Chapter One ~ Planetary Initiation: The Great Dying 2.0
Updated: Feb 9, 2022
"I’m a firm believer that often terror is trying to tell us of a force far greater than despair. In this way, I look at fear not as cowardice, but as a call forward, a summons to fight for what we hold dear. And now more than ever, we have every right to be affected, afflicted, affronted. If you’re alive, you’re afraid. If you’re not afraid, then you’re not paying attention. The only thing we have to fear is having no fear itself — having no feeling on behalf of whom and what we’ve lost, whom and what we love... So do not fear your fear. Own it. Free it. This isn’t a liberation that I or anyone can give you — it’s a power you must look for, learn, love, lead and locate for yourself. Why? The truth is, hope isn’t a promise we give. It’s a promise we live. Tell it like this, and we, like our words, will not rest.”
We must begin our initiation into Planetary Hospice by facing our greatest fear, since it seems to be driving so much cynicism and dystopianism in the world today. If we’re honest, our greatest fear is the extinction of the human race. The fear that a tomorrow is coming when there will be nobody left to read these words, and all recorded history will, rather abruptly, have come to naught. So let’s be brave here, and get this elephant out of the room. Let us collectively face our mortality in the way that we fear most.
There have been five great extinctions in the history of planet Earth during the 540 million years since complex life first emerged. According to the National Geographic Society, “we are in the midst of the Sixth Great Extinction, an event characterized by the loss of between 17,000 and 100,000 species each year” (Nat. Geo. 2012). This is the first great extinction event since the last time a giant comet struck Earth numb. For this reason alone, these are dark times we inhabit. It is not in our interest to avoid that reality.
The worst of these prior extinctions, long before dinosaurs even, the one simply referred to as “the Great Dying,” resulted in the loss of 95% of all marine species and 70% of all terrestrial species. It required ten million years before life would begin to prosper once again. The severity of the Great Dying, is largely attributed to mass releases of methane from the oceans and tundras triggered by (and quickly doubling) a spike in global temperatures of only about six degrees Celsius (from volcanic activity).
Euan Nisbet, an Earth scientist at Royal Holloway, University of London, told the scientific journal Nature that "methane levels are growing dangerously fast" as powerful countries around the world refuse to end the extraction of coal, natural gas, and other sources of the pollutant. Because of escalating releases of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere over the course of the industrial age, we are now starting to see a similar triggering of terrestrial and sea-bed methane, such that “[s]ome scientists fear that the situation is already so serious and so many self-reinforcing feedback loops are already in play that we are in the process of causing our own extinction.”
Given what has long been understood to be the decades-long lag time between greenhouse gas emissions and climate uptake, or impacts like melting events, the biggest fear is that by the time we humans collectively appreciate the urgency of our situation, and the need to radically transform our lives in order to accommodate our host organism, it will already be too late. We will find that we have already crossed the Rubicon. This, of course, has given rise to a large community of “doomers” in our culture, people who believe themselves smart enough to know the future based on some level of scientific understanding and reading the tea leaves of climate science.
But Gaia, apparently, has other ideas.
Guy McPherson is one of the early and more vocal proponent of the inevitability of “near term human extinction,” or NTHE for short. Guy had me on his popular podcast "Nature Bats Last" not long after the publication of my paper “Planetary Hospice: Rebirthing Planet Earth” in 2014. Because of my background in science, not just from college but also a career of presenting scientific disputes to judges, I knew that most of what Guy and other non-climate scientists like him were presenting with near certainty was, in truth, wild speculation. In conversation on this topic, he agreed with me that we can't assert NTHE with anything approaching scientific certainty, while I agreed with him that ANY realistic prospect of NTHE should be enough to spur us into action.
But it wasn't long after that Guy went back to professing certainty, and even began predicting human extinction by methane within a couple of decades. I find this rather outrageous, given that his degrees are in forestry and range management, and he's been roundly refuted by climate experts. That has not, however, stopped the NTHE bus from picking up passengers.
