Chapter Three: ECOLOGICAL GRIEF & CLIMATE CATHARSIS
Updated: Feb 28, 2022
Only birth can conquer death—the birth, not of the old thing again, but of something new. Within the soul, within the body social, there must be -- if we are to experience long survival -- a continuous 'recurrence of birth' to nullify the unremitting recurrences of death.
~ Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces
A Psycho-spiritual, Sociocultural Process
of Anthropocentric Transmutation
Climate: (alternate definition) the prevailing attitudes, standards, or environmental conditions of a group, period, or place.
Catharsis: A psychological technique used to relieve tension and anxiety by bringing repressed feelings and fears to consciousness.
Anthropocentric: viewing and interpreting everything in terms of human experience and values, or with humans as the central concern and/or causative factor.
Transmutation: the transformation of one species into another.
The natural response to traumatic loss is grieving. When we grieve the ruptures in our lives and losing loved ones, it frees up latent energy to respond appropriately to problems and threats in our life and in the world. So in a time of unprecedented trauma and collective grief, we would be well advised to refrain from obsessing over the seemingly intractable threats, and ask ourself instead what, in this time of great dying, may be emerging and what we can do to help birth that?
We now hold the fate all life on planet Earth in our collective hands, after all. All living beings will be forever changed by the actions of our species over the past 250 years, and all life hangs in the balance awaiting our response over the next decade or two to the mess that we have made of things.
The Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times” has never been more poignant.
While it is undoubtedly true that life as we have always known it is hurtling to a heart-rending conclusion, it is equally true that all life is not ending, and something quite new and all-encompassing is emerging, as would be anticipated by Emerson’s natural law of compensation:
“Our strength grows out of our weakness. The indignation which arms itself with secret forces does not awaken until we are pricked and stung and sorely assailed.”
Or, as Naomi Klein puts it:
“Climate change isn't just a disaster. It's also our best chance to demand—and build—a better world.”
And just as, in this country, the generation that was strongest in spirit and resolve arose from the cruel deprivations of the Great Depression to conquer the most demonic force ever assembled against humanity, Hitler’s industrial death machine, so too should we anticipate that a great spiritual force will arise in response to the unprecedented material and biological impoverishment that is now spreading across the planet because of our own industrial death forces - fossil fuels, petrochemicals, factory farms (livestock production), marine destruction, and nuclear wastes.
The necessary and natural compensation for all this material and biological destruction will be some kind of spiritual awakening. It has to be, because it is the forces of spiritual darkness (greed, avarice, and ignorance) that are at the root of our descent into this all-consuming materialist madness. Those who continue to look to these same forces for solutions, let alone salvation, are tragically deluded.
Meanwhile, those who are tending to the spiritual needs of society without being overly distracted by the intense melodramas of world politics, these spiritual midwives who are determined to rebirth Earth, are already sensing a spiritual re-awakening, or radical shift in human consciousness, taking root. These roots that will grow new life from the soiled ruins of industrial civilization like mycelium regenerating new life in a burned forest. Herein lies our only realistic hope for redemption.
But is it realistic? What is the pragmatic basis for such hope? Why should we not instead despair, as proponents of near-term human extinction despair, become more stoic, as urged by Jem Bendell and his Deep Adaptation community, or follow the advice of James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia hypothesis (world as living organism), who contends that we should simply, hedonistically enjoy what time we have left?
In the paper Planetary Hospice: Rebirthing the Earth (2014), I scaled up Kübler-Ross’ classic model for the stages of grieving at a collective, psycho-spiritual scale to account for the collective response to the climate crisis in our modern consumer culture. My primary insight was that, since grief is a force of psychic nature, even if we collectively repress it, we will still culturally act that repressed grief out. I found that trends in our mental health as a culture, as evidenced by levels and types of drugs being prescribed to mask our afflictions, were a reliable marker for the stages of collectively repressed grief over the accelerating loss of our connection to the natural world that followed WWII.
Planetary Hospice was intended as a preliminary assessment, and elicited enormous feedback after going viral, even being translated into multiple languages for global distribution. I should mention that this was directly as a result of Joanna Macy reading it, as an academic advisor (since I’d written it for a class at CIIS), and immediately posting it on her popular Work That Reconnects website. After taking all the feedback and responses into a more holistic, contemplative realm, what emerged quite suddenly and almost of its own force was a new, integrated model of climate grief, which I then presented or intense feedback at an international conference of psychologists and educators at Harvard’s 2014 Mind & Life Conference (poster presentation). That seemed an invaluable culmination of that phase of my climate psychology project.
Fleshing this model out with systems analysis at spiritual, social, and cultural levels from a depth psychology perspective, it slowly became apparent that we, as a culture - and I can only speak for my own culture here, that popular culture of the American Dream, or material progress - were much further along in our collective (repressed) grieving process than I had originally surmised in 2014.
I found this quite encouraging!
THE KEY: East/West Model of Consciousness
The key that unlocked the door to this model in my own mind, allowing it to seemingly emerge wholly integrated from some deeper transpersonal realm, was a synthesis of the Buddhist model of consciousness with Carl Jung’s model of the psyche. It is neither necessary to be a Buddhist nor a depth psychologist to appreciate what this pscyho-spiritual model of mind has to offer in terms of evolving out of our collective spiritual emergency.
From the standpoint of Buddhist tantra, "the mind is seen as having three levels of subtlety, beginning with gross consciousness, moving deeper into subtle consciousness, and deeper still into extremely subtle consciousness." Preece, R. The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra (2006, Snow Lion). Preece, a Buddhist practitioner who became a Jungian psychotherapist in response to his own spiritual emergency after being flushed out of his retreat cave in India back in the 1970s, relates these subtle levels of consciousness directly to Jung’s model of the mind, with:
gross consciousness is synonymous with Jung’s notion of personal, everyday consciousness;
subtle consciousness is the equivalent of Jung’s personal unconscious mind, where our motives and conditioning take shape; and,
extremely subtle consciousness is commensurate with Jung’s unique (in Western Psychology) idea of the collective unconscious realm, from which archetypal images and primal forces emerge into our individual minds, often taking shape in our dreams and finding expression in our mythology and astrology.
One significant difference between Jung’s model and the Buddhist model is that Jung maintained that the contents of the unconscious realm are not readily accessible to our personal consciousness - that it's effectively a one-way street - whereas Buddhism has long maintained that this uniquely Western notion of the “unconscious” is simply a matter of clouded awareness. The more refined one’s mind becomes, in other words, especially when development of the mind is refined through quiescent meditation, the more clear and expansive one’s awareness becomes, eventually allowing one to fathom the depths of consciousness all the way down. according to Preece, to “the deepest level of awareness, the one that takes us beyond the personal into relationship with the essential nature of reality.”
While Buddhism seems to have a more sound basis from centuries of subjective empiricism which gives rise to consensus, for our purpose here we can rectify this relatively inconsequential difference, and synthesize these readily compatible models, simply by utilizing the term ‘awareness’ in the broadest possible sense. We can posit, for instance, that we all share a base level of primal awareness, though we may only rarely become conscious of its contents. This would explain where intuition comes from, as well as our dream world, mystical states across religions, and the Indigenous phenomenon of immersion in the natural world referred to as the "participation mystique" -- a natural, non-dual state of consciousness that remains largely a mystery to non-Indigenous peoples.
