Something Specific

“One should not look for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it…
The question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately he should not ask what the meaning of his life is but recognize that it is he who is being asked.”
The Meaning of Life, Viktor Frankl

 

Sometimes it just hurts so much. Seeing the depravity of our encounters with the living world that abuse it and leave it sick and dying tears at the heart on a level very, very deep; like jack-boots across a meadow of mountain flowers. I was watching a presentation about the ecological state of the oceans when the gulf opened up for me again. Then, right there in the midst of the horror, a clip was shown of six or eight massive humpback whales floating head down together, drifting slowly with the currents. ‘Scientists believe they are dreaming.’ When my mind grasped what it was witnessing by taking it in, visualizing it myself, sensing it actually happening – it was like a spark was ignited in that darkness. I want to try and talk about that spark.

It is easy to feel that the small, specific actions we take towards healing ourselves and the earth are unimportant in the big scheme of things. This is the age of the mass man where society does not recognize the worth of individuals except in so far as they play out roles that have been predetermined by the advertising and public relation narratives. By setting the sports stars and other celebrities on pedestals, the rest of us are put in our place. What do you think happens to a mind fed a non-stop diet of other people endlessly encountering larger than life adventures? What value do you think such a mind will put on a half dozen dreaming whales?

When we feel like the small things we are doing in our lives lack meaning we have fallen into the trap of abstractions. We are prone to letting our facility with language blind us to the value of that which is real enough to put in a wheelbarrow. Yet it is what’s in the wheelbarrow that will matter to our children. They will not ask what we thought we were doing; they will ask why we did what we did.

All that really exists in the unfolding of time are individual, specific acts. If you are able to turn your care and concern for the well being of the earth into any kind of concrete expression, you have participated in the dialog of our times. This dialog is not the one TV covers, full of lobbyists in meetings where the rich and powerful pound out trade rules for carbon pollution. The dialog I am interested in is the one that is shifting the ground on which all that is standing; the dialog between each person alive today and the biosphere from which they came, on which they depend, and to which they will return.

It is rare for ecological knowledge to remain a purely intellectual affair. Most people involved in conservation, biodiversity protection, organic farming and all the rest of it are passionate about what they do. This ability to act from one’s deepest values brings with it a spark of life; putting one’s hand to the plow, as it were, creates the path. What then of all of us who do not work in these fields or do not have these kinds of opportunities?

We are not called on to try and fix an abstraction. We cannot ‘save the earth’, nor does it need saving; it is a rather incoherent thought actually. We are called to do the very specific work of rebalancing our human ecological footprint with the well being of the earth. Real sustainability is found through simplicity, nowhere else. Our collective desires, which we feed and fertilize, ever encouraging them to grow as billions join the middle class, could not be met by the resources of four earths, let alone the one and only one we have. What no one wants to talk about is that there is plenty of earth to share if each human being lived simply and so used LESS; Less Energy, Stuff, and Stimulation.

I said last week we are not responsible for most of what we have inherited but we are for how we respond. The crux of the Limits to Growth analysis is that fossil fueled industrial civilization exceeds the long term carrying capacity of the environment on which it ultimately depends. It does so by exceeding the healthy functioning of what system science refers to as the environment’s sources and sinks. Sources are the places where the extraction of resources, which we call production, takes place. Sinks are the places where the used and discarded resource-remains are put as the garbage and poisons of our pollutions. In the real world of biosphere interdependence nothing just appears on the store shelves and nothing just disappears by throwing it in the trash can – this is why it is important to track the use of sources and sinks. Peak oil is an example of the depletion of a one time resource. Over fishing is an example of overshooting sustainability in what could be a renewable resource. These are illustrative examples of issues with sources. Climate change is a one time poisoning of the atmosphere which accompanied Peak Oil. Here the atmosphere’s ability to absorb pollutants and remain within its geologically historic temperature band was overwhelmed. Eutrophication of our rivers and the dead zones they create is an example of an ongoing overloading of what could be a renewable sink through industrial farming practices. These illustrative examples cover the landscape of our ethical choices.

