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  • Writer's pictureZhiwa Woodbury

PROLOGUE: B.C.//A.C. Before & After Coronavirus

Updated: Dec 6, 2021

“Truly the blessed gods have proclaimed a most beautiful secret:

death comes not as a curse but as a blessing to men.”

- Ancient Greek Epitaph from Eleusis

The Great Dying is upon us…

April 1, 2020. Snohomish County, WA. The world as we knew it is no more. A global lockdown has taken hold. The human race has been grounded indefinitely. Lonely death waits at the door, skies emptied of planes once more, streets mostly emptied of cars. Families spending time together, planting gardens together, and playing in the parks at safe distances from other families. Baby boomers are seeking closure with their surviving elders, not waiting till it’s too late, as we are banned from the hospital when our loved ones die.

The most death-phobic culture ever forced now to live death-informed lives. It is bittersweet, walking through a cloud of general sadness during a time of great loss, yet finding healing balm in authentic experiences of profound joy and re-vivified love. Collectively, this is a new kind of awareness, a new sense of interpenetrating interdependence, and it is tinged with newly deepened feelings of wonder, awe, and appreciation.

With death at the door, life deepens. Love deepens. We are compelled to find meaning.

Welcome to Planetary Hospice…

* * *

In the Fall of 2013, I had the great good fortune to enter training as a care giver with Zen Hospice in the Mission District of San Francisco. The hospice was founded by Shunryu Suzuki as a response to the aids crisis in the 1980s, and that lineage of dedicated service deeply informed the training. As a lifelong eco-activist attorney and dharma practitioner, I had walked away from that world at 55 years old to study ecopsychology, hoping to figure out why our culture is marching like lemmings to Armageddon, while at the same time answering a felt need to deepen my own spiritual understanding. I chose the California Institute of Integral Studies in part due to the proximity of the school to Zen Hospice, in the sad heart of the Mission District.

At that same time, I was taking a class on the Psychology of Death & Dying at CIIS, taught by a wonderful palliative care doctor and writer from Italy by way of New York, Alessandra Strada. It was at her prompting that I decided to write a final paper for the class on an idea I’d been harboring at a safe distance in the back of my mind for many years: the sense that we were somehow entering an era of ‘planetary hospice.’ It wasn’t so much a well-formed idea, really, as it was a feeling, an intuitive whisper from some deeper wisdom inside our collective consciousness.

The time had obviously come to give it shape and form, to bring it into the light, and let it find expression through the coarse filter of my legally trained, linguistically inclined mind. When I finally finished the hospice training and completed my term paper, “Planetary Hospice: Rebirthing Planet Earth,” in January of 2014, both Alessandra and my ecopsychology mentor, Craig Chalquist, urged me to make it into a book. As I was already engaged in writing another book, I offered instead to distribute the paper for informal peer review, soliciting critiques from some of the luminaries in the field.

One of those luminaries was Joanna Macy, a living inspiration to my work, an adjunct at the time at CIIS, and progenitor of “the great unravelling” narrative by which degeneration and regeneration are simultaneous forces in our brave new world. Much to my surprise, Joanna published the paper on her website for the work that reconnects, and it went viral in the Spring of 2014. It was translated into German, French, and Chinese, and I began receiving requests for interviews and appearances on a weekly basis, culminating with a presentation to an international symposium of educators and psychologists sponsored by His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Mind & Life Institute at Harvard in November of that year.

For me, all of this was a kind of field research. I certainly did not view my thesis as fully developed at that time, as I still hadn’t gotten quite to the root of the problem (an obsession of my slow, but thorough, intellect), nor had I yet conjured a ‘climate cure’ — though the obvious resonance of the ideas I was expressing convinced me I was at least on the right track.

After a warm reception at the Mind & Life Institute’s symposium in Cambridge, which happens to be my father’s birthplace, I decided to give the idea of a book my best efforts. I was generously provided with a writer’s retreat in the shadow of Pikes Peak, and began a process of plugging into the Earth every morning through non-dual awareness meditations on my cushion, channeling whatever arose in that transpersonal space onto the virtual page.

Not even a third of the way into the book, it became quite clear to me that Americans, in particular, were not ready for planetary hospice. As an advocate for climate sanity, I was not interested in preaching to the choir of people who happened to agree with my world view. The book that came to me then, instead of Planetary Hospice, was a book about climate grief viewed through the lens of cultural trauma: Climate Sense: Changing the Way We Think and Feel about Our Climate in Crisis (2015). It’s basically a self-help manual for people who are trying to work through the difficult emotions that come up when they begin to grasp the existential dimensions of the climate crisis.