The key to applying this synthesized, East/West model of the human mind to our largely suppressed grieving process over the loss of life as we know it on planet Earth and our connection to the natural world is to then relate it to the equally congruent ideas of the world soul, or anima mundi, and the Buddhist notion of interdependent origination. This may sound complicated at first blush, but it's really quite natural and basic.
We and the Earth which sustains us are inextricably linked - even at the deepest level of consciousness. Thus, even if our awareness is clouded, or if we repress the ideas and feelings pushing up from this deepest level of collective consciousness, by our very nature as “earthlings” we all still ‘know’ at the core of our being what is going on with the life support system that is our planet, our ground of being. There is a big difference between knowing something intellectually and knowing it directly, organically, and/or intuitively in the depths of our being. The ancient Greeks called this experience of direct knowing "gnosis."
Thus, long before the scientific evidence is amassed and presented to us, we all are aware at some primal, base level of consciousness when something is amiss on planet Earth. We may not be conscious of that gnosis, we may well not admit it into our personal consciousness in disturbing thought forms, or we may repress and distort it when it does enter our field of consciousness ~~ as e.g. Jung observed with the recent proliferation of professed alien encounters ~~ but we feel it nonetheless, probably even more so because of our failure to allow it full expression. Or, as Bob Marley said, "who feels it, knows it."
From this depth psychological perspective of expansive, interdependent, interpenetrating awareness, then, the collective grieving process associated with the significant losses we’ve collectively experienced over the past half century can be illuminated in a trauma-informed way. This integrated perspective, in turn, can serve as a spiritual container for resolving that trauma with appropriate grief work, both individually and collectively, which in turn has the effect of freeing up psychic energy, unblocking feedback loops, and restoring the free flow of information; that is, facilitating individual and collective healing. It was this praxis which eventually helped me to heal my own epigenetic trauma, and then with that latent psychic energy unleashed, to eventually understand that we are collectively experiencing climate (biospheric) trauma - a trauma I have deeply felt my entire adult life.
An Integral Perspective on the (Repressed) Planetary Grieving Process in the Culture of the American Dream (of material progress) During the Time of the Great Acceleration
Planetary Hospice was not the first attempt to correlate climate grief with the Kübler-Ross model. Nobel Laureate Steven W. Running did so at the level of the individual in a 2007 talk in my former home town of Missoula, Montana. The following year, eco-therapists Sarah Anne Edwards and Linda Buzzell reported on a pattern of psychological responses in their clients that mimicked the five-stage grief cycle, which they referred to as the “waking up syndrome.”
Of the two, the waking up syndrome is the one that perhaps comes closest to the insights expressed in Planetary Hospice. Both the Running and Waking Up models, however, consider the grieving process only at the scale of the individual psyche, while Planetary Hospice posited suppressed grieving and mental health at a societal scale. Of course, these are simply two perspectives on the same phenomena, since from a mental health perspective a society is merely an amalgam of individuals existing along a scale of sensitivity. Some of us are always going to be more sensitive to collectively experienced phenomenon than others, but our individual experiences, expressions and impressions will inevitably reflect some aspect of those larger phenomena.
As already indicated, the starting point is a consideration of our societal mental health profile in relation to the stages of grief attendant to the growing realization that life as we have known it during the Holocene Age, an era of relatively natural symbiosis between humanity and Earth, has already ended. It is no mere coincidence, after all, that it took us the span of an entire human lifetime - 70 years - to realize that the 11,000 year long Holocene ended in the White Sands Desert in 1945, and the Anthropocene began. Thus, in 2012 philosopher Timothy Morton could accurately state: “The end of the world has already occurred.”
The explicit assumption here is that at a base level of awareness, that level at which we are all connected to our planetary life support system, we intuitively ‘know’ what is transpiring, which gives rise to existential angst or eco-anxiety. However, because evolution has not really prepared us to deal with such an existential threat at this grand a scale - since we have only very recently reached and exceeded the planet’s carrying capacity, and gained the kind of mastery over it that accelerated precipitously after WWII - there is a natural, reflexive tendency to suppress this awareness before it emerges into consciousness, and also to continually repress it thereafter. Clinical psychologist and psychotherapist John Wellwood posits that the “most basic problem people have is that [we] are afraid of [our] experience. Because feelings and emotions often seem overwhelming and threatening, they become suppressed, avoided, or denied...” This problem is obviously heightened in the context of the staggering threat of mass species extinction, including the potential for near term human extinction, posed by unnatural climate changes.
Finally, while the grieving process varies from individual to individual, and the stages of grief do not necessarily unfold in a linear fashion, it does appear that when the grieving process is considered at the societal level there is a kind of collective zeitgeist (spirit of the time) that characterizes a majority of the people - with significant outliers on both ends - as we move through these individually repressed and culturally suppressed stages in a more-or-less linear direction.
What we're talking about here is admittedly unquantifiable, qualitative, and complex. While it's probably not possible to posit these relations in the kind of empirical cause and effect model insisted upon by mainstream psychology, due to the complexity of confounding variables and the colonialist exclusion of environmental factors from mental health analyses, we can still approach the problem intuitively if we acknowledge the connection of our individual psyche to a collective Psyche that exists in direct relationship with the anima mundi (world soul, or Gaian Psyche) via the unus mundus, or the unified psycho-physical nature of reality. This kind of salutary analysis is not difficult to entertain.
For illustrative purposes here, and at the risk of over-simplifying, we could state as our hypothesis that Americans as a cultural collective are in the middle of this grieving process - the third stage, bargaining. We would then expect this to be evinced by pervasive attempts to avoid the inevitable with various unrealistic strategies. But it would not follow that many Americans were not still regressed in infantile stages of denial or anger. Nor would it mean that many more of us had not already progressed from bargaining to the stage of depression, repressed (medicated) or deeply felt. Nor would it infer that there were not already many outliers who had progressed even further, to the level of acceptance, or to the recently added sixth stage of finding meaning in our losses.
The culture and the dominant mental health trends, on the other hand, would necessarily reflect where the majority were in this collective grieving process. Because of the evolutionary stakes, because of the inherent difficulty in grasping this unprecedented knowledge of our threatened demise, at every stage of grieving a loss on this vast scale, both individually and collectively, there is bound to be cognitive dissonance caused by our psyche’s natural resistance to, and suppression of, the relevant information and its logical implications. Even the information that we do assimilate must thereafter be consistently repressed, as a matter of practical necessity, since the alternative is to become one of those caricatures walking up and down the sidewalk in a flowing white robe and carrying a sign reading “The End Is Near” - nobody wants to be that guy!
It is this natural psychological defensive phenomenon that is reflected in shadow forms by societal trends in mental health, with those least equipped to deal with the emerging awareness the most likely to dissociate and/or act out in harmful or unproductive ways, reflecting our collective societal neuroses and psychoses back to us. Examples here would include the emergence of conspiracy theories, collective paranoia, such as all of those elected officials who are trying to bring our attention to the climate emergency are Satan-worshipping pedophiles, while the one who assures us that he and only he can build a wall to protect us from external threats is Jesus made flesh.
Thus, mental health trends become reliable markers for where we are in our collective grieving process at the start of the Anthropocene. These mental coping mechanisms are also reflected in popular cultural trends, though not all mental health trends are treated as problems by mainstream psychology. This last point merits a significant footnote to my own research. For example, one mental health trend that I completely overlooked when I wrote Planetary Hospice , effectively skewing its conclusions, was the incredible scale of greed and promotion of self interest that was first celebrated during the Reagan revolution, and ran rampant during the Clinton/Bush era. Any sane society would certainly have viewed this kind of behavior as symptomatic of severe neurosis, if not actual sociopathy. But in modern American culture, narcissistic personality disorder not only flies largely under the radar, it is actually rewarded with advancement in the corporate, political, and entertainment spheres. Indeed, unlike most mental disorders, in the U.S. narcissism is said to occur along a continuum from “healthy” narcissism to psychopathic narcissism.