So that just became the next phase of my field research on all the different ways repressed climate grief can manifest, and was manifesting particularly in scientist circles at that time. After all, the title of my paper, "planetary hospice," was intended to provoke such strong, visceral reactions. Still, even I was a bit taken aback by the depth of many people’s emotional responses at the time, and how that was feeding into cognitive dissonance/confirmation bias loops - and that's when it first really hit me. We are all in denial when it comes to the climate crisis.
I mean everyone. The only exception I'm willing to broach here is Greta. And I've since learned that even saying that "we're all in denial" triggers people in interesting ways, which you dear reader, if you hadn’t considered it before, are probably experiencing right now. Denial of difficult truths takes all kinds of forms, and is not just a matter whether or not we acknowledge science and math. We can sometimes acknowledge things in our heads while not allowing them entry into our hearts, or permitting them to call into question our ingrained habits and assumptions.
What I have found is that there’s a special brand of ‘scientific materialist existential dread’ that produces powerful cognitive dissonance, selective confirmation bias, and hardened cynicism in those who pretend to comprehend the breadth and depth of everything that falls under the broad label of ‘climate science.’ Many of these Gloomy Gus' and Doomer Guys (and Gails) don’t seem to appreciate the extreme hubris at the core of their professed certainty. It still seems exceedingly rare to find highly intelligent and empirically humble scientists in the climate arena, and exceptions like Karen O’Brien and Kritee Kanko prove the rule for me.
(Ed. note: it bears mentioning here that the one silver lining in the 2021 “Red Alert” Report from the IPCC is that it is able, as a matter of improving science, to narrow the bandwidth of range-of-response at various projected temperature rises, rendering doomsday scenarios more unlikely than they may have previously appeared. A small comfort, perhaps, that emphasizes the urgency of continuing to be proactive no matter how much things appear to be sliding off the rails.)
As I informed Guy, way back in the summer of 2014 when he interviewed me live on his podcast, “Nature Bats Last,” he and his NTHE cohorts were overlooking one whale of a confounding variable in their projections about the future of the climate crisis. And it isn’t just any confounding variable, either - it’s one that strikes at the very heart of their rigid analytical thinking, which in turn is an expression of their scientific materialist worldview:
The planet is a living organism.
Heck, we’ve even recently discovered that trees in forests are in constant communication with one another. As the renowned silviculturist Suzanne Simard, from the Univ. of British Columbia’s School of Forestry, puts it in her book Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering Wisdom in the Forest (2021):
When Mother Trees — the majestic hubs at the center of forest communication, protection, and sentience — die, they pass their wisdom to their own kin, generation after generation, sharing the knowledge of what helps and what harms, who is friend or foe, and how to adapt and survive in an ever-changing landscape.
Don’t even get me started on fungal jungles and mycelium horizons!
The more scientists approach the natural world through the lens of Gaia theory, the more mind-blowing the discoveries become. So informed by these kinds of startling, paradigm-shifting discoveries, there is simply no way to predict with any degree of comprehension, let alone certainty, just how Gaia will respond to the increasing levels of distress that we humans are subjecting her to through our shocking levels of carelessness and wanton disregard.
Exhibit A: Coronavirus and Covid-19.
Have people been predicting that there would be new pandemics? Yes, of course. We know, for example, that as the permafrost in the Arctic thaws, or as wild species are increasingly brought into contact with human populations by habitat loss, new and exotic viruses will be released into the biosphere.
But nobody would have quite predicted the way the coronavirus brought the entire civilized world collectively to our knees, causing the global economy to buckle and bend overnight, radically reshaping our lives. According to leading experts, in fact, approximately 10 million deaths into the pandemic now, the coronavirus is here to stay, endlessly mutating into even more novel strains, frustrating our best efforts to eradicate or even contain it. And we still have very little idea what kinds of biological time bombs long-term COVID is planting in our biomes, though the evidence is that it can effect any one of our vital organs over time.
