It takes an enormous amount of courage to open ourselves to the emotional impact of our fears about the future. In a time like ours when corruption, lies and greed are in the driver’s seats, thinking people carry rawness inside, a spot that is tender, painful. We who are ecologically critical of so many of our society’s daily activities have had to stay quiet and get on with the necessary tasks at hand so many times we could not help but build walls of armor to protect ourselves. That is what happens when you take the abuse day after day while feeling powerless to alter course. Somehow we need to find a way to fight the numbness. Somehow we need to find the maturity that can thrive on the tension between the darkness we unwillingly participate in and the purity of our vision.
An epidemic of unhappiness seems to be spreading and not just because this was the week that five of the world’s major banks were declared criminal for manipulating foreign currencies and exchange rates. It seems to me that those I meet and talk with are running on empty. It is as if we are growing tired waiting for the next shoe to fall. Most people of my acquaintance are attuned to stories like the record breaking heat wave in India, the oil spill on the Santa Barbara coast and the goosing of our pretenses about regulating greenhouse gases by giving fracking endless capital and Shell a green light for deep water Arctic exploration, just to mention a few of the environmental stories of the last week or so. There is a Presidential election coming to America soon, could we possibly be less excited about it bringing any substantial improvement between the governed and the governors? The stock markets are reaching record heights yet everywhere people are saving if they can, saving up for a rainy day most are sure is just around the corner.
The posts of the last two weeks have tried to shake the frames by which each of us envisions the future. The dismal assessment I just touched on is part of why it seems important that some space and freedom be granted to tomorrow. Who knows just exactly how all these trends will play out? (No one.)
Our cultural stories have not left us well prepared for the most likely type of future bearing down on us and our children. In our stories happiness accompanies material wealth; parties and good times being had by all. We lack stories about satisfying lives being found in challenging circumstances or stories that celebrate character for its own sake, even if it does not eventually lead to getting the girl, the house in the Hampton’s and an eight figure bank account. Our stories are all crafted around the glow or glare of the spotlight; heroic deeds performed by larger than life gods and goddesses dripping with fame. No longer a slave to taste we bravely explore torture, blaspheme, and abuses of every kind within these same well-worn story tracks. Our stories are born from our sense of ourselves as a people. They dictate where meaning can be found, how relationships should go, what goals in life are worth pursuing and what each of us should expect from life in return. Has anyone noticed what they have done to the young people in our midst?
Those are the expectations that are poisoning us, those that get deep inside and dictate to us what we should expect of life. For more and more people the expectations are not being met and the cognitive dissonance this is creating is coming to a boiling point. To escape being slave to your culturally created expectations – strengthen your intention. Ask not what your planet can do for you but what you can do for your planet.
The key to a mindful resistance to ecocide is to examine alternatives and ask what skills, attitudes and intelligence do we want to try and bring to the tasks of living well with our ecological knowledge and ethic? It is common enough that there is no viable alternative available today. That is when we need to respect the power of our intention. We may need to participate in a fossil fuel burning form of transportation to earn our daily bread but we do not have to approve of it. We can continue to foster in our hearts the desire to see a wiser society capable of meeting its transportation needs on a human scale. We may need to participate in the industrialized agribusiness to put that daily bread on the table but we do not have to approve of it. We can continue to foster the hope that sooner or later our societies will again live within their means and not depend on phantom acreage.
This may look to be a tiny thing in the face of the challenges we are confronting. Yet it alone might have the power to sustain the hard work of remaining open to our world and our times. It sustains the view that recognizes that in spite of all our ego-games and self-involvement there remains in us something that is pure, something that is clear. Our intention is beyond the limits of our cognitive mind since it includes our emotional makeup and our talents for navigating time. Our intention is not like a prayer or an aspiration, though it is often expressed in those ways. Our intention, if I was to put it into words, could be said to be the simple desire to see the end of unnecessary suffering for ourselves, our species and the whole of the living earth.
It seems such an outrageous dream, such an unrealistic hope. These objections miss the point. The path to the end of suffering is made up of steps that minimize suffering. Stands to reason, right? Those steps are surely within our reach. Not a day goes by where each and every one of us does not have at least a few opportunities to choose between lessening some form of suffering or not. Our ancestors understood this well and enshrined them in the corporal and spiritual act of mercy.
I prefaced this with a few words about our stories because it’s easy to misunderstand talk about our pure intention. With our cultural stories for context, ending suffering is typically heard as ‘nothing hurts’ but that is not what is meant. We cannot remove the pain from life but we can remove unnecessary suffering from that pain. What is here being alluded to is subtle. The Stoics had some element of the right understanding when they encouraged students with, “He is most powerful who has power over himself.” They recognized there is a value to staying true to one’s ideals, that it delivers a happiness that is not dependent on the fickle winds of fate and fortune which we cannot control.
Those of us who dwell in the overdeveloped world are of necessity enmeshed in systems which harm the earth. Modern life entails participation in activities we don’t approve of, activities actively damaging our planet. Often alternative means for procuring life’s necessities are not available. Mass produced, mass marketed, mass consumed industrialized culture suffers from mono-vision. For all our talk of freedom and technological progress there is a surprising dearth of real choices for how we work, move, eat and educate ourselves. Monopolies abound, dissensus not so much. An honest appraisal of our situation recognizes that there is much we as individuals do not control.
Yet, it is equally true that there is very little we as individuals do not influence in any way whatsoever. Here the cracks begin, the cracks where the light gets in. Here is why holding one’s intention clearly is so important. Knowing what you stand for both steadies us for the hard work of remaining open and readies us for taking advantage of any opportunities that present themselves to participate in more life affirming alternatives.
Ultimately the core industrial processes as we know them will prove to be a short chapter in our species history. Consuming and wasting as many non-renewable resources as fast as possible to maximize profit and growth is simply not a sustainable value system for organizing cultures. The temporary energy bonanza now coming to an end enabled it and we were quick to add the delusions about our special place in the sun it required. Today as the age of consequences is just getting started, the search for alternative values and stories by which to organize and understand our social lives is apparent everywhere. We are losing our reference points and along with them the legitimacy of our former institutions. It can be very unsettling to live through the twilight of idols.
Get to know your pure intention. It is not the weakling modern ad-copy makes it out to be. It does not guarantee 15 minutes of fame, nor riches, nor even popularity. It will, however, provide a steady light – just that which is most valuable in a time of darkness.