Since Big Pharma has yet to find (or even look for) a drug to treat narcissism, its pathology is nowhere reflected in prescription or other mental health markers (e.g., suicide, mass shootings, etc.). Instead, it becomes a confounding variable! As further support of its social acceptability, recent studies have shown that narcissists not only don’t hide from their personality disorder, but tend to boast about it.
Finally - a mental disorder Americans can be proud of!
This foolish pride is reflected in almost all segments of American culture, in our politics especially, and helps explain why the richest society in world history not only consumes a disproportionate share of the world’s resources, but has become the largest obstacle to addressing the climate crisis. And, of course, it provides direct insight into why someone like Donald Trump could ascend to the highest office in the land.
Early Stages of Collective Ecological Grief
Planetary Hospice correlates the overlapping epidemics of anxiety and then depression in America from the 1950s to 2000 with our growing awareness of the imbalance between humans and nature, as well as the progression of our environmental problems from local to global. This coarse analysis, while sound in approach, was probably over-influenced by focusing on pharmaceutical trends, however, and thus ended up speculating that we were now only just beginning to transition from the first stage of grieving, denial, to the second, anger stage. If our focus is switched to the level of base awareness driving this process, then a very different picture begins to emerge.
After World War II, there was a fundamental shift in the way we Americans lived our lives, from a largely rural, mostly agricultural country dotted with a few big cities here and there, to a largely urban/suburban country sprawling out into formerly rural areas. The largest cities became inter-connected via growing metropolitan corridors, and family farms were rather quickly supplanted by the kind of industrial mono-culture that is heavily dependent upon unnatural (synthetic) chemicals. We doubled our population within fifty years - BOOM! - and today over 70% of us live in one of nearly 500 urbanized areas.
This is the era of economic explosion referred to as the Great Acceleration, and it came at the expense of the natural world that was still quite abundant at that time. For example, the great American oceanographer, Sylvia Earl, was inspired by Jacque Cousteau, inventor of scuba tanks and the nature documentary series. Earl grew up on the Gulf of Mexico at a time when she could not recall any oil derricks off shore. How quickly we "progressed" from that maritime innocence to BP's Deepwater Horizon travesty, or Fukushima for that matter.
The advent of Anna Freud's social experiment - American suburbia - in the 1950s brought with it a preternatural obsession with manicured lawns that still largely persists to this day, giving rise in turn to the ritualistic gathering of dead leaves every autumn for transport and disposal somewhere out of sight. We no longer had room in our world for something as natural and timeless as leaves on the ground, which of course would otherwise provide winter habitats for insects. (Silent Spring alerted us to the fact we couldn’t enjoy songbirds without insects!)
Every suburban neighborhood had access to a well-manicured park, and "forest preserves" on the outskirts of civilized existence were converted into picnic areas for family getaways - never mind the ants (or bring the Raid). It's safe to say that by the time Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, we Americans were increasingly, if not painfully, aware of our growing alienation from the natural environment of Turtle Island, which had held firm for 20,000 years or so of cohabitation by Indigenous people.
However unsettling that may have felt, it was also during this era that we honed the fine art of denial of our own human nature. As long as the lawn got mowed, weeds were removed, and water came out of the faucets, we couldn’t really be bothered as a culture about some vague notions of a more “natural” lifestyle. We were modern! Living the dream!
And so this became the Golden Age of Anxiety, with Valium promoted in popular magazine adds for all those distressed housewives, and that trend continued well into the mid-1970s, abetted by the growing availability of anti-anxiety drugs and, significantly, by escapist, ubiquitous entertainment in the form of silly sit-coms, Bond movies, musicals, and the burgeoning popularity of spectator sports, where people are permitted and even encouraged to act crazy.
One thing that's interesting to note from a cultural perspective is that many of the popular sitcoms of the 60’s depicted fantasy realities: The Beverly Hillbillies, I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, Green Acres, My Favorite Martian, Get Smart, The Flying Nun, Addams Family, Mr. Ed, The Munsters, etc. It's as if we were intuitively aware just how silly our own life divorced from nature really was, and so we entertained ourselves by imagining Hillbillies dropped into Beverly Hills, or NY sophisticates dropped into the more natural, rural America that was quickly disappearing. These are examples of literally acting out our neuroses.
Gradually, from the mid-60s onward, our collective awareness shifted from a growing imbalance with nature, which was relatively easy to suppress, to an awareness of increasing ecological devastation. Our rivers and lakes began dying as foul smelling and multi-colored effluents poured into them from industrial pipes. Our national forests were being liquidated with updated “bunch-felling” machinery capable of clear cutting vast swaths of habitat, like mowing a big lawn. Enormous industrial farming operations gobbled up all the smaller, family farms, or put them out of business, forcing them to sell out to the spread of suburban development. And the air in our big cities started to become both visible and unbreathable. Suddenly, from the numbing normalcy of our post-WWII innocence, the effects of our unnatural lifestyles became alarmingly evident.
Humans were having quite a dramatic impact on their environment by this point in time, and the idea of endless growth and prosperity that fueled the American Dream came into stark relief against an increasingly dystopian landscape. We can roughly mark this shift culturally from around the time of the first Earth Day in 1970 and into the early 1980s, when the awareness of human impacts began to shift from devastation of local environments to our impacts on the global climate and even, eventually, the oceans. This was a rude awakening that called for much more drastic measures of repression and suppression to safeguard our deluded notions of shared prosperity in the land of milk and honey!
Not surprisingly, then, anti-depression prescriptions began to skyrocket, gradually supplanting anti-anxiety drugs, with the combination of the two doubling until nearly one in ten of us was being clinically treated for depression -- from 16 million Americans in 1962 to roughly 31 million in 1975. This represented our progression to the second stage of collective grieving, since depression is considered to be a form of suppressed anger - - though we were not yet fully aware of the global scope of our impacts. We were a very angry country during those turbulent years, waging an unconscionable (and ecological) war in Southeast Asia, bringing it into our streets and to our political conventions with police riots, and culminating with American soldiers actually shooting protesting students dead on college campuses. There were all those who were actively suppressing our anger, and then there were those who were acting it out in the streets and on the news.
While they certainly did not represent the norm at the time, it is no coincidence that those same rebelling youths advocated for a more natural lifestyle and began protesting polluters as well as warmongers. This angry wave of rebellion broke with the deposing of the president in 1974, and arguably there was a sea-change in our culture at that time as well. We abolished the draft, began to clean up our waterways and our air sheds, the human potential movement took hold, and we even elected a conscientious farmer as president - a politician who was actually spiritual and cared about human rights, placed solar panels in the White House, and first alerted us to the need to break our addiction to fossil fuels (as we waited in long lines for gas!).
Culturally during this same period, those early inane sit-coms in which we expressed our anxieties with silly humor gave way to ‘angry sit-coms,’ like All in the Family, Maude, Sanford & Son, The Odd Couple, The Jeffersons, and M*A*S*H, all of which were set in ordinary reality rather than fantasy worlds. The Godfather movies were wildly popular.