What matters here is how we get our farm crops and how we get our fish. These are very concrete things, things you can put in a wheelbarrow. These are the things you can do something about and just the things that need to be done. What that will mean for you, only you can say. For one person it may mean paying more attention to where the fish they purchase come from, for another it might mean raising Tilapia in their bathtub. Chasing after abstractions only leaves you starved for joy and like a hungry ghost you will be driven to try and take nourishment through a needle-thin throat. Get your hands into the soil. We are meant to be the grounded among the ghosts.

We are so far lost in our consumer dreams it is almost inconceivable to choose to live more simply, to be poorer by choice. Just to learn to be content with second best is a challenge in our society where status and winning is everything. Even the small and symbolic steps which we are able to take away from all that have value. They have value not just for ourselves but potentially for whomever might happen to notice; who knows, perhaps they will be encouraged one day to ask the same questions that lead you to where you are today. In my case it took five, ten years before my life circumstances started to really reflect my ecological values to any degree. At least that is what it looked like on the outside. Inside I was taking whatever concrete steps I could, many of which were mostly symbolic. I mentioned choosing an urban target for guerrilla pollution removal. That sort of thing was how I started confronting the specific reality of my daily existence. Becoming a devotee of the hand-lens was more of the same.

There is not a problem with a ‘dying ocean.’ There is a pod of whales, dreaming in the deep, whose very presence on this earth is threatened because we cannot say no to an overabundance of plastic trinkets and techno-toys.

Dare to hold to the values by which your eye sees clearly even when, especially when, it hurts to know. Dare to do; there is a tree only you can plant.  We should remember “…everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.” No one can tell you what you need to do. You will need to ask the earth, our grandmothers and grandfathers, work it out with your inner guru. What we are involved in will play out over centuries and though the general trend towards simplicity is clear, the twists and turns along the way are unknowable. Bear this in mind when the little acts of caring and concern for the earth you are able to do seem too small and too little to be of any worth. Sometimes it is a feather that tips the scales of history, much like a butterfly’s wing might bring forth a storm.

All our acts today include some degree of the symbolic. We are all much too dependent on Homo Colossus for it to be otherwise. What helps is to understand the value of a symbolic act, however small, even when it has an audience of only one. An Acharya I know finding himself in a public restroom will use only a small part of a paper towel to dry his hands, keeping the rest to use later. Small acts of devotion offered in secret…

Many of us would gladly exchange our current lives for ones of much greater simplicity if in the exchange we were assured we would enjoy a healthy earth for ourselves and our children’s children. Well, there are no guarantees but there is no other equally viable alternative either. Though each of us is limited in the specifics of what we can do in making this exchange in our own lives, every step in this direction is influencing the probabilities of what is most likely to happen tomorrow. It seems to me our primary duty is to rejoice every day in the beauty of the earth. Certainly each of us can do that and in doing so we renew our Yes and simultaneously renew our No. Just being clear about what we hold dear and what we do not approve of will serve us well. It is the only guide we really need to remake our lives closer to the image in our hearts.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank each and everyone of you for each and every act you have ever done with the hope of healing the rift between ourselves, and between ourselves and the earth. However small and however seemingly inconsequential they might have seemed, each one has added to the weight of the merit that opens the eyes of people like me. With tears of joy that come with the dawn after a long dark night, I offer each one of you, stewards of the earth, a heartfelt – thank you.

Spotlight on Rage

“How do you say no to god?”
From movie Spotlight

It would be unwise at this point to underestimate the amount of rage in our country targeted at the existing society. The triumph of Trump politics comes from riding it in its form of class conflicts and racial fears. The Bernie Sanders phenomenon, where things are being said in public which haven’t been heard around these parts since the ending of the last gilded age, is also feeding off the rage around class conflicts. The mass shootings that haunt our airwaves ever more frequently is the expression of the rage against society pushed to its extreme form. When we study these killers we find their rage is directed towards what? The cruelty of the social world? The powerlessness of the individual?

