This was first written on 23/12/2019
An ecological catastrophe of intimidating proportions besets us all. While some may have neither the freedom nor time to take it into account, many are those in denial of it. Those for whom denial is no longer an option are growing in number daily. Honest acknowledgement does not, can not come alone. It necessarily creates a response that arises from deeper than the rational, conscious mind. A response that arises into awareness only when it has space to do so.
This space depends upon more than honest acknowledgement of the immensity of this cataclysm. A cataclysm that has already eradicated many species and habitats, while threatening even more.
This space also depends on a generosity of circumstance: both inner and outer. External circumstance needs to provide both enough time and a sense of safety. The sense of safety almost inevitably includes the company of others who also can see clearly enough what is happening. Yet it also includes an absence of immediate threat.
Internally we need the courage to feel deeply the effects on us of this intensifying catastrophe. We also needs the resources capable of assimilating and integrating these effects: such as panic, grief, anger, despair.
Many approaches to emotional and psychological well being have been explored and developed. Many of them will be able to provide resources for this assimilation. Yet these resources have been developed in response to less intense and less permanent trauma.
What could be more traumatic than the imminent extinction of the species and habitats upon which human life depends?
This is not a trauma that you can put behind you. It is one you must face. Not just once, but continuously. It may not be fully assimilable with the resources currently available. It is a trauma so powerful, do deep, so inescapable that perhaps it demands an approach of a similar magnitude and depth.
Such an approach may be more available than it might seem.
The psychological discoveries and understanding that we today enjoy contain a significant blind spot. This blind spot is the minimising of consciousness in the conversation about human experience, behaviour and intelligence.
Consciousness is the context of all human experience. Without it there can be no experience, no fear, rage nor despair. It is the ground of all understanding and knowledge. Yet it remains a mystery. Some even doubt its existence.
This mystery has often been challenged: by philosophers, by scientists. Yet there is no consensus about the origins, nature and implications of consciousness. There is no similar contention about gravity, light or radio waves. Nor about the origins, nature and implication of lightning and thunder.
Even if all there is to consciousness is conscious awareness, lived experience, this is a significant omission. If we do not understand the ground of human experience, how can we truly understand its inner dynamics? How can we understand the nature and origins of emotion? How can we fruitfully assimilate our response to bio-catastrophe?
While a cat does not talk, and a lizard does not distinguish between Vitamin B12 and Omega 3, they both have awareness. They know when danger is near, and they respond accordingly. They know what to do when hungry or tired. They are not automata, despite so much human hubris to the contrary. Bees have been heard screaming as they burned to death. Plants respond differently to the presence of humans that have damaged them.
In order to understand human emotion we need to understand consciousness, awareness. We need to recognise that conscious thinking is not the only expression of consciousness. So, also, is enjoying Mozart or Led Zeppelin. As is enjoying the taste of caviar or chocolate ice cream.
Although it has subconscious roots, our experience of thinking occurs within the light of conscious awareness. This thinking is the conscious mind. The light which reveals it is awareness. We do not need to think, nor even be able to think, to feel pain: to know that it is pain we are feeling. Awareness is the ground of all our experience, only part of which includes thoughts and thinking.
Without awareness we can not experience despair, grief or anger. Without an understanding of awareness we can not hope to assimilate the potentially overwhelming anger, grief and despair precipitated by ecological catastrophe. If we do not see clearly the distinction and relationship between mind and awareness, it is likely that our attempts at assimilation will be limited.
Such a limitation is not necessary.
If we become intimate enough with our own presence we encounter not only the physical sensations being generated by body and the cognitive interpretations made by mind, but also the luminous, inclusive presence of awareness.
This encounter with the luminous presence of awareness offers insights that can help us to respond internally to ecological catastrophe in a nourishing and healing way.
One thing that we can quickly learn is that the presence of awareness makes a difference.
Become aware of your breathing and it changes. If it were shallow and restricted it will release and deepen. If it were forced and aggressive it will quieten and become more subtle. These changes happen spontaneously in direct response to the presence of awareness. Very often these changes will be reversed when awareness wanders. Only to be re-initiated on its return.
This tendency of awareness to initiate integrity or wholeness can be observed in everyday life. If the bucket you are using to water plants is leaking, your watering will be wasteful of water, energy and time. For it not to be so you need to become aware that it is leaking. As soon as you become aware of it, and not before, you can take steps to conserve your water, and energy: even if at the expense of time.
For the nature and implications of awareness to be well understood a deep and clear intimacy with your own presence is all that is required. Within that clarity you can learn something very valuable about inner intensities such as despair, rage or grief. This learning takes place when we allow ourselves to really feel any emotion.
To really feel an emotion is not so easy. Especially a deep, existential emotion such as ecological despair. It has such overwhelming and irresistible implications that it should be no surprise that we avoid them any way we can.
Perhaps the most common way that we resist feeling our emotions is to talk to ourselves about them. Of course we know how helpful it is to talk to others about them. Nevertheless talking to ourselves about our emotional suffering only too easily becomes an unhealthy excursion into masochism. We also know that denying, repressing and avoiding our feelings is equally unhealthy.
Yet expression and repression are not our only options. There is a third, far more healthy and fruitful option. This is the option of intimacy. To fully feel an emotion is to become intimate with it. To become intimate with it requires both a focussing and a quietening of mind.
All emotions have a sensory base. No matter what twists and turns your mind makes within your sadness, fear or anger there are physical sensations underneath. To become intimate with your emotions means to feel these sensations so deeply and clearly that mind lets go of its interpretations, of its stories. It settles quietly into your deeper ability to feel.
Instead of feeling sadness, despair or rage you will be feeling physical sensations. You will no longer be suffering. You will simply be feeling without any mental elaboration. Your mind will be quiet and satisfied. It has not turned away into any kind of evasion. It has simply become intimate with what actually is.
This is because an emotion has layers. One in the body and many in the mind. The physical layer is the presence of sensations: of heat, cold, pressure, tension, tingling, nausea, heaviness, dizziness, pain. While some of these sensations may be extremely unpleasant, that unpleasantness is a limited, local somatic event. To become overwhelmed by emotion it needs mental layers. The sensations need to be interpreted beyond their simple, somatic implications. Deep suffering, such as despair, anguish, rage and panic are generated in the multilayered elaborations of mind responding to simple sensations.
These layered elaborations only too easily get carried away with themselves. Then what was something very real, very concrete (unpleasant sensations), becomes something fantastical and abstract. It is in those abstract phantasms that most of our suffering lies. If we can strip away those abstract layers of mental interpretation, our suffering peels away also to a manageable core. Then it becomes possible to absorb and assimilate that core.
This does not depend on any special skill or knowledge. It depends only an a willingness to feel. A willingness to feel fully the sensations that are disturbing you. This is the heart and the power of somatic intimacy: the willingness to feel.
Somatic intimacy means becoming intimate with physical sensations. So intimate that all the abstract implications generated by mental interpretation peel away. As mind settles deeply into the presence of sensation it both quietens and clarifies. As mind quietens and clarifies the sensations themselves begin to dissolve. Even unpleasant ones. Eventually even intensely unpleasant ones will dissolve into the clear light of awareness. Their presence has been absorbed, their energy assimilated. This is the nourishing, healing power of awareness expressing itself.