At the same time, we became increasingly fascinated by aliens and outer space as forms of escapist entertainment, including 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Planet of the Apes (1968), The Andromeda Strain (1971), and finally climaxing with the phenomena of Star Wars (1977). This was also the time when the pornography industry took hold.
Certainly, these kinds of juvenile/primal escapist fantasies are all consistent with the need for cultural forms of releasing our repressed anger and frustration. Looking to outer space can also be seen as a suppressed fight or flight response to the ongoing ecological plunder here on Earth; or, alternatively, as looking for salvation from the heavens, the growing sense that we needed to be saved from ourselves.
Middle Stages of Collective Grieving Process
Anxiety and depression have become endemic to American culture as the pharmaceutical industry has grown, and as the underlying causes from an ecopsychological viewpoint have never really been adequately addressed (e.g., ecotherapy is still relatively obscure, while our consumer lifestyle continues to disconnect us from nature, etc.). However, beginning right around 1980, when denial was practically enshrined in a presidential campaign ad announcing it was “morning in America,” our base level awareness entered an entirely new and previously inconceivable phase, a phase for which our only preparation was the sudden potential for nuclear annihilation which had dawned less than a generation earlier, and which we were still grappling with.
Suddenly a gaping hole opened up in the thin bubble that encapsulates our home planet, allowing geologically unprecedented levels of UV radiation through to suppress the immune systems of all living beings. We became aware, for the first time ever, of an existential threat to life as we know it from our own, rather mundane daily routines (e.g., CFCs in refrigerants and hair spray, as well as chemical fumigants used to grow our food). While many still fail to make the connection, it wasn’t long at all before immunodeficiency related diseases began increasing, as had clearly been predicted in studies conducted for the National Academy of Sciences — including the onset of the AIDS epidemic triggered by a virus that has been around forever. Forests started to sicken, with trees no longer able to fight off the pests that they had co-evolved with. Frogs began disappearing (when was the last time you saw a frog in nature?), or showing up with gross deformities. Kangaroo blindness became epidemic down under, and humans were warned to avoid direct sunlight.
Avoid the sun?!? REALLY???
Arguably, it was time to amp up our collective coping mechanisms as well. Paradoxically, our elected leaders began to roll back environmental protections, even going so far as to ridicule concern for the environment as a sign of weakness. For example, Al Gore became “the Ozone Guy,” said with a sneer of superiority by a man famous for making movies with a chimp named “Bonzo”! Like Reagan himself, beginning in the 1980s politics became all hat and no cowboy.
Now it's one thing to acknowledge that dumping sewage into rivers kills fish, and quite another altogether to acknowledge that the consumer culture -- our reward for enduring the Great Depression and the hell of WWII in quick succession -- could end up killing the planet. So while many environmentally awakened people responded to the new paradigm rationally, by becoming even more alarmed than before, it seemed like our culture as a whole began reverting back to the comfortable illusion of Ozzie & Harriet’s American Dream - a nostalgic time before all these ideas that the selfish pursuit of happiness for oneself and one’s loved ones was fundamentally flawed. A wide rift opened up between ideology and reality in response to this existential threat, a divide that our political system would never recover from, eventually culminating in MAGA and the flat-out denial of truth.
Welcome to the bargaining stage of collective climate grief.
At the individual level, this stage is often associated with unrealistic, magical thinking - along the lines, for example, that if only God will take our disease away we promise to devote our life to noble causes. Or that a vast store of weaponry and ammo will protect us from the coming Apocalypse. More recently, we’ve seen these kinds of fantasies metastasize into the QAnon phenomenon. At the cultural level of 1980’s America, however, it manifested more as a mad scramble for a secure future. The Reagan era marked the beginning of: a near-pathological hoarding of wealth; retreat into gated communities, while warehousing the under-privileged (“Super-Predators” projection by the elite) in an expanding, for-profit prison system; class warfare between corporate hoarders and the labor force; predatory corporate takeovers involving liquidation of assets and funneling the wealth up to obscene CEO salaries; and, ostentatious displays of obscene wealth.
As Gordon Gecko put it in the popular movie Wall Street (1987): “Greed is good” and “Money never sleeps.” This is bargaining as religious belief. No coincidence, then, that Reaganism also fueled the rise of prosperity theology, as power-mad evangelicals entered into an unholy marriage with the neocon state that would quickly, as our founders foresaw, bring our nation to the brink of ruin. In the ultimate expression of suppressed grief as bargaining, polls revealed at the outset of the climate crisis that about a third of Americans not only didn't "believe" in climate change, but viewed it as largely irrelevant in light of their belief that Jesus was going to return in their lifetime.
Vampires became quite popular during these final decades of the twentieth century, sucking the lifeblood out of their victims. They weren’t depicted as mysterious caped Transylvanians, either, but rather as looking just like you and me. They are an almost perfect metaphor for what corporations had become in America and throughout the world by the 1980s - immortal and powerful beings that not only preyed on society, but actually have the power to assimilate those individuals who they seduce into their ranks, to prey on others.
It would not be long before the highest court in the land would declare that corporations were people, and money is their form of protected speech.
Subconsciously, this all makes a lot of sense. If the gig is up, then I better get mine while the gettin’ is good! It’s the American way. If money is not enough to provide the security I crave, then maybe a huge cache of guns and ammo and canned goods will do the trick, a retreat into the woods to await Judgment Day or a race-war fueled Armageddon. Ruby Ridge and the Branch Davidians in the Waco siege (1992-93) were the iconic outcomes of this kind of religious derangement, followed by the Oklahoma City bombing a few years later, and then the advent of school shootings. All this hatred and violence can be viewed as pathological bargaining, usually welling up from deeply traumatic personal circumstances, with the fears associated with uncertain outcomes and externally perceived threats.
Meanwhile, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous enjoyed an extended voyeuristic run from 1984-1995 (Reagan-to-Clinton), popularizing so-called “reality tv” as an escape from reality (!), state-run lotteries became the norm, rather than the exception. Gambling spread quite suddenly from the now-wildly popular Vegas to just about every state, as we became more aware of just how much we were gambling with our very future. The day-trader phenomenon allowed the desperate masses to play the stock market. Average people started stockpiling gold coins, or even sports memorabilia. Even our vehicles began to take on ridiculous proportions, stopping just short of personal armored tanks. As if gated communities and personal military vehicles would make us invulnerable to the coming storm everyone felt, but no one talked about.
Celebrity worship became evening news. Sports became more about wealthy superstars than winning teams, while the teams themselves emphasized winning now, without much regard for building for the future.
In short, it seems that during this prolonged socio-cultural bargaining stage, Western culture morphed into something that no longer just reflects our suppressed grief, but actually enables that suppression. The dominant message that emerged culturally in America during this span of time in which it became apparent that we're facing the gravest threat our species has ever faced, would appear to be that ‘distraction cures all ills’ -- just stay distracted 24/7 and you will never have to be bothered with worrying about your's or your children's future, let alone your children’s children’s future. It wouldn't be long at all before we perfected the art of endless distraction with the ubiquitous smart phones.
Obviously, this dysfunctional social strategy is not compatible with the well-being of the individual's psyche. At the collective level, our awareness has progressed from the simple dawning of an existential threat, the idea that we as a species could actually somehow threaten the continued existence of life on this planet without even firing a single nuclear warhead, to actually carrying out that threat. Today we have a growing awareness taking hold that the Sixth Great Extinction is underway, that the cumulative absorption of carbon by our oceans over the course of the Industrial Age has altered their chemistry, is breaking critical links in the food chain, and has reached a saturation point, extreme weather events accompanied by unnatural disasters, like mega-fires and ultra-tsunamis, are slowly becoming the norm, and this all keeps happening at an accelerating pace that consistently outstrips our expectations and predictive models.