What all these forms of rage have in common is a willingness to tear down existing social relations and let the rubble fall where it will. Welcome to the age of the angry child, the harbinger of ecological blowback.

Institutional authority was first widely questioned in this country in the 1960s. The Vietnam War and civil rights movement provoked people across the sociopolitical spectrum into questioning the basic sanity of the government and institutionalized racism respectively. This type of interrogation of authority is radical in that it questions the very root power relations; those in-your-face protest marches were turning their backs on the hope that they could transform these social injustices from within the system and took to dismantling them through direct action.

The bank and the church have been similarly questioned as the new millennium dawned. These other bedrocks of the social order have come in for the same radical critique. People from all walks of life have been forced to reconsider the degree of faith they place in these fundamental institutions of our social lives. That the economic dogmas are simply an inversion of the church dogmas is something we looked at earlier. Here I would like to point out not only that they are linked but that what they are involved in is a final rage in the form of the Wrath of God, the end of the world.

We seem bent on pushing things to a showdown. Continuing to use Homo Colossus to destroy the ecosystems on which the evolution of mammals relies is our not so subtle implementation of this final rage program. My two cents is that the real wrestling with this is still a little ways off, after we have passed another tipping point or two. Along the way we can expect to cross a variety of psychological and sociological tipping points, one of which, I am going to suggest, is upon us now.

Today our headlines about the Catholic church bring rage to a whole new level. The trial of the Australian Cardinal was in the news last week just as the movie about pedophile priests, Spotlight, won best picture at the Oscars. The turn of the screw of rage here reaches areas within human psychology rarely touched by concerns about government and economics. The abused children coming out of the shadows carry a knife of sorrow that pierces the heart with a unique pain. The betrayal of innocence by a façade which proclaimed itself to be that which was most morally wholesome shatters lives, both directly and indirectly.

The scandal involves a small percentage of the church’s priests, so it is important to keep it in perspective, yet the stark and total betrayal involved makes it stand out as particularly horrific. That there looks to have been knowledge of the pedophile activities and a conspiracy of silence to cover it up just puts another nail in the coffin. “God is dead”, Nietzsche observed, “and we killed him.” But it is not as simple as atheism. There is a deep sense of betrayal and fear when bad things happen to good people and the heartbroken ask of a sadistic god ‘how could you do this?’ Nihilism is the flip side of eternalism.

This is initiation. It is reaching more and more people. The dark god first appeared for many with the horrors of the Holocaust. It is as if the conscious mind, which had long entertained a semi-conscious belief that the universe was being watched over by the all-loving god of the Sunday School lessons we absorbed as a child, is suddenly for the first time taking seriously the possibility that the true state of affairs might be something more akin to the indifferent and malicious gods that haunt the tales of Lovecraft. I do not mean to be flippant.

Sue Klebold describes the awakening of this endarkenment well as she recalls what it was like when the police arrived at her house looking for evidence after her son had participated in the Columbine school shooting:

“I had always imagined God’s plan for me was aligned with my own plan. I believed with all of my heart that if I was a caring and loving and generous person – if I worked hard and gave what I could to charity, if I did my best to be a good daughter and friend and wife and mother – then I would be rewarded with a good life. Exiled to our front steps, the light from the hallway casting harsh shadows on our faces, I felt suddenly ashamed, as if my lifelong understanding of God was starkly revealed as a naïve fiction, a bedtime story, a pathetic delusion. It was the loneliest I have ever felt.”
A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy

It is my contention that something like this is happening on a social scale. As we confront the unsustainability of business as usual its justifications are shattered, it’s ideals fail to inspire and the energy involved in repression and denial of these facts fuels rage at a system that is seemingly incapable of being reformed. We are not confronted with just a technical problem of engineering a transition away from oil to renewables. We are not confronted by a political problem that could be solved with campaign reform. We are confronted with a problem of meaning, a religious problem as it were. We deeply believe the universe owes us our middle class lifestyle. We are wrong about that. This is setting us up for the type of maturing disillusionment so well articulated in that quote.

