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 regain a holy indifference 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.

Pray for us.