Safe Containers

While we are watching the acceleration of the great clash of monotheisms in the Middle East it is a good time to be strengthening our triage skills. These can be worked with during times of lesser crisis to prepare us for what’s ahead. This is similar to the mind training that the eastern traditions teach. It is a way of practicing with our minds today so that when the day comes that things get difficult (classically in the east this is the day of one’s death) we do not find ourselves without any reserves to call on. Mindful Ecology involves mind trainings that are designed to strengthen a person when lesser deaths occur. These might involve the collapse of the economy, an ecological system, good will among citizens, integrity in government, authenticity among religious leaders, or any number of endings that cause an increase in suffering, anomie, confusion and loss.

No one’s life is spared the rough spots. It is not the case that the wealthy and powerful, or the poor and simple, live a life without serious challenges to keeping sane let alone keeping an open heart. It is not just because of our ecological knowledge that the skills we are talking about have relevance. These are skills that can aid us in any number of life’s arenas. The thoughts in the mind are the earliest seeds of what will become emotions and eventually actions. The actions we perform or refuse to perform are where we find our character reflected back to us from the world soul. Countless decisions over years are expressing something that can be expressed no other way, something about how we are in our innermost.

Along the path of expression from thought to action there is an element of choice. The will uses this element of freedom to express itself. Though circumstances typically constrain our ability to make this expression one that is fully in accord with our desire, there is never so little choice left to a human being that some sense of character cannot be made to dwell within the manner by which their actions are undertaken. I believe the prisoner on their way to their execution still retains some degree of freedom in how they will meet the event. How much more so than do each of us, who are not under such immediate threats, have an opportunity to make real in the world that which is part of our innermost. This expression of true will is always a question of degrees and that is where our training comes in. It is inescapable that each person actually will express their uniqueness, there is no way not to. It is, to put on the science hat, an expression of your parental DNA inheritance and as such a unique biological event. Add the uniqueness of each environment you have inhabited from childhood on and the one of a kind nature of your personality becomes even more obvious. It is important we learn to thoroughly grasp this, see the truth of it, and really hear what is being said. To the best of our human understanding it is a fact that throughout all of deep time and across all of deep space it is astronomically unlikely that the many contingent relationships between your DNA expression and the environment by which it was shaped will ever happen in just the way you have it happening right here and right now. This is it. You have a part to play in dreaming the dream forward, as Carl Jung used to say.

In our time of mass man, mass media, mass armies, and mass movements it has never been more important to understand the role of the other social polarity, namely that of the individual. It is not true for my heart that you could just replace my most beloved friends and family with anyone else. Though another person could play the role of my mother or father, son, daughter, or spouse, there is not the slightest chance I would find my body and mind responding to the newcomer in the same way that it has learned to understand the people that are in my life today. This is true for all of us. Keeping this truth in mind paves the way towards an ability to see the uniqueness of the world around us; to see a tree in the forest and not just so many board feet of lumber.

This is the skill that is lacking in our societies, this ability to appreciate the miracle of the life forms in front of us. We have been trained to fawn before the rich and powerful, presenting them with praises and constant reassurances about how great and awesome they are. Fearing social ostracism otherwise, often with real financial repercussions, it is certainly an understandable habit given the reality of our corporate dominated societies. Still, those are rather false expressions of an appreciation for another person because they are motivated by fear of what they can do to you if you earn their disfavor and the hope that by your flattery and attention they will come to gift you with some of their money and influence. This is very different than looking deeply into another sentient being just for the sake of witnessing their unique expression of the mystery of will. Too often, it seems to me, we cannot even do this among human beings. The way we treat those in our ghettos speaks volumes. It should come as no surprise that we are blind to the faces of the eagles, octopus, wolves, whales, and blue footed boobies. We have an interest in the ocean because it can provide us with food and those who fish it with money and power. If tomorrow a chemist invented fish in a factory, do you think we would do much to save the oceans for their own sake? What real value do we place on the lives of those who dwell in the depths? Just how much lower do we rank them then those many tortured lives in the world’s ghettos?

These are statements in the realm of values, not of facts. The facts are that the uniqueness of DNA expression is undeniable. Facts pass over into values when we recognize that the human mind is born with the potential to know compassion as the highest value but it takes education, real training, to realize that potential. This is another fact we have learned over long millennia in the school of hard knocks. Through our mythology and traditions we do our best to teach the value of compassion to each new generation as it comes along. Though the value of compassion runs counter to the hubris of our egos, it is the sweetest liberty the heart can know: to love others as one loves one’s self, and to love one’s self as one loves others. It makes life meaningful.

