Climate on the couch (2)

Examining the psychological task of change, Mary-Jayne Rust looks at the ways in which we respond to the environmental crisis. How do old stories underlie our present reality?

[This article is adapted from a 2008 article in Psychotherapy and Politics International, which was a revised version of a 2007 lecture presented by the author to the Guild of Psychotherapists (UK). It is published here with the author’s permission.]

While few people would now deny the reality of climate change and environmental crisis, many are still turning a blind eye to the situation we face. We are having great difficulty in making even the simplest of changes to our lives. The global scale of our crisis is overwhelming and it is easy to feel apathetic in response. This is made easier when our consumer lifestyles keep us well within our comfort zones.

When we do allow ourselves to feel, we might find a whole range of strong emotions, such as anxiety and fear about the future, despair at our lack of political will, grief for so many losses, guilt that we continue to be part of the cause, and more. While therapy has helped many of us to become more emotionally literate interpersonally, we are still a very stiff-upper-lip culture in relation to the bigger picture; when we block out our feelings, we lose touch with the urgency of crisis.

Therapists know that blocked feelings do not just go away. Take our guilt, for example; it is easy to project guilt into environmental activists and then make fun of them as earnest, bearded, killjoys. Overwhelming guilt about the damage we have done can block our thinking, and make us very defensive.

Exploring further, we find that our fantasies about living sustainably are very split between deprivation, anger and idealism. For some, the “green” life conjures an image of the frugal old aunt who shivers in winter because she won’t turn her heating on, and who re-uses everything. This speaks of deprivation and masochism, as well as guilt and judgement. Allied with this are images of finger-wagging eco-missionaries, environmentalists who are seen to be full of anger and judgement. The other side of this is the fantasy of living the good and virtuous green life, “back to nature”, made out to be purer than pure. It’s seen as an escape from “real” life, a head-in-the-clouds hippie existence.

What’s happened? If we look back into history, there are at least three very different associations with the green movement, all of which are framed in a negative way. Firstly, in our recent history, the beginnings of the Nazi Party in Germany had a strong green ethos. This has left an indelible link in peoples’ minds between the Green Party and extreme social control. Secondly, the “back to nature” movement is seen as a longing for paradise, an unrealistic search for the Garden of Eden, often dismissed as unrealistic hippie nonsense, not part of mature, adult life. Thirdly, the green movement is linked with paganism, branded by Christian culture as primitive, dangerous and seduced by bodily desire.

Fantasies about sustainable living which appeal to our imaginations are definitely there to be found, but they are lacking in the public arena.

Our fantasies about the “myth of progress”, however, are still heroic. How often do we hear: “Oh well, technology will come up with an answer”? We believe that our civilisation, with all its science and technology, is omnipotent and will get us out of any mess.

As a result of our “progress”, everything we use and buy is so disconnected from its source. It’s easy to turn a blind eye. The cheap shirt we buy may be made by children in sweatshops; or the neatly packaged chicken may come from factory-farmed animals that have never stood up in their lives. It takes so much time and energy to make conscious choices. In fact, the very thing that is causing our crisis – over-consumption – has become our palliative, to soothe away our anxieties about the damage we are doing to the world. …

What happens, then, when we try to give up consuming? We might feel like we are less powerful or even that we are losing parts of ourselves. For example, a car is promoted as a symbol of sexual power and success. Gaining a car has become a rite of passage into adulthood in our society; giving it up can feel like a regression to adolescence, with a consequent loss of power. Reducing our consumption is not just about a fear of losing power – it’s also a fear of losing our individual freedom. …

The old story, embedded within the myth of progress, prizes individual freedom very highly. … Our individual development is also seen in this light: part of the goal of growing up is to become separate from the maternal matrix in order to achieve adult maturity.

Many of the stories in our culture reflect this struggle; they are about young male heroes cutting their way out of webs. The end result of this bid for freedom is the dissolution of webs, where the kind of freedom that is achieved is more like an adolescent dream of escaping the parents. When webs dissolve, we see more and more people living and struggling alone — and now the very web of life is unravelling.

What of the new story? Quoting eco-activist John Jordan: “Until we are able to see the world as a seamless set of relationships, not objects but innumerable boundless subjects, we are not free.”

Individual freedom is an illusion. We are interdependent and interconnected. Our struggle for individual consciousness is always in relation to the rest of life; we are challenged to bear that tension between individual and collective.

Therapists know that in the process of long-term change there is often a period of time during which someone is conscious of what they are doing, but cannot yet relinquish their familiar habit. Symptoms are often the last things to go, after the deep inner work has been done. … There’s one last response that I have been hearing a lot lately, which I think deserves a bit more attention. Many people are now waking up to the reality and fearing that it is completely hopeless, and this is the complete reverse of denial. …

Many people who have immersed themselves in the facts about what is happening in the world admit to me in private that they see little chance of us getting through this, yet most of them are fearful of discussing this in public for fear of sounding too depressing or nihilistic. … We cannot deal with death in our culture.