The future keeps arriving sooner than we expected!
This is what Morton means by the climate crisis being a hyperobject, something paradoxical in that we can’t really wrap our mind around it, but we’re constantly reminded of it whenever it rains, or we set a new record high, or even when we awake in the morning to the absence of birdcalls.
Perhaps most unsettling of all, we are afflicted with the dispiriting awareness that our political leaders are either unwilling or incapable of addressing this fast-rising tide of threats to all life on planet Earth. In point of fact, they've been throwing gasoline on the fire with increasingly widespread and insane warfare and accelerating extraction of previously inaccessible or unprofitable fossil fuels (fracking, tar sands, deep sea drilling, etc.). It gets lost in the maelstrom of polarization, but most of us elected a President who promised he would reverse the tide of climate change, an appropriate and rational electoral response to the magnitude of the crisis in 2008, only to see him immediately treat the Deepwater Horizon disaster as a public relations problem, undermine the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, and turn America into the world’s leading exporter of fossil fuels with his “all of the above” energy extraction policies.
Still, we tried! For a shining moment, the whole world saw him as a savior. They awarded him a Nobel Peace Prize, and he proceeded to melt it down for personal and political gain. (See: Obama’s Lethal Climate Legacy).
Sorry about that, world. (And sorry Obama cultists. The truth hurts, doesn't it?)
So while the global-stakes bargaining escalates with resource wars, restricted borders, repressed rebellions, oppressive ‘austerity’ programs, and plutocratic trade agreements, and while it seems our political leaders may forever be stuck in this hellfire spiral on their corporate-sponsored world stage, the rest of us mostly moved on in the 1990s and 2000s from the bargaining stage of climate grieving to the fourth stage - depression. This may turn out to be the most repressive stage of all, and the most difficult stage to progress through collectively - many either remain stuck there, or have slid into despair.
It’s quite understandable that the intolerable situation which developed over the course of the prolonged dysfunctional bargaining stage gave rise to so much dystopian pessimism about our future prospects from the growing segment of the population that is consciously aware of the gravity of our situation. Suicide rates are climbing, with the rate among baby-boomers - that generation which has witnessed the entire spectacle - surging by nearly 30 percent in the first decade of the new millennium. Mass killings happen with chilling regularity, with the overall incidence of mass shootings tripling since 2008. We now ‘escape’ to movies about apocalypse and dystopian futures, which are legion, and it’s very telling that we progressed from a widespread cultural fascination with blood-sucking vampires to a rather morbid fascination with the walking dead. Zombies are an appropriately iconic symbol of depression over the dismal state of affairs on planet Earth. Many (certainly not most) scientists have concluded that the human race itself is tantamount to a “dead man walking,” after all.
And as might be expected, there has been yet another dramatic shift in mental health trends associated with this, the most troubled of all stages of grieving. How much psychological pain are we in as a nation? Well, beginning in 2010, the same time when scientists began consistently sounding the alarms and declaring ecological emergency, opioids became the most prescribed class of medications in America!
“Opioids are a class of controlled pain-management drugs that contain natural or synthetic chemicals based on morphine... effectively mimic[ing] the pain-relieving chemicals that the body produces naturally” (Psychology Today).
Are we tracking here? From anti-anxiety to anti-depression to just give me something to kill the pain. In 2011, there were over 238 million prescriptions for narcotic analgesics in the U.S., prompting the National Institute of Health to declare it an epidemic, with opioids “now responsible for more deaths than the number of deaths from both suicide and motor vehicle crashes, or deaths from cocaine and heroin combined.”
We’re not just medicating ourselves anymore, we’re becoming our own palliative care providers!
Whether opioids have actually passed anti-depressants as the drug of choice in America depends on which study you consult - they seem to be in a dead heat, if you’ll pardon my gallows pun. The combination of opioid and anti-depressant prescriptions annually in the U.S. far exceeds the number of Americans living on Turtle Island. Of course, we still have free access to alcohol, increasingly free access to potent strains of marijuana, and heroin has made a big comeback with significant drops in price to compete more effectively with the flood of synthetic opioids on the street, and now the deadly synthetic drug fentanyl - 50 times more powerful than heroin - is gaining popularity Let’s not even talk about cheap meth - the drug of choice among rural zombies everywhere.
What is inescapable in all this is not zombies, however. What is inescapable is that America is a heavily medicated society right now - and we're not very self-reflective about it, either. So culturally speaking, we entered the fourth stage of repressed climate grieving ,depression, during the 1990’s, when everyone began dressing as if we were collectively in mourning (and we’ve been wearing black ever since) and younger generations first began to sense the severe limitations of the future we were leaving them. By pathologizing and over-medicating our demoralized state, including children exhibiting what we used to simply consider to be “conduct problems,” we are unnecessarily prolonging this difficult stage of collective depression and miasma over our broken relationship with the world.
It is, after all, in Big Pharma’s (and the American Psychiatry Association’s) vested interest to keep us (and our children) heavily sedated, and addicted at least to the idea that drugs, and not lifestyle changes, are the solution to all of our personal problems. Just watch the evening news sometime - it’s just one drug commercial after another. And it’s also in their interest to keep us from even talking about these things. There really is a pandemic of mental health problems and substance abuse in America right now which, like the climate crisis itself, merits very little attention from corporate media. We’re just to accept these things as “the new normal." While they will periodically and sensationally report on the widespread problem of opioid abuse, they tend to avoid talk of solutions. What are the real reasons underlying widespread addiction? That angle is rarely even approached, and when it is they pretend it has more to do with economic dislocation than ecological destruction of our home planet.
This is quite obviously, at a societal scale, our collectively encoded limbic response of flee, or escape, from all the collective traumas we would rather not resolve, or even revisit, up to and including accelerating biospheric losses and climate trauma. And now this kind of mass escapism is even fueling a frightening new political movement based on shared denial of reality, history, and more generally, truth. If it succeeds in toppling the U.S. government from within the rotting corpse of the GOP (the anti-democratic party of insurrection and hate-filled projection), that emotionally reactive movement constitutes a threat to all life on planet Earth.
As Noam Chomsky has astutely observed, the Republican Party of America represents the largest terrorist organization in the world. And you really cannot bargain with these terrorists.
Viewed from a trauma-informed perspective, this kind of collective psychosis, this cultism as culture, should not be too surprising given that consumer culture has provided us with two false, but implicitly encouraged, choices: we can choose to mindlessly distract ourselves from all of our unsatisfactory circumstances and conditions, which hugely benefits the electronics and gaming industries; we can numb ourselves out, making Big Pharma happy; or, if we’re really good consumers, we can endlessly alternate between numbing ourselves out and keeping ourselves distracted. Psychologically speaking, this is the nihilistic culmination of the Great Acceleration that took flight 75 years ago.
And it is killing us.
