Part 1: You Can’t Get There From Here
Many people have heard the joke about a lost city person asking an old Vermont farmer for directions to their destination and he answers, “Yup, ya cahn’t get they-a from hee-ya.” This applies to the conundrum of modernity. Humans have a remarkable ability to continue using strategies that don’t work. We tend not to go back to thoroughly examine why things aren’t working and possibly reevaluate our basic assumptions. Rather, we tend to push our failing solutions even harder, rationalize them, or more often, recreate them with a different spin. We have, after all, invested so much time and energy in our uniquely “clever angle” that it is difficult to give it up. It used to work (or we believe it did.) Or it is supposed to work, so we have been told our entire lives. But in a very real way we can’t get there from here. We can’t get to the future we want if we keep standing inside the conventional, literate, scientific, materialist worldview. We don’t want to be committed to perpetual war while riding an economic train that is headed for an ecological cliff. But we can’t seem to get off the train. In that sense, the wisdom of the Vermont “hick” is right on target. You can’t get to peace and sustainability without leaving the industrial war train.
Everything is connected.
Life requires reciprocity.
The purpose of being human is to generate kindness.
These three principles lie at the root of a free, just and sustainable human society who cares for the earth,supports diversity of culture and the unique brilliance of each individual. Societies governed by these principles could advance our individual and collective human capacities for care, awareness and creativity to ever higher levels of expression without exhausting our food supply or plunging us into war.
The first two principles are natural laws, operating on and around us whether we choose to recognize them or not. As Onondaga Elder, Oren Lyons says, “Nature has no mercy. None!” The third principle is a choice. Time will tell if a commitment to universal kindness can become a new convention. The same goes for the recognition of natural law. These values are choices any of us can make individually. I wonder though, can compassion become a root commitment of our social institutions as well? Can kindness and care for the earth become a strong enough force to change our trajectory?Can it change the shape of our technological and social infrastructure before the consequences of the natural laws of reciprocity and interconnection swallow civilization into the geological record without mercy?
How do we get there from here? How do we get where we all want to go from where we are standing now? Obviously, the joke is a joke because in the physical plane the answer of the Vermont farmer is nonsense. Of course we can get there from here. But the point should be well taken. If we insist on standing in our failing worldview, we really can’t move forward. The path forward is not to be found on the map of our current cosmology. Nor is it to be found on the old maps which plotted only very limited regional territories. We now need to locate the old, regional, oral, cultural maps and somehow apply them to the global territory. Unfortunately our world is not a healthy one. Industrial civilization has imposed a failing social and technological infrastructure on the planet which must be rapidly transformed.
Fortunately, forces of care, kindness and ecological repair are already at work. How much more force of social will is needed to bring forth a new world where the governing forces align with natural law and compassion? Perhaps not as much as we might fear. As I pointed out in the previous blog, the current of care-taking is already strong in human society. An ethic of ecological care and social justice is a growing global current. Thus the forces that need to be harnessed are already well-rooted and spreading. Paul Hawken has documented the breadth of this “under the radar” social movement in his best-selling book Blessed Unrest : How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World. The more consciously we understand and strengthen these positive forces within ourselves and our communities, the greater becomes the probability of general success. And the better we become at identifying the hidden dynamics of the Old Way woven within our modern lives, relationships, organizations and institutions, the stronger we become in our embrace of these dynamics in the world.
Make no mistake, the critical keys to the transformations we must generate lie in the realm of the Old Way and in the leadership of the forces represented by mothers and grandmothers. The keys are old and enduring, not new and shiny. They are subtle and nuanced and rooted in consciousness that can only be developed through practices, through experience. The change we need is not about ideas, though we must change our ideas as well. But ideological change is never enough. Ideas don’t matter as much as character, kindness and wisdom. If they did, the communist revolutions might have succeeded in China and Russia. Character develops only through Practice. Leaders can have a brilliant ideology, but if they lack character, what good are they in the long run?
