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Aging with Vision, Hope and Courage in a Time of Crisis

 
I’ve been writing and lecturing on conscious aging as a spiritual and mystical experience for over twenty-five years. Then, more recently, I came to see that a spiritual and mystical awareness of life is also critical to our survival in the rapidly escalating climate crisis, so I wrote, Mystical Activism: Transforming a World in Crisis in support of climate activism. But now there’s even more.

As the coronavirus burst upon the scene, I realized that climate change was only one of a new “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” The storied marauders of old – death, plague, war and famine – had morphed into the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, uncontrolled population growth, and the unraveling of modern civilization. Increasingly now, I fear for the future of my family and friends, as I’m sure you fear for the future of your loved ones, and I worry for the future of the human family and life itself. This is not academic to me, it’s in my awareness every day, triggered by each news report, email, telephone conversation, and article I write.

Then, out of the blue, my publisher asked me to join nine other writers in a series of books on the theme of Resilience for this dangerous and chaotic time. He gave me three weeks to complete it and I was to speak to my own demographic – men and women age 65 and older, so I wrote, Aging with Vision, Hope and Courage in a Time of Crisis. While the book is meant to support my own generation, its message is universal.

 A Personal Confession

I want to begin with the problem before us. I am not afraid to call this time apocalyptic and I cannot apologize for being an alarmist – the global sirens have been going off for years and now they are screaming. We’ve long known about dangerous zoonotic diseases, escalating climate change, unrestrained population pressures, and the fragility of modern civilization, but we did little to prepare for them. The fate of our species now hangs in the balance.  If we are going to confront these combined and interacting crises as a human family, we have to face them head on. The Earth is crying out for our help in the loudest way she knows how – by threatening our very existence.

Here is how I came to face this existential threat. It is my personal confession and it’s true: For several months in 2019, I felt haunted. I would wake up between 3:00 and 5:00 am with skin-crawling dread because everywhere I went, I could see ten years into the future, daily witnessing the “Four Horsemen” of global apocalypse riding roughshod over our home planet. Perhaps these visions were a product of a fevered imagination. Perhaps they are only partly true. Perhaps the horror is coming. Have you experienced images like these? I don’t share them to frighten you, only to give voice to my own fears, acknowledge yours, and mobilize both of us to care more passionately for the world. Here’s what I saw…

I saw hillsides of dead trees in the Pacific Northwest riddled with beetles, tinder for coming infernos; I saw dry stream beds, like parched cracked throats, spreading through the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains of Western America; I saw fish, faunae and two-leggeds dying across the globe because glaciers no longer fill their life-giving rivers; I saw 150 species of plants and animals going extinct every day – it’s called the 6th Extinction, with our beloved salmon and whale populations disappearing in warming, polluted, acidic oceans and streams; I saw exhausted immigrant families fleeing the over-population, suffocating heat, useless fields, and failing economies of their homelands only to be cruelly driven back by soldiers; I saw once great cities replaced by deserted dusty wastelands, and whole towns and villages turned into graveyards by rampaging parasites, superbugs, and starvation; I saw the old and sick struggling with neither medications nor hospitals; I saw agitated parents searching depleted grocery shelves to fill near-empty pantries and dead refrigerators; I saw skies swallowed by rotating jet-black storm systems, vast and demonic, two hundred mile-per-hour winds and crushing rains, churning toward incredulous, hypnotized onlookers frozen in fear; and I saw the rise of authoritarian governments, failed states, civil wars, and the domino-like collapse of lawful civilization as peoples and nations fight for power and resources. I was living in two alternating realities unable to share my insane double-vision with anyone. Sometimes I found myself crying and all the while I heard the dark threatening bass riff from Jaws playing in my head. I thought, “That can’t be good.”

Many people still cannot see all these dangers, and I can’t stop seeing them – heart-breaking and terrifying. I join climate scientists trembling in fear from their own findings and doctors struggling in overwhelmed hospitals with insufficient meds and beds. My escalating anxiety insists that I wake up and pay attention: I am feeling the suffering of Creation Herself. How about you?

We are Creation and we will die without Her. There is no place to hide and nowhere else to go. We need to take a massive stand for life now or follow this haunting vision to its prophesied ending. The debate over the threat of pandemics, climate change, population growth and the unraveling of civilization has ended. So, too, must denial, ignorance, passivity and cynicism yield to legitimate facts and heart-felt action. But, first of all, what can we do with our rapidly mounting fear and despair?

Responding to the Earth’s Crises in Four Dimensions

As a psychologist, minister, and spiritual writer, I see this impending crisis in four dimensions: practical, psychological, spiritual, and mystical. Let’s spend some time in each dimension and see how it might enhance to our coping capacity.

