Holding Space for the Inner Crisis
By Anneke Vo
As the deep ecology movement begins to recognise the importance of grieving the demise of industrial civilisation, conversations around sacred activism and psycho-spiritual healing are inevitably beginning to surface.
In the midst of the most destructive ecological and existential crises of our time, what is worth living for and preserving? Where is connection and community to be found in a culture of ruthless scarcity and separation? How are we to nurture the inner strength and character to awaken conscious presence within an unconscious culture — to hold space for each other when we might be struggling most to heal ourselves? Why does it matter and why should we care?
These are big questions, which we can only ever answer for ourselves, even if we think it is nobler to lead campaigns on behalf of others, sublimate our unresolved vulnerabilities into philanthropic causes, and convince ourselves that is enough. On one level, we discover ourselves and our humanity through the collective mirror — the shared empathy of universal suffering and the will to alleviate it through our most influential relationships. On another level, we also recognise that each person must face their individual battles, with the possibility of being aided, thought of and loved, but not necessarily “saved” from their most devastating lessons and transformative experiences.
Processing grief and loss
I have been genuinely moved so far by the humbling dialogue emerging within our earth community surrounding the process of grief. It is an intensely uprooting time for many of us to begin deconstructing and abandoning many of the old ideals we once clung to regarding civilisation’s progress and a triumphal technotopian agenda. If I’m going to be completely honest and transparent with where I’m at in my own healing journey, grief has been a regular practice in my life for many years, so much that it has become a guiding theme and spiritual anchor.
I have grieved for future generations who never chose to be born into a world ruled by corrupt, undemocratic power structures and collapsing economic systems; innocent animals I ignorantly consumed before committing to a cruelty-free, vegan diet; our thoughtless destruction of the natural world and its irreversible epidemic of biodiversity loss, strangled by uninhabitable wastelands, dirty mining fields and consumer webs of plastic. I have grieved for exploited workers who are dependent upon predatory multinationals for their living wage, innocent civilians who have lost their lives and families as a result of senseless war crimes, refugees in detention who are subject to rape and abuse as a result of inhumane immigration policies, and indigenous peoples across the globe, who have sacrificed blood and bone to protect our dying earth from economic growth’s parasitic energy demands.
On a more personal level, I have spent most of my young adult years grieving over the loss of several close, defining relationships — long term friends who walked out of my life without warning because “our values were too different”; family members who became ghosts to each other in our own homes as a result of financial stress and unresolved trauma; would-be lovers who never paid much attention to the chilling statistics that loneliness can kill you faster than smoking or obesity. Grief meant being forced to let go of every secure, romantic vision I had for my life as a former idealist — watching beacons of strength in my community succumb to self-harm, psychosis, illness, homelessness and domestic violence — fighting to hold on to whatever scrap of hope they had left for their future.
It is possible that when we are hurting in any significant, life-altering way, we are also carrying the unconscious, unresolved grief of those around us, even if, superficially, they always seem to have it all together. Left imperceptible, disowned grief entails a dangerous splitting between the strong and the weak, the haves and the have-nots, the false hypocrisy that what hurts others cannot hurt us. While I was immersed in my own grieving process, I experienced a serious lack of understanding and withdrawal of support from those who were supposedly closest to me, accompanied by righteous judgment and abusive comments. I was accused of being burdensome, lazy, lacking in responsibility, told that I would never amount to anything if I didn’t behave and discipline myself to work harder to keep the industrial machine running like everybody else.
The inner ecology of collapse
The hardest part about grief has been realising that I wasn’t up to the task of being the kind of public activist and glass ceiling-smashing feminist powerhouse that the world needed, as I was struggling to rebuild my life and its broken emotional support systems. The earth had been terminally assigned to hospice and all I could be was a mirror, humbling my service to healing personal wounds of conditioned shame, anxiety and never feeling quite “good enough.” Little did I know my conscience was mapping an inner ecology of collapse, genuinely in need of greater self-compassion.
Beneath the damage lies an intimate source of knowing that our individual grief belongs to gaia too; she grieves not only for the terrible destruction we have caused, but the despair that is mirrored within us by our own self-undoing. We would be missing an important lesson to not recognise our present ecological crises as an outward reflection of an inner spiritual crisis too, especially if we aren’t prepared to own, heal and forgive those darker aspects of our experience.