This is true of nature connection as well. One can have a sympathetic or romantic appreciation for nature with very little actual connection. This is what I call nature sympathy. It is not a bad thing. One can feel an intense love and connection without actually being connected. Actual connection to nature is complex and paradoxical, gritty and extremely nuanced. It requires direct confrontation of the paradoxes of reciprocity and the taking of life to sustain life. It requires countless hours of “in-the-dirt-time”—time spent sitting on the earth listening to the birds and watching the movement of the animals, time harvesting and preparing fiber to make rope, tinder to make fire, leaves and roots for food and medicine. It requires the sharing of those activities and stories from the landscape with one’s community and kin. It requires being questioned by those with more awareness and skill and being pushed to expand past the boundaries of comfort. To know nature one must have relationships in nature, not just knowledge about nature nor just the experience of passing through nature as a sympathetic observer.
I have been an active and passionate environmentalist all of my adult life. At thirteen I attended a “junior” Outward Bound course in Aberdovey, Wales. I was hooked on hiking, backpacking, mountaineering and rock climbing after that. I organized clubs in my high schools. I went on long solo hikes in the Ventana Wilderness behind Big Sur. I became an Explorer Scout leader working as a camp counselor with younger scouts. I summited 10,000 foot peaks in the Cascade Mountains of Washington and British Columbia. At 18 I started working part time to support full time volunteer involvement with Greenpeace and other environmental and peace groups. I organized and led a 1200 mile “Walk for Survival” from Santa Cruz, California to the Trident Submarine base in Bangor Washington. Then for years as I learned the craft of organic farming I spent most of my free time backpacking in the Olympics and Cascades.
Yet in all of this time spent in nature as a farmer and an avid hiker and active environmentalist I was pretty much just passing through nature as a heartfelt observer. My connection was a felt connection, sympathetic, real and valid in its way and certainly a driving force in my life. I developed deep connections with plants and insects through my farming practice. It wasn’t until I was in my late 40’s when I started taking my nine year old son to the Wilderness Awareness School in Duval, Washington that I started having a more holistic and deeper connection to nature reawakened. How I grieve now all that I missed as a “pass through” hiker on all of those former wilderness trips, as wonderful and inspiring and renewing as they were at the time.
When I began learning tracking with Jon Young, the founder of the Wilderness Awareness School the animal stories of the landscape came alive for me. Like most through-hikers, I rarely saw wild mammals on my hikes. I noticed and could name some birds and knew what animals were out there. Working with Jon I began to learn what the behavior of birds can tell us about things we can’t see with our own eyes. I began to understand the disturbances that we ourselves are creating without being aware of them. I was taught to look actively for the tracks and signs of animal presence, to age these signs and interpret their meaning. It is so much fun to connect the dots, put together stories from natural mysteries and test them out by checking for more tracks and signs.
All of a sudden the world became animated in a way it never had before. Places that I had hiked and camped for years took on a whole new dimension. The animal activity of the night left stories everywhere to be discovered and deciphered. The landscape became animated in the truest sense of the word. Wild animals fear humans and are disturbed by most of our behavior. They are very good at staying out of our field of awareness, especially if we haven’t learned to move and conduct ourselves in ways to create the least amount of disturbance possible. Groups of persons through-hiking, foraging and even “bird watching” are usually very disruptive to baseline conditions in nature. We unwittingly throw out a huge concentric ring of alarm to the birds and animals before we even get close, giving them ample warning to “disappear.” What we experience as campers and hikers is not what is really going on out there. How could I be almost 50 years old and not know this?
This kind of awareness and understanding requires mentoring. It represents a skill set that requires a culture that values and understands deep nature connection. To know nature, one must have one’s knowledge, connections, challenges, mysteries, marvels and stories received and reflected back by one’s community. One must have the boundaries of one’s awareness and skill pushed and challenged. It is not an individualistic thing, this kind of knowledge. And like character, it develops best through guided practice under the mentorship of those with greater mastery than oneself. In traditional oral societies these nature connected skill sets and awareness capabilities are “common knowledge.” They are passed from one generation to the next as the basis for the relationship with nature necessary for survival.