This is climate chaos writ large.
Gaia’s immune defense system is in full activation mode now.
Are we feeling her pain yet?
* * *
My humble take on all this, from focusing exclusively on it for more than a decade now?
The Great Anthropogenic Extinction is fully upon us now. With mass incineration events like the 2019 Australian conflagration - estimated to have killed 3 Billion animals in one fire season - hopscotching across the planet; with rainforests becoming carbon emitters now instead of carbons sinks; and, with other likely dramatic changes to come, some foreseeable and others not, the prospects of survival for terrestrial species like rhinos, elephants, giraffes, snow leopards, lynx, polar bears, etc., look rather grim.
A world without those charismatic megafauna seems unimaginable to me. Heck, 3 billion animals is an unimaginable number for any of us, really. Just try to visualize a billion of anything. Our mind can only deal with those kinds of quantities as an abstraction.
And that’s before we even peak beneath the ocean waves...
And now, with the first wave of pandemics having swept over the entire human race, it's probably reasonable to conclude that the Great Dying 2.0 has begun as well. Sober consideration of the cumulative, cascading evidence, such as that set forth in painstaking detail by David Wallace-Wells in his 2019 book that shares the name of his viral article, Uninhabitable Earth, or even more evocatively in Dahr Jamail's 2019 book from the front lines, The End of Ice, leads one inexorably to the repugnant conclusion that life as we have come to know it over the last 11,000 years or so is, quite simply, at an end.
Yes - that world is gone.
Irretrievably broken by homo (not-so-sapien) sapiens.
On the other side of our grief over that still unimaginable loss, some kind of brave new world is already taking shape in its wake. This is the part doomers tend to skip over. It will never be too late to assist Nature in the regeneration process, as we'll explore deeply in subsequent chapters. But life on Earth will never look quite the same again. To be perfectly honest, by the time we humans conform our lives to Gaia’s demands, there will probably be far fewer of us, maybe a billion or two, and I suspect that this prospect is tantamount to extinction in many thoughtful people’s imaginations - so they just jump to worst case scenario in a frantic search for certainty.
We must peak beneath those waves as well, however. Because while rising terrestrial temperatures are largely associated with atmospheric (climate) impacts of carbon dioxide, it is easy to forget that the oceans have absorbed most of the CO2 released into the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Age (525 billion tons). The cumulative impacts of this massive marine infusion, together with endemic plastic pollution and the unconscionable destruction of the ocean floor ecosystems from centuries of trawling, are reflected in dramatic changes to ocean water’s chemistry - increasing their acidity by 26% - and severe losses in biodiversity, best exemplified by the lethal bleaching of the ocean’s nurseries, coral reefs.
Just writing this triggers my own climate trauma. I know reading it is no easier, but how can we get past this oceanic grief without going through it? Breathe deeply. Soldier on...
Consider for a moment the shocking levels of plastic pollution that have now accumulated in the world’s oceans just since the end of WWII - when the petrochemical industry turned from making war to making plastics and pesticides. The microfibers taken up first by fish are now showing up in our own bloodstream, just as DDT and PCBs showed up in mother’s milk in the 1970’s because - oops - our circulatory system is connected to Gaia’s own circulatory system.
This is why it's pointless to argue over whether we have entered the Anthropocene or not. Many still object to the hint of anthropocentrism reflected in that label. But labeling the geologic era we’ve ushered in 'the Anthropocene' is most pointedly NOT an endorsement of anthropocentric thinking. If anything, it is quite the opposite of that — an admission of our collective guilt (Indigenous people excluded here), a sound repudiation of our hubris. There is simply no disputing that we colonialist humans have dramatically remade the world in our own white trashy image over the last 250 years -- especially during the “Great Acceleration” that followed WWII.