My field work, meanwhile, continued apace. And with a big assist from Carolyn Baker, who would regularly invite me onto her weekly podcast “The Lifeboat Hour,” the really big picture finally crystallized and came into focus for me one day in the mist of a steaming hot bath: what is happening to the planet, which western science has only recently discovered to be a holistic, living organism, is actually a new and unprecedented form of trauma.

Just as quantum mechanics was a game changer, and just as the Gaian world view is itself a game changer of Copernican significance, so too is the idea of collective trauma. We have only begun to learn about collective trauma since the end of World War II, due to the horrific scale of the Holocaust, which is closely associated with the acknowledgment and study of cultural trauma. Biospheric trauma, a synonym for climate trauma, represents a new form of collective trauma at a previously unconsidered scale. I knew immediately that the implications of this new taxonomy, or classification system, for traumatology were immense and at the heart of our collective climate crisis.

I rushed to publish my findings in the form of an academic paper that was featured in the peer-reviewed professional journal, Ecopsychology, and entitled “Climate Trauma: Towards A New Taxonomy of Traumatology” (2019). As wonky as that may sound, it went even more viral than the more provocatively entitled 2014 paper, and has had far more influence on serious people’s thinking. It landed me almost overnight in the top one tenth of one percent of academic researchers worldwide, and was viewed more than 30,000 times in over 100 countries within a year of publication. Publication of “Climate Trauma” even inspired the first ever online summit on collective trauma, organized by a renowned modern mystic from Austria, Thomas Hubl. The symposium took place over the course of nine days, and was attended by over 50,000 people in 170 countries (the second annual course was attended by close to 80,000 participants).

My own advocacy on Gaia’s behalf since that paper was published has been featured in such publications as the New York Times, New York Magazine, the Financial Times of London, and Psychology Today.

And then came the coronavirus. The first collectively experienced global trauma since the advent of the internet precipitated the emergence of a new level of global interconnectedness and awareness. While Carl Jung was the first great thinker to really explore and characterize the idea of collective psyche, even presaging the discovery of a planetary organism with the theories of Anima Mundi and Unus Mundus, which he worked out with one of the fathers of quantum physics, Wolfgang Pauli, in the modern era we are directly experiencing our collective psyche through virtual media and pervasive interconnectivity.

We humans, perhaps unique among all species, are now aware of, and immersed in, a global consciousness. There is a collective awareness that we plug into through our fingertips. And this is happening at the same time we are coming to understand that the planet is itself a living organism. And now, in this time of planetary crisis, in the midst of the biospheric trauma that claims 200 species every day, it appears that Gaia is speaking to us in perhaps the only language we have in common: mortality.

It is eminently clear to me as I shelter in place here at America’s Ground Zero for the pandemic, Snohomish County, WA, that the world has changed unalterably. There is the world before the coronavirus - “B.C.” - and the much more death-informed world that awaits us after the virus has had its way - “A.C.”

In my 2014 paper, I talked about the apparent inevitability of a new “Great Dying,” one where we ourselves may be witness to the human population dwindling, rather than continuing to expand exponentially, as part of the continuing acceleration of the sixth great extinction event in the planet’s history. This is exactly how such an era would be ushered in. From my perspective, this appears to be just the first wave of the Great Dying - a mere ripple, really, compared to what’s still to come.

As soon as the pandemic took hold of our world, my 2014 paper went viral again, as if resurrected. That’s when I realized, as so many others obviously had begun to realize, that this is it.

We humans, as a species, have crossed the threshold into planetary hospice.

* * *

And so it’s time for me to write the book, I guess. I’m no longer sure who I’m writing too, however. I still think the vast majority of people, especially in my own culture, are not ready for the simple truths I am compelled to speak of by my connection to Earth. I strongly suspect my audience resides in the future - though I can’t predict if it is a near or distant future. Still, the time has arrived for me to synthesize my thinking, writing, and research on this matter of great import. I have no idea how much longer I have left in this mortal coil. This is my testament, for what it is worth.

