- Published: 18 June 2015 18 June 2015
The author's reflection on the theme of Radical Hope (CPA conference April 2015), bringing his own thinking and analysis to bear.
'When the buffalo went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.'
Plenty Coups, last great Chief of the Crow Nation.
Quoted in Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation
In The Guardian newpaper of Saturday, March 7th this year there was a special cover with a single quote in the top right hand corner. You may have seen it. The quote was from Naomi Klein’s Introduction to her book, This Changes Everything:
‘We know that if we continue on our current path of allowing emissions year after year, climate change will change everything about our world. And we don’t have to do anything to bring about this future, all we have to do is nothing.’
Alan Rusbridger, who, after twenty years in charge, was retiring as editor of The Guardian, wrote – in the same edition – of his intention to foreground the subject of climate change in the paper before he goes. Journalism, he says, usually writes of events that have happened and ignores the future since it is unpredictable and uncertain. But, exceptionally, one possible future is very predictable. And it is explained by three simple numbers. Quoting from Bill McKibben – in July 2012’s Rolling Stone – Rusbridger reminded us of them:
• 2C - ‘there is overwhelming agreement that a rise in temperatures of more than 2C by the end of the century would lead to disastrous consequences for any kind of recognized global order.’
• 565 gigatons – McKibben believes we can pour 565 more gigatons of Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere by mid-century and still have some hope of staying below 2C.
• 2795 gigatons – this is the amount of carbon dioxide that would be released from the proven fossil fuel reserves that we are planning to extract and burn.
McKibben, who warned us about The End of Nature some 25 years ago, wrote in The Guardian on the Monday following Rusbridger’s declaration, of ‘a sea change….as the confidence in the old order starts to collapse’.
Given that our past track record suggests we are unlikely to stop the powers that be from extracting and burning fossil fuel reserves well over the 2C limit and that scientists now think we are heading for 4C+ sometime this century, I would like to make the case for ‘doing nothing’. I have been thinking about this since the Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA) day in June last year (2014) at the Conway Hall. In the afternoon David (Wasdell) gave a summary of his Apollo-Gaia Project, presented in March 2014 to the Climate Challenge Conference convened by Climate Change Solutions in the I-Max Theatre of the Millennium Point in Birmingham, and gave us a copy of his paper, ‘Sensitivity and the Carbon Budget. The Ultimate Challenge of Climate Science’ to take home. I wasn’t able to follow all the science at the time but was left with a strong sense of the hopelessness of the task, so much so that I failed to make any contribution to the discussion that followed at the end of the day about what we should do as a group in future. Was there really anything we could ‘do’?
The source of everything
By ‘doing nothing’ I don’t mean an idle or despairing, hopeless nothing but an active, thoughtful, contemplative ‘nothing’. In our Western, industrious culture doing nothing often connotes something empty and vacuous, an idleness associated with a moral lack, an absence of virtue and purpose. But we know in our psychotherapeutic culture that holding back on our wish to act – doing nothing in the sense of not acting, just being there – especially when faced with extreme distress and suffering, can sometimes be the most therapeutic – if often the most difficult – ‘intervention’, for, along with compassion, it offers the support that allows a person to draw on their own inner resources.
In the East Asian cultures, ‘nothing’ – or ‘nothingness’ – is highly esteemed since it is seen as the source of everything. ‘Nothing’, in this view, is not the opposite of ‘everything’, everything comes from nothing. Ironically, science knows this because it believes the universe began from nothing with the Big Bang, something that was also understood by the writers of Genesis, the first book of the Bible – interestingly scientists are now beginning to wonder about the nothing that produced the Big Bang.
The central sustaining reality of Buddhism is shunyata – sunyata in Sanskrit. It is often translated as emptiness. This is not an empty but a full and infinitely rich emptiness – an emptiness from which everything emerges, what in the Zen tradition is known as the ever present ‘origin’, an origin both in and beyond time, space, and causality. In us it is experienced as the empty or original self. Again, it is not the opposite of the personal self but its source and host. In returning to nothing we are returning to our origin.
