“A dread of what is happening to our future stays on the fringes of awareness, too deep to name and too fearsome to face.
Despair cannot be banished by injections of optimism or sermons on ‘positive thinking’. Like grief, it must be acknowledged and worked through. This means it must be named and validated as a healthy, normal human response to the situation we find ourselves in… Faced and experienced, its power can be used, as the frozen defenses of the psyche thaw and new energies are released.”
Joanna Macy, World as Lover, World as Self
Koyaanisqatsi (from the Hopi language), n.
1. crazy life. 2. life in turmoil 3. life out of balance 4. life disintegrating 5. a state of life that calls for another state of living.
Last week we looked at the widespread resentment among the people of the U.S. as it is reflected in our unusual presidential campaign season. I suggested that one of the reasons behind the resentment people feel is bound up with the lack of meaningful work, for those who can find work at all. The anger and resentment are the sound and fury by which we are striving to tell ourselves everything is going to be ok, and so cover up the gaping void at the heart of how we experience our labors.
Much of what modern business is engaged in is a meaningless pursuit of profit divorced from any higher end. Much (most?) is little more than accelerated use of limited resources for trivial ends and increased production of pollutions exported into the poorest parts of the world. Work, which should serve the worker by providing a dignified means by which they can serve the great good of their community, has become positively toxic. Part of this view of meaningless economic norms consists of the hollowing out of the rewards society offers. When you understand the role of sweat shop labor, unfair trade, financial shenanigans and resource exploitation in sustaining the globalized economy, the rewards lose their luster; the Porsche and the big rock diamond ring fail to impress. All diamonds, one could say, are blood diamonds. When the rewards a society offers no longer entice its members, that society is in trouble.
Understand that what I am suggesting is that much of what we do economically fails to make any sense when the forecasts of the ecological sciences are taken seriously. If mass migrations and starvation due to shifting climate’s impact on food production in the next decade or two is going to become a world wide crisis unlike any the human species has faced in recorded history, it is rather neurotic to proceed with business as usual. The trends suggest that by 2050 there will be an additional three billion people and the number of cars on the road worldwide is expected to double even while the weirding of the weather drives mass migration and crop failure. The pie is shrinking and already people are becoming more agitated about getting their slice. Individuals, states and nations are presented with a stark choice in the age of limits; either train to be satisfied with less or be prepared to fight even more intensely for your piece as the competition for what remains increases all across the globe. The types of resource wars we can expect in 2050 based on those engaged in now and over the last decade, are likely to be even more desperate. This is the context of our industrial lives from the ecological point of view.
Recognizing class resentment was a first level analysis and the suggestion that behind that was the meaninglessness of labor was offered as a second, deeper level of analysis. Admitting our economic juggernaut is not only trashing the planet but also failing to provide meaningful employment for the vast majority is such an uncomfortable thought few are going to be able to go there. The implications are so pervasive it is frightening to contemplate.
This is just the sort of difficult psychic terrain those of us training in contemplation are working hard to deal with. With the body and mind settled and grounded such highly disturbing ideas are allowed to work their way through our own perceptions of what it means to be alive in the age of limits. Our contemplation provides a container in which dangerous ideas like this can be examined with some degree of psychological safety. The walls of this container are built from the heartfelt gratitude of our saying yes and thank you and ending our sessions with a prayer for the good of all.
It is not easy to admit to oneself that what your doing to earn a living doesn’t really matter much in the big scheme of things or, worse and more accurately, is actually actively working against those very trends that might guide us to a more sustainable way of living together. On the other hand, if you are going to find your way to a life nourished by meaningful experiences this recognition is a necessary first step.
This matters since, as we learned from holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, human beings can endure enormous suffering if they are able to find meaning in it. Recall his story about the grieving widower? Born in the heart of Nazi darkness we would be wrong to dismiss such talk as just so much pablum; it is not bright-sided happy talk spouted by the privileged behind the prison of their rose-colored glasses. This need to meaningfully contribute in a healthy and wholesome way is the thread by which we can achieve the psychic balance which is what brings happiness right in the midst of all that is going wrong.
The contemplative container provides the place where we can begin to feel the full implications of what we know. Classic contemplative subjects include the impermanence of all phenomenon including oneself and those one loves. We all know we are going to die someday but through contemplative practice we can take that factoid from our head and lodge it in our hearts. Though the process is painful the result is a powerful awareness of the preciousness of every moment. Not taking life for granted, we slowly grow wiser in how we will choose to live it.
