finding stillness in the storm
We live in a world where the possibility of climate-driven systemic collapse looms, and culture war waves come at us from all sides. How then, do we stay the "right-way-up"?
Having grown up on a particularly treacherous coast of the Tasman sea, I know what it is like to be knocked from my feet by an overpowering wave. On one of the rare days where air and sea were warm enough, our family would venture to an ocean beach. Inevitably, I’d get properly dunked by a surprise set of waves that just kept coming. For a moment, I’d not know which way up, as sand and salt would scour my body and fill my shorts with grit. Usually, thanks to instinct and the little surf safety I’d been taught, I knew how to right myself. And usually, despite finding I was further from shore than I’d like, I got a bit stronger and a bit wiser from each righting.
One of the main provocations to write this post was a metaphorically similar scouring I would see, either in my own work or in that of a supervisee (a therapist who comes to me to reflect on their practice). In some way, an unexpected wave had come into the consulting room, leaving a sense of powerlessness and uncertainty.
Now uncertainty and not knowing are bread and butter in the therapy world. We are encouraged and trained to be with both. Increasingly however, the unknowing is amplified by some unusual dynamics. External and divisive cultural ruptures (I’ll call them “culture war issues”) are increasingly coming into the room, and bringing with them a minefield of clinical dillemas. Activism and public debate is informing opinion and that opinion becomes distilled into anxiety provoking therapeutic “rights and wrongs”, which are oftentimes at odds with training paradigms. Some of the collective challenges, the pandemic for example, also cause real-world anxieties in therapists lives. And looming alongside all of this, is the often unacknowledged shadow of the ecological crisis.
To make this minefield just a little more complex, training institutions, supervisors and professional associations are all crashing around in the same stormy sea. This means that often, the “righting” is haphazard, dogmatic or non-existent, and unlike the righting of my childhood surf, sometimes there isn’t much strengthening or wisening going on.
So the question I am posing is how can we respond to a set of external situations which, like sets of ocean waves, have the capacity to overwhelm? When currents are moving quickly, and institutions and clinical approaches may not be keeping up? But let’s start with a little more on what these waves are made of.
A time of collective trauma (and responses)
There’s no doubt that we are in a time of unprecedented change. A confluence of crises are in flow, geopolitical simmerings threaten to boil, horrific wars in multiple continents, pandemics, the mass movement of peoples, the disruption of social, legal and political institutions and certainties. Increasingly severe weather related events are already affecting water and food supplies. And all of it, is likely to get worse.
Ecopsychological thinking tells us that these systemic disruptions are symptomatic of a broader pressure affecting the web of ecological and human systems that we rely upon. We are interconnected and interdependent. And the very foundation of that interdependency is the biosphere. In short, humanity and nature are not separate, although the western mind and western culture have tried to separated them.
Each systemic disruption in isolation might then be seen as a “canary in the coal mine”, a warning of systemic strain. And while our governments and media focus largely on immediate disruptions that might affect short term social stability, consumption and economic growth, the crisis is actually systemic and, frighteningly, it risks being total. Ultimately the system which might fail, is the system of life on Earth.
This realisation hits hard. And yet, it is the reality that we are in. It is the defining and mostly unspoken collective trauma of our time. And in my experience, it’s rarely bought up in therapy sessions and rarely acknowledged in therapeutic institutions.
Instinctual responses to trauma can be classified into three groups, freeze, flight/fight, and fawn. Let’s look at each of these in relation to our current plight.
Freeze is an excellent trauma response if your predator’s sensing may be based on movement, or if struggling against danger might cause unnecessary pain. In the case of our systemic challenges, it’s a common though not particularly helpful response. We freeze when confronted with situations which are overwhelming, where we feel powerless, or have no hope. In this case, agency seems of little use, so we give up.
Around culture war issues the giving up appears as a following of dogma, or sometimes as a blinkered choosing of one side or the other. A giving over to the powers that be, or in some cases, the mob. In the case of climate, it looks like nihilism. Around climate you’ll hear it as “there’s nothing I can do, so I’ll just enjoy myself till the end days” or “I’ll be dead when the (fires/heatwaves/floods/droughts) get really bad”.
