‘Forests precede us, deserts dog our heels’
Variously attributed (Franḉois-René de Chateaubriand/Derrick Jensen/Stanley Diamond)
The quote above, contested as it is in origin (or perhaps simply spontaneously arising to different mind at different times, like a rediscovered melody) poetically points at the most material and literal level of the human condition. How, through our agency, like so many hominid-locusts, our living arrangements and ways of being on the earth come to denude the Edenic primordial forest and leave behind us a newly minted desert. Blind to our effects we use and abuse, use up resources, and then virus-like move on (or, like bacteria in a petri dish, unable to grow beyond the glass, suffocate in our own toxic stew). It is hard, in this moment of the early twenty-first century, to ignore the message. Call it Fukushima, or exponential polar warming, or proxy resource war, despotic corporatism – its names are legion. All is yeast in – as the physicist Albert A Bartlett puts it
“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function”
(‘Arithmetic, Population & Energy’, 2004)
But surely, the old saw goes, we must object – humans are smarter than yeast? This is the very essence of a moot point.
To develop the theme, let’s hear from Chateaubriand again (definitely him, this time) from his journal April/September 1822:
“One does not learn how to die by killing others.”
(Mémoires d’outre-tombe Book IX: Ch. 4: Danton – Camille Desmoulins – Fabre d’Églantine)
A quickening insight, no? Could it be that this observation, especially harnessed to our initial quote of forests made deserts, begins to crack open this dilemma, letting us play Lear’s Fool and ‘cut the egg i’ th’ middle and eat up the meat’? In other words, does the collective human behaviour known as civilization, with its inevitable symptomatic destruction, actually have something to do with our relationship to death? And if so, what is the nature of this relationship, and what might it tell us about life? What is the agony, and the ecstasy? The rest of this piece is a beginning attempt to explore this territory.
“Knowledge, in an information-drunk, competence addicted culture like our own, must be the life-tested skill of gathering what is needed to make life live without killing life in the gathering.
Wisdom is the place where knowledge is fired, forged and annealed to become something of great beauty, useful to the world.
Human culture is made when that beauty swells into life and dies to nourish a time we won’t live to see.
Knowledge gathers wood and flint and gut. Wisdom conjures a cranky playable fiddle from the gatherings. People who have been bathed in grief and a love for life play some small magnificence on those fiddles together, and sing their unknown songs, and make human culture”
(Stephen Jenkinson, Orphan Wisdom, How It Could All Be, 2009)
So we should ask about those forests that precede us. What are they? What is their name? Wilderness.
“Wilderness. The word itself is music.
Wilderness, wilderness… we scarcely know what we mean by the term, though the sound of it draws all whose nerves and emotions have not yet been irreparably stunned, deadened, numbed by the caterwauling of commerce, the sweating scramble for profit and domination”
(Edward Abbey, ‘Desert Solitaire’ 1968)
Wilderness, according to those directly experiencing it, consists of a tremendously potent cultural medicine – a sort of ayahuasca of the heart, if you will – distilled from abrupt and sublime direct sensory experience filtered through the admixture of nostalgia, the suggestion of deep origins, the womb of species-emergence, the remote, intimate, lost but present blood-song of loyalty to the living earth; beneath the tool-maker’s artefact, the muddy hand of Terra, Gaea, Cel, Pachamama, Mahimata, Tuuwaqatsi, Ninsun. Romantic? Yes, of course –and necessarily a part of our truth.
The point is that from the earliest moments our fire-monkey ancestors knew wilderness as home, indeed as mother. Consciousness-in-wilderness, or ‘wild mind’ for brevity’s sake, is our millennial inheritance; it continues to flow with this truth, underneath the cloacal anomalies of our multi-distorting modernity. Abbey, again;
“If a man’s imagination were not so weak, so easily tired, if his capacity for wonder not so limited, he would abandon forever such fantasies of the supernal. He would learn to perceive in water, leaves and silence more than sufficient of the absolute and marvellous, more than enough to console him for the loss of ancient dreams”
(Edward Abbey, ‘Desert Solitaire’, 1968)
“Civilization is not natural, sustaining it entails a continuous input of matter, energy and morale without which it would necessarily decline or collapse”
(William Ophuls, ‘Immoderate Greatness – Why Civilizations Fall’, 2012)
Where can this go? Abbey, retro-pioneer of the ingrowing wild observes
“Men come and men go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear – the earth remains, slightly modified. The earth remains, and the heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break. Turning Plato and Hegel on their heads I sometimes choose to think, no doubt perversely, that man is a dream, thought an illusion, and only rock is real. Rock and sun.”
(Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire, 1968)
But we should also remember, as Peter Kingsley reminds us, that Civilisations never ‘just happen’, rather
“They are brought into existence quite consciously, with unbelievable compassion and determination, from another world. Then the job of people experienced in ecstasy is to prepare the soil for them, ; care for them; watch them grow. And each culture is like a tree whose essence and whole potential are already contained in the seed. Nothing during the course of a civilization is ever discovered, or invented, or created, which was not already present inside that seed.”