Fear, pain, anxiety, rage, jealousy, and despair might accompany you on the cushion at times, yet our practice of observing without clinging and resting naturally without constantly interfering and meddling with what comes up acts as an alchemical retort in which transformations of such poisons can take place. Daily practice is the slow burning low flame applying psychological heat. Mindfulness and meditation are being marketed as the panacea for a stressed out world, which it is, but when the marketing happy talk fails to mention this other side of the meditative experience it betrays those caught by its allure. We sit to explore the human mind and many of its systems are ancient and archaic, embodying the full force of evolutionary striving.
This is offered as preparatory thoughts for introducing what I see as an even more fundamental analysis of our social predicament than the meaninglessness already mentioned. There is a third level of analysis to be uncovered once we are willing to sit with the truth of labors lost.
This third level of analysis throws the meaninglessness of individual labor in stark relief by questioning the collective labor of the whole of fossil fueled industrial civilization. This third level moves beyond words; it gets to deeper places until it is actually felt in the body. We can talk about it but really getting it is everything here; only if it can be moved from the head into the heart can it even begin to be truly understood.
For those prepared or feeling called to go this far I suggest watching, or for many readers re-watching, the film Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance. The fact that this is an older film is just another bit of evidence that we have been clear about all of this for quite some time now.
To watch, find a place with good quality sound and video where you will not be disturbed or observed so there are no social constraints on the expression of emotions. Done as a contemplative exercise it has the potential to tap very deeply into some scary emotional territory, so be prepared for that and allow yourself a few days to fully absorb your experiences. Bring a quiet mind that can stay with the images without too many words. Watch the movie and watch how you are reacting, just letting whatever comes up flow through, not trying to hold onto any particular feeling or insight.
The film shows what it means to be living in a world out of balance. If you do the exercise, here are a few thoughts. The film begins with a very low tone chant which is not dissimilar to the low tone chant of Tibetan Buddhism or Gregorian chant. It is the hum of the rocks and mountains. Vibrating with its frequency one can find the calm eye of the storm.
Recognize Homo Colossus in the large mechanical prosthetics shown on the screen by remembering they are working 24 hours a day all over the globe, every day of the week non-stop. Bear in mind that everything you’re seeing continues in this moment as well; the frantic multiplicity of all these specific things drums on unceasingly. Using the contemplative mind that appreciates the invisible behind the visible, do not allow the false-comfort thought that these things are only one-off events to lull you back to sleep. See the prodigious amounts of energy and materials our modern world uses to keep the trains running on time.
There is only us, not so much you or I alone; we are hyper-social creatures. Earth seems almost proud of her bounty, “look how many dreams I can fulfill” she seems to say as she supports all this activity with equanimity, holding all and each on her expansive lands.
Burn through the one-shot earthly deposit of concentrated carbons and you get this one-shot machine age.
If human happiness really did depend on an endless ascent up the ladder of material progress then this message of civilizational collapse would be bleak beyond measure. That is not the case. It is important to stay grounded in this insight. There is some future for our children beyond 2050, it’s just not one that will continue all these activities that have lead us into this blind alley. Eventually we will need to dream a dream larger than just building more data centers (each of which pollutes as much as a small city) to enable ever more people to sit in front of digital devices and enter the “good life.”
The problem is how we are going to get from here to there. This is where despair comes in. This, I suggest, is the rock bottom issue in the collective psyche we see manifesting itself as rage, anger and resentment in the political and religious spheres. Remember we are in training. As the suffering quotient continues to rise as limits continue to squeeze, the need for compassionate action skillfully employed under triage conditions also grows more acute. Exercises in which we touch this despair are direct educations about ultimate values brought directly to deeper parts of the psyche.
It might be tempting to just throw in the towel. It only hurts because you care – about the people alive today and those who will live tomorrow; about the freedom to live well for all the living, breathing, feeling members of the biosphere. It is tempting to join the latest fad and get your degree in Assholeism, then you can pretend not to care who or what you hurt. It is tempting but don’t.
Just here is a meaningful work we can do.
We don’t need more information, knowledge or data. We need to fully integrate what we know intellectually with the rest of our being. Then it shapes lives into something well lived that does not depend on how external events unfold over which you have little or no control. Piercing the darkness one arrives at a fresh appreciation for all that is good within what we have right now. One is no longer foolish enough to believe it will remain this way for long. Grounded in the truth, we become immobile in our witness, like a mountain.
These are hard psychological states and difficult transformations. Feeling sad and lost and angry at our ignorance go with the territory. To do more with our lives than just join the crazy train we have the tool of mindfulness. Like shamans of old we can hope our personal journeys into suffering undertaken with integrity and courage might be of some benefit to others when the same dark dawn comes to their hearts.