We truly and mindlessly live in a throw-away world now, thanks to exponential population growth and the obscenely stupid ‘planned obsolescence’ of consumer societies, exported everywhere by transnational corporations that are the undying embodiment of colonial exploitation. Soon enough, if we do not change our ways, humanity itself will become obsolete. No art, no music, no literature, no appreciation of love and beauty. No awe.
No ocean metaphors! Unfathomable!!
According to the United Nations, more than half of global fisheries are already exhausted, and a further third are severely depleted. Between 30 and 35% of critical marine environments — such as sea grasses, mangroves and coral reefs — are estimated to have been destroyed... and pollution from land is painting vast “dead zones” on the face of the planet - areas of coastal waters that are almost devoid of oxygen.
The anecdotal evidence looks even worse. On a recent trans-Pacific voyage he had completed many times previously, sailor Ivan Macfadyen distressingly recounted his “shock and horror” at the near absence of any life compared to his prior passages:
It felt as if the ocean itself was dead.
Do we even need to talk about dissolving starfish and dying coral reefs here?
"The drip drip drip of melting ice" (and breaking hearts). "Remember the land..."
Unfortunately, the news of our living planet’s declining health only seems to keep getting worse. Following climate science is a bit like looking in the rearview mirror of a moving vehicle: OBJECTS IN MIRROR MAY BE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR. Once the planet heats up enough to trigger methane releases from permafrost and the oceans, it's not unlike having a gas leak in your home. While the first Great Dying resulted from a rise of only 6C, under current (unenforceable) emission targets we are on track for about a 4C rise in temperature well before the end of this century - this according to the World Bank.
And that is on the low end of the probable rise. It's easy to forget that most of the science we see in the media, via the IPCC, is "conservative" in that it requires consensus from a large body of diverse scientists. A remarkable and largely ignored 2011 paper authored by Jeffrey Kiehl from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and published in the journal Science, "found that carbon dioxide may have at least twice the effect on global temperatures than currently projected by computer models of global climate."
Contrary to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) worst case scenario of 6C by 2100, which itself would result in a virtually uninhabitable planet, Kiehl et al. distressingly conclude that, at current rates, we may actually see an unimaginable 16C rise by the end of the century! There is no question humanity would go extinct if that came to pass. And the relatively conservative International Energy Agency released a report way back in November 2013 predicting a 3.5C increase by 2035 - only fourteen years away now.
That is the correct response to this kind of speculation about our current trajectory. I no longer even need to belabor this - which is a relief in itself - thanks to reliable chroniclers like David Wallace-Wells and Dahr Jamail, and the decades-long determination of journalist/activists Bill McKibben, Elizabeth Kolbert, and Naomi Klein.
From a planetary perspective, this is all tantamount to the “less than six months to live” diagnosis that triggers hospice care for an individual with a terminal disease. It is hardly a stretch now, with the entire human species sheltering in place, that we have triggered our very own Great Dying.
The Great Dying 2.0, we could call it.
This does not mean, as it has so often been misconstrued, that human extinction is inevitable, however, or even "more probable than not." For one thing, thanks largely to the efforts of Extinction Rebellion UK and the precocious climate poster child Greta, there is real political momentum now to, finally and admittedly belatedly, begin dramatically phasing out fossil fuels, factory farms, Big Ag, and reign in Industrial fishing.
I happen to believe that a significant contraction of our global population is more likely than not at this point, and this may even include another genetic bottleneck that we will have to pass through as a species. But it won't be the first. Our genetic markers show we have done so once before, when massive volcanoes blotted out the sun and our species was reduced to about 10,000 people due to the resulting little ice age. That was clearly a time when we were an endangered species.