The Vice President of the United States showed up at the Oscars. That doesn’t happen often. He spoke of the need to create in our land a firm understanding that sexual assault is no longer going to be tolerated, nor will it remain risk free. He was putting us on notice that those who do not or cannot give their consent are not to be violated. This introduced the performance of ‘Til It Happens to You’ from the documentary The Hunting Ground about the prevalence of campus rape. The performance ended with the stage full of rape survivors looking straight into the audience and straight into the camera with a look of unshakable determination.

For those with ears to hear, you could hear the penny drop.

Remember when we were talking about first getting right in our heart? Again Sue’s raw honesty captures what many have known about the physical alchemy of the dissolution of character armor:

“For the first time I truly understood how ‘heartbroken’ had come to describe a sensation of terrible, terrible grief. The pain was actual, physical, as if my heart had been smashed to jagged fragments in my chest. ‘Heartbroken’ was no longer a metaphor, but a description.”

This is what is inflicted on the consciousness of surviving victims and the loved ones of victims and perpetrators. That look of unshakable determination in the eyes of the survivors on that Oscar stage – that is what rage looks like on the other side of its alchemical and psychological transformation.

This constellation of archetypal material concerning sexual abuse in our collective consciousness comes as a return of the repressed. It serves the needs of our time in ways we can only dimly perceive while we are caught up in its unfolding. One aspect that does stand out is the clarity of contrast with the rabid dogmatism of fundamentalist Islam. Here in the west, out of the shadows of our shame, come our abused and hurt women and children to take center stage under a Spotlight. This is what the secular west believes in, this process of uncovering truth and righting injustices. It looks like we are lost and it is often messy but we do not turn away our gaze, we do not try to hide our sins under a burqa.

Values in the Workplace

“The Buddhist sees the essence of civilization not in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of the human character. Character, at the same time, is formed primarily by a man’s work. And work, properly conducted in conditions of human dignity and freedom, blesses those who do it and equally their products.”
E.F.Schumacher, Small is Beautiful

 

The popularity of the disruption politics of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is fueled by the resentment the working classes have against how they have been treated by the higher classes; the golden parachute and rentier classes. A first analysis pits the wage class against the salary class. It acknowledges that the stagnation and reversal of earning power among working class families was the predictable result of the orgy of offshoring, aka exploiting the poorest of the poor capable of doing the job and keeping up wage pressure at home. This transformation of the American economic landscape into the so-called service economy provided the means by which executive salaries could increase hundreds-fold. Trade agreements created the increased inequality in the dictatorial corporate hierarchies we have come to think of today as normal.

I am not interested here in the lords and ladies of the upper echelon, for although they are disproportionately influential based on their numbers they are also increasingly irrelevant as the age of Caesars dawns. It is important to keep the feet of the 1% held to the fire, responsible for the choices they make, if we are to avoid the worse possible future scenarios but focusing on these few hundred families can distort the larger picture.

There is little question that this offshoring development created two Americas. In one people work hard at back breaking jobs for poverty wages and despite full time employment regularly require the services of food banks, pay day loan outfits, and all too often are forced to choose between food and medicine, clothes or car repair. The other America is wealthier and able to make the existing economic arrangements provide for the basic needs of a family, though here too most people are only a pay check or two away from serious financial hardship.

This salaried class basically consists of all those people in America that work with a computer for their employment; members of the so-called information economy. This is a first order simplification but it captures something fundamentally true about American cities. Has it ever struck you how odd it is that just about every window in every skyscraper in every city is a place where a human being will sit and type, day after day, year after year?

In this non-wage America money works differently. Here it is not unusual for a company to spend a half a million dollars or more wining and dining big wigs over a weekend convention or to spend twenty or thirty thousand dollars to fly a few people to meetings here and there. Here is the America of the first class plane ticket, the $600 a night hotel room and the $80 meal. The point is that this is not the 1%; it is the business perk lifestyle enjoyed by a much larger percentage of the working population. Just like the 401K and substantial bonus checks, these are perks the salaried class have come to expect.