This is not to discount action or recommend a secluded life apart from social and political commitment but to suggest that an active life can be enhanced by periods of quiet and focused contemplation. ‘Climate warriors’ like McKibben and Klein are to be admired for their energy and thinking, but is hope and optimism alone enough? Klein shares McKibben’s belief that the climate emergency is also an opportunity. McKibben says we won’t defeat the fossil fuel corporations with rational and ethical arguments alone. This will be a fight and ‘like most fights it was, and is, about power’. Their power lies in money and can buy political favour while ‘our power lies in movement-building and the political fear it can instill.’ Of course, there is less guarantee than ever that the ‘movement’ will win. But is not wisdom – the wisdom that comes with contemplation – the true power, win or lose?
Klein – a more recently converted climate warrior – sees the fight in terms of the defeat of deregulated capitalism and impressively links the struggle to all historical liberation movements – anti-slavery, anti-apartheid, race relations, global social justice, human and gender rights and so on. But climate change is, of course, more momentous than them all, for ‘this changes everything’. Hers is a vision of the future that goes beyond just surviving or enduring climate change, a vision in which ‘we collectively use the crisis to leap somewhere that seems, frankly, better than where we are right now.’ Klein’s title is wonderful, the more wonderful because her book cannot exhaust the meaning she – or we – might give to ’everything changing’, including the change to ourselves.
What is wrong with us?
This is important because in one sense climate change is about us rather than the Earth. Geologists and earth scientists reassure us that, whatever we do to it, our planet will regain its balance and regenerate without us – give or take some tens of millions of years. Mass extinctions are its means of evolution. If the dinosaurs had not been wiped out we might not have evolved. Perhaps we are not designed to survive, perhaps it’s now our turn to disappear and the ‘opportunity’ lies in what we discover about ourselves in the process. The question is whether – or to what extent – we become aware of being part of the everything-which-changes before we disappear. One wonders whether this is in Naomi Klein’s mind in her interesting introductory chapter when, for instance, she writes:
‘So my mind keeps coming back to the question: what is wrong with us? What is really preventing us from putting out the fire that is threatening to burn down our collective house?’
The answer she gives herself is a simple one: the lowering of emissions is in conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology. But does this really answer her question? Does this get to the heart of ‘what is wrong with us’?
Again when she is writing about ‘the politics of human power’ – which is the real problem as opposed to ‘the mechanics of solar power’ – she reflects, in the process of researching for her book, that she has come to understand ‘the shift will require rethinking the very nature of humanity’s power….. a shift that challenges not only capitalism but also the building blocks of materialism that preceded modern capitalism, a mentality some call “extractivism”’.’ She concludes that climate change isn’t an ‘issue’ to add to the list of things to worry about – such as health care and taxes – but ‘a civilizational wake-up call’. This comprises ‘a powerful message telling us that we need an entirely new economic model and a new way of sharing this planet’. While one cannot but agree with her, is it purely about economics or might we ask what are the social, psychological and spiritual roots of 'economics' in the first place?
While one applauds the fighting spirit of warriors such as Klein and McKibben, a reading of the current climate science, as I have said, casts a shadow over their hope and optimism. George Marshall suggests that we are just not wired to contemplate the reality of a changed climate – which is why we have done so little about it for a generation or more. In his book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are wired to Ignore Climate Change he explores the reasons why and offers ’In a Nutshell’ – his last numbered chapter – ‘Some Personal and Highly Biased ideas for Digging Our Way Out of This Hole’. But in an unnumbered final chapter he offers a devastating statement about the depth of the real hole we find ourselves in – ‘Four Degrees. Why This Book is Important’.
The difference between two and four degrees
In this final chapter Marshall sketches the reality and possible consequences that lie in store. As he reminds us, since 2008 scientists are now more willing to warn that four degrees – rather than two – is the actual future we face. He quotes Mark Maslin, professor of climatology at UCL, telling the Warsaw climate negotiations:
‘We are already planning for a 4 degrees centigrade world because that is where we are heading. I do not know of any scientists who do not believe that’.