I am striving to trust that vulnerability does not make us broken, less worthy or capable of being a positive voice for change. On the contrary, it imbues us with a hard-earned awareness of suffering, which has the power to illuminate transformative, revelatory truths about the human condition. Holding space for the processes of grief may mean that we are called to exercise deeper self-trust as many of the structures in our lives begin to disintegrate, where we are unable to function as “efficiently” under the old systems of business as usual, control, hierarchy and cultural hegemony.
It may indicate the need to release painful attachments and traverse the unknown within liminal spaces — leaving behind an old identity that no longer serves us, purging ourselves of repressed emotions trapped as disease in the body, mourning the loss of soul-nourishing values and relationships, or risking abandonment to take a path less travelled. Grief will do whatever it takes to break open our defenses and invite our surrender — unearthing an innate wisdom and depth of character, which is capable of creatively mastering our own transformational death/rebirth processes, and profoundly touching the lives of others.
Carving out a niche for grief and healing
I believe it is time to reframe the conversation around grief and healing as deeply integral to sustainability values, and not some mere self-indulgent act we engage in when we aren’t “taking responsibility” for the world’s current political mess. I find myself being on the same page as M Jackson, geographer and author of While Glaciers Slept, who writes about the science of climate change and emotional toll of grief as being interwoven within the same psychological fabric:
I think we can create the very best science out there about the problems of climate change, yet if we aren’t filtering that science through our hearts, there remains—as we see today—a disengagement. People intellectually understand climate change; we know “the science” of it. But now, vitally, we need more heart.
Climatic changes are experienced first through the human condition. We are living in this changing world together and subsequently are in many ways responsible to one another for our actions.
For me, I think that authentically sharing our personal experiences—the good and the bad and everything in the middle—is an excellent place to start, to move forward into our shared future.
Accepting ethical responsibility for one’s role in the grand psychodrama requires brave reconciliation with the collective unconscious of our amoral, evolutionary lineage — reparenting wounded ancestral inheritances, which collectively birth forward an evolving cosmos, striving to know itself consciously with awe-evoking complexity. Sometimes I wonder if humanity needed to transgress to our absolute lowest in order to appreciate the indescribable preciousness of what we have lost.
It is precisely the wasted opportunities and regrets we feel towards appeasing the status quo — abandoning our own unlived dreams, which motivates us to dig deeper to find our calling, and cultivate a vision of the values we might aspire to reclaim in service of near-term extinction and generations to come. Profound loss and existential separation gestates a seed in us to seek deeper union with life, beauty and the cosmos, if only for humble, transitory moments. Experiencing our foundational needs for belonging, love and security being violently withheld urges us to contemplate how to live more soulfully and skilfully; to offer a listening ear in the recovery room, or empathically reach out to those less fortunate, reminding each other that we are not alone.
Once I radically let go of external pressures to conform, over-achieve and sculpt my ego to fit into traditional institutions, downshifting created space for me to grieve, rest, meditate and detox from society’s stressful cult of status anxiety and inauthentic expectations. I realised that if I wanted to be more available to meet others where they were at in their healing journey, I needed to be unconditionally supportive and accepting of my own limitations and pace of soul evolution. As I was pulled deeper into my initiation, it became vital to centre myself in solitude, while seeking to connect with eco-spiritual travellers on a similar path — dreaming into our disintegrating selves to find solidarity and self-understanding built upon deep struggle; challenging the shame and stigma surrounding systemic grief felt by those who dare to express genuine dissent and vulnerability.
If the only thing we accomplish in this lifetime is an integrated, mature relationship with our own grief, I believe it would amount to more than success or public acclaim for those who have rarely needed to face the depths of their own shadow, as the “identified patient” and vilified economic scapegoat within our failing system. If we listen carefully enough, we will hear the call to broaden our understanding of service to accommodate the path of grief bearers, trauma survivors, disabled activists, unstable children and other marginalised groups; presently and non-judgmentally bearing witness for each other in our darkest moments.
There has never been an easy, linear path in the history of consciousness to wholeness and healing, but given the choice between cataclysmic grief or dissociation, it is the price we must pay for choosing love.