peripatetic precipitates: on nature, healing, and homecoming

A column by Craig Chalquist, PhD

Falling Tower:
Avoiding the Inner Descent Externalizes It


To look into the blackness steadily, of course, is almost beyond the endurance of man.
In the very moment that its impenetrability is grasped the imagination begins attacking
it with pale beams of false light. -- H.L. Mencken

One does not obtain enlightenment by imagining figures of light, but by making the
darkness conscious. -- C.G. Jung

Last week I went to bed after a nauseating dose of the latest news--futile ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, record unemployment and homelessness, record wealth held by the ruling class, climate change accelerating, paranoia posing as state security--and dreamed I stood on the ground floor of an enormous tower of concrete, glass, and steel. As the earth trembled, fire broke out here and there above me, and I knew with an ominous certainty that the entire structure was about to come crashing down.

In our ecotherapy anthology, Meredith Sabini, Stephen Aizenstat, and Lauren Schneider all write about dreams as potential cultural events: imaginal barometers of shifts in the collective psyche. My life does not feel in a state of collapse--quite the opposite--but my culture does. More: the very fabric of global civilization unweaves as ecosystems succumb to mass extinction. All over the world, the lights of organic consciousness are going out; as they do, the power flickers on and off in cities powered erratically by diminishing fossil fuels.

Many of the spiritually inclined seem to believe, if rather desperately, that meditation, journaling, and other inner activities will magically rescue humanity from the brink. Religious people put it in God's hands. The hard-headed look to technology to redeem us. Others shrug and turn on the TV or computer. Radicals like Derrick Jensen talk about bombing dams. Over time, however, I have reached the conclusion that precisely our busyness and manic push toward higher, brighter, and better reappears as external decline.

The strange idea that people can become psychological adults without passing through some kind of internal rite of passage is a relatively recent one, a product perhaps of the mass production mentality. By "internal rite of passage" I don't mean mere hard knocks. We all suffer those. I mean creating the capacity to sit down with our darkness, sifting shadows for the insights they conceal. I mean the ability to feel sad, angry, hopeless, fearful, or depressed without trying to "heal" them by running away from them.

When you sit with such feelings without trying to purge, cleanse, lift, clean, or clear them, something marvelous happens. They begin to initiate their own movement through the mind and body, and as they do, they offer up some of their dreaded psychic force as passionate energy available for other uses. Energies previously used to repress these emotional states also becomes available. As rigidities loosen, feelings become reliable signals of what needs examining not only internally, but externally too: What is the red alert about? What freedoms do we lose that we must protect? What needs to change?

If these despondent states emanate from prior emotional wounding, the wounds begin to fade because, sadly and ironically, the very attempt to intervene and fix them can prevent them from ever closing. Too much being busy interferes with the mind-body's natural healing capabilities: one reason why so many of us spend years in workshops or psychotherapy without resolving our core difficulties. How can one resolve what hasn't been listened to deeply? Such difficulties are not problems to be worked on or through so much as initiatory scars to be honored and learned from. Invariably, not our wounding or long-standing problems but what we do about them constitutes the true injury.

Ecotherapy, which focuses on transforming our relationship to the natural world, includes an emphasis on getting to know nature-within as well. "Resilience" is the ecological term for an ecosystem's capacity for maintaining and repairing itself. Internal resilience operates wisely when we allow our psychological and somatic powers to work undisturbed in accord with their own organic schedule.

Ecotherapy also draws on depth psychology's research on the inseparability of inner and outer. Just as the mind translates facts of geology, geography, landscape, and infrastructure into mental images and motifs (a finding relied upon and extended by terrapsychology), so do internal conflicts manifest as outer ones. To the extent we refuse to undertake what Joseph Campbell thought of as a heroic journey of underworld initiation into responsible selfhood, the outworn internal structures we fail to melt down into instruments of maturity subside instead as failing economies and falling towers.

From this rite-of-passage perspective, real "homeland security" depends on respecting the ecological integrity of the actual homeland around us while reestablishing respectful dialog with the homeland-within. Neither movement can begin, however, without establishing a baseline humility willing to learn from sources of natural wisdom residing outside the walls of ordinary consciousness.



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