Only the cold-hearted and blind can fail to see how such economic inequality between the wage and salary workers feeds resentment among the less privileged. Its strength and depth shouldn’t be underestimated. To get the whole picture though we need to recognize that resentment within the salaried class also runs deep and wide. The benefits of business are not widely distributed. The golden parachute club enjoys cars and homes provided on their company’s dime, along with cushy tax arrangements and types of stock not shared with their salaried employees. Giving a person a salary has often become little more than a legal means of insisting they give their companies countless hours of underpaid overtime.

So far this analysis is fairly mainstream. I would like to point out just how unexpected this new radical mainstream really is. No one living on Establishment Avenue expected Sanders’ anti-corporate message would gain a national platform this year or that Trump, a businessman outsider, would take the GOP anti-government message and turn it against big business. These outsiders bring a radical critique to the sacred cows of globalization; they have piped an unexpected tune which has proven to be unexpectedly popular. The radical nature of these critiques remain inconceivable to the pundits who are trying to get all this to fit back into the box of elections as usual. We should not lose sight of just how radical mainstream conversations have become here. This is what the twists and turns of history look like from the inside, from the perspective of those living through them.

Being mindful of the ecological aspects of the changes we are going through this first order critique, though useful as far as it goes, does not go far enough. For a second level of analysis of this resentment phenomenon we ask about the nature of work itself.

How meaningful is what you do everyday? Does your work contribute to the overall well being of your family and society, and does it promote the healing and respect for the earth and its living systems that is so desperately needed right now? It is one of the defining characteristics of our times that the great majority of the jobs available for the wage or salary worker have little justification other than pumping wealth into the pockets of the already wealthy.

Every business claims to be serving the greater good. It is a psychologically necessary justification their customers and employees need to maintain the image of themselves as good people, even as they participate in the unsavory aspects of valuing profit over people and the planet, as every corporation legally must. When every business “provides a service” clear distinctions between the helping professions and other professional activities becomes blurred. Why we prefer things this way is obvious enough; it helps to hide our economy’s dirty little secret. What’s that? A Skull and Bones blood pact in the closet of the Bavarian Illuminati? Not exactly.

Money is the means by which a modern society assigns value to its functional processes. That which it values most it pays most, that which it values least it pays least. Moneyed interests have the power to set the terms of these social arrangements and can pervert them to serve their own interests to some degree. Still, the role of pay as an indicator of value is not a wholly misleading piece of evidence. The dirty secret is that the lowest paid professions and jobs of all are those that serve human beings that are not a part of the powerful business perk class. The money earned by teachers and nurses, for example, has become the grist for numerous jokes and truisms. Working with the handicapped and injured, battered women and abused children, providing heat in a cold winter for the elderly poor or running the community food bank; all are valued at starvation wages. People whose ethic and character drive them to serve others in these helping professions are systematically taken advantage of; if you take care of our children, the sick and the elderly for the most part your work will never pay well. There will always be a crop of people whose compassion wins out over purely monetary concerns, so there is no need to pay these people a good wage to assure these jobs get done. See, the thing is, these jobs are meaningful in themselves. They provide a type of job satisfaction lacking in all those other professions dedicated to nothing more than selling another widget in our overcrowded marketplace.

Globalized industrialization seeks efficiency above all else, hence modern businesses are fascinated with big data, market polling and sophisticated statistics. They miss that the real point of employing a human being’s skills is to serve the community and in so doing develop both one’s heart and mind. Small business owners still often get this, tied as they are to the communities in which they live and operate. Wall Street sucking the blood out of Main Street has made all this just that much more difficult for us to deal with as a society. Employment is meant to serve mankind, but today we walk backwards into the future, believing mankind exists to serve the growth of the GDP. We pay lip service to alleviating poverty and hunger and serving one another through the cornucopia of our market offerings but look ’round the world and we must admit we do not put our money where our mouth is.