Of course, there is a third, more functional choice that has begun to take root in the world. This is the choice being made by self-regulators — those people who know what it means to be embodied, or are at least in honest touch with their feelings and emotions, who are astute enough to see what is really going on in the world, who have worked on attaining and maintaining healthy relationships with their close others and within healthy communities, and who've worked through any issues with the stuck stages of grief in their lives: denial and the resulting inability to engage; anger and self-pity; and, unrealistic bargaining/manipulation. They have a healthy relationship in their lives with depression, as well - meaning that thanks to healthy spiritual containers they’re neither demoralized nor have they slid off the climate ledge into the bottomless pit of despair, cynicism, and misanthropy.
Let’s talk about them!
Late Stages of Collective Ecological Grief: Climate Catharsis
Despair, like guilt, is a rather pointless, and largely unnecessary, emotional response in any context. It’s just like the Dalai Lama, who has more reason than any world leader to be prone to despair over the treatment of his people, says about worrying: if something can be done, then worrying is pointless, it gets in the way of action; and, if nothing can be done, then worrying is pointless, as it leads nowhere. This is exactly how I view despair.
This is not intended as a criticism of Joanna Macy’s “Work that Reconnects,” which I enthusiastically endorse. As many of you will be familiar with that approach, it is important for me to make this point. Joanna and I have had lots of personal interaction, and I myself have done “the work.” We have agreed to disagree on our definitions, however. What she characterizes as despair, I actually define as either grief or a healthy form of depression in response to the unhealthy situation we find ourselves in. As we tend to stigmatize depression in this culture, I believe it gets conflated with despair. In grief work generally, it is working through our feelings of depression that leads us to acceptance, and there is no place for despair anywhere in that processing.
Just as the healthy alternative to guilt is regret, healthy alternatives to despair include resolve and learning to value our broken-heartedness ,instead of rejecting it at all costs. In other words, despair is nothing more than unresolved (repressed/unprocessed) grief, and unresolved grief is usually rooted in unacknowledged fear. Fear, like trauma itself, is only a problem when it's not acknowledged - otherwise it’s an invaluable evolutionary aid (e.g., fear of heights by the edge of a cliff, or even fear of human extinction!). Accordingly, when we find ourselves in despair, it’s a strong indication that we simply have some more work to do. I see despair as frozen, overwhelming fear. The most counterproductive thing we can do is to dwell in despair, because if we dwell in any powerful emotion long enough, we begin to identify with it. And tragically, people who identify with despair end up seeing suicide as the only way out.
In the present context, we can actually take heart and find hope in our current, depressing state of affairs.
In the present context, instead of despair, we can actually take heart and even find hope in our current state of affairs! Shocking, I know. But do not be distracted by all the dysfunction and insanity we are witnessing right now, or even by all the disruption and dislocation that is certain to come. Instead, from a larger perspective, look at where we are in our collective grieving process over our lost connection to the natural world and to our own human nature. Because as Ilya Prigogene’s Nobel prize-winning theory of dissipative structures holds, these kinds of complex systems need to reach their highest tolerable degree of chaotic disorder before a sudden, quantum leap to a new and unprecedented level of order can transpire. Recall our discussion of multi-valence. Those electrons do not proceed incrementally to the next valence - they just suddenly are there. Social change in a totally interconnected, interdependent system can also be expected to proceed in this same lurching way.
Climate chaos is GOOD! Climate depression is HEALTHY!!
The brilliant Gestalt therapist Stephi Bednarek, one of the founders of the Climate Psychology Alliance, views this kind of chaos theory from a more psychological perspective that has direct relevance to our present social disorder:
Derangement and disorientation are not states we would ordinarily choose, but they are necessary catalysts in the maturation process. For fundamental change to happen, the toxic normality needs to be deranged, rigid structures have to be dissolved, so that things can come out rearranged. Acknowledging that we are lost forces us to acknowledge that we are not in control any more and leaves us with no choice but to reorient ourselves. It is in these times that we truly experience that not everything is resolvable in linear fashion.
So perhaps instead of obsessing over every bit of troubling new scientific information that supports worst-case analysis and dystopian forecasts, the most pertinent question we should be asking ourselves right now is whether we might not actually be emerging from this dysfunctional cultural paradigm of suppression and repression, which the system of oppression relies upon to maintain the status quo, and collectively entering into the final two stages of grieving that are not susceptible to repression: acceptance and meaning. Perhaps we are actually on the brink of global, social transformation. If this could be the case, then what would the clearest indications of that societal emergence be, and how might we best support and advance it?
The clue to answering this inquiry lies in this integrated model of climate grief. The logical question is this: just what is it that we are becoming aware of at the deepest level of collective consciousness in relation to these final stages of grieving the end of life as we know it? What is the culmination of the progression in base level awareness from imbalance (ca. 50’s and 60’s), to ecological destruction (ca. 60’s and 70’s), to existential threat (ca. 80’s), to the Great Dying and the losses associated mass extinction (ca. 90’s to present)?
The most natural and sensible answer to this question is that we are in the process of experiencing some kind of regeneration through a relatively contemporaneous and organic death/rebirth process. In a word, the awareness associated with acceptance and meaning should be very much like a spiritual awakening reflected in a shift of collective consciousness, and felt in community and what Pope Francis refers to as a new kind of universal solidarity. Not in the traditional Buddhist sense of becoming enlightened, but rather something beyond (trans-) individuality, and something truly generative that is capable of thriving through the adversity we will be increasingly confronted with.
This global awakening should be experienced as a growing cultural awareness of something new and quite unprecedented dawning in the spectrum of human consciousness -- a new kind of perspective dawning and taking hold, a different way of seeing ourselves in relation to all that we have previously considered to be other than and apart from us. And it has to be a spiritual awakening, because ultimately this is a crisis of spirit that calls into question who we are as a species in the grand scheme of things.
And consistent with the latter stages of grief, this awakening should grow out of a sober acceptance of the Great Dying we have already brought upon ourselves and all others, with our grief ripening into something quite meaningful. We will take a deep dive into the nature of this growing eco-spiritual consciousness in Chapter 5. For our purpose here, in our search for catharsis our of climate grief, let us look for obvious clues in our own milieu, since these kinds of new paradigms always emerge first in a few individuals or groups who are ahead of their time -- harbingers of what only in retrospect will be acknowledged as a quantum leap, or seismic shift, in human consciousness. And as we consider these climate exemplars, let us consider if we, too, do not already share this growing awareness.
Stanislov Grof is one such extraordinary thinker who has always seemed to be three steps ahead of his time, and has always seemed to be in on the ground floor of these kinds of shifts in human culture. One of the more colorful illustrations of this point is his story about opening a box from Sandoz Laboratories in 1954, during his internship in psychiatry, with an enclosed note from Albert Hoffman that someone needed to do some research into the extraordinary properties and potential therapeutic applications of the enclosed capsules of LSD-25! Years later, when his research along those lines at John Hopkins in Maryland was shut down, he moved to an obscure hot springs resort called Esalen, and along with such luminaries as Abraham Maslow, helped found the human potential movement in the late 60’s. It was Grof who coined the term “transpersonal psychology,” creating a new field of psychology intended to honor the entire, diverse spectrum of human experience.
And so it should come as no surprise that Grof himself was one of the first to point out this new form of human awareness as it began to bubble up from the Gnostic depths of our collective psyche, at a time when the existential threat of climate change was just starting to get the attention of scientists. In his 1985 book Beyond the Brain, Grof’s “central point” was that we were beginning to see “a paradigm shift of unprecedented proportions,” a course alteration that is changing “our concepts of reality and of human nature [itself].”