Four degrees most scientists consider to be nothing less than ’catastrophic’ but it is a figure increasingly on the minds of senior policy makers. With details that may be familiar to many of us Marshall describes how catastrophic it will be:
• Heatwaves of magnitudes never experienced before – temperatures not seen on Earth in the past five million years. Four degrees is only the average, so temperatures over large land masses will rise far higher.
• Forty percent of plant and animal species will be at risk of extinction.
• Precipitous decline in the growth of crops world wide, exacerbated by drought, floods and increased weed and pest invasion.
• Total melting of the Greenland ice sheet and, most likely, the Western Antarctic ice sheet raising sea levels by thirty two or more feet – this would put two thirds of the world’s major cities under water, as well as large regions of countries.
• Once four degrees is reached there’s no guarantee that temperatures would level off.
• A population of nine billion will not be able to adapt to these conditions.
Professor John Schellnhuber, one of the world’s most influential climate scientists, speaking at a conference in 2013 on the risks posed by a four-degree climate to Australia, said: ‘the difference between two and four degrees is human civilization.’
What is even more disturbing is the time we have left. ‘So when will we get there?’ The science around four degrees keeps moving but it’s possible that it could be with us by the middle of this 21st century – in our lifetime! Where, then, does this leave our hope for the future? The challenge becomes ever more urgent: how do we begin to think about climate change and its implications? This is also a question raised by Paul Kingsnorth in a thoughtful essay – ‘The Four Degrees’ – for the London Review of Books (LRB 23 October 2014) in a review of both George Marshall’s Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything.
‘No amount of psychological awareness …..’
Kingsnorth writes out of his experience as an environmental activist for some twenty years – now disillusioned. Like McKibben in the past perhaps, he used to believe that if we just give people the information they need, they will demand action and then the politicians will have to act. But it’s not that simple, in fact it’s almost completely the wrong way round. He quotes Marshall:
‘Everyone, experts and non-experts alike, converts climate change into stories that embody their own values, assumptions and prejudices.’
According to Kingsnorth ‘the real problem comes when we start trying to cram climate change into our preexisting ideological boxes.’ For instance, in the US climate change has been used as a weapon in the cultural war between left and right. As Dan Kahan, a professor of psychology, told Marshall, it isn’t information but ‘cultural coding’ that forms the basis of our worldviews. If you’re affiliated to the Tea Party anything an environmentalist says will automatically be wrong – and vice-versa. Even people who have lived through environmental disasters often remain oblivious to the wider climate implications. This applies to us all, including Naomi Klein. Kingsnorth acknowledges the quality of her analysis and exposure of the way private capital has bound the hands of government – as well as sucking in organizations that should know better – but he also makes the point that she could only allow herself to face the climate threat when she had worked out how to fit it into her ideological box – framing her message ‘as a “progressive” cause firmly aligned to the left’.
Kingsnorth ends his essay by siding with the view of Daniel Kahneman whom Marshall met and interviewed in a New York café. Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for his work on the psychology of human decision-making. ‘This is not what you want to hear’ he said to Marshall. ‘I am very sorry, but I am deeply pessimistic. I really see no path to success on climate change…. No amount of psychological awareness will overcome people’s reluctance to lower their standard of living. So that’s my bottom line.’
Kahneman may have been pessimistic but he seems to have influenced and been greatly respected by some optimistic people, including the psychologist, Steven Pinker, and the economists, Richard Thaler and Richard Lazard. He is also admired by Salley Vickers, the psychotherapist and novelist, for his demonstration that ‘ultimately we are not rational’. (Observer 16.2.2014) Kahneman’s pessimism may be the result of his focus on the cognitive mind but perhaps he has also opened the door for those whose thinking takes them beyond both rationality and pessimism, including the psychoanalytic tradition of the modern West and also – I would add – the contemplative practices of all cultures.
Science and religion
Our Western scientific culture is uncommon in that science and religion are quite split off from each other. Science has rejected a divine creator but it no longer has a connection with any unifying metaphysical ground. One could argue historically that in seventeenth century Europe the emerging modern science made a pact with the Church – theoretically and practically – that it would not trespass on its religious domain if the latter would allow it to continue freely investigating the material universe. As a result science separated from religion and was able to proceed unchecked with its empirical revolution.
