Written by Community Solutions fellow Carolyn Baker
For nearly a year before the publication of my book Collapsing Consciously: Transformative Truths For Turbulent Times, I was aware that it was going to be part of Andrew Harvey’s Sacred Activism Series to be published by North Atlantic Books. I was also aware that Charles Eisenstein’s book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible would be included in the series, being published at approximately the same time as my book. As a colleague and friend of Andrew Harvey, I was more than excited about the series, having followed his passion for the concept of Sacred Activism since the publication of his first book addressing the topic in 2009.
For decades I had realized the necessity of integrating activism and the sacred, but no one had yet articulated the deeper meaning of both concepts or demonstrated why one cannot flourish without the other. As a huge fan of Eisenstein’s work and Andrew’s mission, I was thrilled to be included in the book series, and the burgeoning of that enthusiasm compels me these many months after publication to review The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. And at the same time, I must note a few discrepancies in my perspective as I journey alongside Charles and his phenomenal body of work with which I deeply resonate.
Not only do I resonate with Charles’s frame of reference, but like him, I have frequently been accused of being naïve and idealistic. Some responses to A More Beautiful World have reverberated with this indictment which is likely to be leveled at any body of writing that invites us to “feel good.” After all, the title is charged with three volatile words: Beautiful, hearts, possible. These are likely to draw cynical critiques like a magnet draws iron filings. However, I personally do not believe that feel-good writing is entirely suspect—as long as the author is capable of taking a cold, hard look at the inescapable realities of our predicament, and of course, from my perspective, Charles is adept in doing just that. Moreover, he repeatedly empathizes with how challenged both we and he are in embracing a new paradigm as a result of the old story embedded in our psyches, products that we are of industrial civilization. As I read his incisive commentary on our predicament, naïve is not a word that leaps to mind, yet all of us, including myself, navigate a dying planet with myriad blind spots only because we are fallible humans.
Hospitality toward divergent opinions is a skill that must be cultivated in a binary culture that insists on “this” or “that,” “right” or “wrong” as a result of the legacy of Cartesian dualism. Perhaps the most onerous challenge for any of us is consciously forging a perspective sufficiently humble so that we can utter what in this culture are possibly the most difficult words: “I don’t know with certainty, and I could be wrong.”
I note this because A More Beautiful World posits in a number of places that if we can’t imagine a more beautiful world, it is due to our wounding. On the one hand, this may be valid, yet conversely, the plethora of research that is now coming to the fore on mass extinction and catastrophic climate change reinforces the possibility that in addition to our wounding, we may be reaping the terminal consequences of having created the ugliest of worlds which will result in the extermination of most of life on earth. Certainly, our wounding as inhabitants of industrial civilization has created human beings that have a great deal of difficulty imagining a more beautiful world and many of whom hold all things visionary with contempt. This is the reality of our inner world, but the external one we have participated in shaping may imminently silence forever our banter about “wounding.” I do not say this lightly, but rather as a student of the wonder and wounding of the human psyche for my entire adult life. We stand on exceedingly precarious ground, I believe, when we essentially declare that if others resist our perspective, it is due to their wounding.
Correspondingly, A More Beautiful World asserts that we are at a transition between stories. On the one hand, this may be so, yet I must also wonder if we are only at the end of a particular age. The anthropocene in which we may now abide may or may not ultimately include humans. I certainly do not believe that all life on earth will become extinct, but rather that most human life will within the next century. I can only wonder how any surviving humans might respond to the notion of A More Beautiful World That Our Hearts Know Is Possible. Will the horror they have endured make them terminally cynical, or will they long for and imagine a new story?