(Peter Kingsley, A Story Waiting To Pierce You – Mongolia, Tibet & The Destiny of the Western World, 2010)
It would seem obvious at this point to notice, as others have done (notably Arnold Toynbee), that when it comes to the death of Civilizations, the cause is almost invariably suicide. It might look like barbarians, or a War on Terror, or a calamitous series of pernicious natural events, but these are usually only ‘precipitating factors’, the final push knocking over an already mouldering edifice. So are we culturally suicidal? I’m reminded of a nice soundbite, familiar to anyone who has undertaken the globally franchised Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST). This two-day training models itself on the practical ‘first aid’ approach, and certainly has a thoroughness and potency to it – but the phrase that sticks in my mind, in the context of the suicidal individual, is that ‘the part of you that wants to live is at risk from a part of you that wants to die’. There is a crisis of identification, indeed of the processes of identity itself. What if that were true at greater scales of magnitude, true of communities, cultures, Civilization itself? Wouldn’t that splitting of parts within a whole self, at any scale, indicate the trauma of the original wounding? Wouldn’t it also point us at the raw and red gateway into its very own possibility of healing? An open gate, bound by a red thread.
Thomas Berry, the Earth Scholar, frequently spoke of the need to ‘reinvent the human’ – could this have been a part of his meaning, a remembrance of that which has been split off, such that its reintegration is also a renewal? Psychologist and writer Bill Plotkin explores this edge in practical terms:
“We must reclaim and embody our original wholeness, our indigenous human nature granted to us by nature itself. And the key to reclaiming our original wholeness is not merely to suppress psychological symptoms, recover from addictions and trauma, manage stress, or refurbish dysfunctional relationships, but rather to fully flesh out our multifaceted, wild psyches, committing ourselves to the largest story we’re capable of living, serving something bigger than ourselves.”
(Bill Plotkin, Wild Mind – A Field Guide for the Human Psyche, 2012)
Another perspective on the same vista comes from the Buddhist teacher and poet, Thich Nhat Hanh:
“Maybe in 100 years there will be no more humans on the planet, in just 100 years.”
“Mass extinction has already happened five times and this one is the sixth. According to the Buddhist tradition there is no birth and no death. After extinction things will reappear in other forms, so you have to breathe very deeply in order to acknowledge the fact that we humans may disappear in just 100 years on earth.”
“You have to learn how to accept that hard fact. You should not be overwhelmed by despair. The solution is to learn how to touch eternity in the present moment. We have been talking about the environment as if it is something different from us, but we are the environment. The non-human elements are our environment, but we are the environment of non-human elements, so we are one with the environment. We are the environment. We are the earth and the earth has the capacity to restore balance and sometimes many species have to disappear for the balance restored. Maybe the flood, maybe the heat, maybe the air.”
Thich Nhat Hanh, Interviewed in The Ecologist, March 2012
It is at this point that we may benefit from a precise enquiry into the nature of ‘eternity in the present moment’ and ‘serving something bigger than ourselves’. A question that arises, out of Psychosynthesis, also out of the Field – ‘with what are you identified?’If we can answer this question in this moment, then we must also recognise the split we have been talking about – for who is asking the question, and of whom? This mapping of identification allows also for a sympathetic process of disidentification, a relaxing of previously brittle, brutal reductionist identifications, at first localised and intra-psychic, but increasingly, with practice, interpersonally and even transpersonally.
“Identification Means that Your Mind Takes a Certain State for Identity. What is disidentification really? To understand disidentification, you need to understand identification. To identify with anything, any state, means simply that your mind takes a certain state for identity. Your mind holds on to an expression, or a feeling, or a state, and uses it to define you. The mind then contracts around the state in the activity of holding onto it. This very contraction of the mind creates what we call “identity.” “
(AH Almaas, Diamond Heart Book III, p. 170,)
That contraction Almaas speaks of, so familiar and tight, but also subtle and diaphanous – is the very essence of what Buddhism refers to as dukkha, or suffering. It is the basic mode of identified, conditioned existence, inherently unsatisfactory, like a bent axle turning a misshapen wheel – it makes for a very bumpy ride. Nevertheless, as we will see, however much this mode of travel creates motion sickness in our psyches, we are generally loath to get off and walk – loyal to the last, we humans remain steeped in a preference for what we know, never more than in identity:
“Disidentifying With Ego Structures Often Exposes Deficiency
As we have seen in our case histories, disidentifying with an ego structure often exposes a sense of deficiency, lack or weakness, which is sometimes experienced as an emptiness, or more specifically, an empty hole. Allowing an understanding the deficient emptiness precipitates the emergence of the Personal Essence in consciousness.”