This may have led to the progressive achievements of the European Enlightenment but there was a downside – the development of a fundamentalist scientific materialism and a modern material mythology – split off from ethical, aesthetic and spiritual values. It also led to the division of knowledge into two polarized spheres – objective and subjective – with orthodox science having the power to ignore – even deny – not only any metaphysical reality but the subjective experience of the human mind itself.
We see what the scientific and technological power of the 19th century Industrial Revolution led to – devastating World War in the first half of the 20th century, the development of annihilating atomic weapons, and now the actual alteration of the Earth’s climate. It’s almost as if the threat of our possible extinction is foreshadowed in the absence of any psychological self awareness accompanying the scientific view. Perhaps this is why we cannot bring ourselves to think about the consequences of climate change. We assume we lack the inner resources to do so.
The philosophy of scientific materialism also led to the fragmentation of our knowledge and understanding. Science used to be a part of natural or moral philosophy. But without any integrating philosophy – or world view – our scientific disciplines – natural and human – have become so dissociated they have hardly been able to talk to each other. This is the real challenge and opportunity of climate change. Has it not now become the overriding context from which all our sciences should start, the new common denominator – or unifying thread – which could begin to integrate all our divided discourses? Perhaps It is the new meta-narrative, the common ground from which we could all begin to talk to each other again, if only we could find the courage and means to face it.
This is why the initiatives of the psychotherapy professions – Joseph Dodd’s Psychoanalysis and Ecology at the Edge of Chaos and such collections of articles as Mary-Jane Rust and Nick Totton's Vital Signs: Psychological Responses to Ecological Crisis and Sally Weintrobe’s Engaging with Climate Change, Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives – are an important beginning. Dodds considers how psychoanalysis might begin to address itself to a ‘Climate in Crisis’ and Vital Signs discusses the rich possibilities of thinking about the relationship between therapy and ecology while Engaging With Climate Change explores the urgent questions: why we don’t engage and how we might begin to. The latter book addresses – and discusses – the complex levels of resistance – negation, denial and disavowal – and its many contributors analyse them from different social, political, emotional and psychological perspectives. This is a challenge because of the difficult feelings and thoughts the climate emergency evokes. In her introduction Sally (Weintrobe) also emphasizes the importance of facing up to reality as well as the need for a new ethics, an understanding of the nature of mind, and a revaluation of human nature itself.
Of course, this begs the question of what we mean by reality – or the Real – and how our understanding of mind and human nature shapes our ethics. Exploring these challenges may entail a far more radical transformation than we realize. Engaging with climate change – as Naomi Klein suggests – could change everything. Yes, it asks us to face our deepest anxieties and unfathomable thoughts but offers to transform us – and our view of ‘reality’ – in the process.
Perhaps this is already happening. We worry that we are not wired to think about climate change but perhaps at the same time there is a change going on inside us, despite ourselves. Perhaps our wiring, itself, is changing. We know about the plasticity of the human brain, but what could have more potential plasticity than the human mind? We may be looking at a very uncertain future but has life ever been so exciting as it is in this 21st century? Science may have given us the means to destroy ourselves but never has the Earth it discloses looked so extraordinary and magical.
Are we being re-wired?
For example we are beginning to feel and see the bigger picture, aesthetically and scientifically. In 1968 who was not moved when we first caught sight of Earth from space in that epoch-changing photo of Earthrise from Apollo 8 as it circled the moon? And in the early 1970s down here on Earth James Lovelock came up with the Gaia intuition – the sense of the whole Earth as a living system. What was initially a hypothesis eventually became a theory and was responsible for helping to integrate the earth sciences. If the Earth is the new symbol of transformation and integration, then the question today is whether the human sciences – and particularly psychology – can also become an integral part of ‘the Earth Sciences’.
Cosmology is opening up the universe in extraordinary ways. But also at a subatomic level ‘matter’ itself is looking stranger and more mysterious than ever. There is a growing sense that it has agency – a life of its own – independent of us. The traditional solid dualities are dissolving. What used to be ‘dead matter’ is more alive than we realise and the distinction between organic and inorganic – animate and inanimate – is no longer so sustainable. This may be a new vitalism, experienced as much inside, as outside ourselves. Perhaps what is changing is less the world around us as the lens of the human mind through which we perceive it.