Other visionaries could fill a book here, not the least of which would be Arne Ness and Wendell Berry from the deep ecology movement that also took hold around the time global environmental issues started to become evident. A more contemporary example is the social visionary Charles Eisenstein, and especially his book Climate: A New Story. However, the watershed event that most clearly signaled this emergence was the publication of Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown’s book Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World (New Society Publishers) in 1998 (updated in 2014). Macy and Brown detailed a “silent revolution” in “the ways we see and think and relate,” which has only grown in scope and influence ever since. As Macy put it in her introduction to that book:
"I imagine that future generations will look back on this period and call it the time of the 'Great Turning.' It is the epochal shift from a self-destructive industrial growth society to a life-sustaining society."
With it’s regenerative, death/rebirth connotative title, Coming Back to Life observed that the most basic dimension of this Great Turning that the authors were witnessing in their work on the cutting edge of this nascent movement was “a profound shift in our perception of reality... both as cognitive revolution and spiritual awakening.”
This cognitive revolution, spawning Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement, can be viewed as that base level awareness welling up from the most subtle level of collective consciousness that feels directly connected to Earth and is capable of supporting an acceptance of both our own mortality and the end of life as we know it, while at the same time generating something new. Macy described her own deeply felt sense of this shift at the time as an ‘ongoing revelation’ - and indeed she has since carried that work forward into ever-widening spheres of meaning and participation.
This represents the compensatory spirit of climate catharsis that can and must breathe life into the moral and ethical transmutation of the human species, and it must reach critical mass and take hold if we are to survive in the short term - the next several decades - and thrive in the long term as part of a healthy, biodiverse system of living with and as part of, rather than on and removed from, planet Earth. It is this spirit of emergence out of spiritual and climate emergency that has given rise to The Earth Charter, a principled expression of this shared awakening which points the way forward to “a change of mind and heart... [and] a new sense of global interdependence and universal responsibility.”
And it is quickly taking shape as well in the kind of relational change that is being called for by the United Nations between Western civilization and the largely degraded ecosystems that we now inhabit to eventually reverse global warming (e.g., “We need to recreate a balanced relationship with the ecosystems that sustain us.” From the 2021 UN Generation Restoration Report). A very pragmatic manifestation of this seismic, ecological shift in consciousness is the G20’s financial support for UNESCO’s initiative “to sensitize and train 100% of the world’s population to environmental challenges, so that each individual is able to become a guardian of our Earth,” focusing on involving young people in the effort to change the way we all relate to our local ecosystems.
The Great Turning as Transmutation
The Great Turning adroitly captured and expressed the appropriate response to our growing awareness of the potential transmutation of the human species that is now starting to be deeply felt by a substantial segment of globally conscious and ecologically conscientious communities of people and activists. To get a better picture of how this revolutionary awareness is manifesting socioculturally, it helps to place it into some additional context.
Certainly, following on the heels of the transpersonal psychology and human potential movements, and bridging them with the deep ecology movement, represent a paradigm shift in our worldview.
As Stan Grof pointed out in Beyond the Brain, “[s]cientific revolutions are those noncumulative episodes in which an older paradigm is replaced in its entirety, or in part, by a new one that is incompatible with it.” And as David Abram put it in his introduction to Andy Fisher’s 2002/2012 book, Radical Ecopsychology, ecopsychology “neatly explodes [the] age-old divide between mind and nature, between the psyche ‘in here’ and nature ‘out there.’”
What better place to look for the emergence of something radically new in the human psyche than in the field of psychology itself? That is certainly what drew me to the field after decades of increasingly futile environmental activism. After all, ecopsychology is not just some new branch of psychology, as some have tried unconvincingly to rebrand it. Rather, it aims to supplant the dualistic worldview of mainstream psychology in much the same way that quantum physics is radically altering the way we conceive of mind and matter, and the way panpsychism is radically changing the way we conceive of consciousness itself.
Andy Fisher best expressed this emergent strain in ecopsychology with his 2002 book. He grounds what he terms ‘radical’ ecopsychology in humanistic principles intended to support people in (1) “finding their place in both human and more-than-human society:” (2) “perceiving a world beyond the boundaries of strictly human reality;” and, (3) “learning to see their own lives symbolically mirrored and bound up in the flesh of all living things.”
Significantly, Fisher recognizes that “the Egoic mode [of Western civilization] is so antagonistic to and split from nature, ecopsychology is called toward a spiritual mode, one that would overcome Ego” and resuscitates the very meaning of “psyche” (i.e., soul) in psychology. This pretty well sums up the challenge facing the human species; that is, as Macy would have it, replacing the ego-driven industrial growth society with a spiritually motivated life sustaining society “bound up in the flesh of all living things” (Fisher).
From the world of systems thinking, yet another important movement that began in the late 60’s, we can also look for clues to what is emerging in the work of the prolific Hungarian science philosopher, systems theorist, and classical pianist Ervin Laszlo -- and in particular his 1996 book The Whispering Pond:
"The paramount feature of the emerging quasi-total vision of cosmos, matter, life, and mind is subtle and constant interconnection... The current shift in science’s concept of the world from a life-less rock to an interconnected and quasi-living universe has intense meaning and significance for our times. The concept of a subtly interconnected world, of a whispering pond in and through which we are intimately linked to each other and to the universe, assimilated by our intellect and embraced by our heart, is part of humanity’s response to the challenges that we now face in common. Our separation from each other and from nature is at the root of many of our problems; overcoming them calls for a recovery of our neglected, but never entirely forgotten, bonds and connections... The insight that emerges is both meaningful and timely. It confirms psychologist-philosopher William James’ image: we are like islands in the sea - separate on the surface, but connected in the deep."
More recently, Laszlo commented on the shift with this telling statement:
“The breakout from the old has started already, but it is not yet committed to a breakdown or to a breakthrough.”
I was once informed by a wise old Jewish-American Tibetan monk from Canada via New York that the only difference between a breakdown and a breakthrough is whether or not there is an adequate support system in place. It is up to those who have accepted the fact that life as we have always known it on Earth is ending to actively build the support system that will appear as a bright light illuminating the end of the presently waxing dark age. For those who are waking consciously into this growing, shared awareness, it’s the challenge of a lifetime. It’s also, of course, an incredible consolation to consider yourself a light-keeper in an otherwise dark age. As Laszlo put it at the end of that same essay:
"Choosing our future by consciously furthering and steering the burgeoning world-shift is the greatest opportunity ever to have been granted a generation in history. It is up to us to seize it -- and ensure the future of humankind on the planet."
My Own Grief work
Stephen Jenkinson, a Canadian palliative care specialist made famous by the documentary "Grief Walker," says that grieving is just the other side of loving. Because I and my generation were the product of a grief-phobic culture, it took me a long, rather convoluted path to experience natural grief.
While I was born in Chicago and raised in the shadow of O’Hare Airport, my father had the good sense to take us West on vacation one year, rather than back East where all our extended family lived. I was 6 years old, we spent 2 weeks in Rocky Mountain National Park, and being in those mountains awoke something in me that I remained entangled with my whole life. In high school we hung out in the forest preserves on the outskirts of the city late at night, sharing our exploits over campfires. I went to college at Southern Illinois Univ., in the heart of the Shawnee National Forest. It was then my father died.
But I could not grieve his loss properly. As the youngest of four boys, it was on me to drop out of classes and be there for our mom during my dad’s sudden and difficult deterioration. She was falling apart, and I felt like I needed to be her rock. By stuffing my own feelings, I was able to focus on her needs, to at least try to make his passing bearable for her. Emotionally, I never really got past the shock stage. Which was easy for me, because in high school I was “cool.” Being the quiet, complicated one came easy.