Take a construction worker as an sample of a wage job. Once such a worker could be expected to work on a school or two, maybe a hospital or library during their career and they would rightly take pride in the very real and substantial benefit doing so has brought to their community. Today such construction workers are more likely to spend their careers building hotels and skyscrapers for the business perk class. These are the lucky ones. Most of the service economy is the result of the complete abandonment of such good paying wage jobs, replacing the factory and canneries with 7-11 and Burger King. It removed the meaning a worker once had in their lives by being able to support a family well while doing right by others.

Good work well done brings dignity to those who labor. An honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay was once a bedrock value on Main Street. There was no shame in working for an hourly wage when it could provide for a small family.

This meaninglessness coupled to our employment is the real resentment I see in our country. Our lives are made up of one thing – precious time. Our circumstances are such that survival requires from us an ever increasing percentage of those hours. For each hour we ‘spend’ at work, or at school training for work, we are not with our friends and loved ones and we are limited in the degree of self-direction our lives are allowed to have. Other cultures are astonished how little time we have for ritual and retreat, study and art.

In today’s economy there is no job security remaining for most of the wage and salary classes. Not in keeping a job in this time of fly-by-night globalization nor in being taken care of after a lifetime of working. Without unions the wage class lost retirement benefits, without corporate stability and responsibility the salary class lost theirs as well. Also lacking is any conviction that by working hard we are creating a better world for our children. Upward mobility has all but ceased and by many measures has been firmly set into reverse for many, many people. It is one thing to ask a lot of work from people – and many are being asked to give hours of overtime like never before – but it is another to get nothing for it. The golden parachute class is seen as the architects of these arrangements and is universally resented for it.

Last week’s post looked at the rage built up around our dirty little secret concerning the pervasiveness of sexual abuse. This week we are examine the more widespread resentment which is like one notch down from the rage on the I’ve-had-enough scale. The dirty little secret here is that if the work you do serves others it will be paid a pittance, while if you serve a wealth pump money will be lavishly bestowed. The wage class resents the salary class because they were sold down the river to keep the salaried class buoyed up a little longer. The salaried class resents the golden parachute and business perk class because they were sold down the river to keep the financier and rentier class buoyed up.

This lack of meaning in the work we do is, however, more powerful than these purely economic resentments in the psychology of the American people. This affects everyone; wage, salary and rentier. Consumerism’s product in the age of limits is seen to be a hallow idol, an empty substitute for meaningful employment and a healthy ecological future. With meaninglessness people come to question if their lives matter; cogs in the gears of Homo Colossus, mass man faces an existential reckoning. Suicides spiking among unemployed Greeks and murder-suicide taking center stage in American schools seem not wholly unrelated to this anomie. The college graduates burdened with record debt and unemployable are getting lessons in the school of hard knocks taught from the same textbook.

I am wondering if maximizing individual wealth is now considered by the vast majority of people on this planet as insufficient justification for what business has become.

The business of America is business, quipped a businessman. Not necessarily. The business of America could be the cultivation of its people’s character and the organization of that mutual aid which serves as the glue of a healthy society. It is a question of values.

Life out of Balance

“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.

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 by dedicating the merit.

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. It is the hum of the rocks, of OM, of the stone Buddhas all over the world hiding in jungles and wastelands. Vibrating with its frequency one can find the calm eye of the storm.

Leshan-statue-6

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 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 the stone Buddha.

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 undertaken with integrity and courage might be of some benefit to others when the same dark dawnings come to their hearts.

Tools or Obsessions?

“According to one estimate, more than 3,000 farmers in Maharashtra have taken their lives every year between 2004 and 2013. Last year as many as 3,228 farmers took their lives.”
Why women are worst hit by India’s farm crisis, BBC News. Italics in original.