Other contraries are breaking down. The opposition between the ‘human’ and the ‘non-human’ is being questioned. Human nature is no longer so distinct from the natural forces out of which it evolved. To be part of a universal continuum takes us back in a way to the pre-modern teleology of the Great Chain of Being, except that the new chain is not a static structure but a dynamic one – a changing continuity. It evolves in time and doesn’t need a mythic creator god.
Along with this there is also a new feeling about the simple fact of existence. There is a new interest in ontology – the fact of our being. Our future may be in doubt but we may come to feel more alive in the present than we ever have. Nor are life and death so much the contraries we in the modern world have made them. Death need no longer be the fearful mystery it has been. More mysterious and magical is life itself – how we come to be here in the first place.
These changes are also mirrored in the creative arts. Extraordinary are the infinite knowledge and interconnections that the world wide web reveals but more innovative is the aesthetic and integrative potential of the human imagination, whether in science, music, the visual arts, theatre and dance, or creative writing. Poetry and narrative literature are as alive as ever but there is a new romanticism to be found in writing on nature, a romanticism which explores how nature and culture are not separate but essentially intertwined. An example is Jay Griffiths’ remarkable Wild: an Elemental Journey, a book which redefines and re-enchants the human relationship to nature and the wild. Griffiths put her boots on and went to live in such wild places as the Amazon, the Arctic, and outer Mongolia only to find that ‘wildness’ is actually ‘home’ to the humans and other species which live there, a protective, even ‘kind’ place, not the alien, frightening or uncanny wild which modern European Romanticism often made it.
What I am trying to suggest is that our experience of ourselves – our ‘human nature’ and the human mind – is changing and this may be as important – if not more important to us – as the fact of climate change. And if this is so, how are our human sciences – individually and collectively – responding, particularly for us, psychology and psychotherapy? The great nineteenth century Tibetan scholar, Jamgon Kongtrul, proponent of the Rime – non-sectarian – movement, wrote, reflecting the great and essential insight of Buddhism:
‘Just realizing the meaning of mind encompasses all understanding.’
In Jamgon Kongtrul’s Buddhist analysis this is not just the human mind but the universe itself – and everything in it – as mind. This is a view obscured to our modern scientific culture. We limit consciousness to ourselves only but are beginning to realize how short-sighted this is. The human mind is an extraordinary phenomenon but it evolved and emerged from something larger than itself.
The new discourse is that of the philosopher who thinks from Freud – that is after, with, and against him. Paul Ricoeur
The two great Western figures who initially explored human psychology through subjective, as well as analytic, experience were William James and Sigmund Freud. While James brought his ‘radical empiricism’ to bear on our experience of consciousness he remained a philosopher. Freud wanted to be a philosopher but remained a physician – of the mind – and teacher, though – in the famous phrase of W.H. Auden’s ‘In Memoriam’ – he became ’a whole climate of opinion’. Freud created a school and, in doing so, devised a practice which students of his art could learn – and develop. The relationship between practice and theory is an interesting one but I have always thought that practice precedes theory. Though theory can help practice, it cannot determine it.
Freud introduced a form of practice without which such innovations as the interpretation of dreams and analysis of the unconscious would have been far less effective. This was the mode of thinking known to us as ‘free association’. As we know the traditional ‘basic rule’ in psychoanalysis – the ‘talking cure’ – is that the patient should report his thoughts without reservation and should make no attempt to concentrate, on the assumption that nothing he says is without significance and that his associations will lead to meaning and insight, insofar as resistance doesn’t operate. Resistance does, of course, operate and traditionally much of the work is about analyzing the resistance. Freud thought resistance is lessened by relaxation and often increased by too much concentration. We sometimes forget that, of course, ‘resistance’ can also be interpreted positively – as an assertion of the human spirit.