I feel climate denial fits into most of these response categories, but in the case of “freeze”, it’s not necessarily an active denial of the situation (though it can be), it’s often a denial of the psychospiritual implication. I’ll come back to this later, but if we’re genuinely in touch with the felt reality of what our economic system may destroy, nihilism becomes much more difficult.
Unless you are planning to move to Mars, there’s really nowhere to run from this one - though it doesn’t seem Elon got that memo. We can (and do) fly from reality. In another form of denial, we may numb ourselves, or otherwise distract. In my view, some of the adjacent culture war issues of our era are actually flights from the reality of climate. The anxiety is too much so we invest in identities, paranoia’s or belief systems which provide a preoccupation or a promise of panacea. Similarly, our culture provides plenty of opportunity to fly from reality through numbing: social media, porn, the old staples of drugs, alcohol, shopping and work. In increasing numbers we’re drawn to these strategies. And as many of them are perpetuated by consumptive capitalism, they feed further into the unsustainable nature of our economy. There really is a madness to it!
Fight shows up plenty as a response. We see it in intergenerational blame, othering of social classes or other countries who “aren’t responding” to climate. And of course, we see it in activism. Activism in itself isn’t bad. In fact it seems to me it’s quite necessary to attempt to awaken from denial and collusion. But at the same time, activism can be used as a defence to reality, it can become a calcified opposition, furthering rupture at a time when humanity desperately needs to come together. It can become all-consuming and idealistic, making the movement itself unsustainable or out of touch.
Now, for perhaps the most controversial of my interpretations. We can dance a collusive deal with the economic system, the predating source of threat in our current malaise. And yet, we can convince ourselves that somehow, scientific genius and some miracle of market-driven advancement will save us. Defensive fawning with the source of threat is recognised in abusive and coercive relationships. And while ingenuity is certainly going to be necessary as economies (hopefully) transform toward a sustainable tomorrow, that doesn’t mean the utopian fantasy of continued growth and consumption, isn’t also a defence to reality.
In a coercive relationship, the perpetrator is often “relied” upon by those trapped in their web. This might be for practical support, or a false sense of psychological strength. Denial of the abuse is a way of holding onto that reliance. It’s no surprise then, that we see how those most attached to economic power are also ready to deny the real possibility of systemic collapse.
Finding solid ground
I’ve stretched this trauma metaphor quite some way. And to be clear: I’m not suggesting these musings reflect an actual psychosomatic trauma response. Rather, I’m using the metaphor to think through a situation. And the purpose of such an exercise is to look toward resolution.
When working with trauma it is often the case we see the trauma defence, before we see the underlying pain. Traumatic feeling is indigestible, often unknowable, by definition. We treat trauma by unpacking, reprocessing and ultimately releasing. the same applies to our collective situation. The central premise here, is that we must actually find and then feel the emotional impact of reality, rather than acting out the trauma defences. Feeling, when known and processed provides the very foundation of selfhood. It also opens the door to what Joanna Macy calls active hope. That is, a hope that doesn’t exclude reality.
Similarly, following a culture war issue “debate” at it’s mainstream surface, rarely is enough to know reality. With our fragmented media and divisive politics, sense checking reality is required, by allowing complexity, nuance and seeking out challenging and opposing standpoints. Such skills are sadly lacking from our education system and often our media. So again, we have to find that ourselves. But holding the tension of oppositions, grappling with reality, again allows a solid feeling of knowing (not dogma) to emerge.
To go back to the surf: when we find the bottom of our feeling, our foot hits the sandy bottom of the sea. Then, we can find the right way up. To get in touch with the feelings of reality is a sometimes difficult process. But as I’ll now explore, it’s worth it in many ways.
To know a feeling in a processed way, is to have an adult relationship with that feeling. This means not identifying with it (not becoming the feeling, or being a victim to it). Another helpful psychoanalytic perspective is that we must separate from distortions (projections, obsessions, denials) related to the feeling. In the case of external realities, we have to look at our own personal history around the issue and importantly, how this taps into our own unprocessed developmental trauma.