It would be convenient if one could read and gain this advanced ecological knowledge from books, but that isn’t the case. Books and stories can help. For modern persons, books and movies are important stimuli for change. They can help us redirect our compass and seek the mentors and experiences that we need. They can help us rechart the maps of our consciousness, so our new maps may lead us into the territories we need to explore. But they cannot, and never will be a substitute for actual experience, actual “in-the-dirt-time”. You cannot learn how to be in relationship with anyone or anything without a direct, full-sensory experience—without successes and mistakes. “In-the-dirt-time” is an apt expression, because the process of getting past our own limitations in relationship is always at least a little bit dirty.
The New Old Way is not about building an ideological movement. It is about supporting multiple currents of culture that express themselves in unique and diverse ways, yet still maintain a common basis in practices of kindness and connection to nature. The New Old Way is about taking what has always existed at the core of being human to a new level of conscious expression in a modern world which has become technologized. And we can turn to the mothers and grandmothers and trackers and scouts throughout history for guidance on how to do this.
The New Old Way is about standing up to the forces of domination, colonization and industrialization without becoming like those forces. This is not easy. Not only do we need to practice right living and build the culture and technology of care-taking; we need to become effective at saying “no” to the forces that are destroying our world without becoming hardened, angry, bitter and ideological. This requires a whole new understanding of guardianship and the ability to build authentic unity across cultural differences and through the deep historical wounds of our age. The forces that we need to effectively oppose are global, they cannot be stopped by uncoordinated regional actions. When a regional movement stops a corporate extraction, pollution or socially unjust activity a battle can be won. But in the global economy, the corporation often just moves its activity to a new, less activated location. A truly new kind of unity is being called for. Not ideological unity, but something deeper.
For this to happen, ideology as it usually expresses itself needs to become a thing of the past. And that is a much more difficult challenge than one might think. Social movements throughout history have mostly been based upon changes of ideology. They have articulated changes of ideas and beliefs. Their foundation has been built upon truths that can be described by words on paper. We have come to understand social change itself in terms defined by ideological change. Ironically, the “idea” that ideological change is what leads to social change is one of the primary misjudgements that is causing failure in modernity. We tend to keep pushing our ideas more forcefully. Religious politics and religious war are extreme expressions of this assumption. Yet progressives are just as captive to assumptions about ideological change, only usually in a less hostile and violent way. What would happen if our social movement took on a whole new character by changing its practices, rather than just its ideas? What if we were to identify the “core routines” that generate the skills and awareness of the world we want to generate and support those practices as much or more than the ideas that go with them? Nature awareness and connection and compassion and non-violence are all aspects of human capacity that are developed through practice in a culturally supportive context.
Confronting beliefs around policies, laws, legislation and the like are important and must continue, but we must not fool ourselves into believing that winning these arguments is anything more than a transitional step in the right direction. One of the greatest quandaries we find ourselves in when we advocate for deep social change is that our vision for a possible future is too far removed from anything that can be achieved in the short-term. Most of our actual on-the-ground strategies are transition strategies, not intended as “solutions” in the long-term. They are necessary, however, to help buy time to get us through to the long-term solutions. It is very difficult to build consensus on transition strategies because they require compromises of our ideals in the short-term, with promises of better solutions in the future. The arguments for such strategies sound a lot like the neoliberal excuses for the status quo we are so fed up with. These debates are very important to engage in fully and thoughtfully because transition strategies really do need to be thoroughly examined. Debate can be a way to build a broad unity and a deeper understanding of the issues. Ideally, we cultivate social willingness and discernment of how to use transition strategies for transition only, rather than as a way to prop up the status quo.
For example, on the island of Maui the last sugar company operating in Hawaii is closing its doors. This is leaving over 36,000 acres of former sugar land without a plan. This land is still in the hands of the parent company that has been using large-scale industrial farming practices to try to keep its sugar operation profitable in a global commodities market. It has failed. Mechanization and field burning harvest practices ultimately could not compete with the global economics of cheap labor and less stringent environmental controls in the “developing” south. Alexander and Baldwin, the parent company of Hawaii Cane and Sugar, has said it is exploring diversified agricultural options for the land. Several citizen’s initiatives have sprung up with ideas about how A&B should move forward and the role of the public and the State of Hawaii in charting a course for these important lands. One bold initiative wanted to use Imminent Domain to commit the lands to locally oriented, organic agriculture. The ideas that are coming out of A&B are industrial agricultural concepts like GMO seed production, biofuel, palm oil and the like. There is high public scrutiny and heated debates about how these lands should best be used. This is good. Land-use politics, the GMO issue, the stream diversion issue and the Hawaiian sovereignty movement have mobilized a very large sector of the public.