The Practical Dimension.

Obviously, we need to survive. We need the basics – water, food, shelter, medicine, safety. We also need an accurate account of what’s happening in the world from week to week to act accordingly. The more we plan in advance for long-term adaptation, the better our chances of survival. Science, technology, and government action are critical and many strategies are already being implemented as the global drama builds. Most importantly, we need to create functioning and sustainable local systems for providing basic needs. Community building can also provide emotional support, creative problem-solving, and hope. This first dimension exceeds the scope of this paper but all of us – from individuals to local, state and national governments – need to keep focusing on practical and community-based adaptation.

The Psychological Dimension

When we lift the lid of denial, the magnitude of our impending trauma feels crushing and unbearable. Its scale is terrifying and mounting grief can break our resolve and our spirits. We erupt angrily, hide in denial, or go numb, responses consistent with our deepest animal instincts of fight, flight, or freeze. Tragically, a fourth emotional response also beckons – collapsing in despair as hope dwindles. None of these reactions will help us adapt to this changing world. We need to manage our distress instead. Here are some ideas for coping with overwhelming emotions.

What we need most in the beginning is mutual support, compassion and understanding, tenderly holding our shattered and frightened hearts until basic stability returns and healing can begin. Loss hurts so much. With each setback, death, or disorienting shock, we are, for a time, too broken and traumatized to act constructively. We must give our pain time, understanding and acceptance to move through us. Don’t be impatient with your feelings, instead make space to emote them one painful catharsis at a time. Keep in mind, too, that coping with the grief of traumatic loss continues for years. The death of a loved one is never really healed, but it can be managed, shared, honored, and made sacred. Dealing with loss is the work of unfinished love and the work of a lifetime.

Feelings are not reality but they need to be processed to prevent paralysis and resume effective action. But remember that anything we feel changes as we feel it. That’s what “working through” means. Painful emotions gradually release their raw immediate energy and pass, permitting us to regain a degree of control, see our situation more clearly again, and respond proactively. Though grief goes with us forever, we can recover purpose and action, fight on to save other loved ones, and work to rebuild civilization. On the other hand, working through does not mean “acting out.” While anger and blame directed at each other can discharge emotion, it is counterproductive, causing recurring cycles of pain and reactivity on all fronts.

We also need to feel our feelings to recover who we are. When we bury feelings too long, we lose our self, we grow numb and inert, we start dying emotionally. Akin to burn-out and battle fatigue, too much unprocessed pain takes us down. It’s usually easy enough to see, but not so easy to heal. Catch numbness early. Create “therapy” sessions for each other every day. Provide loving feedback. Recovering also means accepting all our emotions no matter how awful they are. When helping doesn’t work, take time out if possible and get out of the battle. Rest and safety are medicine, too.

The constant pain of unbearable circumstances must also be managed, and there is a way. From his horrific World War II concentration camp experience, psychologist Victor Frankl discovered that we find meaning, purpose and love by focusing on the each other’s needs in the present moment. When we take care of each other in the timeless now, we get out of our heads and awaken the power of love. One day at a time, one gesture, kind word or helping hand, knits the fabric in love that makes life bearable. A touch, a story, a memory, a joke, a poem, an observation – we each have something to give. As Mr. Rogers’ mother counseled, in times of crisis, “look for the helpers.” Even now, even as things are unraveling around us, there are so many people trying to do the right thing.

Working through feelings also offers new insights into ourselves and others. What do our emotional reactions say about our values, assumptions and beliefs, and what else may be going inside that is important but not obvious? Sometimes new wounds expose old ones and we get paralyzed in the unfinished business of life. Other times, new insights catalyze new ways of thinking that move us from reactivity to psychological understanding, clearer focus, and better planning. All problem-solving has an emotional level that, unrecognized, can impede progress, but managed will produce more energy, creativity and commitment for change.

Always remember community. Rather than isolating ourselves in fortresses of fear and paranoia for survival, we need to stay in community. Isolation breeds depression, hopelessness, and fear. Especially in sustained crises, community is the cure. Divided, we cower, together we can be an amazing force of healing, creativity and commitment. Reach out. Share meals. Play games. Be there for each other.

Finally, continually assess reality. What’s happening right now? How are things changing? Which problems are receding and which growing? Reality is evolving, too. When time for action comes, it needs to be grounded in an objective awareness of actual circumstances.