Eisenstein writes: “Many speak of ‘hospicing a dying civilization.’ This book argues that their despair arises from the same source as the crises themselves, and that as we transition to a new Story of the World, things become possible that had seemed miraculous before.” (257) Again, we are told that this kind of perception results from our wounding. But more debatable is the implication that despair serves no useful purpose when in fact, one could argue that despair serves us exquisitely in a number of ways. I have never met anyone who is awake to the collapse of industrial civilization and the collapse of ecosystems who has not experienced some form of despair over long or short periods of time. Despair is often a lightning rod that quickly transports us out of the old and into the new. Moreover, despair is an antidote to hubris and the illusion that business as usual can continue. Thoroughly metabolizing the trite statement “You can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet without consequences” is an utterance filled with despair—and yet, it is inexorably true, and the level of despair it evokes is a necessary midwife of our awakened rebirthing.
It appears that Charles is polarizing an attitude of emotionally and spiritually admitting oneself to hospice willingly, with creating a more beautiful world that our hearts know is possible. On the one hand, these perspectives may be inimical, but on yet another level, they are absolutely congruous. I can do everything in my power to create a more beautiful world even as I accept that I am probably in the process of exiting this planet. In fact, that may be the supreme purpose of adopting a hospice perspective. In summary, despair may lead to acceptance of the full extent of our predicament which may inspire us to become radically compassionate, creative, connected Interbeings. Those indeed are the ingredients necessary for creating a more beautiful world.
In order for this to happen, we must, as Charles asserts, “get to the bottom of the ecological crisis” which catapults us to the fundamental issues of our existence.
“And what, exactly, is at the bottom?” he asks….“At the bottom of our civilization lies a story, a mythology…a matrix of narratives, agreements, and symbolic systems that comprises the answers our culture offers to life’s most basic questions:
- Who am I?
- Who do things happen?
- What is the purpose of life?
- What is human nature?
- What is sacred?
- Who are we as a people?
- Where did we come from and where are we going?” (4)
From my perspective, whether we are in hospice or merely transitioning to a new story or both, these questions constitute our overarching assignment in the time we have left, and they form the crux of my work in the wake of our predicament. The pivotal task, I believe is an invitation offered on Page 66: “Imagine yourself on your deathbed, looking back on your life. What moments seem the most precious? What choices will you be the most grateful for?” This is hard-core hospice work.
Throughout the book we are asked to consider, as we are in all of Eisenstein’s work, that we are not separate from the natural world, not separate from each other, not separate from other species, not separate from anything or anyone in the universe, but rather that we are part of “Interbeing,” to which he devotes an entire chapter. He specifically names the characteristics of Interbeing in this chapter and summarizes the fundamental precept which is: “…that we are inseparable from the universe, and our being partakes in the being of everyone and everything else. Why should we believe this? Let’s start with the obvious: This Interbeing is something we can feel. Why does it hurt when we hear of another person coming to harm? Why, when we read of mass die-offs of the coral reefs and see their bleached skeletons, do we feel like we’ve sustained a blow?…The reason it hurts is it is literally happening to ourselves.” (16-17)
As with the bullet points enumerating what is at the bottom of the ecological crisis, Charles continues to illumine the spiritual nature of our predicament:
Cut off from nature, cut off from community, financially insecure, alienated from our own bodies, immersed in scarcity, trapped in a tiny, separate self that hungers constantly for its lost beingness, we can do no other than perpetuate the behavior and systems that cause climate change. Our response to the problem must touch on this fundamental level that we might call spirituality. (46-47)
Thus, according to Charles, the primary technology of Interbeing, in my opinion whether in hospice or elsewhere, is service—service to something greater than oneself.
This is what we must emulate if we are to cocreate the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible. It is also a way to transcend the separate self, since to bow into service is to merge with something greater, something whose power to precipitate change extends beyond our understanding of causality. (218)
In addition to metabolizing Interbeing and expressing it through service, we are also invited to pay very close attention to what hurts us. In other words, to work consciously with the emotions—a cornerstone of my work for several decades. At the beginning of a chapter entitled “Attention,” we find a quote by Dan Emmons: “What most needs attention is the part of us that we seek to avoid feeling. When we have tended to that, we are changed, and the world changes with us.”