We may now be a ‘threatened’ species now, to borrow the graded terminology of the Endangered Species Act. But humans are adaptable, if nothing else, and somehow we managed to survive that last bottleneck and, in time, to thrive once more, for both good and ill. There is no real need to apologize for acknowledging potentially grim outcomes, or the prospects of survival by adaptation, for that matter. Part of the story we humans tell ourselves about ourselves is that we're very good at overcoming impossible odds. Just go to the movies if you don’t believe me.
Extinction or not - and mere survival is an obscenely low bar - we certainly do not want to go where we are now heading. I can personally attest to how difficult it is to accept this kind of dystopian view of our present trajectory. While humans are actually hard-wired to focus on threats, we also have always seemed able to minimize them and adapt to changed environments. The idea that we might not be able to do that this time, at the cost of billions of human lives, and with millions of species lost, is really emotionally hard to fathom.
There is still a widespread belief that we will get through this pandemic in due course, as I assume must also be the case with ‘climate change,’ and return to some semblance of normal. But our “normal” happens to be lethal, and if there is any pattern to climate revelations over the last decade (the hottest on record, with each successive year being hotter than the last), it is this: the reality of the climate crisis continues to outstrip our ability to model ever-worsening scenarios.
It’s also happening much faster than anticipated. The Great Unraveling, as David Korten and Joanna Macy have called it. Or "the Weather Channel," as it is now known. Just as with the insurrection of 1/6/20, we are now watching the climate come unglued right before our disbelieving eyes whenever we turn to our news feed.
Consistent with this out-of-control global climate experiment, methane has, in fact, begun to seep into the atmosphere from the oceans and permafrost at staggering rates, causing worldwide alarm among some of the scientists and researchers (but not so much politicians or corporate media). In 2013, a NASA science team characterized methane readings as “amazing and potentially troubling” (“Is a sleeping climate giant stirring in the Arctic?”) As one close follower of climate issues observed at that time, it is not inconceivable that we have already passed a critical point of no return:
If we have triggered a self-reinforcing methane feedback - and there is growing evidence that we have - then there is little point in talking about solutions. What is needed is a strategy for maximizing the quality of life for those of our species who survive the coming catastrophe. There will be fewer of us, and we will consume far less, and the world will be a far harsher place. We will, quite literally, be inhabiting an alien environment, and our best bet is to prepare ourselves for the softest possible landing in this hostile new world (emph. added, Atcheson, 2013, Common Dreams).
Sounds just a little like a coronavirus world he was anticipating, doesn’t it? The future keeps rushing to find us in the present.
Unfortunately, politics - especially the bipolar toxic Americana strain - has never been more myopic and impotent in the face of cascading crises, as was graphically and obscenely on display in the 2020 pandemic (and again with COP26 in Glasgow). Beginning with an alarming 2007 report from the IPCC, when normally staid scientists issued a consensus warning that world governments had eight years to take ‘drastic actions’ in order to avoid 'catastrophic' climate change, and culminating with the "Red Alert" IPCC Report of 2021, politics has become a game of either ignoring or undermining science and its inescapable realities, and then cynically gaslighting the public with spectacles like COP26.
Three years after that IPCC report, and in the wake of the 2008 alarm sounded by the International Energy Agency, President Obama not only ignored their call, he sent his emissaries to the climate talks in South Africa in 2011 to torpedo any chance of taking any effective action globally, let alone ‘drastic’ action, before 2020 - by which time he’d be safely out of office. Obama then proceeded to cry crocodile tears for the climate, as with his visit to Alaska two weeks after approving Shell’s deep-sea exploration for more oil reserves, and he quickly turned America into the number one producer of oil and gas in the world, even surpassing Saudi Arabia, by pursuing his “all of the above” energy policy - which was just Sara Palin’s “Drill Baby Drill” policy by another name.
To all my liberal and progressive friends who are reading this, let’s be clear about this. Barack Obama was the first President smart enough to appreciate the science, and he took office at a time when there was no more doubt about the heart-attack seriousness of the crisis. It represented an historic opportunity to right spaceship Earth:
He received multiple clear warnings from the world’s scientific community as he was taking office.