Interestingly, as Charles Rycroft remarks In his Critical Dictionary, ‘free association’ is a mistranslation of the German freier Einfall which means ‘irruption’ or ‘sudden idea’ rather than ’association’ and refers to ideas which present themselves without straining or effort. In this state ideas occur, or happen, to a person from somewhere beyond the rational or logical mind. As Rycroft goes on to explain, this technique enabled Freud to abandon hypnosis and allow the focus to be on the patient who alternates between free association and reflection. An alternative way of thinking about this process is that ‘the patient oscillates between being the subject and object of his experience, at one moment letting thoughts come, the next moment inspecting them’.
For me there have always been similarities between psychotherapeutic practice and contemplative – or meditative – practice, but crucial differences too. Where Freud made the distinction between the relaxed, freely associative subject and the thoughtful, analytical, reflective mind classical Buddhist meditation, for example, also makes a twofold distinction between a calming, tranquil state and the special insight that comes with analytical examination.
In Sanskrit these are known as shamata – literally, ‘dwelling in tranquillity’ – and vipashyana – insight, clear seeing. Shamata is not so much relaxation as a still and alert state where particular attention is initially given to posture and breathing. These are thought to be important because without them insight is limited, even misguided. Vipashyana is not so much personal analysis as insight into what Buddhists call ‘the three marks of existence’: impermanence or transience, the truth of suffering, and what they call ‘no-self’, by which they mean egolessness, in an absolute sense. In fact, in the Buddhist understanding, nothing has a self-nature that is fixed, permanent and unchanging – at present most of us unconsciously believe that human nature is a permanent given.
Freud was a scientist but, as a man of culture, he also belonged to the European Romantic tradition. An important given in that tradition was the cult of the individual which is still a driving factor in our consumerist, capitalist society. From a systemic perspective a person is not so much an individual as an interdependency – whether one is thinking at the level of family, society, or the wider ecology – so a therapeutic practice that is based on interpreting a person’s reality from the individual perspective only could be seen as limited, even oppressive. Everyone has individuality but it emerges from an interdependent reality.
A contemplative practice acknowledges this principle and would equate freedom with the realization of one’s interdependency. Early Buddhism encouraged freedom through the individual mind – the Hinayana, or narrow tradition of the arhat, practiced in isolation – but this became known as the lesser journey and evolved into the greater way – the Mahayana or the Bodhisattva tradition of enlightened compassion for all beings. The Hinayana and the Mahayana are not viewed as opposed since compassion for others requires an understanding of oneself, but without the greater view it is thought one cannot realize true freedom and enlightenment.
Contemplation involves a paradox which is about using the mind to understand itself – sometimes referred to as ‘minding mind’. In his book, Luminous Mind, Kalu Rinpoche, whom the present Dalai Lama compared to Milarepa, the great thirteenth century poet and mystic of Tibet, wrote:
‘The basic issue is that it is not possible for the mind to know itself because the one who searches, the subject, is the mind itself, and the object it wants to examine is also the mind. There is a paradox here: I can look for myself everywhere, search the world over, without ever finding myself, because I am what I search for.’
A paradox is a form of understanding that goes beyond conventional logic or reason and therefore cannot be grasped by conceptual thought only. Hence it is more amenable to the contemplative rather than the rational mind.
Tibetan culture had devoted itself for a thousand years to developing the art and science of meditative introspection, building on the profound Buddhist teachings and practices of India and China before them. Freud – both the phenomenological psychologist as well as the natural scientist – didn’t have the benefit of East Asian psychological and philosophical teachings that we have today and relied on his own intuitive genius and place in Western cultural thought. As a result he was defeated by this paradox, never became the philosopher – the metaphysician, or ‘metapsychologist’ - he aspired to be and called his movement ‘psychoanalysis’ – ultimately a contradiction in terms since in the end the mind cannot be analyzed, only experienced and lived.
In the last century the two traditions and practices of ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ cultures were thought to be very distinctive, even incompatible. Carl Jung’s warnings about our difficulties – or unsuitability – in the Western world to engage in East Asian meditational practices are understandable, given our limited knowledge of the philosophy and psychology behind them at the time. But now we know much more, different cultural traditions are seen to be more complementary than we realized.
