Turning to the Dark Side: Grieve, Heal, and Commit to the Earth Community
Resisting or postponing the collapse will only make it worse. Finding new ways to grow the economy will only consume what is left of our wealth. Let us stop resisting the revolution in human being-ness. If we want to outlast the multiple crises unfolding today, let us not seek to survive them. That is the mind-set of separation; that is resistance, a clinging to a dying past. Instead, let us shift our perspective toward reunion and think in terms of what we can give. What can we each contribute to a more beautiful world? That is our only responsibility and our only security.
~Charles Eisenstein, Sacred Economics~
Many people in spiritual circles resist the use of the word “collapse.” After all, it sounds so—well, “apocalyptic.” And indeed, it is, and that reality becomes more significant when we consider that the word “apocalypse” simply means “the unveiling.” While “collapse” implies the notion of things falling apart, in the manner that Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron writes in her wonderful little book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times, “collapse” and “apocalypse” travel together.
In fact, when things fall apart, we are compelled to notice the extent to which the paradigms we formerly embraced are revealed for their dysfunction and devastation. Likewise, when we are able to look honestly at what is unveiled, we notice that facets of the dominant paradigm are already collapsing and have been for some time.
Buddha taught us that all created things perish. Everything and everyone is impermanent – as in collapsing, falling apart, and eventually, becoming extinct. Paul Kingsnorth, environmental activist and author writes in his marvelous article, The Witness:
It is hard for us to take in the reality that Earth is an extinction machine, and it has been here before. It doesn’t need us, and we cannot control it. The ‘ecological crisis’ we hear so much about, and which I have written so much about and worked to stave off – well, who says it is a ‘crisis’? Humans do – and educated, socially-concerned humans at that. For the Earth itself, the Holocene Extinction is not a ‘crisis’ – it is just another shift. Who determined that the planet should remain in the state in which humans find it conducive? Is this not a form of clinging to mutable things, and one that is destined to make us unhappy? When we campaign to ‘save the Earth’ what are we really trying to save? And which Earth?
Not only is the Earth an extinction machine, but humanity’s way of operating on this planet is a heat engine. The way civilized humans choose to live on Earth inexorably leads to the extinction of the Earth community.
And Charles Eisenstein, in the above passage from his incisive book, Sacred Economics, asks us not to resist any of this. Or as a friend of mine says, “When you’re in the middle of a meltdown, your job is to melt.”
Someone else famously said that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. But how do we, in fact, discover the opportunity in that well-known Chinese character that means both crisis and opportunity?
I woke up to the collapse of industrial civilization in 2007. Although I was inundated with articles, books, and documentaries on the topic which unarguably revealed that collapse was a done deal, my training as a psychotherapist incessantly screamed: “And how are people going to navigate this demise emotionally and spiritually?” Thus my current calling was born as I penned Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse (2009), Navigating The Coming Chaos: A Handbook For Inner Transition (2011), and Collapsing Consciously: Transformative Truths For Turbulent Times (2013).
What I have increasingly understood with every new record of CO2 parts per million being broken, every report on ocean acidification, and every new extreme weather event is that the human species is in the throes of a planetary initiation. Most indigenous cultures had, and some still have, elaborate initiation procedures for their young people during the age of puberty; however, in the modern world, one does not have to be a member of an indigenous community to experience initiation. In fact, Carl Jung asserted that initiation is an archetype or fundamental motif inherent in the human psyche. That is to say that something in us wants and expects engagement in the initiatory process, not only at the age of puberty, but throughout our human experience. The process is so fundamental, Jung believed, that even if we do not participate in a formal rite of passage ceremony as we transition from youth to adulthood, our human journey will provide us with initiatory events for the purpose of deepening our humanity and our connection with the cosmos and something greater than the human ego.
Examples of initiatory events which humans frequently encounter are loss of meaningful work, loss of livelihood, loss of home, loss of health, loss of relationship, loss of future security, loss of life, or loss of place. I have intentionally reiterated the word “loss” because loss is the hallmark of modernity. The irony is that civilization has promised us inestimable gain but fundamentally delivered infinite loss at every turn of our path toward embracing its demands.
In tribal cultures where formal rites of passage are practiced, it is understood that life on earth is fraught with loss – that, in fact, loss is the hallmark of human experience but that the bone-marrow ordeal of the initiatory process grounds the young person moving toward adulthood, by way of loss, into his or her permanent place in the community. Thus, regardless of what losses one may endure, for the initiated man or woman, one’s connection with community and with the sacred are constant. As a result, one is equipped to face and navigate loss with remarkable fortitude and grace, not alone, but supported by elders and peers in the process.
I do not wish to idealize tribal cultures or imply that they are without challenges or devoid of dysfunction. Indeed, the more they are encroached upon by civilization, the more dysfunctional they become. My intention is not to focus on indigenous peoples per se, but on the archetype of initiation that I believe inhabits the human psyche. If my premise is correct, then much of how we as a species have arrived at the current predicament of committing planetary suicide makes perfect sense.
Moreover, if the reality of initiation is deeply embedded in our humanity, it is likely that survival and navigation of the collapse of civilization will be enhanced by our perception and response to collapse as an initiatory process.