He had an unprecedented invitation to lead the world, which was fawning over him like it hadn’t embraced a U.S. President since Kennedy. Humans everywhere were practically begging Obama to lead the whole world, not just the U.S., into a new era when he took office in 2009, with full control of Congress.
The pivotal Copenhagen Climate talks were scheduled for later that year.
Really, he could not have asked for a better situation to make his mark on human history.
Instead of leading the world into a new era of climate recovery, however, President Obama chose to spend almost all of his political capital on a new health care plan hatched in a conservative think tank and written by insurance industry lobbyists - the mislabeled ‘Obama Care.’ That is the sad legacy too-smart-by-half Barry left to his beautiful little girls: affordable health care in a dying world.
As if it is actually possible to have good health on a gravely ill planet in the midst of the Sixth Great Extinction with dying oceans!!!
(How's that working out, by the way?)
When history looks back on that critical juncture, from 2008-2016, Obama will be judged in a harsh light. In fact, he will be lucky if historians do not conclude that he was guilty of unprecedented crimes against nature and humanity, crimes which he knew full well he was committing as a matter of moral conscience and Harvard intelligence. At best, he will be remembered for kicking the can down the road in order to get re-elected and make nice with corporate fat cats to get the economy humming again.
And of course, this idea of reckoning assumes a future with historians recording history. Even that is now in doubt, due to Obama’s unprecedented level of scientific arrogance (did he imagine we’d invent a cure?)and criminally lethal negligence (he was adequately warned).
Even history is in doubt!
And then there was Trump. The global poster boy for crimes against nature.
(Don’t get me started! What's the point??)
Is it any wonder, then, that Gaia felt compelled to step in with coronavirus? Is it mere coincidence that we saw a “crown” in this virus? Maybe a crown of thorns.
And poof — like Trump Towers made of sand with the first wave of rising seas — there goes the Don’s “beautiful” anything-goes, corporate-gangster-driven economy. And with it, his dreams of re-election. No match for Gaia’s feverish swoon, I’m afraid.
In the face of exponential growth in the greenhouse gas emissions produced by the exponential growth of the human species itself, Gaia has prescribed a relatively mild anti(anthro)biotic for now, one designed to slow down the growth that is raising her temperature and violating her biotic integrity. I realize that will sound harsh to anyone who loses a loved one in this pandemic, which will most likely include myself by the time I’m through with this book (assuming I even have time to finish it myself, at 63). [ed. note: my mom and uncle both passed during the pandemic] But given the grave illness we’ve inflicted on this living planet whose health we ourselves depend upon, a malady that threatens all species, all life, is it realistic to think our medicine will not taste bitter?
Our Mother, resorting to tough love for her wayward children, has sent us to our rooms to think about what we have done. Will we find new meaning and resolve in this enforced solitude?
Or just escape out the bathroom window?
One thing is clear. This is all heart-attack serious. She has the attention of all who are still somewhat sane. Rest assured: the next pandemic will be much worse. Gaia’s message could not be any more clear: Adapt or Die.
And so, the stage is set.
Our situation is terminal. Certainly that is true for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of species and the biosphere we co-inhabit with them. Species we humans co-evolved with - that make us human, in other words.
Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my!
Declaring "climate emergency" is the collective equivalent of going to the doctor's office and hearing: "Without triple bypass heart surgery, you will not last the year." While our own demise as a species is far from certain, there is no denying the need for an intervention. That free-wheeling life of endless frontiers and fertility we have known for over 11,000 years is now at an end. We may well succeed in preserving something very similar for ourselves with necessary triage and ingenuity. But it will never be the same.
This is much more than just the beginning of a new epoch ~ the Anthropocene.
We as a species, and on behalf of all species, now find ourselves in Planetary Hospice.