Many people in the West have turned prematurely to contemplative practices and teachings to address personal difficulties when they would be better starting with some form of psychotherapy which would help them first to establish some personal stability. As has been said, you need to have a self before you can think about no-self. But at the same time people genuinely turn to non-Western contemplative practices because they are thought to address existential and metaphysical issues which our modern culture – and psychotherapy – neglects.
The Secret of the Golden Flower
A contemplative practice will be experienced differently by everybody and grow out of a person’s unique disposition and life circumstances. But there are some general understandings and guidelines within the perennial, or ageless, wisdom that have come down to us from all cultural traditions. Take The Secret of the Golden Flower, for instance, that Classic Chinese Book of Life which Jung and Richard Wilhelm – its original German translator – made known to us as early as 1932. Thomas Cleary published a new and more complete translation from the Chinese in 1991 along with notes and commentaries informed by his extensive knowledge of Taoist and Chan/Zen literature and practices. His edition brings a clarity and depth of understanding that was lacking in the 1932 edition.
As Cleary explains in his introduction, The Secret of the Golden Flower is a lay manual of Buddhist and Taoist methods for clarifying the mind. Written some two hundred years ago, it draws upon ancient spiritual Chinese classics and describes a natural way to mental freedom practiced for many centuries. The golden flower symbolizes the quintessence of Buddhist and Taoist paths: ‘Gold stands for light, the light of the mind itself; the flower represents the blossoming, or opening up, of the light of the mind. Thus the expression is emblematic of the basic awakening of the real self and its hidden potential’.
Central to this realization or awakening of the self is the conscious recognition of the original spirit – the true self – as it is in its spontaneous natural state, independent of environmental conditioning. In the text this original spirit is also called the celestial – or natural – mind, a subtler and more direct mode of awareness than thought or imagination – an invitation, perhaps, to step outside our ideological boxes. Cleary describes the experience of the blossoming of the golden flower as likened to light in the sky, ‘a sky of awareness vaster than images, thoughts and feelings, an unimpeded space containing everything without being filled. Thus it opens up an avenue to an endless source of intuition, creativity, and inspiration. Once this power of mental awakening has been developed, it can be renewed and deepened without limit.’
The Secret of the Golden Flower is a manual containing many helpful meditation techniques but its central method goes beyond techniques, right to the root source of awareness. The core of this method Cleary translates as ‘Turning the Light Around’. It is difficult to describe this in a few words but what is implied is that by turning in towards the light within yourself you become aware that it is not separate, or distinct, from the light within everything else,‘outside’ you. As the text puts it:
‘The light is neither inside nor outside the self. Mountains, rivers, sun, moon, and the whole earth are all this light, so it is not only in the self. All the operations, intelligence , knowledge, and wisdom are also this light, so it is not outside the self. The light of heaven and earth fills the universe: the light of one individual also naturally extends through the heavens and covers the earth. Therefore once you turn the light around, everything in the world is turned around’. (III, 10)
In this essay I have been trying to say that while, at best, the near future looks very uncertain and our chances of keeping the average global temperature below four degrees – not to mention two – are slim, at the same time we may be experiencing an important awakening within ourselves – psychologically, socially and spiritually. This may come too late to ensure our survival on an Earth potentially about to experience a sixth mass extinction – if our climate and earth scientists are to be believed – but we may be enabled to face it without denial and without giving in to despair. When Naomi Klein declares This Changes Everything she also implies ‘This’ includes a change within ourselves – more profound than she perhaps realizes.
Radical Hope, the title of the philosophical psychoanalyst, Jonathan Lear’s book – which Paul (Hoggett), the Chair of the CPA, first drew to our attention and which we discussed at the CPA day in Bristol this April – examines the paradox of a hopeless hope. This is a hope beyond conventional hope but also beyond despair – Lear writes of ‘courage and hope’ in contrast to ‘mere optimism’. He describes the loss of the way of life of the indigenous North American Crow nation when the buffalo were wiped out in the nineteenth century and they no longer could do battle with the Sioux, their common enemy. As Plenty Coups, the chief of the Crow, lamented, ‘when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened’. But this ‘nothing’ proved anything but an empty nothing for out of it the Crow were able to find a new way of life.
