As much as anybody, I want to see the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico be the final wake up call needed to move our society away from oil and other fossil fuels. One likely outcome of the tragedy will be an upwelling of activism toward that end. And yet, if the past 40 years of environmentalism are any indication, the transition will continue to be too little too late, and the collapse of civilization as we know it will continue unabated. Why? Because there is a vitally important piece of the equation that continues to go missing in the culture of environmentalism and in society in general. That piece can be summed up in a single word: psyche (as in psychological). It's a word you don't hear much. And yet, in so many ways, it's the most important word in the world.
The word psyche comes from the Greek and means "soul" or "mind" or the "breath of life." Our addiction to oil is a psychological phenomenon. The roots of oil addiction lead directly to our thinking, to our deepest beliefs about who we are, what the world is, and how we are to be in the world. For the vast majority of us North Americans, our worldviews and core beliefs include entitlement, superiority, and a sense of separation from each other and nature. Much of what informs these beliefs is unconscious. Core beliefs are "core" precisely because they were formed early in our lives, well before the rational aspects of the brain came online. They create our most basic personality traits and habits. Core beliefs can be worked with but it takes awareness, time, and energy.
It's our thinking that has created the different crises we face today environmental, economic, and social. They didn't just happen. They are not natural phenomena. It's our thinking that creates addiction to luxurious levels of personal comfort, to superiority complexes, and to the most dangerous belief of them all: that we are separate from each other and from nature. The study of the human-nature split is the territory of ecopsychology. For over thirty years I've been interested in the question of why we are destroying our own life support system and so much of what is beautiful in the world. Ecopsychologists argue that the answer lies in the human-nature split. We are not separate from nature but we think and act as if we are. Such a split leaves us homeless in a very fundamental way. Out of that homelessness springs insecurity and insatiable appetites that may soothe but never alleviate the deep-seated loneliness, emptiness, and fear we experience. The human-nature split is the primary wound, the "original trauma," to use Chellis Glendinning's phrase, that must be healed if we are to find our way to sustainable lives and societies.
To be sure, separating, or to use the psychological term, individuating, is thought to be an important and natural part of growing up for human beings. It's part of the work of childhood and adolescence. But problems arise when development gets stuck there. Much of the work of adulthood lies in expanding one's circle of identity by experiencing and understanding the interrelationships between and interdependence of things. Individuality not only remains, it's strengthened by the process of embracing diversity and the interconnected nature of reality. We appreciate ourselves and our unique place in the scheme of things in a more profound way, and at the same time appreciate and respect all other beings more deeply as well. The move toward healing the human-nature split expands the sense of self in the direction of an eco- or ecological self, a self that includes nature in its circle of identity.
Developing the eco-self begins with a basic humility. Intellectual understanding can support the process but it ultimately requires direct experience. The human-nature split mirrors the mind-body-spirit split. The result is that huge portions of our experience and awareness is numbed and repressed. I know the truth of such limitation from my own life. Everything from my disregard for certain insects I come into contact with, to the numbness in my response to the massive oil release in the Gulf, remind me of how much more work I have to do. So while many of us may feel like we get the whole nature thing, we love nature and animals, there is still a basic separateness in play.
As if this weren't already a high enough bar, there's an additional step that's even more challenging. Working to expand one's sense of identity, to develop the eco-self, sets the stage for an even more radical and spiritual experience of oneness that of No Self. The concept of No Self speaks to the nondual nature of reality known to many if not all of the wisdom traditions. The renowned Buddhist monk and peacemaker Thich Nhat Hanh coined the word interbeing to describe this reality. Everything that exists owes its existence to other "things." If we consider the human being deeply enough we can see that we are utterly dependent on sun, rain, soil, mountains, rivers, plants, animals, air, etc. We simply would not be here without the elements, processes, and other things of the world. Buddhist teaching, for example, explains that everything manifest co-arises with, and is dependent upon, everything else. There is no solid and independent self, to believe otherwise is delusion.
The implications for activism of such a deeply interconnected and spiritual understanding of reality are vast. In obliterating the notion of separateness, enemy images and ideas of "us versus them" fall away. Political action becomes about relationship building and defeating injustice as opposed to defeating people.
The work of expanding and then dissolving the sense of self is work with the psyche. Because such work is not generally encouraged in the West, we find ourselves handicapped. The connection between adulthood and engaging in a process of becoming increasingly conscious is not readily apparent on the newstands, on TV, and in our educational and political systems. And yet for us Westerners, since we have wounds unique to our industrial and technological context, it seems that work with the psyche is especially critical. The idea that working proactively with the psyche is critical to our health and well-being, even our survival, does indeed set the bar high. It's why our addiction to oil will likely continue until civilization as we know it collapses.
So if psyche is important, what might a healthy, proactive response to that understanding look like? Such a response might begin with slowing down enough to notice our habitual responses to things, to that bug crawling on your arm, to that driver that pissed you off. If we can be compassionate with ourselves we might build self-awareness and compassion for others in the process. We might start to question the story of entitlement, superiority, and separateness. The real work begins when we stop pointing the finger at others and turn our attention inward toward ourselves, taking an honest look at our behavior and the thoughts behind it. Gandhi's dictum "Be the change you want to see in the world", is famous because of the depth of truth it reveals.
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