So I’m expert on repressed grief. I went back to school, dropped out of engineering once I realized I had chosen that to please him, and eventually got a degree in law because I figured it would allow me to live wherever I wanted, and get involved in whatever interested me. And so I moved to Golden, Colorado, not far from Rocky Mountain National Park at all. While I didn’t really see it this way at that time, I think I found great solace and healing in those mountains. And I became ‘successful,’ as I imagined my father would have wanted (but didn’t really expect of me, as I was pretty reckless up until his passing).
But I wasn’t happy with career success. I walked away from it all to see the world, in search of spiritual meaning. To live my life as I imagined life was meant to be lived - at least for a year or two. I spent an amazing 11 months overseas, mostly living on the trail and meditating in nature. It was magical, especially once I got to Asia. But on my return to the States, I went back into that state of shock, only this time the trigger seemed to be the culture I had returned to and could not remember. It felt foreign to me now, having circled the globe. Everything about American culture seemed drained of life. I saw my own homeland as one vast and spacious graveyard.
I retreated into nature, buying a van and living in national and state parks and forests. Getting quite lost in my relative isolation from people and society. It wasn’t until I ended up at the Oregon Country Fair that I finally began connecting again, but by then it was rather too late. I lost my ability to sleep, and after many ghost-like days ended up at a hot springs Rainbow Gathering, where I suffered a psychotic break.
When I broke, I was with a small clan of Deadheads, all quite spiritual in their own ways, and what poured out was all that anger that I’d bottled up when I was in shock over losing my dad. It had been 15 years! It came out like a volcano. I cursed him for leaving us, and beyond that for the way I was raised and everything about the American Dream reality that he’d embodied. All that suppressed grief surfaced, and nearly killed me. I considered ending my life, not as some grand dramatic gesture, but simply to make external circumstance accurately reflect the way I felt inside - dead.
That little family of Deadheads was a very strong spiritual container. They wrapped me in love, and nursed me back until I could sleep again. I’d stopped doing psychedelics after my dad died, as part of my growing up and becoming responsible process, but in that broken state I knew that it had become a big pink elephant in my mind, and I intuited that my path of healing was paved with LSD! A summer of following Jerry Garcia Band around California, drinking electric organic Peach juice in the mornings, dancing under the stars with JGB at night, hanging out on beaches in between. It felt like I recovered everything I’d sacrificed and lost during the ordeal with my father. And I found a way to re-integrate with society, moving to Idaho and becoming part of the forest defense culture. I was more or less whole again, at least mostly freed from the emotionally crippling grip of my own grief phobia.
Until I wasn’t. By the time my loving chocolate lab Grimm got cancer in his 11th year, I was a devoted Buddhist practitioner and living in a dharma center in Missoula, Montana. I had fully intended to be there for him at the end, to allow him to die naturally as opposed to euthanizing him, because my teacher had impressed on us the importance of allowing our animals to purify negative karma at the end of their life. But when it got right down to it, I could not cope with his suffering, and in choosing to have his vet put him out of his misery as he lay in my lap, I realized I still had a lot of unresolved grief. In the process of purifying that “killing karma,” it occurred to me that my dad was the only dead person I’d seen in all my 46 years on Earth. And as my mom, who’d become my best friend because of the bond we shared over his passing, was now in the early stages of her own decline, from vascular dementia, I wondered how I would manage to be there for her at the end if I couldn’t manage to be there for Grimm?
The problem seemed to me that I had no real experience with death and dying. I’d spiritually bypassed my own father’s passing. Fortunately, I had a dharma friend who was the chaplain for Hospice of Missoula. My first patient was dying of MS at a nursing home, and I’d go sit with him and read to him a couple times a week. He lasted for 9 months, and in that time I’d experienced overwhelm in my interactions in the common areas with patients from the Alzheimer’s ward. My heart would break, and I’d walk out of that building struck by the realization that there were thousands more just like it scattered all across America.
My reasons for returning to school at the ripe old age of 55 were two-fold. Primarily, I wanted to gain the kinds of skills in spiritual counseling that would better equip me to deal with suffering in the world. Closely related to this motivation, however, was my exasperation with the environmental movement I was embedded in. With the increasing storm clouds of climate chaos, none of what we were doing made sense to me anymore. So I wanted to study ecopsychology, too, in order to at least make sense out of our ecocidal culture from my own side. I chose to attend the California Institute of Integral Studies because of their strong East/West Psychology program, and because Zen Hospice was only blocks away from the school.
When he first visited the Grail Castle in the Fisher King myth, Parceval failed in his quest simply by not knowing how to be present with deep loss. “The greatest of all holy mysteries had been within his grasp, and he had lacked the wisdom to recognize it. What a fool he was.” When he was given a second chance years later, he unlocked the healing potential of the holy grail by directing the simplest of questions to the Fisher King: “What ails thee?”
Not only is that mystery what confronts us when we choose to serve dying people and their bereaved families in hospice, but as in the Fisher King myth, we now inhabit a wasteland where the pall of death hangs heavy over all things. It was during the intense training program at Zen Hospice when I realized that grief over the loss of my father paled in comparison to the grief over the ongoing loss I felt in relation to Mother Nature and the world at large. The epigenetic trauma I inherited from my dad was impressed upon his RNA by the irradiated ruins of Nagasaki, walking in the midst of Dante’s Hell and realizing it was we who had done that to them. Most of the non-hellscape pictures he took with his Brownie were of the children he came upon. I don’t think any of us could possibly imagine what was going through his war-ravaged mind back then. Knowing the war was over, that he’d survived two years of jungle warfare, now walking amidst the treeless death rubble in the symbolic ruins of victory.
75 years later, I grieve the end of life as we civilized human beings have always known it, and suffer not just the loss of unimaginable numbers of wild things, of songbirds and insects, of frogs and turtles, salamanders and snakes, and suffer not just the senseless slaughter of 70 Billion farm animals confined to concentration camp conditions their entire lives, I am also compelled to grieve the loss of entire species of plants and animals and fish in unprecedented, accelerating, and mostly unseen numbers. And there is this daunting sense of accumulated grief, because even though I used to be quite good at keeping grief silenced, I now know that I’ve had this same feeling my entire life. I’ve always known something was terribly wrong in the world, and knew from an early stage of development, just by observing the norms of my culture, that it was going to get much worse before it could ever get better. It’s why I never had children.
And so yes, I grieve all the lost possibilities in this life and in the world, too. We have it in us to be so much better than this, so much more.
And so in Zen Hospice, and learning to be in the profound presence of the dying, I found a container strong enough to process all my grief over the ongoing loss of all that I hold dear in the world and of life itself. And just as we found far more joy and meaning than sorrow in being with dying people and their loved ones at Zen Hospice, so I have found that by continuing to process loss and impermanence in relation to the Great Dying to which we are all witness, I am compensated with visions and a transmitted sense of the deep meaning there is to be found in death and rebirth, and the inseparability of these two phenomenon.
Every molecule of water is comprised of two atoms of hydrogen that sprang forth from the birth of a star somewhere in the cosmos, and one atom of oxygen that emanated from the death of a star somewhere else. We emerged from the depths of the ocean as a species, and from the amniotic water of our mother’s womb in this life.. We are still comprised mostly of water. And without water, we die.
Water is life. Two parts birthing life, and one part dying.
There is a great secret in that formula.