The Spiritual Dimension

Everyone has personal spiritual beliefs – beliefs about ultimate issues like the meaning of life, the value of love, the nature of suffering, what happens at death, and the transcendent dimension by whatever name. These beliefs may be religious, humanistic, aesthetic, cosmological, or grounded in scientific wonder and awe. And we have all had experiences that evoked spiritual questions and intuitions. One of the gifts of spirituality is that it can provide a supportive framework of hope and coping in times of hardship or crisis.

When terrible things happen, we ask yourself profound questions about the significance of the event that go beyond physical facts to the level of transcendent meaning and causation. Spiritual and religious beliefs, readings, and prayers can stir answers, comfort us, help us bear the unbearable, find new meaning in our struggle, and provide hope for the future. They can also deepen our connection with the divine through spiritual practices like prayer, contemplation, meditation, ritual, fasting, art and dance. By creating a real and felt connection to the sacred, we experience religious truths for ourselves and kindle new depths of love and compassion.

With these goals and values in mind, here are some recommendations for working in the spiritual dimension. Ask yourself the big spiritual questions like, “Where is God in this crisis?” “What are my spiritual beliefs about what’s happening?” “What is my spiritual purpose or work here?” and “What might the world’s crisis suggest about humanity’s spiritual evolution?” Your intuitive answers can reframe hardships as meaningful. Ponder also what the world’s great spiritual teachers might tell you about your situation and how to respond. Read your favorite spiritual texts to look for inspiration and guidance. Let your beliefs and practices awaken the love, compassion and courage inherent in their teachings, and realize that facing painful realities is itself a spiritual practice.

Finally, considerable psychological research in recent years has validated the role of religion and spirituality in supporting community, reducing drug and alcohol abuse and addiction, reducing delinquency and criminal behavior, promoting positive health habits, and coping with loss, divorce, and mental health challenges including suicide. When spirituality is tied to religious commitment and attendance, community becomes an even more powerful source for buffering stress and protecting members.

The Mystical Dimension

Conceiving this dark time in history as a clarion call to mystical awakening can also bring meaning and purpose back into your life no matter who or where you are, but first we need to understand the nature of mysticism.

Mysticism.

Mysticism has long had a negative reputation in western religion, often considered irresponsible dabbling in the dark arts or defiance of church elders. But it’s not what you think. To understand the healing potential of mystical experience in this catastrophic time, we need to appreciate its nature and gifts.

Mysticism simply refers to the firsthand experience of the sacred. It’s not weird, “woo woo,” or far out. We’ve all had big or little mystical experiences, like the stunned amazement of meeting our newborn child for the first time, standing in silent awe gazing up at ancient redwoods, falling in love for the first time, feeling the palpable holiness of a sacred place, or simply being deeply present at the passing of a loved one. In these moments, the mind stops its incessant chatter, perception heightens, and we subtly experience the sacred consciousness that pervades Creation. Mystical experience is a breakthrough of the divine into personal awareness that reveals the absolute sacredness of life.

One of the still-unrealized gifts of mystical experience is mystical consciousness, which arises from this same thought-free, sacred awareness, only now we learn to experience it intentionally. In its fullness, mystical consciousness unveils the exquisitely beautiful, infinitely precious, luminous, and timeless reality known as Creation. With basic mystical exercises, we discover anew that everything is sacred, including us, for the Beloved has become the world around us.

The second gift of mysticism, mystical activism, evolves naturally from mystical consciousness because we now awaken a relationship with the divine as Creation itself. Do you want experience God first hand? Experience Creation in mystical consciousness. This experience is profoundly motivating. Sensing the Beloved as nature, we respond with immense gratitude, amazement, wonder, awe and love. We begin to heal our relationship with the sacred world. We invite her guidance. And we fight to defend her. It’s like finding a young child toddling across a busy street. We don’t just drive by, we do whatever it takes to save that child. It’s the same thing with Creation. In that moment of realization, we suddenly understand how sacred and precious all life is on Earth and we cannot not respond.

Mysticism and the Earth Crisis.

How does mysticism relate to our global nightmare? Here’s the answer. Long ago we forgot our inborn mystical nature and abandoned the firsthand experience of Creation. We didn’t get kicked out, we left on our own accord. Our waking hours are now spent in artificially insulated environments separated from the natural world – cars, houses, offices, stores, and jobs; worse, our consciousness is totally consumed by TV, cell phones, head phones, video games, the internet, news feeds, social media, endless conversations, and our own unruly chattering minds. We live almost entirely in our thoughts, beliefs, opinions and identities. We don’t see the sacred world anymore! That’s why it’s in crisis. Creation has been suffering all around us for years and we haven’t noticed. We’ve been too busy. Worse, failing to see the sacred nature of reality, we go on desecrating Creation, exploiting her as an endless supply of raw materials, a cash cow of new consumer products, or a garbage dump for toxic waste and discarded packaging. No wonder she is wounded and angry. Because we are so lost in thought, we desperately need to come home to the first-hand experience of the sacred as Creation.

