One of the most poignant lines I remember from An Inconvenient Truth was Al Gore’s concern that in light of the problem’s magnitude there was a danger that people might go straight from denial to despair. In other words, if you allow the numbers and prognostications concerning global warming to sink into your consciousness you may be left with an overwhelming feeling of helplessness which will either leave you chronically depressed or simply reverting back to the more comfortable denial zone.
It’s a common process. Someone will write a very well researched essay filled with facts and figures that show how far beyond repair the planet already is. The responses vary from congratulatory for wealth of data to discussions about what can be done to curb problem x, y or z, but at some point the conversation either strays off topic (denial) or turns really dark and existential (despair). Follow me to a more fertile space beyond denial and despair.
Here’s an example of a “perfect” setup for the denial vs despair paradigm:
Leading climate scientists, like James Hansen and George Woodwell, say that to prevent temperatures from rising by 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide must not exceed 350 parts per million.
Now comes the really bad news: we are already at 387 ppm. And at current rates, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are set to double by the middle of the century. If that happens–which is very likely unless emissions are radically reduced soon–sea levels, already expected to rise three feet in this century, would rise even further, inundating urban areas and decimating the economies of the United States, Europe and Asia. This would utterly transform civilization as we know it.
The Nation Editorial, August 3/10 2009
This is a tough one, right? Not even a very pragmatic, solution-oriented person can look at this statement and not feel rattled. For what good does any action do if we have already passed the point of no return? As a caring human being this information is really depressing. Who’s to blame you for feeling defeated and full of negativity, despising corporations, politicians and all of humanity for being such ignorant, selfish, and wasteful bastards.
On the other side of the spectrum is this reaction:
Bored By Global Warming
You must realize by now that your interest in enviro issues is not shared by 99% of the world. Even in Northern California “Ecotopia” most people simply turn off. It’s like an involuntary reaction with me. On the first sentence of ecobabble, my mind instantly shuts down and places the incoming chatter on a conveyor belt to a mental trash can while cueing my face to assume a freakish but vaguely polite rictus. In one ear and out the other, as they say.
Letter to the Editor, Open Exchange
I’m not sure if Manny thinks global warming doesn’t exist or if he’s just tired of hearing about it. What’s important to understand though is that global warming denial is not only reserved for those who question its very (proven) existence but that it occurs quite commonly among those of us who know the facts and try to find solutions. From a rational point of view it would be considered insane to try to fix something that’s beyond repair, so in order to approach the problem in a constructive manner, a healthy dose of denial is almost a prerequisite. I go into denial mode every time I get in a car, on an airplane, and a number of other situations I can’t think of right now for some reason.
Here’s a good time to take a long relaxing breath and start moving from the big rigid mass between our ears to the soft warm spot right in the center of our body. . . . . . . . . . . . .
Ok, now that you are here, let me tell you that this is exactly the place to be to begin our journey beyond denial and despair and toward understanding its mental underpinnings.
Both denial and despair are human emotions/reactions that are rooted in fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of disease. Fear of death. When we talk about rising sea levels and extended droughts, the reason we feel shock is not because the beach is moving or we have to take shorter showers but because deep inside we fear for our very existence. The idea of “saving” the planet is just another form of denial — denial that we’re scared shitless for our own survival. Really, the planet needs no saving, it will be there long after we humans are gone. As Chief Seattle famously said: “The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth.”
This is really important because it brings us into the spiritual realm, our inner state of being from which all our actions manifest outwardly. You see, science can only give us the outward results of our actions, but it doesn’t explain why we do the things we do in the first place. It tells us we have surpassed the crucial 350ppm threshold, getting our minds to comprehend the impossibility of the situation, but leaves our spirits hanging and detached, as if we were merely soulless thought processors.
If we are not emotionally prepared to deal with the consequences of our actions, both denial and despair serve as defense mechanisms to shield us from the true nature of our problem. With nothing but hard numbers and no soul training, denial and despair become our psychic default operating systems.