“Drift” by Jennifer Crickenberger
My Own Healing Path: Facing my Fears
'Healing' means moving towards wholeness, and thus we embark on a healing path at that point in our life when we feel most fragmented. I walked away from a successful career as an environmental lawyer in government service at the age of 33 (1991), because I was tired of dealing with symptoms in a world where nobody seemed willing to acknowledge - let alone name - the underlying disease. The beginning of my path home led me into and through the glorious Alps of the South Island of New Zealand - a mini-paradise on Earth for someone who loves mountains and rivers
Having escaped the jailor time and my small life back in the states, I was able to devote hours a day to simply, naturally meditating in nature with no thought of what came next on my global sojourn. This I found to be the highest expression of and outlet for the immense privilege that attended my birth in the white suburbs of post-war Chicago.
My praxis in Paradise: I escaped into the present moment by steadfastly training my attention on the next step on the path, and the next, resisting the temptation to focus on the horizon, eventually falling into the zero point field of present stillness and awareness.
I was determined from past explorations of nondual conscious states, and the sometimes painful duality between self-in-nature and self-in-the-world, to answer my own Taoist koan: who is the “I” that I am in nature? And why does that I (that I quite happen to like) seem to quickly melt upon reentry into the world, like a snowball carried from the mountaintop in my coat pocket to the city?
Tramping along rivers and ridge lines - through forests and meadows, meditating atop giant rocks, turning the trail itself into meditation on being, just being, even fasting for days in torrential rains whilst holed up in a tin-roofed refuge - I was finally able to scale the ‘wall of paradise’ ( a metaphor for the place where contemplative states end up stranded), thanks to a resounding voice that I heard quite clearly from the other side, while fasting and meditating at the base of that imaginary wall:
“Do not be afraid.”
I let go intuitively, surrendering to the unknowable in that mysterious moment. It is fear that keeps us fixated on the wall of paradise, unwilling to go over (or through). I hadn’t really named it before - the fear that you may not make it back if you get past it is what jolts you back from that profoundly altered state.
I let go of a lifetime of self-grasping and other-craving. I'd never be the same again. My own idiosyncratic initiation, a Nature-created rite of passage in paradise. And for the first time, really, I learned that if we surrender our ‘selves’ (ego) to the world, the world actually will respond. In fact, it never fails to respond in kind, a lesson I’d learn over and over in this life.
We all fear death. In our lives, this manifests as the never-ending struggle to “keep our shit together.” We’re not allowed to fall apart, in other words. As a male raised in America, for me this meant separating first from my heart, then from my body, and living mostly in my head, hollowing out my relationships with women.
For the tragic masses of men and women, that fear of disintegration, that taboo of ever falling apart, severely limits our ability to live life fully, according to the way our life is meant to be lived. The American Dream, now exported wherever in the world there are golden arches, blue jeans, and cell phones, is the full realization of Thoreau’s “lives of quiet desperation.”
That is the prison from which I escaped with my backpack.
Once I was on the outside, and was able to let go of that root fear, the fear of not coming back into my corporeal, constructed self, this one truth became quite apparent to me: the I that I am in nature IS nature.
Human nature is nature gifted to us from Mother Nature, our natural birthright - just like the spark of light bestowed on us from Pistis Sophia in the Gnostic Gospels - and yet somehow we’ve become separated from both Nature and human nature. Our separation from this simple truth is forced upon us, and reinforced, by the very circumstance of our lives, by the pervasive conditioning of our existence as society’s consumers and not citizens of the world, and this separation defines us, limits us…
The liberating, loving mater becomes the limiting darkness of matter. Happiness becomes something to be pursued, something conceived outside of ourselves. Our self is no longer who we were meant to be, to become. Life begins to lose all meaning, and we await our death with muted trepidation. How tragic!