“Few people will be easily convinced that the challenge to man’s future cannot be met by making marginal adjustments here or there, or, possibly, by changing the political system.”
E.F.Schumacher, Small is Beautiful

 

The contemplative exercise mentioned last week was designed to provide a tool with which we can more skillfully explore how best to live in these troubling times. The activity was illustrative of how we can use art to clarify and strengthen the ultimate values we choose to live by and for. Like any powerful tool it is not without its dangers. Recognizing and working with those dangers is what this week’s post is all about. It is a meditation on what Edward Abbey advised when he wrote, “Be as I am… a half hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure.”

We have been looking at the rage around sexual abuse, the resentments around class inequalities and the despairing sadness that arises when we recognize the ignorance and inevitability of our ecological crisis. Each of these jagged emotional states has their causes in real world facts and is no more than the proper responses to such affronts to human dignity and potential. Yet, even though these things and many others like them have their roots in society, they come to consciousness within each individual as a dark dawning, a very personal engagement with the anguish involved.

The danger inherent in this family of experiences is in how easily they become targets of cognitive and behavioral obsessions. Their seriousness and size seem to demand a degree of single-mindedness out of respect. As the dark dawns and you first come to know more and more about the formerly repressed and ignored details of abuses, the knowing entrances the psyche. The issue becomes what seems to be the single most important part of all that one has ever experienced. We are in its clutches.

As the full extent of these troubling issues first becomes known they seem to enrich the understanding to such a degree that we become susceptible to creating ideologies. In other words, our obsession can convince us that we are seeing the One True Model by which we can finally understand the world.

The same process is involved in learning when the subjects are not filled with pain. The example from my own experience I like to use was my encounter with fractal geometry. At some point in my studies it clicked and everywhere I went for a few days I saw the fractal patterns of growth clearly displayed throughout nature and the recognition brought a frisson of delight every time. That was decades ago but the ability to click back into that state remains (though the intensity of the state varies with set and setting).  This understanding of the fractal geometry of fractional dimensions became a tool on my cognitive tool belt. It is a worldview captured in a state of consciousness that can be called on as needed, somewhat like one might use a microscope or a telescope to perform particular investigations.

The dark dawnings work the same way but only if their obsessive quality is broken. As long as any collection of conceptions seems to you to capture the ultimate essence of what it all ‘means’, it cannot be used as a cognitive tool. It is no longer a vehicle to think with but an ideology that shuts down thinking. By claiming dogmatic assurance in your cognitive space this conceptual collection, instead of being a servant of individuation, becomes a master and leads your thoughts around by the nose in a mostly mechanical fashion.

I know of no shortcuts for growing out of the obsession stage and into the tool stage. Time is the central ingredient in readjusting perspective so that it once again becomes obvious that the subject one was obsessing over does not in fact explain everything of importance. We pierce samsara by relinquishing clinging.

Before the obsessions break the dark dawnings bring depression. While under their sway people are susceptible to the whole host of psychological tricks for avoiding that pain-filled state of nihilism and anomie; they lash out, become manic, project the shadow on others and then try to tear the scapegoat to pieces, lose themselves in collective movements both religious and political and otherwise struggle to deal with it.

For some those defense mechanisms will fail and yet the obsession will remain – one enters Chapel Perilous where one’s worship of these concepts has become dangerous. The suicide and the suicide-murder come from here, but so does the defeat of the obsessive quality of all conceptual models, if one can grasp it. The way out inevitably involves clearly recognizing where one was wrong, where the model had been misapplied or misunderstood. These cognitive errors are what lent it the dogmatic allure by which it seemed to promise and deliver a final explanation of the universe and everything.

It is not enough to ask if a given critical analysis seen through rage, resentment or despair is true or not. It is equally important how these insights are held within the overall knowledge set and emotional experiences of the individual. A true model held dogmatically is no more helpful in the long run than a falsehood. On the other hand a falsehood held to be true can only lead further into delusions, a luxury we can ill afford collectively or individually.