The Challenge of Change.

What we’re facing in the global crisis is huge. It’s going to require thousands of changes and a radical transformation of consciousness to survive. Personal goals can motivate us in the short run, but in the years and decades of this transition, and in the face of terrible losses, suffering and despair, we need something much more powerful to sustain us, and that something is the experience of the sacredness of life – not as a metaphor, cliché, symbol, happy sentiment in a Hallmark card – but as reality itself. We protect what we love and experience as sacred.

In mystical activism, we live more and more in the divine flow of here and now, and experience sacred consciousness in everything we do – raising our children, loving our family and our friends, performing our work, being kind and considerate, caring for community and environment, pursuing climate activism, and even the simplest human acts of eating, drinking and loving – they are all sacred in awakened perception. In this way, divine consciousness reverberates through the whole fabric of human activity, touching everyone, everything, everywhere, tipping the balance toward peace, healing, inclusiveness and joy.

Sheltering in Place: A Time of Deep Questions

It makes sense now to return to the global crisis surrounding us, and specifically, the self-quarantining so many of us have undertaken to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and everyone else. Though it smacks of teleology, we should ponder the meaning of the coronavirus epidemic at this point in history. Is its “purpose” to slow us down and simplify our lives; to deepen our values; to recognize that we are one people, one life, one world; to save us from a much worse fate should our abuse of Earth continue; or to transform our consciousness? I believe this virus brings all of these realizations and more. We are being asked to take a break from our crazy high-speed lives to reflect, go deep, and ask the most important questions of our soul. The bill has come due: if our life-damaging behavior continues, we won’t. We need to change.

What Can You Do to Help the World?

You are not the world’s savior. We are. Here’s a list of fifteen possible roles we can play in the world according to our interests, talents, and calling. There in no particular order. As you read them, make a note of which ones kindle your inner fire and see what you discover. While most roles refer to climate issues, our crises are all expressed in the natural world. You could be a…

  • Climate warrior defending Creation against the continuing assault of development, pollution, and zoonotic animal practices through social protest and civil disobedience.
  • Citizen Lobbyist pressuring local, state and national governments to declare a climate emergency, adopt climate legislation, regulate dangerous animal practices, and help all the world’s people achieve a decent standard of living and population control
  • Gardener or Animal Lover nourishing and supporting life in all its forms
  • Healer of physical, emotional, mental or spiritual wounds in human and non-human beings and communities, nurturing the hurt and broken back to life
  • Artist expressing and welcoming the Spirit’s powerful message of loving creativity through your own work. Art is the transformation of consciousness.
  • Lover of Creation blessing every living being and life form with kindness, gratitude and praise
  • Skillful Builder for a Sustainable New World as enlightened craftsman, engineer, laborer, farmer, planner, chef, inventor, lawyer or educator
  • Contemplative immersed in prayer and unitive consciousness sending healing energies throughout Creation
  • Scientist, professional or amateur, seeking to understand the nature, causes and management of zoonotic diseases, climate damage, population management, and global well-being
  • Spiritual Leader creating or revitalizing sacred ritual, celebration and theology in service to Creation
  • Social Organizer inspiring and mobilizing community planning for long-term local sustainability, immediate climate action, responsible coronavirus management, and sustainable living around the world
  • Conflict Manager skilled in compassionate non-violent communication and community problem-solving, guiding fractured groups through difficult choices toward unifying values and action
  • Volunteer donating time, energy, skills, and money to political, climate action, and public health organizations
  • Nature Mystic going outside and falling in love Creation for continued support, inspiration, and motivation
  • Last but not least, Reducer of Personal Environmental Contributions through lifestyle changes, carbon offset programs, and following CDC recommendations. And remember, the word “sacrifice” comes from the Latin and means “to make sacred.” What you give up helps restore the sacred world.

Which role or roles fan the embers of your inner fire? Which call to your soul? Imagine how you might move into these possibilities and let the inspiration grow. We each came into the world with gifts to share.

Conclusions: Coming Home to Creation

I believe that the ultimate healing step in this transition involves opening our hearts to Creation. Theologian Matthew Fox tell us, “An absence of the sense of the sacred is the basic flaw in many of our efforts at ecologically or environmentally adjusting our human presence to the natural world…” He adds, “More than ever, then, we need to stop and sit and be present…allow our love for the world and the world’s love for us to be deeply felt. This can carry us beyond nationhood and ethnic or racial or religious smallness into the much bigger world of creation itself. Love will be the source of our energy and of our imaginations that will render us effective agents for deeper change. Not superficial change, but a change that begins and ends with the reverence and gratitude we all carry in our hearts toward the universe that has birthed us. With that kind of deeper perspective, our prophetic callings stand a better chance of effective results.” These words are a beautiful description of mystical activism – living in the flow of sacred conscious to serve the world right where we are.

Fox is hardly alone in this call to sacred awareness. Joanna Macy, a long time Earth activist and climate prophet, says, “While the truth that we are headed toward extinction is a terrible shock, it has the potential to quicken our collective awakening, powering a profound transformation of our world. This transformation begins within.” And now carefully regard her next words for they are profoundly mystical, “We need to know ourselves, not only as individuals, but as co-creators within a deeply ensouled web of life where all is conscious. Once we align with the reality and depth intelligence of consciousness itself, we connect with a spiritual and moral power that gifts intuitive wisdom, guidance, and courage…In essence, we are awakening into the profound intimacy of all things, where we directly know that all beings, nature, the earth, and the cosmos are a part of ourselves.” This, too, is mystical activism – the awareness of the deep and sacred unity of conscious being.

Lastly, we hear from cultural historian, Thomas Berry, a profound and visionary thinker on ecological spirituality and the universe story. Berry writes,

Perhaps a new revelatory experience is taking place, an experience wherein human consciousness awakens to the grandeur and sacred quality of the Earth process. Humanity has seldom participated in such a vision since shamanic times, but in such a renewal lies our hope for the future for ourselves and for the entire planet on which we live.”

Berry also describes how we recover the sense of the sacred, explaining,

“We will recover our sense of wonder and our sense of the sacred only if we appreciate the universe beyond ourselves as a revelatory experience of that numinous presence whence all things come into being. Indeed, the universe is the primary sacred reality.  We become sacred by our participation in this more sublime dimension of the world about us.”

Closing: A Prayer for Mystical Activists

Divine Consciousness of Life, Earth and Cosmos, God of all names and none, holy Presence dwelling in every creature, we come to you on our knees, in guilt and shame, in sorrow and dread, admitting horrific crimes against Creation. Listening to Earth’s dying cries, we acknowledge our sins of arrogance, apathy, selfishness, plunder and rape. Our “stewardship” of Creation has been a tragic joke. In failure and profound remorse, we humbly seek forgiveness and guidance – we have completely lost our way and stand to lose so much more.

We know you, Divine One. We share your Being and Consciousness. We are you when we cease pretending to be someone else, someone separate and superior, someone in charge. In abject surrender, in ego-shattering fear and grief, in naked helplessness, we seek the only path home: we return to you. As the fires and storms of human foolishness consume our grandiosity and our world, we ask you to receive us, Divine One, help us return to Creation.

Born of Earth, we can live nowhere else. We are the latest blossom of your enchantingly beautiful, infinitely mysterious, love-drenched creativity – the 14-billion-year evolution of yourself – and our home is here. Can a fish live out of water? Can a bird fly with no air? Can humans survive the cold toxic radiation of space? Desperate plans, false solutions, more foolishness.

But what can we do? Divine One, what do you need from us? Even as we ask, words burst from the depths of sacred consciousness:

“Be still. Be silent. Stop talking. Turn off TV and cell phone. Go outside. Open wide your eyes. I shine before you as Creation: vibrant, colorful, alive; the symphony of your life and destiny. Look intensely. Look without thought. Open your senses: seasons of Earth, power of wind, greenness of plant, wetness of rain, warmth of sun, smell of soil, abundance of life, chatter of bird and squirrel, busyness of ant and worm, darkness of night, love-making everywhere, all rising in the holiness of Creation. You don’t have to figure this out because you are Creation. Let the one you were born to be take you home. Creation will heal you, then your tenderness, joy, and adoration will heal Creation.”

May the Earth bless and keep us,
May truth lead the way,
May the ancestors see our efforts,
May peace finally stay.
May the heart inform our journey,
May Creation bring us home,
May our lives be deeply planted,
May you find your way back to life with vision, hope and courage.

 
John Robinson is a clinical psychologist with a second doctorate in ministry, an ordained interfaith minister, the author of ten books and numerous articles on the psychology, spirituality and mysticism of the New Aging, and a frequent speaker at Conscious Aging Conferences across the country.
 
 
 
 


 
 
His book, Aging with Vision, Hope and Courage in a Time of Crisis aging is not only an opportunity for profound psychological and spiritual growth, but a time also of saving humanity from itself. You can learn more about this book at www.johnrobinson.org and the Resilience Series at www.resilience-books.com

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