If many people are secretly thinking we’re doomed, and I suspect they are, their motivation for taking action in the face of climate change will be zero. As therapists, we know that when we face our worst fears, and feel the effects, we stand a chance of moving through darkness into enormous creativity. …

What would we do in response to a terminal diagnosis? We might be overwhelmed with many different feelings, and go through a difficult period of despair and depression. But such crisis can often wake us up in a radical way, and bring us back to the most important things in life. Things get simple: spend time with those you love, and in places you love. Sort out your unfinished business. … The heart takes over. In the words of deep ecologist Joanna Macy:

“Whatever happens, this can be a moment of unparalleled awakening. We have a sense of what it means for an individual to wake up. For the collective to awaken, we cannot even imagine what it will be like. The evolutionary pressure on us now, which can feel so ghastly, pushes us toward this awakening. …”

If we allow ourselves to feel, crisis opens an opportunity for awakening fully to the present. Then we take action for different reasons. We are no longer heroes trying to save the world. We don’t consume too much because it doesn’t feel good now. We recycle and reuse because there is no “away” to throw things. Living sustainably is simply about living with integrity now, not for some imaginary future. If ever we really thought we lose power in losing “things”, we find that living with integrity is where we find our power, success and liberation.

Slowing right down, surrendering to despair, and living through darkness without fighting it, is a very different kind of hero myth, one that therapists know a great deal about. The pain of our despair connects us back into the world again, into our bodies; we rediscover compassion for ourselves and for others and then we feel the damage that we do. Going slow also brings great joy in the smallest details. …

What many people do not see is the range and scale of change going on in the world. … An extraordinary grass roots movement is growing, made up of thousands of initiatives. This is what happens when human beings start coming into line with their integrity. …

Within all of these diverse movements, each one of us is challenged to do the inner work of collective change. Part of our task in this process is to change our relationship with the whole earth community. We know from so many other cultural shifts, such as on apartheid or sexism, that it is a painful and humiliating process for oppressors to give up their place “on top” and take back their psychological projections. The reward is that we find some of the missing pieces of ourselves; we discover what we had been longing for. …

So, part of this process is about welcoming back our nature within: recognising that we are domesticated wild animals, and that our wild animal nature is not some lower being who is aggressive, or whose wildness is to be feared, or whose instincts and intuitions are not to be trusted, but rather someone to be respected — indeed, who makes us human. …

What a relief, then, to discover that the body can be trusted; that if we listen to our own nature, it will tell us when we are hungry and when we are full; it will also guide us to meet our emotional hunger. So simple! The difficult bit is undoing all those years of distrust and obliteration of bodily instincts and feelings, knowing which voice to trust and when.

Coming back into our instincts, intuition and sensation is reconnecting with an old part of ourselves, one that takes us back through evolution. Jung suggests we have a two-million-year-old person within each of us, and that the challenge for our times is to bear the tension between ancient and modern. Who is this indigenous self? What does he or she have to say to us? What would it be like to spend a day in dialogue with that person?

We have ended up identifying with just a tiny part of ourselves in our heads, the bit that we say makes us uniquely human. Ironically, it is only when we can fully inhabit all of the diverse aspects of ourselves that we can realise our wisdom. …

Deep ecologist Arne Naess calls the process of moving beyond our human self finding our ecological identity. How far can we extend this? It’s easy to identify with pets, and with charismatic megafauna — polar bears, whales and dolphins. But how about slugs? The further we move beyond the human skin, to reclaim our vast self, the more we inhabit the ecological self.

Crossing over this very sharp dividing line that we have made between humans and the rest of life is very taboo. Psychotherapist Harold Searles suggests that our relationship to the non-human environment is “one of the transcendentally important facts of human living”, but that it is “a source of ambivalent feelings to us” because of our fear of losing our identity as humans.

Bonding with the rest of nature is as essential to us as bonding with other humans. Biologist and naturalist EO Wilson calls it biophilia, our innate love for the rest of life. …

Of course, we do fall in love with place, land and creatures. How can we possibly not be connected, apart from in our minds? … In spending time in the wilds of nature, or just in our back gardens, we reconnect to the oneness of life. … These experiences are profoundly healing. They are about dissolving and coming back together again, renewing ourselves in the process. We feel part of the larger living body of the universe. …

In all these ways, and many more, we are returning to the garden, not as some utopian paradise disconnected from real life, but as a living, breathing other with which we share our breath.

Mary-Jayne Rust is a Jungian analyst and art therapist in Britain. She has been writing, lecturing and running workshops on the links between psychotherapy and environmental issues for many years.

[This article is adapted from a 2008 article in Psychotherapy and Politics International, which was a revised version of a 2007 lecture presented by the author to the Guild of Psychotherapists (UK). It is published here with the author’s permission.]

Homepage photo by Ilikethenight