The Journey From Anger To Anguish: Responding To Eco-Cide
By Carolyn Baker
28 June, 2010
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird -
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.
~ Mary Oliver ~
In some spiritual and psychological circles we often hear unambiguous proscriptions against the emotion of anger. However, in many indigenous traditions, anger is not experienced with the same suspicion one finds in Western psycho-spiritual circles. While ancient teachings regarding anger do not condone aggression, they do not unequivocally assume that feeling the emotion of anger will lead to hostility or violence. In fact, they tend to revere anger as an innate human emotion which may be utilized on behalf of the earth community without inflicting harm. Ancient teachings often include practices for "uploading" the raw emotion of anger to higher chakras or physiological energy centers on behalf of preserving boundaries or protecting the innocent-both of which are characteristics of the non-aggressive warrior.
Anger is one of the Five Stages of Grief articulated by the death and dying researcher, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. As I noted in Sacred Demise, in the context of those stages, anger shows up in reaction to a loss. First we feel shock and denial, then move into anger which may include frustration, anxiety, irritation, embarrassment, and shame. Subsequently, we move into depression and grief, followed by bargaining, then acceptance and re-investment in our lives. As Kubler-Ross emphasizes, none of the stages are neatly detached from the others. We tend to move through them fluidly, with each stage somewhat blurring into the next stage or containing remnants of the last one.
In the process of preparing emotionally to navigate the coming chaos, it is crucial to examine each stage of grief, to note where we have been in the process, to look at where we are in the moment, and to honor each emotion along the way. Many people today are stuck in anger because they have not allowed themselves to move through it into mindful grieving. In fact, I believe that the United States, and many nations throughout the world are currently mired in anger. In 2009, author and spiritual teacher Caroline Myss, stated in her article "An Epidemic of Global Anger": "We are a community of nations on fire with anger. And we are getting angrier by the day. Whether we look at the increase in uprisings occurring around the world or at the escalating tension brewing in America, what is becoming more apparent is that we are witnessing a rapidly increasing rate of global anger, so much so that it qualifies as an epidemic."
Many Americans are enraged at their government. Some who have been researching the demise of the current paradigm and understand the self-destructive aspects of corporate capitalism, the limits of economic growth, and the unsustainability of a civilization dependent on fossil fuels feel angry because their leaders refuse to acknowledge what is so. As their minds have been awakened, so have their emotions, and anger has been part of the process. But as they have come to understand that industrial civilization itself is collapsing, they are likely to have stopped wanting to repair and improve it and have begun to entertain a larger picture of how they could join with allies in constructing a new paradigm and a new culture.
It is likely that for these individuals, anger metamorphosed into deep grief or despair as a feeling of powerlessness to "fix" civilization set in. Implicit in the emotion of anger is the sense that something can or must be done to alter the that has evoked anger. As one comes to understand the inevitability of the unraveling of industrial civilization and the futility of attempting to prevent it, one may in fact experience a sense of relief that collapse is beyond control and proceeds in its own way, in its own time. One grasps that our mandate as a species is to move with the demise, not against it, and find within the unraveling a greater purpose than the one civilization has offered, proceeding with the work we came here to do. At that point, even though we may carry some residue of denial or anger, and even though our willingness to see what is so puts us directly in the path of deep grief, the embrace of our purpose and our role in the collapse process, is in itself a re-investment in our lives and the well being of the earth community.
However, the individuals I have just been describing do not comprise the vast majority of those in the United States or the world who are fixated in anger because they are also fixated in denial. One cannot move through the Five Stages of Grief if one does not move beyond denial. Refusing to see what is so guarantees that the journey through the stages will not occur. So whether one is an enraged Muslim suicide bomber or a vitriolic white, middle class Tea Party enthusiast, one's emotional state and behavior belie an inordinately diminished perspective of reality, resulting in a desperate need for vituperative scapegoating. In other words, fixation in anger.
The Mary Oliver poem above about loving the world which in part means reveling in the sensual delight of nature which means becoming "accustomed to savoring that which is momentous, concealed within bare bones simplicity." It also means a profound gratitude which the poem describes as "mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here." The world has given us stupendous gifts which Oliver says causes her to "stand still and learn to be astonished."
But does our gratitude for the world mean that we should never be angry about the injustice or self and eco-destruction its inhabitants have perpetrated upon each other and the earth community? Certainly not, but being deeply connected with our purpose in the world provides perspective that buoys us and allows us to keep moving forward when the magnetic pull to become fixated in anger may feel irresistible.
When we are intimately familiar with our purpose, we understand that the world is not paradise, it is not a vacation resort, and it is not a place to which we have come to live in perpetual bliss. Rather, the world is comprised of both the magnificent wonderment and extraordinary beauty depicted by Mary Oliver as well as the horrors engineered by a species about to become successful in its incalculable attempts to commit suicide.