Furthermore, in our fundamental human origins, we are all indigenous people. Whether or not we claim our indigenous roots, “white roots” do not exist. We are either actively acknowledging our indigenous roots, or we are ignoring them; in reality, all of humanity has been colonized by civilization, the collapse of which offers us the opportunity to reclaim our heritage and liberate ourselves from conquest.
Turning to the dark side
This then leads to the question: How does an uninitiated species respond to the predicament it has created, and conversely, what is the initiated response to the collapse of civilization?
First, we must recognize that “bright-sided” spirituality will not serve us in an initiatory experience. In her wonderful 2014 Time Magazine article, In Praise of Darkness, Episcopal priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor speaks of our culture’s addiction to “full-on solar spirituality”:
Darkness” is shorthand for anything that scares me — that I want no part of — either because I am sure that I do not have the resources to survive it or because I do not want to find out. The absence of God is in there, along with the fear of dementia and the loss of those nearest and dearest to me. So is the melting of polar ice caps, the suffering of children, and the nagging question of what it will feel like to die. If I had my way, I would eliminate everything from chronic back pain to the fear of the devil from my life and the lives of those I love — if I could just find the right night-lights to leave on.
At least I think I would. The problem is this: when, despite all my best efforts, the lights have gone off in my life (literally or figuratively, take your pick), plunging me into the kind of darkness that turns my knees to water, nonetheless I have not died. The monsters have not dragged me out of bed and taken me back to their lair. The witches have not turned me into a bat. Instead, I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.
The global crisis compels us to step decisively into spiritual elderhood which has little to do with age and everything to do with the cultivation of wisdom. The first advance toward spiritual elderhood is the mature decision to open to the depth and severity of the darkness and become a willing student of its revelations, personally within one’s own psyche and collectively in the macrocosm. The spirituality of initiation is not about rising, soaring, and moving up and out, but rather bowing, kneeling, and allowing ourselves to be drawn downward and inward.
Secondly, moving downward and inward, we naturally fall back in love with the Earth or perhaps fall in love with it for the first time. Why should we do this if it’s too late to save the Earth? Because we must do this especially if it’s too late to save the Earth. We are not “part” of the Earth or “stewards” of the Earth: We are the Earth. Her demise is our demise, and when confronted with any demise, spiritual integrity demands that we allow ourselves to become intimate with it. Cultivating Earth intimacy is a spiritual practice to which we must commit in order to experience the radical transformation that planetary initiation offers. Surrender to Earth’s demise and our own in this planetary initiation evokes both grief and joy as we let go of our civilized “developmental delay” and become mature, initiated adults.
Additionally, the sanest emotional response to our predicament is deep, deep grief. Grief elder, Francis Weller, in his wonderful book Entering The Healing Ground: Grief, Ritual and The Soul of The World, notes that in some indigenous cultures, regular grief rituals are practiced as a form of “soul hygiene” for the community. In those cultures, it is believed that people who do not grieve become toxic to the village.
Grieve, heal, commit
In my work with individuals grieving a variety of losses, including the loss of ecosystems, rivers, mountains, forests, and wildlife, I notice that when they allow themselves to grieve in the safety of a supportive community such as a grief workshop or group ritual, they become profoundly more alive, more joyful, and feel more deeply connected with all living beings. This is the healing power of heartbreak consciously embraced. Conscious grieving is essential for navigating a planetary initiation, and for this reason, I have begun devoting much of my work to offering grief workshops and rituals.
The power of heartbreak quite naturally compels us to serve the Earth community perhaps in ways we had never imagined, with compassion for all beings cascading from every pore. How we will serve is not a decision the mind can make but a labor of love to which the heart must be driven because it cannot do otherwise. We must cease all cerebral speculations about whether the Earth can be saved or when and how its final demise may unfold. The end result of our service may be none of our business. Rather, we serve because we desire nothing more than to be love in action when love may be all that remains.
As my friend Andrew Harvey incessantly emphasizes, in a time of potential extinction, we must commit to engaging in some manner with indigenous wisdom. We can begin this adventure by:
1) Developing an entirely different relationship with animals. We must engage not only with our pets, but open to the presence of animals in the rawness of nature.
2) Spending quality time in nature, not camping or hiking, or doing anything except being present – sitting quietly, contemplating, allowing all of our senses to engage with leaves, grass, trees, soil, insects, birds, streams, and the wildness that reminds us that we are nothing if not animal beings. Above all, in doing all of this, we must continually say, “Thank you.”
3) Making a commitment to become a sacred activist in some capacity who allows radical heartbreak to guide us to whatever our mission is to be at this pivotal moment in the history of our planet. Whether or not that mission “succeeds” is not up to us. Our responsibility is to commit wholeheartedly regardless of the outcome.
Radical transformation cannot happen without a spiritual initiation, and what makes the transformation radical is the downsizing of the human ego and rational mind and the limitless expansion of the Sacred Self. This is initiation’s glorious endgame, as the poet Juan Ramon Jimenez so exquisitely articulated:
I am not I.
I am this one
walking beside me whom I do not see,
whom at times I manage to visit,
and whom at other times I forget;
the one who remains silent while I talk,
the one who forgives, sweet, when I hate,
the one who takes a walk when I am indoors,
the one who will remain standing when I die.I am not I.