In Radical Hope Lear describes how with the loss of their culture the Crow found themselves ‘reasoning at the abyss’ – they faced a ‘radical discontinuity’ with their past which involved ‘a disruption in the sense of being’, like ‘a rip in the fabric of one’s self’. Plenty Coups did not give in to despair but accepted the demise of his culture with courage and a faith that something would emerge out of the abyss. Accordingly at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier he laid down his ‘coup stick’ – the emblem of his warrior culture – acknowledging that the traditional ways of the Crow had to be laid to rest before a new life could begin to be imagined. What made his hope ‘radical’ was that it was accompanied by a faith in a future goodness. In Lear’s words: ‘Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have this hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it.’ This is what makes Lear’s book a study in ethics.
Everything and Nothing
The actual discipline or practice of the Bodhisattva is to regard whatever occurs as a phantom (dream). Nothing ever happens. But because nothing happens, everything happens …… that “nothing happening” is the experience of openness.
Chogyam Trungpa, Training the Mind.
The parallels with the challenge to our own culture in a time of climate change are very clear. The big difference is when nothing ‘happened’ to the Crow, at least they had the opportunity of an actual future – a new sense of being could emerge, the rip in their fabric of the self could be addressed. Our ‘nothing’, on the contrary, implies the collapse of everything. The ethical challenge we now face is an absolute, not a relative one – how to conceive of a ‘good life’ – and a benign universe – when there is the possibility of no future at all. The questions multiply as we reason at our own abyss: how do we think beyond death? How is it possible to live ethically in the face of our own demise? What meaning can we give it? How must it change our view of ourselves? Where do we find the courage, faith and understanding we now need?
I have suggested one way of trying to answer this last question. For the Crow it was not about simply exchanging their traditional way of life for our modern one, so – for us – it is not about turning away from our own culture but seeing how we might begin to learn from others – learning ways that we could begin to integrate with our own. There is an intriguing question that runs through all the ancient Indian Upanishads, those sacred writings that are thousands of years old:
‘What is that by knowing which all things are known?’
The answer in the Upanishads is: knowledge of the true or original self – incidentally a knowledge which enables a contemporary American exponent of the perennial philosophy like Ken Wilber, for instance, to write books with such titles as A Brief History of Everything and A Theory of Everything. Everything and Nothing are not opposites. Everything comes from Nothing. The question is, do we have the courage to face our Nothing?
As for an ‘ethics in the face of cultural devastation’ we are badly in need of this. The Tibetans have a tradition of seven-point mind training they have used for centuries. It is called Lojong and consists of 59 pithy slogans which are a means to awaken the kindness, gentleness, and compassion which are core to the training. Central to the actual practice is Bodhicitta or ‘awakened mind’. There are two levels of bodhicitta – relative and ultimate. Relative is about attaining liberation through compassion for all beings and practicing meditation to achieve this, while ultimate bodhicitta is viewed as the vision of the true nature of everything – shunyata. Since we are currently facing the ultimate challenge, this teaching could not be more timely. A number of commentaries have been published but the ones I have found helpful – in addition to the original modern English translation by Chogyam Trungpa, Training the Mind - are Pema Chodron, The places that scare you: a guide to fearlessness, B. Alan Wallace, The Seven-Point Mind Training and the classic commentary by Jamgon Kongtrul – The Great Path of Awakening translated by Ken McLeod (2005 edition).
Although I originally began by making the case for doing nothing this is not a passive, but an active, mindful and meaningful nothing. The need to be active has never been more urgent but it is also a time for pausing and reviewing all our values - about who and what we essentially are. In classical China this was known as Stopping and Seeing. Climate change may be our ultimate challenge but it is also an opportunity. It is scary to think about what the future may hold, but it may well also bring an awakening.
Paradoxically, there is something strengthening about contemplating the worst that could happen. Only when we go beyond the hope of survival on the one hand and despair at the thought of catastrophe on the other can we really be empowered. In these very challenging times one way of avoiding despair at the difficulty of the task is to remember the third of the Seven Points of Mind Training:
The Transformation of Adversity into the Path of Awakening – when misfortune fills the world and its inhabitants, make adversity the path of awakening.