We have a stark choice now between our own eventual extermination or a near term transformation. Such a transformation of human culture and the global economy will not come about without a simultaneous shift in collective consciousness. Trauma always raises questions of identity, whether considered at the scale of the individual, a culture, or now with the climate crisis, at the scale of an entire species. And to those paying close attention, that seismic shift in collective consciousness is already well underway.

The choices we humans are making now - and will continue to make this decade and the next - in response to this spiritual emergency will determine whether we engender spiritual emergence, the messy rebirth (transmutation) of our species, or instead repeat the kind of Great Dying that once wiped out 95% of all life on the planet, and required 10 million years for the biosphere to recover. My purpose in writing this book is to offer guidance and succor to all who those natural healers and existential professionals in the world, now and in the future, who hear the cries of the Earth, together with all those who would advocate for climate sanity, so that we may attend Gaia’s bedside and serve as her spiritual midwives in Planetary Hospice. Whether Gaia is now dying, just ill, or about to give birth is largely dependent on how we, as a species, connect with and within her psycelium (our shared psychosphere), respond to her vital signals, and attend to her needs. Each and every one of us has the potential to manifest as either a Gaian cancer cell or a cell that is being activated in her auto-immune system.

But before we embark on this shared path of deep and empathic contemplative healing, we will need to be clear on the setting for this spectacle. It’s important to begin by acknowledging just what it is that has so fundamentally changed in the world we share. If we can begin by recognizing and accepting that tectonic shift, then understanding will flow forth from that sacred space of shared awareness and resonance. So please bear with me for just a moment, and then I promise we’ll get started.

What has changed? We have.

We have changed.

I began following the science of climate change in 1985, at the beginning of the same AIDS crisis that gave rise to Zen Hospice, where I would train 30 years later. I have a background in science, having studied thermal and environmental engineering in college, and as environmental counsel to the City of Colorado Springs, part of my job was to monitor the daily publications of the National Academy of Sciences for anything relative to environmental concerns. It was in this capacity that I learned something that has never been fully appreciated. Years before Dr. James Hansen testified to Congress about “global warming,” the climate crisis began with the AIDS pandemic.

Does that surprise you? Because it really shouldn’t.

You see, what is misleadingly referred to in popular media as the ‘ozone hole’ is not really a hole at all. The hole that opened up over the arctic was simply the point of greatest depletion of ozone, while in reality ozone was depleted across the entire troposphere. This exposed the entire biosphere to levels of ultra-violet radiation that had never been experienced in human timescales. For example, the United States was being exposed to levels of radiation that were 15-30% higher than humans had ever been exposed to prior to this sudden depletion.

What this meant in practical, scientific terms was that the immune defense systems of all life, not just humans, was now under attack. Since bio-immunity occurs across a spectrum, those with the most vulnerable immune systems, due either to genetics or to lifestyle choices, would find themselves at the greatest risk of developing problems with their auto-immune systems.

AIDS was certainly the worst of it, but hardly the only example. In fact, we’ve been dealing with compromised immune systems ever since. And not just humans, either - amphibians took the worst of it. When was the last time you saw a frog?

And the ability of forests to defend themselves against epidemics and disease was compromised just as our own immune systems were. What began as widespread beetle infestations has quickly escalated into seasonal conflagrations that overwhelm fire fighters and, in the case of the recent Australian bush fires, can wipe out billions of animals in a windswept blink of an eye.

While ozone depletion was the beginning of the climate crisis, our government at the time decided it best to greenwash the matter, advising people to stay out of the sun, wear sun hats, and apply lots of sunblock. The idea was to make us see this as just another modern inconvenience, and one that we could easily protect ourselves against.

Then came global warming. But the way we were introduced to this aspect of climate change was with charts and graphs - in particular, the Keeling curve showing exponential increases in levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This was in the late 1980s, basically. It was “morning in America,” and we learned from the movie Wall Street that “greed was good.” Heady times, you might say.

And since we humans are possessed of a natural psychological defense system that will always do its best to externalize any perceived threat, to view it as remote and/or distant, a grossly irresponsible corporate campaign to deny climate science was able to prosper. Global warming became some future “Chicken Little” problem that we didn’t really need to concern ourselves with in the present. For decades, the corporate controlled media continued to pretend there were two sides to the issue of global warming. This remained the situation throughout the neoliberal 90’s and into the new millennium.

