“The decisive question for man is: Is he related to something infinite or not? That is the telling question of his life.”
-(-C.G. Jung, 1961, pp. 356-7).
Watching what’s going on on our planet each day, I am continually struck by the suffering and grief that seems to be inherent in the human condition. It occurs to me that part of the problem is that western culture places so much value on individualism, independence, and getting ahead, venerating community and interdependence less. As a result, many of us generally live lives of separation, disconnected in various ways from a larger kinship of our fellow human beings, unable to perceive how intrinsic each of us and every single aspect of earth and nature is to each other. It often seems to take a tragedy to bring us together in community, force us to meet our neighbors, or realize a felt sense of being part of something larger than our individual selves living our everyday lives.
Due to our overwhelming self-centeredness (a term I use not to mean arrogance so much as the unconscious evolutionary tendency to create our lives to revolve around what’s important to “me”: my life, my schedule, my work, my preferences, my family, etc.), it seems our cultural evolution has led us to abandon both the general human community as well as the earth itself. Little do we realize this leaves us vulnerable on many fronts.
Without a larger circle of support from interconnection, or the sense of being held within a greater fabric of being, stressors stemming from challenges we’ve created for ourselves through various aspects of culture and development (along with their correlating psychological issues) affect us more deeply. Climate change, ecological destruction, natural disasters, and pathological culture-related events including outbreaks of violence all feed into our anxiety and fear, triggering sometimes unhealthy coping mechanisms. In addition, without community, we lose the capacity for having our own actions reflected back to us, causing those actions to appear to occur in a vacuum without apparent consequence.
The unconscious ways we each contribute to our collective discomfort and dis-ease in a world where we have isolated and alienated ourselves only serve to amplify and perpetuate a drastic systemic imbalance for both nature and culture. This imbalance continues to feed on itself, manifesting in a critical rise in adverse conditions for earth and all its inhabitants. Carolyn Baker offers some excellent and compelling insights into the powerful need for community as we face life’s increasing challenges in her book, Navigating the Coming Chaos. (Special thanks to ecopsychologist Linda Buzzell, co-editor with Craig Chalquist of the 2010 anthology, Ecotherapy, for bringing Baker’s work to my attention.)
Put more succinctly, while the notion of Culture Collapse Disorder appears to be an issue of the collective, each of us plays a critical individual role in the overall situation. In a complex system, if one element fails, the system then has the strong potential of being endangered as a whole. Many indigenous and earth-based cultures throughout time have understood the concept of interconnectivity. One individual who failed in his responsibilities, committed a wrong, or offended the gods or spirits of nature could bring wrath or misfortune down on the heads of the entire community (Mircea Eliade, 1957). Now this rogue-style individualism is more the norm instead of the exception.
Much as when an individual bee fails to return to the hive to deliver much needed sustenance or service to the whole (as in the case of Colony Collapse Disorder), in today’s society we humans are failing to come “home” to the greater whole. We live in an increasingly fragmented way, often acting as if decisions we make in our daily lives have no consequence or impact on others or our environment. We tend to perceive ourselves as individual entities with dominion over our own little piece of the world, separate from each other, from nature, from a web of life that is more encompassing than our individual egoic selves. C. G. Jung referred to this larger whole the Self. Various spiritual traditions have referred to it as the “sacred,” the “holy,” or the “divine,” words that perhaps resonate best in describing qualities of nature in its magnitude.
Since words and ideas such as “sacred” and “holy” frequently carry highly personal interpretations and may not resonate with everyone, in this case, it may be easier to consider that which I’m referring to—that is, the encompassing essence about in which all things are interconnected—as the “hive” itself: that greater container in which individuals interrelate within a system that is far greater than the sum of its parts. As individuals failing to return “home” to this larger field of connectivity, we are impacting the entire whole.
The contemporary science of complexity theory sheds some light on our dilemma. Beehives, like ant hills, flocks of birds, brains, termite nests, immune systems, and social and economic systems among others, are complex systems in which “nothing is fixed, but all the agents are reacting to each others’ actions in a constantly changing landscape” (Helene Shulman, 1997, p. 110). In Colony Collapse Disorder, for each individual worker bee that fails to return home with vital stores of nectar and pollen to feed the hive, another must be sacrificed from her appointed role to go and take the place of the missing bee. As each hour passes, fewer bees are dedicated to tending the queen, feeding the unhatched brood, making honey, or guarding the hive as more are charged with the vital task of collecting the provisions that are critically needed. Eventually, there are not enough bees to sustain the dynamics of the community and it collapses.
But where does that leave us as humans who have somehow managed to isolate ourselves from the earth community over millennia of rational thinking and industrial and technological development? How do we learn to forego our fragmentation, and navigate “home” to that larger whole? The concept, while perhaps not totally foreign to many reading this post, is likely not top of mind in the “to do” list of daily life. Unless you have a daily spiritual discipline like yoga, meditation, or depth psychology oriented practices like dreamwork, active imagination, art or art therapy, shamanic journeying, or somatic work, you may be one of so many of us who is missing the chance to come “home” to both contribute to the greater whole as well as to be continually welcomed and renewed to a new sense of being. Engaging in some kind of ritual practice that helps you listen, observe, or otherwise tap into the often invisible force underlying all our lives is one powerful way to reconnect. If that seems out of reach, sometimes just slowing down, unplugging, and making space in your life for reverie, stillness, or spending time in nature can open the door to the web of interconnectivity that we so often fail to notice.
Committing ourselves to come “home” in this way can enable greater reflection on our thoughts, our actions, and our conditioning, revealing ways we each buy into contemporary culture as it is and empowering us to start challenging some of our ingrained habits and beliefs that may not be right for the whole (or the individual), but which have gone unquestioned before. At worst, we may find we can improve our quality of life through more authentic and meaningful connections and activities. Better, we may actually start to notice the voices of the earth and our fellow inhabitants (human and otherwise), and even find ourselves in a more intimate relationship where we recognize the value of the “other,” care about each others’ well-being, and are motivated to change our previously unconscious habits and break out of our isolation.
Bees communicate in various ways: the “waggle dance” shares the location of a good find of nectar or pollen, and when bees swarm, scouts offer details of potential new locations for the hive. Inside the hive, bees share the daily activity, each fulfilling critical roles to keep the hive running smoothly. Without this constant interaction, the hive would not exist. We also cannot survive in isolation. Our capacity for interaction with the community of earth and the ensouled world is ages-old, and we cannot sustain our alienation much longer. The effects of our lack of connection to “home” are already dire. Our culture, created perhaps as a bubble that moved us further away from authentic relationship with the “sacred,” may yet burst, landing us once again more squarely in the multitude of voices arising from earth, enticing us to join them in the Eros of existence. Stop, listen, and hear the echoes of the earth community and the very ground of being reaching out to you.
Navigating the Coming Chaos: A Handbook for Inner Transition, 2011, by Carolyn Baker
The Sacred and the Profane; The Nature of Religion, 1959, Mircea Eliade
Memories, Dreams, Reflections, C.G. Jung, 1961
Living at the edge of Chaos: Complex Systems in Culture and Psyche, 1997, Helene Shulman