We should honor science as a gauge of physical manifestation, but if our ultimate intention is to live sustainably and in harmony with the earth’s ecosystem, science alone cannot be the path. To apply one of Einstein’s great analogies to this predicament, it would be insane to expect technology alone to solve our problem when technology has been a huge part of the problem.
So how do we invite in that sweet spot, that deeper place within ourselves that allows us to process and acknowledge the hard data without getting emotionally paralyzed?
First . . . take another deep breath, feel everything that’s inside of you, the tears and worries and anger and doubts, like a river flowing through you . . . . . . . . . .
Now try this one:
Nothing is permanent.
Or this one:
I am going to die.
Substitute any other fear you might have. You’ll be amazed at how much stuff comes up in the global warming category. Very personal. Your family. Your kids. Your health. Your economic situation.
Feel the panic, it’s okay. Stay with it, just let your worries flow through you and watch them like ships or driftwood passing by. Feel the hurt. Perhaps you have a tear running down your cheek. Good. Soften your heart like a patch of fresh juicy moss on the rain forest floor.
Observe your fears without getting overwhelmed by them. Remember, they are not you. You are sitting on the shore watching them drift by. You are good. You are here. You are alive. Right now.
This is a way to gently knock on your own spirit door. I know some may be very uncomfortable with this. It’s woo woo, you might say. But consider the amount of time in our lives we’ve been filled with outside information, facts, and figures compared with the times we were encouraged to tap into our vast inner reservoir. From an early age, most of us are trained not to deal with our feelings, to toughen up and ignore our fears.
Thing is, they don’t go away, but sneak up on us in unexpected and unconscious ways.
Now consider this:
We’re so afraid of suffering that we don’t realize how much we already suffer by being afraid. In fact, I would posit that all the suffering we’re engaged in — be it in the form of denial, despair, resentment or anger — is what got us in our current global predicament in the first place. All the escapes into materialism and speedy fixes that have manifest in our carbon emitting technologies are rooted in our unwillingness to take an honest look inside ourselves. We cannot suffer our way out of our problems. Suffering begets more suffering, and fear begets more fear. It’s a simple law of cause and effect.
So, we know that we need to take action, but not just any action. If we truly want to live in harmony with our planet, our action has to come from a place of enlightenment. A place of consciousness. A place of fearlessness. A place of love. If our actions are coming from a place of fear, then our most useful and bold action is to move to a place of love and compassion first, both for ourselves, our fellow man, all living things, the planet we live on, and the universe we are part of.
Take another deep breath . . . . . . . . .
So how do we better connect with our sweet spot, our fearless enlightened inner love warrior? There are many different ways in which to center ourselves. Each of us holds a key to the entire universe within us. Some may need help, and we all need practice. Just like algebra or grammar, if we don’t use our soul muscle, we forget and resort to the mind’s default responses like denial or despair.
Here’s a thought that helps in keeping myself present, even and especially through challenging times:
This moment is all we have.
I cannot undo the past, and the future is just a thought in my head. If I am not the change I want to see right now, I may not get the chance tomorrow.
Here’s another meditation that helps me feel connected:
I am earth, and earth is I.
Earth is not a separate entity from myself, so my own state of being is vital to the state of earth, and vice versa. This gives me a calm disposition even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. I am not acting to fix something outside of myself, but to Be what’s needed.
We are all One.
This goes with the one above. If we are part of earth, then we are all part of each other. To look at each other is to look in the mirror. By seeing my own fear I can see everyone’s else’s. Now I can feel compassion.
And last but not least:
Or as John Lennon said: All you need is Love. It always comes back to that for me. And I’m not talking about wishy washy all-is-good kind of love. You can fight, but may your motivation be Love. You can protest but may you be guided by Love. We can “combat” global warming but may our hearts be open and connected to Love.
When I get tempted by despair in light of the enormous challenges we’re facing and I need to call on my soul to give me mojo, I turn to the Alfred D’Souza quote on my refrigerator magnet:
Dance as though no one is watching.
Love as though you’ve never been hurt.
Sing as though no one can hear you.
Live as though heaven is on earth.
Because, you know, heaven really is on earth. And this is the moment to live and love. Even at 387 parts per million of atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide.