Monday, April 5, 2021

Reflections on the Inner Challenges of a Ghastly Future

 Originally posted with Omega's Resilience Funders Network here-

The recent group discussion around the ‘Underestimating the Challenges of a Ghastly Future’ (UCGF) paper felt quite lively and meaningful to me, grateful for the opportunity to attend!  As I took in the discussion, I had a few reflections come up, which I offer below in the spirit of furthering the dialogue.

The first time I came across the idea of ecological overshoot was about a decade ago, in 2012.  I was working in the field of impact investing and came across a person who, in almost hushed tones, mentioned to me that the climate scientists we were hearing from (who were already concerning), were just the ones being platformed.  There were others, whose research and ideas weren’t being trumpeted, whose findings were more dire.  He also shared with me leaders of other ways of connecting to ecological wisdom – for instance, he asked me if I had heard of the Archdruid, John Michael Greer.  This sent me down a rabbit hole.

Since then, I’ve been diving deeper into an inquiry of breakdown.  It has included elements of my own, as I saw the fragility of my own psyche in the face of such large questions.  In recent years, I have found community around this inquiry, and have seen much larger numbers of people become ‘collapse aware’ at some level.  I’ve had the opportunity to interview some of the pioneers of an inquiry that’s born of allowing in some of these uncomfortable findings.

As part of this, I’ve been actively involved with the work of Jem BendellScholar’s Warning, and Deep Adaptation Forum.  These are oases that seem to be grappling with similar questions – how to invite the scientific community to more directly speak their truth.  With Covid-19, the mainstream view was to present the science with a cautious tone meant to maximizing the saving of lives, not necessarily to keep up lifestyles.  Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case with ecocide, for a variety of reasons.

The early research on the topic of climate grief seems to be that talking about these issues, in broad and narrow forums, supports individual and community wellness, despite the intensity of the topic.  There are even those who say that it is the difficulty to name these possibilities, and experience the grief that accompanies them, that forms the basis for their manifestation.  Of course, human development exists on a spectrum, and not all may benefit from engagement, but I have seen how this same topic framed in multiple skillful ways can reach across values divides.

In recent times, I have been exploring how cosmology plays a role in how we metabolize breakdown.  In the eastern traditions, cyclicality is fundamental – just as there is a spring, or a Satya Yuga, or a True Dharma Age, there is a fall, or a Kali Yuga, or a Dharma Ending Age.  But of course the soil does not go anywhere.  Regardless of the times, there is something that transcends.  In Mahayana traditions, they speak of the importance of a Bodhisattva approach to life – a path of unconditional service with no aim to optimize outcome.  Perhaps that concept is prescient for these times.

What the UGCF paper brings up in me is an inquiry of ‘how to be,’ as much or more than ‘what to do.’  In our community, we know of many who are engaging with deep collective leverage points, from systems of economics to systems of governance – whether in those domains or the more mundane, the inquiry remains relevant to me.  As for me, I’m currently taking these questions into the embodiment domain – feeling tones, shadow work, grief work, and creating the space for others to head in a direction where the logical mind alone may not explore.  I appreciate the opportunity to reflect on what came up for me in this broader discussion, hope to listen and learn from others as well.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Interview with Deep Adaptation Forum

Plant the Seeds, Get Out of the Way

View the video.

DAF: Recently you and I have been collaborating on a document and the word “collapse” came up, which is used all the time in Deep Adaptation and is all over the website. And you made a comment about the word “collapse”, questioning that word. And since it seems so foundational to how we communicate in DAF, I jumped at the chance, like, “Let’s explore this!” So I’m just completely open to hearing your perspective and having that conversation.

BIRJU PANDYA: Lovely, thank you for the invitation to share. I’m curious what will emerge here as well.

I came across the Deep Adaptation concepts through my own journey, both personal and professional. Professionally I’ve been involved in work at the level of systems: financial systems, ecological systems, and how they work together. I was born and raised in the [United] States, but my background is in Eastern schools of philosophy and mythology. I’m raised a Hindu and Indian by background, and also very interested in Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. And that’s really informed some of my inquiry on this word “collapse.” Within these schools there’s this deep rooting in outcome-less action, and to engage in service without holding a view that you’re even a separate person who is doing something. There’s nothing to get, no world to save, no enlightenment to achieve. 

I find that to be really handy right now. Because I feel like, when one learns about the context our civilization is in, one feels this urgency of action. “We need to do big things. We need to act quickly and decisively.” We hear this all the time. And to me that’s like a finger trap, because now we’re just doubling down on the same thing that got us here: time scarcity, scale-oriented thinking, abstract thinking. So, to me, the elegance of Deep Adaptation is it’s a skillful pathway to perhaps release someone from that Westernized view.

There’s a psychotherapist named Karla McLaren who wrote a book on emotions, and, actually, the helpfulness of emotions like depression. She said depression is a reminder that something needs to die—but it’s not us. Likewise, there’s this conflation between human beings and this Westernized way of life, that something needs to die—but is it human beings? Or is it this worldview?

My friend, Michael Lerner, runs a cancer clinic here in the Bay Area. He says that stage IV cancer is a “rough initiation”, and the purpose of a rough initiation is not to survive it. I think that’s really powerful. Collapse can happen at any level—it can happen for a person with cancer. But what’s actually collapsing and what’s born again? If your cosmology is linear and ends with death, you would perceive breakdown in that same biblical, apocalyptic lens. And I guess it’s unsurprising that the culture that would create efficiency and brittleness would also create such a worldview. Whereas the wisdom traditions I’m connected to would say: “We’re going to follow principles of living systems, and living systems don’t follow that cadence.” There’s a seasonality to it. And just because you’re in one part of a season doesn’t demand that your existence is bound by that season.

DAF: I love it, I love it. I want to go in a couple of directions, but, first, this one: when you saw the word “collapse”, how would you have changed that wording?

PANDYA: My worldview is grounded in the theory of human development. As a society, we’re really good at acknowledging that you make neurological connections and integrate perspectives for a certain period—but then you turn eighteen and that stops. Not really! Ken Wilber talks about integral theory and how there’s empirically different stages of what people can allow in without shutting down. So there’s different words I would want to use depending on the stage of perception your audience is in. For certain people, the shock, the finality of the word “collapse” is what it takes to get them out of their own head. But for someone else, you might call it the end of life as we know it, or Kali Yuga, or Dharma-Ending Age.

DAF: I did a video last Monday [13 December 2020] with Eric Garza about trauma and how our nervous systems get dysregulated. We lose that sense that this is natural history, that this goes on for centuries, millennia, and we’re just part of it. That kind of ease of being is so alien to people who’ve been steeped in the Western culture. What would you say Deep Adaptation Forum could offer to kind of ease that anxiety and introduce this other mindset?

PANDYA: Yeah! For me, it’s not even this other mindset in the sense that it’s like a light switch of one or the other, but more like a dimmer or something even multi-dimensional. It’s supporting the process of becoming that I think we are in. Each one of us is inviting in and integrating more perspectives as we grow. That’s a natural process, as much as planting a seed leads to a plant. And we can get in the way of that process. As a society, I think we’ve created structures that are really good at getting in the way of that process. So, at some level, the inquiry I’m holding is how to support the dissolution of false solidity to allow for this natural becoming. It’s not us doing anything: it’s us getting out of the way of ourselves.

An important piece of that is community, being around people where they are also engaged with this question. That’s what Buddha would call noble friendship. How can we create containers where noble friendship at an intimate level is possible? 

Another piece of it is practices. There’s two bands of consciousness that I think pulls in Deep Adaptation kinds of rhetoric: one is a person who just shuts down from it and says, “Oh my God, I can’t even look here.” And then there’s people who are like, “Oh my God, what do I do?” There’s a lot of heady energy being held, because that’s kind of what society has created. But heady energy doesn’t lead to shifts in patterns of behavior. What practices do is help people get more embodied through day-to-day action, to connect in with their hearts, with their hands, as it relates to their own resilience. 

If you [asked] me ten years ago, “Do you want to invite a different sense of knowing? Well, you should bow.” I’d be like, “What?” But if you said “Did you know [that] every time your heart is above your head, the blood flow in your system changes? The way neurological connections happen in your brain changes?” I’d be like, “Huh, okay, now I’m willing to listen more.” Not because it’s any more true, but because my band of consciousness demanded that form of communication.

DAF: That’s great, I love that. Your first point around community: it does feel like Deep Adaptation Forum is a community where people are attracted in different ways to different practices. There will be pockets where it’s a bit headier and then others where it’s more spiritual. And some people are concerned that maybe there’s too much online community and people are avoiding their neighbors. That maybe we’re putting loads of time into Zoom calls with each other around the world and avoiding what’s outside the door.