The scene is ripe for practical transition strategies that can move these lands toward long-term, soil building, water conserving, ecological agricultural solutions that can employ thousands in the local production of healthy food. But the jump from industrial scale to family farm scale local production is not possible without a massive social investment of resources, equivalent to investing in a war effort. The economics of food production in the global economy, unfortunately puts farming at the bottom of the pay range. Hawaii is also one of the most expensive places on the planet to live. While conversion to local organic agriculture is a great vision, there are not enough skilled family farmers in all of Hawaii with practice in ecological farming techniques to manage these lands. Nor is there financial or physical infrastructure to finance and support an immediate transition to family farming, even if the farmers were lining up to take on such a difficult task. Renewing industrially abused lands is possible, but costly and difficult, often with little immediate payoff. Some of the visionaries advocating the local organic farming plan for these lands know about farming but are not farmers and have no idea what a highly skilled activity organic farming is. Equally, their plans necessitate the skills of seasonal farm laborers, required to make the products competitive in the price-conscious marketplace. Unfortunately, our community isn’t prepared for an immediate transition to family-scale organic food production on that land. It is not a realistic solution. What is needed is a transition strategy that points us in the right direction by reducing the immediate health and environmental problems associated with conventional industrial agriculture while setting the stage for a more integrated, long term, best practices solution.
So the public debate is on! This is good. A&B probably doesn’t agree, however, as they are likely to feel proprietorial about deciding what to do with the land. I think they are in for a surprise in this regard, even though the current interpretation of the law probably supports their view. Maui is a small island.What people think here matters tremendously and has influence in politics and business. What would be most effective is to build true unity behind a sensible transition strategy to remediate these lands and mobilize as much social will and immediate investment capital as possible. This would likely include mostly industrial scale, but intelligently managed crops, relying primarily on biological farming techniques with radically reduced chemical herbicide and pesticide use. Ideally there would be room for innovative farmers to incubate more sophisticated, intensive biological models on some of these lands. There would include a plan for how to move these two approaches toward one another, scaling up the intensive practices while incorporating better and better biological practices into the more industrially scaled solutions. A strategy like this creates a real possibility to manifest a stable, healthy, employment-rich agricultural future for these lands. Additionally, the public debate required to get to a transition strategy would educate and involve the community in a very positive way. The urgency factor provided by the climate crisis could also become a factor at the federal level, bringing greater resources to bear on the situation and speed up the transition time-frame, depending on national political outcomes in the upcoming election cycle.
The details of how this could play out takes place in the realm of ideas, but the vision that can drive the debate to a deeper place and awaken public unity is born from something more complex and integrated than ideas alone. Wisdom toward the long view, guided by compassion and nature connection, is much more than a collection of ideas. For such wisdom to become a political force there must exist the social awareness, the ability and will to hear, identify with it and stand behind it. This is a cultural issue and must be addressed culturally. The ability of the public to choose leaders that exhibit the qualities of character that can build social consensus and true social unity versus mere compromise between competing interests is a cultural issue.
Cultural education tends to be slow because it is experience-based rather than idea-based. It involves shifting awareness and belief systems in whole communities as well as individuals. So even in the political and ideological realm we must adopt intelligent transition strategies. Most people have not woken up to the fact that civilization is failing, and most people are not very open to hearing that message. It is too devastating and overwhelming for the ordinary person. People need a certain level of spiritual sophistication to face the odds we are up against globally while maintaining hope and a positive will to act. Therefore, the political messages we organize around must speak to the public where they are in their social development and current awareness of ecological, local and global justice issues. At the same time, we need to build the foundation, through debates and public education, for sophistication to develop. With strategic awareness, we need to direct our social and cultural messages toward the necessity of transition as well.
