Being the change….

In many thoughtful circles around the world, Eckhart Tolle is a familiar figure.  His philosophy is encapsulated in the title of his first book, The Power of Now: it’s about the importance of living in the present, as opposed to the future and the past.  Having gotten that far in his thinking, it seemed simple enough, and I didn’t bother to read the book; nor did I pick up his latest book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, although I was intrigued by the connection in the title between individual realization and changing the world.  Was he giving us a new version of the old adage “Be the change you want to see?”

Still, I gave it a miss until my brother, a businessman who generally has had little use for mystical reflection, began talking it up and telling me it was a must-read, that it had really made him think and act in new and positive ways.  So I brought A New Earth with me to Nova Scotia, and read it immediately following Mark Hertsgaard’s Hot.

No two books could be more different.  Hertsgaard is also talking about “a new Earth,” but his focus is on changing external reality: shifting from fossil fuels to renewables, building dykes and levees against rising waters, winning over hearts and minds so that more people commit to the struggle to keep global warming from getting to the catastrophe point, which, Hertsgaard reminds us constantly, is not far away.

Tolle, on the other hand, is entirely focused on changing internal reality: changing the way we human beings think and experience our lives.  He believes that collectively, human thought patterns can affect the external world.

“The dysfunction of the egoic human mind, recognized 2,500 years by the ancient wisdom teachers and now magnified through science and technology, is for the first time threatening the survival of the planet….A significant portion of the earth’s population will soon recognize, if they haven’t already done so, that humanity is now faced with a stark choice: evolve or die” (21).

Tolle spends a lot of time in the book explaining what he means by “the egoic mind.”  Basically, it’s the competitive, material, greedy, selfish human mindset: the mindset that gave rise to brutal colonialism and exploitative capitalism; that corrupted Marx’s concept of communism into Stalinism, Maoism and Castroism; the mindset that has categorized, subordinated and persecuted people based on their skin color, religion or ethnicity; that has made the last 5,000 years a non-stop series of wars, and has steadily exterminated millions of species on this planet.

For Tolle, it’s not a matter of shifting to some new ideology—it goes much deeper than that.  “What is arising now is not a new belief system, a new religion, spiritual ideology or mythology.  We are coming to the end not only of mythologies but also of ideologies and belief systems.  The change goes deeper than the content of your mind, deeper than your thoughts.  In fact, at the heart of the new consciousness lies the transcendence of thought, the newfound ability of rising above thought, of realizing a dimension within yourself that is infinitely more vast than thought” (21).

This dimension within us seems to be what mystics throughout the ages have tried to name—it has gone by names like “the soul,” “the spirit,” “the divine,” representing our connection to something greater than our limited human bodies.  Tolle’s methods of accessing this “new consciousness” are familiar to anyone who has even a passing knowledge of Buddhism, and indeed he draws frequently on references from Buddhist thinkers, from Siddhartha on down.  Meditate; focus on the present moment, using the breath as an anchor; when your thoughts wander to past or present, bring them back gently but firmly to the present.  Be comfortable with uncertainty; don’t insist on limiting self-definitions; drop the habitual role-playing and be authentic with everyone you meet.  Stop focusing on negative emotions, pain and violence.  Recognize your fundamental connection with all-that-is, and stop trying to control everything.

Tolle calls unhappiness “a disease on our planet” (213).  The only way for us to become happier as a species, which will automatically translate into a more balanced and sustainable future for our planet as a whole, is for humans to come to “accept the present moment and find the perfection that is deeper than any form and untouched by time.  The joy of Being, which is the only true happiness, cannot come to you through any form, possession, achievement, person or event—through anything that happens.  That joy cannot come to you—ever.  It emanates from the formless dimension within you, from consciousness itself and thus is one with who you are” (214).

OK, the skeptic in me says—sounds good, Eckhart, but do you really want me to believe that if all 7 billion of us were to start meditating and finding our inner Being, which is to say our connection with the source energy that animates our planet and our universe, we could undo the millennia of human destructiveness, including the current climate challenges?

On the other hand, isn’t that what materialists like Hertsgaard and McKibben are talking about too—recognizing how humans are an integral part of the ecological web of our planet, and acting out of this awareness?  We are not here to dominate and exploit the planet, we are here to play our parts in the great dance of life.

Cruelty, hatred and willful, excessive destruction are uniquely human—we are the only beings on this planet that engage in this kind of negative behavior.  Eckhart Tolle is right that there are more and more people arising now who recognize this behavior for the sickness it is, and are changing—starting with themselves, and moving out into the world.

Tolle’s great insight is that if we were to allow ourselves to connect with the source energy of the planet—the divine spark, the soul, the spirit that animates us and our world—we would become incapable of cruelty and brutality.  We would have evolved to another level of consciousness.  Tolle is clear about this: we must evolve, or die out as a species. 

On an individual level, there do seem to be growing numbers of people out there who recognize our fundamental connection to the web of life, and the need to change our ways of living to bring ourselves into a harmonious relationship with our environment.  However, on a larger societal level, we remain imprisoned by old structures that arose in the 18th and 19th centuries, and keep us treading the same old destructive rut.  Property rights, human superiority over animals, human comfort and consumption as an unquestioned priority, the profit imperative, the recourse to violence as a response to any challenge…all these old structures (Tolle would call them “thought-forms”) are then supported and strengthened by laws and political systems developed ages ago, that keep us knotted firmly into place.

We may be able to change individually, but how will these structures change?  History has shown that major changes like constitutional amendments, national boundaries and systemic political overhauls have come about only through violence and upheaval.  Can it really be that this time the collective power of enough of us sitting around focusing on the present and finding our inner connection to Being will do the trick?