Then we began to witness the wide-ranging geophysical symptoms of the crisis. Unprecedented typhoons in the Pacific, hurricanes of a force and frequency we’d never seen before in the Atlantic and Gulf regions, intense flooding and historically destructive wildfire seasons, 'firenadoes,' killer heat waves, unnaturally prolonged droughts, melting glaciers, vast dead zones in the oceans, whales regularly washing up on shore…

Much more evocative than charts and graphs!

This geophysical manifestation got our attention, and set off all kinds of alarms for climate scientists, whose predictions were now consistently being outstripped by reality (and that remains the case today). But still, it remained possible to externalize these threats, to see them as a third world problem for African and Asia to deal with, or as threatening the existence of some tiny, distant islands. In most of the western world, we continued with business as usual - waging endless wars while consuming new technology and products like there's no (ahem) tomorrow, and like we have no choice but to replace our cell phones and cars every year or two.

Then we reached a kind of cultural tipping point in 2019.

With the publication of “Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells in New York Magazine that summer, millions upon millions of people suddenly began to appreciate the existential nature of our crisis. There was a noticeable shift in our collective consciousness. The symptoms may have still been geophysical, but they were no longer deniable.

Quite naturally, then, we began to experience the symptoms of the climate crisis psychologically. While that same kind of psychological distress had first been observed in climate scientists earlier in the decade, it now became embodied. It was even given a human face with the sudden emergence of Greta Thunberg, the global poster child for ‘eco-anxiety.’

Even here, however, it must be noted that we continued to externalize the crisis by casting “climate change” as a threat to our mental well being. The truth of the matter, of course, is that it is we humans who are the threat to the climate! This popular transference reflects the inherent problem of mainstream psychology, which places ego at the center of the world rather than placing our world at the center of our identity, and thereby reinforces the “man vs. nature” narrative of manifest destiny that got us into this global psychospiritual mess to begin with.

Today, A.C., with the ongoing shift in collective consciousness that is being triggered by the coronavirus, it is no longer feasible to externalize the climate crisis. We’re now experiencing the symptoms of the climate crisis somatically - in our physical being. This can be readily observed in how all our responses to the pandemic have mirrored our responses to the climate crisis itself. And for good reason - there is really no separation between the two. In fact, there is a kind of intelligence reflected in the virus that is a manifestation of Gaia’s own higher, natural intelligence.

She's sharing her symptoms with us in a most direct way, speaking to us in a language we can understand. Elevated temperatures burning us up, as in a world on fire. Damaged lungs, making respiration difficult, as with hacking away at the planet’s lungs. And then drowning in our excess fluids, as with elevated oceans and unnatural floods. Organ failure can occur, or at least damage to our vital organs that may be irreparable, just as we’ve damaged ecosystems to the point of systemic collapse. We are faced with the sudden loss of our elderly parents, just as the planet is losing elder species like rhinos, certain species of whales, and elephants whose historic watering holes have disappeared.

The prospect of death is ever present in our lives now, at least for the time being. Like a dark night of our collective soul.

And she has not only forced us into a more death-informed way of living, she is also showing us how to to radically transform our lifestyles in a manner that we should have done voluntarily long ago in response to her chronic distress signals. Planes being grounded. Cars not leaving home. Business as usual disrupted on a global scale. It is as if Gaia herself has taken up the banner of Extinction Rebellion, which has been trying to shock us out of our ecocidal stupor since it was conceived in 2019, thanks to inspiration from Earth medicine.

So can we better appreciate at the outset here what has changed? Can we feel ourselves collectively standing on a precipice, peering into the Abyss?

The climate crisis has now become personal. There is no longer any space between the climate crisis and our mental health. No mental health without a healthy host organism, or planet.

We who include ourselves in the dominant, global consumer culture ARE the climate crisis.

It's no longer just abstractly a matter of life and death. It has been transmuted overnight into our very own, personal existential crisis.

Can you feel it?

And nothing will ever be the same again. Even ‘going back to normal' has now become a death wish.

This is Planetary Hospice.

The Earth is our witness now.

How will we respond?

NOTE TO READERS: Because the climate crisis is personal to me, because I am having a climate crisis, I feel compelled to share parts of my own journey of spirit as post-scripts to each of the chapters that follow. You should feel free to skip these (similarly yellow) post scripts if you find them to be a distraction, or to come back to them afterward. They're not integral to the content of the book, but merely indicative of the process that produced that content. For me personally, it's a kind of full disclosure. I want to hold nothing back.

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