What I am proposing here is a mentoring approach to politics. One of the basic principles of mentoring comes directly into play in the design of transition strategies of all kinds. The mentor is always looking for a clear understanding of the capabilities of their charges, i.e., where they are in the moment, now. The mentor looks for the edges of ability and awareness in their mentees and sets the stage to invite, push or trick them into the next stage of learning, past their existing capacities. The mentor uses the learner’s own momentum, curiosity and existing positive values to motivate the push into new territory. This is a compassion-driven approach and can be applied to cultural education and political action in the broadest sense.
Also, it is very important to realize that there is a crucial relationship between the three historical pillars of grassroots organizing: Agitate, Educate, Organize! Actions that agitate are not necessarily going to have any direct policy results. They are vanguard actions, sacrificial in the sense that the energetic cost to individuals is usually much higher than direct outcomes. These are sometimes actions taken by the leadership and their immediate “cadre” (to use the classical term), by persons whose understanding of the injustices or environmental threats are well-developed and who are deeply committed to the cause. These actions are intended to generate attention and focus it on the issues that are otherwise not being addressed by society or politics—to stir the pot, precipitate crises in the hearts and minds of the public. The more creative and well-designed agitation actions are, the more effectively they put the issues into the minds of the public, rather than the actions themselves, which often have an element of shock value in them. The recent appearance of Black Lives Matter activists disrupting public gatherings for political candidates is one example of agitation actions that have successfully captured the national stage. Hawaiian cultural practitioners blocking access roads to construction sites until being arrested is another. These are high-risk actions intended to build awareness and motivate support. The more carefully their message is crafted toward the public, the more effective such actions tend to be.
The second step is education. Once there is a “crisis” in the mind of the public, there is dialogue, curiosity and an opportunity to work with people’s hearts and thoughts in a different way. The powers that resist change usually have greater resources to put their message into the media, using purchased air and print time. In the fight to pass a GMO Moratorium through a citizen’s initiative in Maui County, Monsanto and its cohort companies spent over $8 million (that we know of) to purchase air time. The moratorium movement went door-to-door and spent a fraction of what industry did on purchased media time, yet passed the controversial initiative. Unfortunately, Monsanto immediately filed a lawsuit and tied up the new law, but the level of public education that resulted as a consequence was huge. Now, two years later, there is a slate of progressive, grassroots political candidates that have a real chance of flipping the county council, which has acted as a front for industry and development for years. The cultural concept of political activists as “`Āina Guardians”, protectors of the land and Hawaiian cultural values, is now a concept that has entered the social atmosphere of mainstream Hawaii. There is now a growing desire to see the values of `Āina Guardianship represented at the highest levels of government. This is not new in Hawaii, but ancient. The thread of activism and political action at work for the last 120 years, since the overthrow of the Hawaiian government, is now gaining new ground as coalitions to protect the land are growing in cultural diversity and cooperation.
Education, the second directive in the organizer’s toolkit, is a word that covers a lot of ground. For example, there is the type of education that relates directly to one’s immediate cause, candidate or policy goal. Agitation clearly sets the stage for this kind of education. But beyond that, there is education that indirectly moves people into greater connection to nature, greater empowerment to act, greater sophistication of understanding of the bigger crises and injustices that are facing the world. In this realm of education, ideas and ideology are being addressed but they can also become spiritual obstacles. Because of the inherent grief that comes with recognizing the level of human and global devastation we are contributing to, we tend to resist expanding our awareness of suffering and deepening our connection to nature. But we have to work through and with grief in order to enlarge our sense of personal responsibility and power as we face the condition of our world. In conventional ideological approaches to political action, the spiritual realm of education is often given little or no attention. And to a certain degree this is why political activism achieves its short-terms objectives but not its long-term goals.