Pounding the living daylights out of someone does not make life meaningful; not in an alley and not on a battlefield. Stealing every last dime from the sick and the old does not make life meaningful; not in a hospital and not from a TV preacher’s stage. Deceiving the innocent and gullible does not make life meaningful; not in the most surreal CGI enhanced advertisement and not in the slickest air-brushed glossy publication. Do you know that most confidence men commit suicide or end up paranoid? Do unto others…

What intelligent, caring human being are confronted with in the neo-liberal value system is nothing less than a legitimacy of greed promoted through self-inflicted blindness to the needs of any and every living thing that might get in the way of profits. It stands to reason then that intelligent and caring human beings should work hard to find the types of things that will work effectively against this tendency to dehumanization inherent in a mass society ruled by neo-liberal values. This is what the mind training in ecological triage skills is all about.

Last week introduced one classification scheme for statements of fact. The categories lend flexibility to the mind by teaching it to become more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. These uncomfortable cognitive states are more easily allowed a place within our characters when their scope is properly restricted to those categories of thought in which they are inherent. Knowing certain types of statements can never obtain to 100% certainty is a good way to check our own thinking and to protect our sanity from those who use underhanded techniques to try and persuade us that this is not the case.

What this means in practice is captured pointedly in the schools of cognitive therapy. This is not the therapy of the unconscious mind that is explored by the depth psychologists. Pursuing meaning among the symbols of myth and dream is life-long task for students of the deep psyche. These cognitive therapies, in contrast, are designed to help people as quickly as possible. They seek a rapid recovery from depression, lack of self confidence, pain management, or whatever their client’s debilitating emotional issues involve. In my experience these cognitive mental health techniques have a complimentary role to play alongside personal researches into the deep. These cognitive insights are rooted in the philosophy of the stoics who stressed that while we are not free to control the world, we are free to some degree in choosing how we will meet that world. These ancient insights have been refined through therapeutic need into practical advice. These insights can act as a key that unlocks many of the mental manacles we are shackled with as good little consumers.

There are a number of names these types of therapies are known by but all share the same fundamental insight about the way our thoughts lead to our emotional experiences and how together they lead to the actions we take. Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), invented by Dr. Albert Ellis, is the particular one I will use as I like his rather rascally guru approach. Dr. Aaron T. Beck’s material might be more appealing to others. Mr. Ellis is not for the faint of heart, quick to use the F word and call bullshit bullshit; he is a New Yorker through and through. For me that personality was a perfect delivery mechanism for the message, one that could be summed up as ‘get a spine!’ and ‘stop stinking thinking in its tracks.’ Interested readers should take a look at his over the top How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything, Yes, Anything. It delivers the goods.

What these cognitive therapists have found is that when we suffer emotional problems they have a corresponding mental vehicle. The emotions are considered problems because they are proving too extreme for the client to continue living a productive life. Without life events expressing one’s will a person rightly becomes depressed since depression is a signal that what you are doing is not working. You can throw a pity party and bemoan fate till the cows come home but happiness is never found that way, however far down that path you might want to travel. Happiness comes from our sense of competency. We do not need to be genius but we do need to be able to accomplish whatever it is that we consider necessary for our own self respect. What that is remains an on going journey of discovery. It is a lifelong journey of discovery that should, for the most part, keep us enthused to be alive and grateful for each day we get. All too often that enthusiasm is lost in the worries and cares which are rightly born from the tragedies in our lives. What cognitive health entails, then, is not a disregard for bouts of depression when those are needed but a leaning into the wind, setting our rudder by the joy of being alive that is our birthright. We need to learn how to discern between a true need for tears and an unhealthy indulgence in sadness. Cognitive therapy skills can teach us to be childlike, not childish.

What these cognitive sciences have discovered is that we have a set of irrational beliefs as the source of our emotional disturbances. It is not at all hard for those of us who have studied ecology to recognize our societies are currently chock full of irrational beliefs and that they cause us to make decisions as a society that are just down right crazy. Well, that same mechanism plays out in our individual lives as well. When we are disturbed there is some internal dialog that reflects or sustains the extremes under which we are suffering. We gain power over these things to the degree that we recognize how the issues unduly disturbing us are accompanied by thoughts characterized by exaggerations, statements couched in absolutes, or other cognitive errors. We learn to take our skepticism inside and ask our own thoughts, ‘oh really?’

Things are bad. They really are. Things are going to get worse. They really are. It is not the end of the world. It really is not. Our descendants will live in that world. They really will. What we do today matters. It really does.

We will talk about these cognitive skills in coming posts. In this introduction I want to stress how important this particular set of skills can be for those who are willing to contemplate ecological reality. I sit and consider the end of our existing harvesting of ocean stocks in the next few decades, a simple extrapolation from today’s trends in global overfishing. I allow myself to feel the implications and feel that it is a bad thing we are currently engaged in making come to pass. It is critical that I do not exaggerate if I am to remain bound to the truth of what I am contemplating. It is not likely to be the end of the future stocks centuries hence, or the end of all the different species, nor even the first and worst die off earth’s precious ocean has ever experienced or will yet again. Now I have provided a safe container for my contemplations. Now I have a good chance of grounding myself in my own knowledge, refusing to pretend I do not understand what I do about the world and our activities in it, yet at the same time refusing to give in to unmitigated despair.

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