Think for a moment of the cognitive state of a person feeling suicidal. Isn’t the defining characteristic an obsession with one point of view, namely one that sees nothing worth living for beyond the pain of immediate experience? This is the obsession. It steals the ability of the mind to relax from its worries, to lighten up and participate in, and be nourished by, that which is enjoyable and pleasurable. If we see the mind as a TV, always running images and scripts, then the obsessed can’t change the channel; whatever the obsession, it is the first thought on waking and never far from consciousness.

Sooner or later even the most frozen ideological ice castles melt. Doubt creeps in, a kink in the armor.

If you want to know the truth, as best as we are able to understand it, this initial obsession seems to be the unavoidable gateway. In its more innocent forms we easily recognize how we remain excited about learning a subject only as long as it seems to deliver further understanding. The more we learn, the more things make sense and even with painful subjects this comforts us. It comforts us even though in the end no final answer is forthcoming. As we have discussed, homo sapiens are hungry for meaning and are driven to seek it right along side our pursuit of food and water.

There is a maturity required of those who have taken on the task of learning to think seriously because we take pleasure from nurturing and growing our understanding even if we do so at the price of our peace of mind. Those who study pandemic contagion, for example, enjoy the comprehension of the dynamics their mastery of the subject has brought them, even while they have had to learn to live with an increased awareness of a whole host of potential threats and dangers less educated people remain oblivious to. The analogy with those of us involved with studying the ecological crisis is obvious.

I’m suggesting mindfulness is how we too can take a tip from the happy enough CDC employee of our analogy. Just as they go home to enjoy evenings and holidays with friends and loved ones in spite of their day job, so we too can learn to respect the truth of the dark dawnings without losing respect for all the other truths of love’s light and everyday acts of kindness which also make up our social lives. Survive Persephone’s honeymoon in the underworld and you receive a boon: truths and tools at the ready to serve and support powerfully meaningful lives well lived.

The dogmatic struggle to clamp a closed system of thought around the whole of the experience of life is doomed to failure because it misunderstands the ever changing nature of being itself. Instead of recognizing every moment remains open to the information exchanges of wisdom and light such immortality projects mistakenly take the human being to be a thing instead of a process. A thing can be hurt and must be protected at all costs. Sadly, in the world that fear built there is no good news. If existence truly were the nihilistic materialism we fear it might be, self awareness would be an unrelieved tragedy but the lover’s laugh, the mother’s coo, the trembling first kiss and a kaleidoscope of other witnesses puts paid to that lie.

Though our cognitive nets will never capture a final summation for the simple reason that existence has no final summary state as long as time and space exists, we receive in exchange for the freshness of this ever new dynamic a set of tools by which we are empowered to think. Through the wailing and tears and gnashing of teeth the knowledge is lodged into our hearts so that with diligence we can skillfully aid ourselves, others and the land. In this is our joyful diligence.

Using mindfulness to retain a panoramic view causes the obsessions to lose their power. The purity of an icy stream, a Himalayan mountain peak, the cool quite of the forest, the warmth and fertility of spring… so many specific environmental bounties and beauties surround us in our every moment. When we are lost in the shadows of our sky scrapers and cannot see the blue sky or the sun, that is when we most need to remember and see with our inner eye the invisible truth behind the visible we see.

We needn’t concern ourselves overmuch with the spreading of the dark dawnings; events are taking care of that. The works of William Catton, Richard Heinberg, Michael Greer, and Derek Jensen are available for all who are drawn to this particular current. What we can do is work as midwives to those still disoriented by their new birth into the real world (to crib a sentiment from The Matrix); Babes in Eggs and All that. The values of consumerism’s hungry ghost world are turned upside down; everything looks different from the other side of this abyss. More, better, faster grows horns where halos had been; justifications of inequality no longer justify anything, risks and rewards are divorced from realistic probabilities, the best don’t care and the worst are full of meaningless sound and fury.

The ecology we are dealing with here is not about a cute and cuddly mascot for fundraising. This ecology grabs you by the throat and shakes up you up, wakes you up.

May it be of benefit.