heart of gratitude go on a stimulation diet. Put your revulsion towards the culture into action and limit your exposure to its most corrosive elements. Most guys learn eventually that pornography just feeds the fire, increases the hunger of the sexual urge without bringing it to a state of final satisfaction. It’s the same basic pattern everywhere. The act of violence you watch on the news or in the movies that stirs up the energies of your nervous system (the four Fs again) brings a sense of being alive but it takes increasingly more explicit violence to break through the character armor the next time. Buying that status symbol clothing satisfies for a little while as you “feel” like you have finally made it in this highly competitive culture but then someone comes by with a nicer status symbol (and there is always someone with a nicer status symbol) and off you go again chasing after the brass ring without any peace of mind or sense of heartfelt gratitude for simply being alive. Cut back on the amount of stimulation you allow the culture to push into your sense gates and nurture the non-consumer alternative. The consumption of goods is but the outermost reflection of the consumption of thoughts and images the advertising machine produces.

If you bought their line about tobacco being cool, or that drugs are needed to relax, or unhealthy foods are the only ones that can satisfy your cravings, you might want to consider beating them at their own game here as well. Reclaim your power and quit. These things can be like pouring gasoline on a fire when going through depressions. There is a tendency to think the mind is separate from the body in Western thought. Neuroscience doesn’t bear this out considering how hormones and how the neurotransmitters work with the rest of the biological systems. It is also not an opinion that Eastern cultures ever put much stock in. Future posts will have a chance to explore this idea in more detail, for now just remember- if you commit suicide the bad guys win.

On this diet it will soon become rather obvious that all those serious concerns about the direction our species is heading are very abstract, conceptual constructs. Take a breath and notice what your senses are reporting right now. Right here and now. There could very well be a collapse of Western civilization in the wings but today, did you eat? Was there water to drink? Did you get a chance to share something significant with another human being? Then rejoice. The core of the dis-ease is created by living so much only in the head that the energy of life in the body has become dissociated from your everyday experience. Maybe try sitting really still for awhile, meditate. As the body grows still so does the mind. As the mind grows still a surprising thing happens. We expect that we will become bored, that there will be less stimulation but what we find is just the opposite. The more still, the more an awareness of all that is in the present moment arises. The only nirvana is that which is found in the here and now, or it will never be found at all.

Get out into nature. It is not so far gone that rich, living ecological systems cannot be found. Edward Abbey had it right, don’t let all those who just do not seem to get it drive you crazy.

Basically revulsion of the world is occurring, the first step on the hero’s journey. Not as a mental construct but welling up from deep in the unconscious, felt in the body.  We share the environment in our body / mind and ours is deeply scarred and polluted.

It might also be helpful to think about previous generations and the challenges they had to face. Consider, for example, those who lived through the world wars and the great depression. Their challenges to daily life and mental health were quite extreme and yet most of our grandparents and great-grandparents found some measure of peace and happiness. Or consider the value of the individual. The human race is not great because there are 7 billion of us; it is great because of the preciousness of each and every individual as a unique expression of self-consciousness within the universe. Each person is a center of thought, perception and feeling unlike any other. So if fate or karma has it that in time there will only be say, half a billion of us, what sorrow is that? It is only from a clinging to our times as the only good times, clinging to our life as the only valuable life, clinging to our friends and families as the only important ones, that we could conclude collapse and even a die off are unmitigated evils. It is the road between here and there that calls us to compassionate action even while it breaks our heart.

Then there is the point that you as an individual are not a savior, nor is every action you take or do not take deciding the fate of the future of the species as a whole. There is a very dangerous temptation towards hubris here, all the more so if it is unconscious. We are children of the enlightenment and as such it is easy for us to insist the ecological crises is a problem which must have a solution. There are ethics in the ecological world view, but lighten up a bit. Getting back into your body, wholly incarnated, reintroduces a sense of proper proportion. Like it or not we are actually rather small players in an enormous event unfolding over vast reaches of time and space. Ultimately we can come to trust in this larger set of forces. We do so by recognizing we really are a product of them and not a product of ourselves. Then something that might seem inconceivable right now becomes possible – it becomes ok to be happy, even joyful, in the midst of the horror.

4 Replies to “Open Soul Surgery”

  1. Mindful Ecologist,

    Thanks for your welcome. And I’m now properly apprised of your gender. 🙂

    There are so many interesting points to pick up on, and points that I could quibble about. But I’m going for minimalism at the moment. So, one thought:

    I’ve spent half a century agitated and proselytizing about the need to protect relics of the past, as well as nature. I’m not sure I was ever pained…mostly agitated, disappointed, passionate, boundlessly optimistic, “unrealistic,” and incredulous. And I’m not pained about the looming catastrophe now. Things are just coming to a conclusion that I knew in my bines they must reach. Now there is no obvious distinction between (mild) compassion and amusement at the folly around me. One eventually gets past agitation. Now, it’s a sort of wonderful bemusement at the willful planetary destruction. Can you dig that (?), I seem to be saying to myself. Get a load o’ this! Other than that, I try to do what I feel I came her to do: propose a constructive way, ever forward, to change the dumbfounding lack of insight and coherence all about. As a mystic of my own making, I have not the slightest misgiving about the future. It’s not quite like this, but it’s close enough for now to say that I chop wood and let the chips fall where they may. 🙂

    I’m obviously missing a lot, and if someone grabs me by the collar with an idea that is truth for me, I believe I will accept it.

  2. Artleads – I for one would like to thank you for a half century spent trying to conserve and enlighten. It sounds like you have learned to trust the larger cycles of which we are parts and plow forward with the tasks at hand. Good advice for all of us. I can understand the bemusement at human folly and have it myself at times, but at other times there are also tears. (I will add with wisdom, as a teacher has said, the tears have no roots).
    The ‘dumbfounding lack of insight’ indeed. Hurting our own selves, loved ones, acquaintances, animals and the earth is not a skillful way to live. Now we are in overshoot and the consequences are coming at an accelerated pace. I think people who can see through the guilt as just more human hubris and celebrate joyfully this opportunity to be alive in spite of it all have plenty of meaningful work helping others get to the same place. Lots of pain out there and more coming, plenty of wood to chop!

  3. this is my favorite posting of yours.
    i come back to it every 6 months or so.
    thank you.

  4. I pray your struggle includes joy alongside the pain. Maybe one day we will meet in the mountain forests or on the rolling river!
    Peace be with you.

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