This can get complex quickly, so a simplified example. In the case of climate, say we feel hopeless. Getting into that hopelessness might reveal a childhood experience of maternal neglect (earth and mother sit alongside each other quite closely, in archetypal terms - after all we are dependant on each in different ways and at different stages in life). The trauma lives on in a projection, where we experience unprocessed feelings of hopelessness such as a child might have toward a neglectful mother. The job then is to separate the developmental trauma away from our relationship with the present day climate emergency. In this way, the external situation may still be severe and frightening, but not cause the same hopelessness as it might when mixed up with the residue of the neglect.
An additional dimensions which is important for therapists in particular, is that we are participants in the same systems as our clients. As Covid showed us, we are also susceptible to the same collective trauma responses. With work, we can, and most of us did, process our Covid responses. Staying awake to reality then takes on an additional, professional imperative. And if our training, supervisory or institutional networks aren’t providing it, we need to find it elsewhere.
It gets worse before it gets better
Hold on, there’s another unpalatable dimension to this. When we begin to venture into the depths of our climate related feeling, we find a lot of difficult stuff. The anxiety you turn away from when you glance headlines of 40°c London summers is just the beginning. There’s grief, rage, sadness, melancholy, all waiting to be discovered. But this rediscovery is also a reunion. Most of us, would have unconsciously and necessarily distanced ourselves from the feelings of climate reality, usually as children, and usually because care givers can’t reflect or hold the difficult feelings themselves. This distancing is an abandonment of an aspect of self Freya Matthews calls the ecological self. Reconnecting with lost aspects of our individual makeup is the cornerstone of authentic psychological development. And in the case of the ecological self, it’s a reconnection with a particularly important aspect. It’s the aspect of our innate humanness that never lost sight of our unity with nature, and often holds some of our most moving and alive psychospiritual capacities.
The stillness within
The westernised mind tends to consider action to be valid only if it’s objective, rational and external. “Anxiety is dissipated when we take action” or “stop focussing on difficult feelings” are common tropes. Both of these suggestions fail to correctly locate us in relationship with what we have control over. Individual or collective action might be necessary, but moving toward action in order to solve a feeling state, is a mistake. Mostly in such cases, the feeling just gets pushed down. Destined to re-appear against a new stimuli in the future.
Instead, focussing on and transforming the feeling, unhooks us from the emotional impact of the external reality. As well as unhooking, we’re also becoming wiser and stronger, just like when righting oneself in the surf. This is appealing to the westernised mind because we can become more resilient. But from a psychospiritual perspective, there’s a much deeper, much more compelling reason.
The deeper we know ourselves, the more of our developmental injury we can unhook from, the more we relate to the world in an unhindered way. I spoke earlier of our ecological self, but this is just one exiled aspect waiting to be reclaimed. As more and more trauma and adaptation is resolved, we can begin to experience our true nature, maybe one day, we can experience our true nature in wholeness.
This might sound ineffable, but it’s really not. Every tradition has a way of acknowledging this self who exists free from trauma, or other familial or sociocultural adaptation. Some might call this a transcendent or higher self, a Transpersonal self, or a Self (note the capital, denoting the Jungian kind). Depending on your philosophy, you might consider this you to be the divine in you.
Obviously, this is still you, as it’s always experienced through you. But it’s subjectively actualised as a specific state of being, it’s a form of emotional and energetic resonances which are ancient and eternal. In knowing this part of ourselves, we reconnect with nature, and our connectedness with all beings. In this way, we find a stillness beyond any storm. An eternal source of being that survives any wave, for it is the wave.
And it’s the source that if enough of us can turn too, perhaps humankind will find the right way up.
“The central point of the world is the point where stillness and movement are together. Movement is time, but stillness is eternity. Realizing how this moment of your life is actually a moment of eternity, and experiencing the eternal aspect of what you’re doing in the temporal experience—this is the mythological experience.”
— Joseph Campbell
Processing the feelings thrown up by turbulent times can be difficult - especially around climate, and especially if we’re doing it alone. Starting Summer 2023 I am offering a small reflective group, specifically to look at these feelings. Held in Kings Cross in central London, more information is available via the button below.