Sophia, the goddess archetype embodied in Eve, cries out to Adam asleep in the dungeon of dark matter to AWAKEN, remember his root, which is her - spirit. Mater, not matter. The light she radiates is reflected in the visible spark of life we see in a mother’s womb when a single sperm penetrates an egg. What a thing to perceive, if we can only believe! The light in Eve's eyes, the light of the goddess glimpsed in grass dewdrops and cascading waterfalls when the sun finally breaks through endless oceanic roll of rainclouds.
Do not be afraid.
There is no fear of death beheld in nature, because death is integral to nature, just as we are an integral part of the larger organism of Earth. In nature , death sustains life. There is not even any duality of life and death in nature - at least, not the black-and-white duality we conceive in our own lives. We are dying the moment we take birth, and we begin birthing long before we die.
The beginning of my own path of awakening, there in the Garden of Eden in the 35th year of my life, was only that - a beginning… A natural start. I’d been meditating for eleven years by then, but when you lose your fear of death, and open yourself fully to the world in a spirit of surrender, the world responds.
The world responds!
In ways we could never conceive in advance. For me, that response was like being dropped into an ocean of magical spiritual realism without any floatation device. Inevitably on such a spiritual path, as all mystics and shamans tell us, in order to live all we need do is die.
The world will humble us. And it’s a hard lesson.
We can not skip over the dis-integration of self and de(con)struction of ego that opens us up into spiritual reintegration with a renewed sense of awe and, in my case at least, wandering wonderment. I was shattered by the psychospiritual death that awaited me once I came down from the ‘unus mundus’ mountaintop of my world tour. Dismembered in mind and spirit, if not body. Transported to the charnel grounds of the other side, a bardo where all that is dead is still alive, and all that is alive appears as if dead.
Somehow, owing in no small part to the kindness and love of others, I survived that dark night. I did not kill myself, though the prospect was alluring. Jerry Garcia Band saved my life, you could even say (1992 California tour), along with 20 sheets of blotter, a healing bus full of beautiful Deadheads, and one small hippie dog named Gaia.
Strange trip, crossing the Rubicon and the River Styx. And even stranger boons you bring back from that idiosyncratic darkness. Expressed in terms of the songs Jerry was preaching to us from his electronic pulpit at the time, just before his own crash at 50, it was a "Simple Twist of Fate... My Brothers and Sisters... Stop that Train!... I shall be released... Waiting for a Miracle... In this world of trouble, we've got to love one another.... we can all be together, forever and ever when we make it to the promised land...
Just goes to show you don't ever know!"
So interesting how close the spelling is of earth, birth - ‘bearth,’ hearth, heart - breath, and death. It reads like an unfolding. Or at the micro level… inspire... expire... inspiration… expiration.
Water is made up of oxygen and hydrogen. Every oxygen atom originated in the death of a star, and every hydrogen atom came from a star's birth. And there is the magical, universal formula for the balance of life: two parts birthing, one part dying. Inseparable from the start.
I’ve lived long enough in the world to die at least twice in this life. The first death was tragic, prompted by magic, and truly the greatest blessing of my life. The second death was made necessary, somehow, by the brokenness of the first. It was revelatory and joyous: I awoke from the dream of what we label ‘life,’ and laughed cosmically at the phenomenon we label ‘death.’
Beyond this magic play of display we cling to so fiercely, there is only love and truth - and they merge in the phenomenon of our experience if only we insist on living a meaningful life.
This is not really the place to tell that whole story, but as an elder I can disclose now that I have distilled my healing path down to two simple rules of life:
Remember death and impermanence in your heart.
Generate the thought of no need in your mind.
And since duality is illusory, too, these two rules can be further simplified into one mysterious injunction, first uttered by a wandering mystic atop the highest plateau in the world, to a confused monk who was trying too hard to be pious:
Give up this life in your mind.
In the end, the healing path of a death-informed, spiritual life in the Anthropocene requires only that we walk broken-hearted through this ruptured world, learning with every step to share our brokenness with others. How else can this wounded world heal but through the very same wounded healers who broke it?