This is hugely problematic because failure to succeed at radical and lasting change after so much effort is discouraging and ends up turning people bitter and cynical about the possibility of real change. There is so much buried grief in society. And buried grief leads to denial, fear, anger, hatred and apathy. Much of the function of spiritual practice is to support individuals moving past these spiritual and emotional obstacles, toward greater and greater social, emotional and mental maturity. Spiritual practice helps us embrace life and live from a sense of self-esteem and purpose, offering our genuine gifts to the world. But the cultural norm in civil society is not helpful in this regard, nor is the fact that many, if not all, modern persons carry wounds that relate to the actions of organized religion. And religion and spirituality are synonymous for many people. Plus, the cultural norm says that one’s spiritual path is one’s individual choice. We are told spiritual beliefs and practices are one’s private business. Conventions say that spirituality exists in a realm completely separate from the mundane and the political and that this is how it should be.
While there is very important truth to this, once again, there is a paradox as well. The separation of church and state is a critical political principle that I am grateful exists in our understanding of modern democracy. Ultimately, spiritual choices are individual. At the same time, the spiritual development of each individual is not just a personal matter. The community should be concerned about each individual’s spiritual and social development and health. Everything is connected, remember? If my neighbor is suffering and stuck in their development, how can they deliver their gifts? How can they offer their share of social will or their passion for life to the community they belong to? My neighbor’s personal development and health is my business. At the same time, their psychological and spiritual autonomy is sacred and not to be interfered with. This paradox requires a lot of sophistication to address, especially in a multicultural modern context, fraught with racial and cultural tensions.
In the short time I spent in Burkina Faso, I observed a different cultural assumption about privacy and personal transparency. What I saw may help clarify an important direction we could take to address the private versus community paradox of psycho/spiritual maturation. One of the centerpoints of the Dagara spiritual practice is shamanic divination. In many ways, shamanic divination functions in society in much the same way that psychological counseling and medical consultation function in the modern world: An individual is experiencing difficulties in life that are frustrating their ability to live their lives happily, healthily and in full self-expression. They then seek help from an intermediary. In the case of the modern world, we seek out “experts” who are fluent in the language and technology of their trades: psychiatrists, doctors, counselors, coaches, etc. In the Old World we would seek out practitioners who are conversant with the unseen world of the spirits and ancestors.
Please suspend any judgements you may carry about communicating with the unseen world for just a moment and operate from the assumption that this is a valid choice. In observing the way people receive divinations in Dagara-land, the first thing I was struck by was the community’s interest and observation of divinatory proceedings. People watched shamelessly as their community and family members had their vulnerabilities and their prescribed remedies laid out for them publicly. The modern equivalent would be to have one’s family and neighbors observing an individual counseling session. (My Editor, Heidi Erhardt comments: “What is so interesting is that in India, it’s a cross between these two! Modern world, modern psychiatrists, but yes, the whole family does come.”) As a modern person, can’t you just feel your “skin crawl” with resistance to this conflict with our cultural assumptions about confidentiality and privacy.? I can. This is something vital to look at. Often that “skin crawly feeling” is a telltale sign of an unexamined cultural meme.
Confidentiality and privacy are extremely important protections, but not every culture has shame or danger associated with mistakes and psycho/spiritual difficulties that we do. Not every culture runs on a system of legal trials and punishments and nasty antagonistic litigations. In contemporary United States society, a person’s mistakes and vulnerabilities may end up in a hostile court battle with consequences that last a lifetime. If we could somehow lift the burdens of shame and fear associated with spiritual and emotional vulnerability, we would have a whole new playing field, ripe for restorative justice processes instead of punitive ones.
In Dagara-land I was struck by the apparent absence of shaming in adult-child interactions. I have also seen this among the Latino families I have worked with in the apple orchards of eastern Washington. Somehow, the assumption of love is so strong in these cultures that brusk physical gestures and even slaps used to punctuate reprimands elicited no crying or shame response, as they would in the culture I grew up in. Reprimands were sharp and strong but there was no hidden cruelty. Boundaries were clear, consequences immediate, behavior change was instant with no emotional outburst from the corrected child. A two year old child was happily banging apples on the side of the collection bin. Father sharply slaps the offending hand, “You are bruising the apples! No!” Child gives a startled look and toddles off to some other activity. No message of shame or “Bad girl!” was directed at the child. Children and teens in the Dano family compound where we were staying in Africa? were sitting around in chairs and some adults and elders were standing. An uncle swats the head of one of the older kids and shouts a reprimand loud enough for all to hear. Children slide off of seats and stand up to make room for their elders with slightly mischievous glances at one another. There is no confusion about self worth, hurt feelings or shame in the picture of being sharply reprimanded in front of others. This is very different from my personal experience, where such action directed at me would elicit shame and hurt followed by anger. I would feel bad about myself. In someone with a more choleric temperament, such treatment might solicit cocky back-talk which would escalate the anger/shame factors. In my experience, this escalating shame/anger, victim/perpetrator modality is the norm in North American society.