(AH Almaas Pearl Beyond Price, p. 134)
By ceasing identification, and by entering disidentification, we open ourselves to the experience of voidness – the ‘empty hole’, the very thing Civilization (in Freudian sense) is desperately intended to fill. How could a person, let alone a group or collective, let alone a whole Civilization, cultivate this disidentification, embrace the voidness at the core of the display, allow itself to feel the ‘deficient emptiness’ thoroughly enough that it affects being and creates an aperture for Personal Essence? There are, to be sure, no votes to be had from that ticket, no profit in truth. And yet, it is even harder than that – for disidentification even denies us what our Civilizing genes take as axiomatic – that we must ‘do something’:
“Disidentification Means the Cessation of Identification
So we can see why disidentification can’t be an activity; if it were an activity, it would not be disidentification, but identification with something else. It would be just a substitution. If there is someone who is moving away from something else, that someone must be identified with something, or at least with the desire to move away from something. Disidentification means the cessation of identification, the cessation of taking something to be you, or to belong to you, or to define you.”
(AH Almaas Diamond Heart Book III, p. 172)
“For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart”
(Keith Douglas, Vergissmeinnicht, 1944)
WB Yeats spoke of this edge in his profound tract, A Vision:
“A civilisation is a struggle to keep self-control, and in this it is like some great tragic person, some Niobe who must display an almost superhuman will, or the cry will not touch our sympathy. The loss of control over thought comes towards the end; first a sinking in upon the moral being, then the last surrender, the irrational cry, revelation – the scream of Juno’s peacock”
(WB Yeats, A Vision, 1925/1937)
And put in the heightened cadence of the lyric form:
The gyres! The gyres! Old Rocky Face, look forth;
Things thought too long can be no longer thought,
For beauty dies of beauty, worth of worth,
And ancient lineaments are blotted out.
Irrational streams of blood are staining earth;
Empedocles has thrown all things about;
Hector is dead and there’s a light in Troy;
We that look on but laugh in tragic joy”
(WB Yeats, VP 564)
How then might we move from stuckness, through ‘tragic joy’ and despair, our own and that we were born into? Is this even possible to imagine, never mind achieve? The process of answering is itself a dying journey – we have to strike for the root:
“The future of humanity depends on psychology. I”ll give a very present instance, the problem of aggressive drives and averting war. History has proved that all other means, all legal means, treaties and agreements did not work, and do not work. We have to go at the root. And the root is the existence of aggressive drives, of self-assertion and the consequent conflicts which arise in all groups. Therefore, there is in psychology, and particularly in Psychosynthesis, the principle of transmutation of energies. Thus instinctive psychological energies can be transmuted and utilized, directed, and channelled to other constructive purposes.”
(Roberto Assagioli, from ‘An Interview with Roberto Assagioli’ , Conducted by Beverly Besmer, Source: Interpersonal Development 1973/4)
Put another way, with the precision of a pre-eminent spiritual technology and with reference to the rigours of object relations, Almaas gives us this clue:
“Two Ways to Develop the Capacity for Disidentification
The capacity for disidentification can develop in two ways: The first is by increasing the capacity to tolerate greater distance from certain self-representations, which allows us to experience Being more easily… The second way … is that our overall self-representation becomes so much more complete that our identity becomes very flexible. This ultimately leads to a strong general capacity for disidentification such that we can actually be disidentified from the overall self-representation while still maintaining our identity. This capacity requires thorough clarification, that is, objective understanding and seeing through delusions regarding the various segments of our self-representation. It also requires a measure of balance in our spiritual development: balance in relation to mind, heart and body for example; balance in relation to stillness and movement, knowledge and expression, and so on.”
(AH Almaas The Point of Existence, p. 128)
Postscript from the Caucasus
An ancestral tale from a little used mirror.
“The Narts were courageous, energetic, bold, and good-hearted. Thus they lived until God sent down a small swallow.
“Do you want to be few and live a short life but have great fame and have your courage be an example for others forevermore?” asked the swallow. “or perhaps you would prefer that there will be many of you, that your numbers will be great, that you will have whatever you wish to eat and drink, that you will all live long lives but without ever knowing battle or glory?”
Then without calling a council, but with a reply as quick as thought itself, the Narts said “We do not want to be like cattle.
We do not want to reproduce in great numbers. We want to live with human dignity.
If our lives are to be short,
Then let our fame be great!
Let us not depart from truth!
Let fairness be our path!
Let us not know grief!
Let us live in freedom!”
In this way they chose to be small in numbers but to perform deeds of courage and boldness. This was the answer they gave to that small swallow to take back to God.”
(John Colarusso, Nart Sagas from the Caucasus: Myths and Legends from the Circassians, Abazas, Abkhaz, and Ubykhs, 2002)
“A new civilization, any civilization including ours, is not only a miraculous gift. It always comes into existence out of the impossible.
And the impossible is impossible: is absolutely non-negotiable. But however simple that may sound, nothing can be more essential for us to understand.
The world we now live in is a world of infinite possibilities – which is why it has no future. The problem is that possibilities are nothing but finely modified, recalibrated versions of the old: the same recycling the same. And they swallow whatever energy we have left, devour our intelligence, gobble our hopes and aspirations, cheat us of time until we no longer remember what life is about”
(Peter Kinglsey, A Story Waiting to Pierce You, 2010)
Here’s to remembering, the wilderness that is the mind’s eternal frontier:
Sous le pave: la plage