PANDYA: What comes up for me, and holding aside COVID in the hopes that 2021 is different, is my volunteer experience. I’ve been an active volunteer with several organizations for a while, but one that I hold very dear to my heart is a group called ServiceSpace. And one of the driving factors that invites a theory of change for us is this inquiry onto emergence. 

For those who may not be familiar, the concept of emergence is to not plan out in a strategic sort of way—which is hard for me as a person who is classically educated and got an MBA and that sort of thing. But to really invite in this possibility that nature knows what it’s doing. It’s like trying to grow a jungle on a barren piece of land: there’s the Miracle Gro pathway, and there’s the pathway where I’m going to create the conditions for a mycelial network to happen and then get out of the way. And I saw this play out at ServiceSpace when one group that was using our online orientations decided to open their doors once a week for an in-person mindfulness practice. This excitement caught on and, twenty years later, there’s a hundred places doing the same thing, inviting their local community in on their own process of becoming.

DAF: I like that. Yeah, some people have had ideas around: we support one another online and we create community, but also with some commitment to planting seeds outside our front door. And maybe making that part of our practice is that we’re doing it outside the door.

PANDYA: Right? Literally planting seeds outside the door could be a practice. But if you have a heady orientation, you’ll say, “Well, that’s no good because the system is collapsing, and planting a few seeds doesn’t do anything.” But if you have a cyclic worldview, you’ll say, “Well, the seeds that I plant here are actually planting seeds in here [points to heart].” It’s shifting my neurology, which changes every action I take going forward—including things that may happen after this body’s not even around.

DAF: I know a lot of people who are stuck in that, “But what’s collapse gonna look like? I need to know what it’s gonna look like.” And it’s about creating spaces where people can be uncomfortable and learn how to let go of that concept. I suppose that would be a practice because it’s a bit like a meditation where your mind wanders and you bring it back! You start thinking, “If I do this, how’s that going to make things better long-term? Can you guarantee…?” And then you stop and come back to, “I’m planting seeds for the next cycle, the next season—whatever it is.”

PANDYA:  I love what you’re saying. And this capacity for anxiety and fear: we’re not going to be able to think our way out of that. There is no amount of information that can be provided that will allow a person to transcend their relationship with anxiety. It will be an embodiment process, where their container just continues to expand.

DAF: We have some people responding to collapse with prepping, and others who don’t want to talk about prepping. They want more loving responses, less [of the] “How do I survive alone in the woods? How is my family going to survive collapse?” It feels like this approach shows that, if you let go of any goal, this outcome of survival, and, instead, you’re more grounded in the seasonality, then maybe your natural movement will be towards generosity and service.

PANDYA: I think what you’ve described is beautiful. The way that I would play it back is more nuanced than a dichotomy of self-orientation or service. It’s more like, if we could possibly loosen the death grip of one worldview, so that one percent of something else could come in. 

Personally, I prep! However, any prepping I do is community-based. The two words that I’m guided by are resilience and regeneration, applied at the level of the self, community, and ecology. What does resilience look like at each of those levels? Well, it includes some amount of food when you live in a just-in-time system. You want to try to have that food, not just for you but for your community. But you also want access to a shoulder to cry on. What does grieving look like? Are you able to grieve? Are you able to find joy without having stuff? That’s all part of resilience. And then there’s the regeneration component: how do I regenerate my capacity to find inner peace, my capacity to be in community even as things shift, my capacity to ground myself in what is beyond the seasonal? Is there a wisdom tradition that will help me do that?

DAF: It’s a loving response, wanting everyone around you to eat and to love.

PANDYA: Take your prototypical approach, like, “I need to get as much ammo as I can.” When that’s the kind of rhetoric and practices that one invites in, it’s a closing off of one’s inner selves. Forget whether you live or you die later: in this moment, you’re dying! So what are the pathways that allow that to shift as a community, as a culture? I think that’s a really important question. And the answer isn’t just to radically open up. I think the answer is way more nuanced and tailored for where individuals and communities are in their own growth-development journey. But we can’t simply ignore that a growth-development journey is happening. It’s happening, and the more we can get out of the way of it, the more there’s a possibility of that continuing—whether or not the human race is how it occurs.