Author and spiritual teacher, Marshall Vian Summers, writes in his book Greater Community Spirituality:
Be without judgment of the world. If the world were a perfect place, you would not need to come here. If the world were a place that functioned harmoniously, without friction or conflict, this would not be the place for you....The world is your place to work and to give. Its pleasures are small but real. Its pains and difficulties are great. The world cannot give you what you seek, for what you seek you have brought with you from beyond the world.
That which we have brought with us from beyond is something greater than our personality or human ego. Summers refers to it as Knowledge, and others use terms like the sacred, spirit, the Self, the divine within. However we choose to name that part of ourselves, it comprises our core. I believe that the more intimately familiar we are with it, the less we expect from the world, and the more we are willing to serve the world in order to imbue it with the sacred. Loving the world, as Oliver names it, is not about sentimental emotion, but about a commitment to the work we came here to do which by definition, serves the earth community.
The mathematical cosmologist, Brian Swimme, in his extraordinary lecture series, "The Powers of The Universe"clearly articulates this concept. Cataclysm, he notes, is one of the inherent powers of the universe, and "it is currently happening on our planet. The choice before us is whether we will participate consciously." Participating means that "as all the structures that are destroying the earth are collapsing, they are releasing us into the essential nature of who we are." While this awareness does not remove our anger or our anguish, it brings us face to face with the deeper meaning of the collapse of industrial civilization and our purpose in it.
I believe that the world of the future will be a chaotic world which will be, among other things, an angry world, especially in the initial stages of the demise of the current civilization. In a December, 2009 article "America The Traumatized" , Adele Stan argues that a series of events that occurred in the first decade of the twenty-first century have made us a PTSD nation--and that was before the BP oil disaster of 2010. Until we understand trauma and post-traumatic stress, the need to blame the traumatizing event or person(s) who inflicted it is exceedingly compelling. When we do grasp the magnitude of trauma and its consequences, we come to understand how futile is our rage in the face of an inundation of horror.
I write these words more than two months after the BP Gulf of Mexico cataclysm. Am I angry as I witness the horror? Am I enraged at the lies of BP with regard to its prior knowledge regarding the safety of the Deepwater Horizon rig? Am I livid when I hear the stories of people who tried to warn the corporation that its bypassing of standard international safety regulations would result in catastrophe? Does white hot rage pulse through my body as I witness BP's CEO, Tony Hayward, taking a yachting trip and begging to "get his life back" as the entire world lays the blame for this debacle at his door and as the entire ecosystem is now in the path of the destruction visited upon it by a multitude of corporations and CEO's of BP's and Tony Hayward's ilk? Am I incensed when I see millions of people immersed in an epic blame-fest, pointing fingers and mouthing incessant sentences beginning with "they shoulda, coulda, woulda"?
The answer to all of those questions is a resounding "yes", and from the moment the catastrophe was first made public, I realized the probable scope of it, and I saw the word t-r-a-u-m-a writ large all over it. What purpose at this point will my anger serve? How could I be seduced by the inherent assumption in my anger that the there is a possibility that the situation can be remedied? In my opinion, the BP oil disaster of 2010 is nothing less than 100 Hurricane Katrinas in slow motion. It is an unfathomable game-changer-perhaps the tipping point in humanity's destruction of this planet. As I witness countless animals dripping and dying from disgusting quantities of crude oil resembling raw sewage suffocating their bodies; as I consider that perhaps 40-50% of the sea floor of the Gulf of Mexico will soon be covered with petroleum; as I reflect on the spread of the spill into other oceans and the death of plankton and the ultimate devastation of the food chain; as I consider the economic devastation of a section of the country that comprises about 20 percent of the nation's Gross Domestic Product, and as I speculate that perhaps the entire Gulf Coast region may become uninhabitable, I see, hear, and feel nothing but trauma. Furthermore, if the entire population of the United States were not already suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, it is now.
Yet what I have personally discovered about my anger over the years is neither that I shouldn't have anger or that I should discharge it whenever I feel like it, but rather, to approach my anger mindfully. A stellar article by Holistic Psychologist, Jennifer Franklin, entitled "Mindfulness In Practice: Anger Management" defines mindfulness this way: "To be mindful is to be conscious, more awake, more informed about how one lives one's life.
Being more mindful, therefore, allows us to make more awake or informed choices in every moment. Our words and actions would be more mindful if we were more awake or conscious in those moments in which when we choose them." According to psychotherapist Richard Pfeiffer, quoted in the article, anger is a neurological response process that essentially prepares us to fight or flee.
We have many options for creating more mindfulness within ourselves. Meditation is, of course, one of the principal tools for strengthening mindfulness, even if the meditation is not the specific technique called "mindfulness meditation." It is important to remember that mindfulness isn't so much about becoming mindful of the world around us, although that generally accrues from a meditation practice, but rather, mindfulness is about being mindful of ourselves. It helps us become centered observers of our own process.
For example, the Dr. Franklin's article offers the classic example of road rage and how it can be handled mindfully instead of reactively:
When you exercise mindfulness, you exercise non-reactivity or the capacity to stay centered, grounded, and unshaken in response to a stimulus. Now, don't confuse non-reactivity with non-feeling. Let's use road rage as an example. You're driving, and someone cuts you off, and in response to being cut off you flip the driver the bird. You've just behaved reactively.