Certainly I agree with Tolle that we would be happier if we lived more in the present moment, and were motivated by the joy of Being, rather than the egoistic desire for fame and fortune.  I just wonder whether we might get so lost in meditating that we fail to notice the tsunami that’s about to sweep us away.  Or maybe that is still being too old-school: worrying about the future, and failing to realize that the end of our human body is not a cause for grief, but rather a return to the energetic source of our planet, a cause for celebration.


Let a billion ordinary heroes bloom!

Mark Hertsgaard dedicates his book Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth to his young daughter, Chiara, born in 2005 as the snowball of climate change began picking up momentum.  Perhaps because he has her constantly in mind as he’s working on the book, he does something science writers rarely do: he begins his book by invoking fairy tales, and returns to them several times as he goes along.

Science writers are usually at great pains to be empirical—that is, to convince us, by their impeccable sources and detailed documentation, that what they’re telling us is true.  Hertsgaard does this, of course: there are the usual obligatory paragraphs of statistics, drawn from unimpeachable sources like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the various climate experts he interviews.  But for me some of the strongest, most memorable passages in the book are the ones where he relies on the imaginative power of fairy tales to get his message across.

In his very first chapter, he goes back to the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who analyzed fairy tales in his book The Uses of Enchantment, concluding that children learn from fairy tales that “’a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence.’ But, Bettelheim  continues, ‘if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious’” (Hertsgaard, 16).

The first fairy tale Hertsgaard writes about is E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Nutcracker,” with which his daughter Chiara fell in love as a young toddler.  “After seeing The Nutcracker ballet onstage, Chaira began acting out the story at home.  She invariably cast herself as Clara; her mother or I was assigned to play the godfather, the prince, or both.  One day, after she and I had played the game for about the three hundreth time, I got distracted.  To my half-listening ears, the music seemed to indicate the start of the battle scene, so as the prince I began to brandish my sword.  A puzzled look appeared on Chiara’s face.  It took her a moment to realize that her father was confused.  She looked up and carefully explained, ‘No, Daddy.  It is still the party.  The danger is not here yet.’”

Hertsgaard tells this charming personal story to illustrate his point that “the party, so long and pleasurable, that gave rise to global warming is…still underway.”  For most of us, the danger does not yet seem real, so it’s hard to feel the urgency to change our lifestyles, which are after all so comfortable, familiar and, let’s face it, fun, at least for the upper crust.  Hertsgaard goes back again to the fairy tale model some pages later to put out a call for “thousands of ordinary heroes to step forward and fight for our future,” to tame the many-headed hydra of climate change.

This call echoes that of Philip Zimbardo, the Stanford psychologist who gained prominence as a young professor in the 1970s by conducting the infamous Stanford prison experiment, where he showed that if put into the right circumstances, the most ordinary young men will become fascist torturers.  After the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, Zimbardo was called upon to explain how those ordinary American soldiers could have engaged in such horrific sadistic acts.  But by then his own focus had shifted.  Zimbardo is now much more interested in examining how it is that ordinary folks step up and become heroes, because he too is convinced that our society is gravely in need of “thousands of ordinary heroes” to turn things around.

When I was about eight years old, a very powerful revelation of the destructiveness of humanity prompted me to start writing my first story.  It happened like this. We always arrived at our country house at night, and the next morning I would always get up around sunrise and go out, with great excitement, to see what was happening in the natural landscape I loved so much.

On this May morning, I was shocked to see, at the bottom of the driveway, piles of maple branches, their small, bright green, new leaves withering on the ground, sap oozing out of the cut branches—a holocaust of new life.  Shocked and upset, I raced back home to tell my mother what had happened.  I expected that she would be upset too, but instead she calmly explained, “The power company must have come to trim branches along the lines.” That was all there was to it; there was nothing to be done and it wasn’t worth getting upset over.  Her response just infuriated me more, and out of that fury my first story was born.

It was about a wood nymph named Estrella, who set out on a quest to save her forest from human destruction.  I wrote about the council of animals and forest spirits that decided that such a quest must be undertaken, and I wrote about Estrella setting off with two animal companions.  But beyond that the story petered out, because I could not imagine a solution to the problem; I couldn’t think of how a wood nymph and some animals could stop humans with chain saws.  At that age I was reading my way through all of the Lang fairytale collection, so you’d think I would have been able to invent some powerful magic to do the trick.  But I wanted a “real” solution.  I knew that the problem I was dealing with was no fairytale, it was very much of this world, and I wanted to solve it…I just didn’t know how.

Now I am realizing that in order to accomplish the deep changes necessary to create a human society that values life and harmony more than domination and destruction, the old heroic quest model will not suffice.  Like Hertsgaard and Zimbardo, I know now that we can’t wait for a hero or a charismatic leader to take up the challenge and make everything right.  We need the kind of small-scale, unheralded acts, made daily by people all over the world, not because they expect to become famous and marry into royalty at the end, but because they are committed to living harmoniously with the ecological world of which we humans are a part; because they value life, and want to live their values.

Towards the end of Hot, Hertsgaard invents his own fairytale, which I hope he actually produces as an illustrated children’s book—it’s wonderful!  I won’t give it away here, other than to observe that it’s about how a whole village worked together to throw off tyranny and create a more sustainable, joyful place to live.  There is no clever young boy outwitting the giant; no princess standing fast in the face of a dragon.  Just ordinary people—in this case, ordinary young people, since  the children lead the way—standing up to do what’s right.

Fairytales may be fiction, but as Bettelheim and so many other analysts have realized, they point the way to deep truths.  I’ll have more to say on the importance of telling new stories in future posts.  For now, let a billion ordinary heroes bloom!

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