Much has been written on the subject of shame and authoritarianism and how deeply it is embedded in our society. For readers who have not explored the subject I highly recommend the book by Alice Miller, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence. This is the book that opened my eyes to how thoroughly shame is embedded in every aspect of my northern European-sourced culture’s pedagogy and relationship to authority. The process of addressing and overcoming shame in my own life is ongoing, requiring constant vigilance that regularly needs fine-tuning. The process of moving out from under my cultural shame has been a spiritual journey requiring much psychological counseling, support groups as well as ritual and ceremony. While I am no longer living under the daily shadow of shame, certain situations will still evoke it as the initial response in my body and nervous system. Individual healing from devastated self-esteem buried under male bravado has been one of the themes of my life, and I am definitely not alone. Humiliation and fear of humiliation is at the core of male violence. Humiliated immature males, are dangerous, violence prone creatures. In a culture where this has become the norm, such persons have the capacity to rise into positions of political power. We witnessed this with the rise of Fascism in Europe before the second world war. We have been resisting the resurrection of Fascism ever since, without ever having successfully addressed its deeper cultural causes. Men who have not been put through the ordeals and ceremonies of initiation overseen by elders, don’t often have the support nor opportunity to mature into healthy adult men.
Assuming that the human journey is a journey of ever expanding awareness, our capacity for kindness confronts us with yet another paradoxical hurdle. As our awareness and sensitivity to the world around us expands, we inevitably come face-to-face with the “wall of grief.” This is the term I have heard Jon Young use to describe a phenomenon in the nature awareness mentoring journey that he has witnessed over and over again. As the students in his year long, adult residential programs practice their sit-spot routines and spend days tracking, observing birds, using wide-angle vision, practicing “fox walk” and all of the other “core routines” of nature awareness, they inevitably hit their “wall of grief.” This is two-fold. First of all, they must come to terms with having been disconnected from nature in the first place. Children are naturally open, curious and in love with nature. At some point, every modern literate person is told to put away that childishness and get on with the “important” learning that is required to be an adult, albeit a nature-disconnected adult—usually this message is delivered by a consensus of adults, further justifying the lie. The obvious result is grief, the grief of losing that connection and all that goes with it. Then, it gets worse.The more connected you become, the more you realize the suffering of nature at the hands of materialistic industrial civilization. Nature is suffering and you can feel it now. These sensitivities must develop as a person’s awareness and connection matures.
In Jon’s programs this starts to happen about three months into the intensive training. This is usually around the holidays, another grief trigger, and during the darkest time of the year in northern latitudes. This is when students would get sick, injured, want to drop out of the program because it wasn’t what they thought it would be, accuse their instructors of being insufficient, attack the administrators, get depressed and withdraw. These behaviors can all be signs of unprocessed grief overwhelming a person’s psyche. It is at this point in his programs that Jon introduces ceremonial routines to help his students cope with the grief that needs to surface and get processed. If this doesn’t happen, the body and psyche shuts down the awareness journey because the internal pressure becomes too great.
A similar process happens as a person expands their social and political awareness to understand the depth of injustice that exists in the global economic and political realm. When one faces the horrors that humans have committed and sees that these horrors have not gone away but have just changed form and are hidden from our daily lives, the response can be intense grief, shame, anger, confusion and helplessness. Especially when one is confronted by the scale of these problems in the world. Political and social awareness of human and ecological suffering feels overwhelming.