Contrast that with what non-reactivity would look like in that scenario: You are cut off by the driver, and rather than focusing your attention on the event itself, you focus it on you. You focus it on the sensations you are feeling in your body, most likely a fast heart rate, perhaps a tightness in the chest, or constricted breathing. Then you shift your attention to your breathing, sending the breath into the parts of your body that are feeling the anger-your heart, your chest-wherever it is for you. In the time it took you to do this exercise, you never even thought about flipping the driver the bird because you were too busy focusing on your reaction; that driver has probably gone on his or her merry way by now. This is non-reactivity.
Non-reactivity allows us to feel all of our feelings but not react to them. We feel them until we organically feel something else or until we decide mindfully, with awareness and choicefulness, that either we want to focus on something else or we want to act.
As I sit with the BP disaster, other emotions course through my body-deep, deep grief; fear, despair, and helplessness, and I have to wonder about the emotions of the earth itself. And since I believe that Gaia is a living, breathing organism, I must correct my use of "the earth itself" and state unequivocally that I believe she must be very, very angry. Within the past two years prior to the BP disaster, we have witnessed what many believe is an unprecedented number of natural disasters. Although officials from the U.S. Geological Survey insist that the number of earthquakes has not increased in recent years, many question that conclusion. Is Gaia "working through" her Five Stages of Grief? And if she is angry, what might she do next?
Perhaps those questions feel too anthropocentric to the reader, so I refer to the natural process of homeostasis which is "the ability of a system or living organism to adjust its internal environment to maintain a stable equilibrium." When a system is out of balance, some internal process attempts to adjust the imbalance and return it to a state of balanced functioning.
In a 2008 interview with C-Realm Podcast, Albert Bartlett, emeritus professor of physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of The Essential Exponential for Our Planet, stated, regarding population and unlimited growth, "If we don't stop it now, then Nature will stop it through a big die-off." Bartlett argues that population and growth spell annihilation for the planet if humans do not radically change their ways of occupying our planet.
One might argue that if Bartlett's theory is so, it is all a matter of simple physics and that speaking of earth's anger is pure anthropocentrism. Yet the distinguished doctor of medicine and biophysics, James Lovelock, who penned the book The Revenge of Gaia, argues in that work, as he does in many places, that humans have created out-of-control global warming and climate change which are now wreaking revenge on our species. Lovelock too may be indulging in rampant anthropocentrism, but if the earth itself has conscious self-awareness, both Bartlett and Lovelock may be onto something.
While we cannot validate with certainty earth's anger, we can certainly attest to our own in the face of humanity's devastation of the ecosystem. And while I do not concur with some in the field of psychology who argue that anger isn't really a fundamental human emotion but a kind of mask for other feelings such as fear and grief, I do believe that in the case of our anger toward members of our species who are committing ecological suicide, it is crucial that we connect with our grief and terror regarding the state of the planet and the dire consequences of the project of industrial civilization which we are now beginning to experience.
In the short term, anger may be useful in motivating us to act-to prepare for the coming chaos, to help raise the awareness of others, and to inspire others to prepare, but if we allow ourselves to fully grasp the calamitous reality of the future into which we are moving, I believe that our anger will soon be eclipsed by fear, grief, and despair. My forthcoming book, Navigating The Coming Chaos: A Toolkit for Inner Transition, provides an extensive array of options for utilizing all emotions we might encounter in a world unraveling in order to sustain and protect ourselves.
Among the myriad reactions I hear to the BP disaster from the folks with whom I interact, the one that overshadows all others is anguish. We hold hands across the sand and bodies of water, we pray, and we talk to our friends, but fundamentally, we are absolutely powerless to remedy or reverse what occurred on April 20. We knew our planet was in a state of full-blown collapse, but we didn't expect it to unfold this way. As one friend recently said to me, "It's just a matter of time now." I could have said, "Until what?" but I long ago learned not to ask questions I already know the answer to. My friend and I could just as well have been standing on the deck of the Titanic having the same conversation.
In an angry, chaotic world, it will be important for us to read the deeper emotions that underlie the rage we are likely to see erupting in society and in our communities. We will need to fortify ourselves emotionally and logistically from the collateral damage that myriad wounded-animal outbursts from others could inflict upon us, and even more importantly, not allow our egos to succumb to the momentary pleasure our own indulgence in rage might afford. At the same time we validate the rage our fellow humans feel, our compassion must penetrate the vitriol and understand the shipwreck that any human soul might become after years of sailing the waters of dogged denial and unwarranted faith in the American dream. If you are reading these words, it is likely that you have awakened from the dream or are in the process of doing so. Millions more never have and never will. How will we hold all of our emotions in the face of the rage their sense of betrayal will evoke in them? How will we go on loving the world?
**Portions of this article are excerpted from Navigating The Coming Chaos: A Toolkit For Inner Transition, By Carolyn Baker, which will be submitted for publication in the fall of 2010.