To handle these intense feelings, humans need safety,holding and room to move tears,screams and anguish if needed, with reassurance that they are not going permanently crazy. Rituals and ceremonies can provide this support. It is no coincidence that Malidoma Somé claims The Matrix as one of his favorite movies. The “red pill, blue pill” choice of staying asleep in comfortable denial about reality or waking up to what is really going on is an accurate metaphor for individuals living in the industrial age. Some of the most powerful ceremonies that Malidoma offers are grief rituals, using the songs, rhythms and cosmological orientation of his Dagara tribe to help people move through grief-related obstacles. To some degree, psychological therapy can be helpful, especially group therapy, but all too often conventional therapies are more focused on helping people to “adjust” and return to functionality rather than empowering people to become active agents of social transformation in addition to becoming transformed functioning adults.
Because of the psychological and spiritual dynamics of grief, true political “education” cannot be separated from spiritual and psychological development, focusing just on policy issues or ideological changes. “Issues” only address short-term objectives, not the greater goals that we need to achieve. We need to succeed at our short-term objectives, while at the same time repairing culture at its foundation, so that we have what it takes to make the deeper and more lasting transformation to society that will allow us to reach our long-term goals. For this to happen, we need to expand our understanding of education to include cultural processes by which we become wiser, more resilient, more mature and more nature-connected people. The first obstacle to this is our tendency to separate the personal from the political and not to embrace the fact that each person’s spiritual development and maturity is our business. We need to address the cultural shame that blocks this process at the personal level and pushes us into isolation, depression and hopelessness, or into unchanneled anger and buried rage that becomes the social fuel of hate-based political movements. Hitler, Mussolini and Franco did not create Fascism, they just channeled it into a waiting cultural context. Without mass cooperation and social complicity they would have just been crazy sociopaths and gotten nowhere.
Part of our task in bringing a social justice movement forward within education has to address the deeper spiritual and psychological roots of our broken culture. We need to provide pathways for the advancement of our eco-spiritual development, individually and collectively. If we want exemplary leaders, we need to develop a mature populace that has the capacities of cultural awareness and self-awareness to select mature leaders. We need to transcend the myth that one’s spiritual well-being and psychological development are strictly a private matter and realize that they are actually critical community concerns. We need to encourage all of our friends and family to seek help, without shame, and that comes in a package that they can relate to. We all carry wounds in modern culture. Everyone is born with the need to be guided in our maturation process.
It is no one’s fault that our culture does not generally provide the mentoring and rites of passage that move people (as in traditional oral cultures) through the stages of maturation into adulthood and elderhood. It is no one’s fault that our culture does not effectively address grief, loss, death and emotional injury effectively. Most modern people would not initially be open to the practices of traditional oral societies in this regard. This is a cultural hurdle that needs to be addressed.
The New Old way finds avenues to make the core routines of cultural maturation available to modern people. Psychological counseling and the newer field of coaching generally have fewer hurdles and less resistance in supporting personal growth and healing for “regular folks.” They can be helpful as “transition strategies” toward the more direct and gritty ritual and ceremonial practices that get straight to the core of human transformation. Modern people generally need cognitive processes to help them move through the spiritual/ceremonial approaches of oral traditional people that persons who grew up with these processes find silly and boring. This is because of our deeply trained cognitive orientation and because of our deep distrust of religion, not to mention our culturally instilled fear of the shamanic sciences of the unseen world. Cognitive processing helps modern people negotiate the internalized cultural resistance to ritual and ceremonial practices.
It is important to note that there are mystical traditions underlying all major religions. These traditions have their own authentic approaches to spiritual development as well. No one path is right for everyone. Thankfully, there are many paths that lead to nature connection and an active engagement with elder wisdom. We need to support all of the currents of social transformation and recognize the commonalities of the paths that lead to free, healthy, mature adulthood with a social conscience and connection to nature. We can no longer pretend that psycho-spiritual health and development is not our business or that it is not integral to social change. We can no longer treat the routines of deep awareness and connection to nature as child’s play or irrelevant. We must embrace these processes as integral to our political education and ultimately our success. We cannot get where we want to go if we do not change the cultural ground upon which we are standing. We truly can’t get there from here. We must change what “here” is in order to get “there.”