We cannot pretend to prepare for societal and ecological collapse while ignoring the emotions that surface as we do so. In fact, according to Eisenstein:
Just as attention, by itself, has a power to heal beyond any remedial action one might take, so also does telling the truth about what is happening on Earth have a power to alter the course of events. Again, it is not that no action will result. It is that when we digest the information, who we are changes, and therefore what we do. (150)
As I have argued throughout the course of my work regarding the need for joy, pleasure, creativity, humor, and the celebration of beauty, Charles describes the more beautiful world his heart knows is possible which is a far cry from the permissible forms of “happiness” this culture offers by way of consuming, escaping, and mindlessly ignoring the death of our planet.
The more beautiful world my heart knows is possible is a world with a lot more pleasure: a lot more touch, a lot more lovemaking, a lot more hugging, a lot more deep gazing into each other’s eyes, a lot more fresh-ground tortillas and just-harvested tomatoes still warm from the sun, a lot more singing, a lot more dancing, a lot more timelessness, a lot more beauty in the built environment, a lot more pristine views, a lot more water fresh from the spring. (154)
As you read this, pay attention to what you feel in your body. Nice, right? And so it is and should be. Personally, I love it, and at every point on this journey of collapse, transition, Great Turning, or hospice living—whatever we may prefer to name it, I discover the urgency of holding in my heart and my body two things that feel at times almost impossible to contain there, namely the more beautiful world my heart knows is possible and a planet that is barely on life-support.
Nowhere in the book does Eisenstein mention the human shadow—a part of us that is unconscious and the opposite of all that we claim to value as decent, compassionate, caring, and just. He argues consistently for the inherent goodness of humans and vigorously against anything resembling inherent evil. For me, this is a precarious position which underestimates the complexity of the human psyche and sets the stage for enormous sabotage of a more beautiful world. Perhaps Charles would argue that my insistence on including the shadow in any vision of what is possible is a result of my own wounding. And so it may be, but in fact, Carl Jung declared that 80% of the shadow is pure gold. That is to say that if one is willing to own it and work consciously with it, the shadow has the power to transform as well as destroy because the shadow is a strategic energetic apparatus in the human psyche which has the capacity to both destroy and sustain as the poet Czeslaw Milosz asserted: “What has no shadow has no strength to live.”
Declaring that humans are inherently good or inherently evil confines us to an untenable polarity—a polarity mirrored on the one hand by purveyors of New Age thinking and a “Bright-Sided” world as Barbara Ehrenreich names it, or on the other hand, the world of fundamentalist Christianity marinated in “original sin.” As with most polarities, wholeheartedly embracing either side is astonishingly effortless. No tension, no conflict, no problem. But what remains is yet another binary story. Much more agonizingly difficult is holding the maddening tension of the opposites: the possibility of realizing a more beautiful world that our hearts know is possible alongside the possibility that we are inhabiting the last hours of life on Earth. No one I know is able to hold that tension consistently without alternating from one side to the other. We incessantly waver: The optimist succumbs to the doldrums while the pessimist insists that despair and cynicism have eliminated from them any vision of possibility. Ah yes, but they are still breathing air, and as long as they do so, somevision lives in the psyche and body.
The complexity of the human psyche must be honored, and the shadow must be made conscious. I believe this is an essential part of the change that Charles asserts must happen when he states that “something has to happen in us in order to initiate us into our full power as changemakers.” In other words, changemakers can’t make radical and lasting change unless they are changed themselves, and for me, this involves tending the shadow.
Perhaps you are asking how I could defend Eisenstein’s vision of a more beautiful world when I invite humans to embrace a hospice perspective. Isn’t such a vision a waste of time and energy for beings on the brink of extinction? In fact, I would argue that it is precisely because our condition is terminal that we must imagine a more beautiful world that our hearts know is possible. We take this vision with us into hospice, not because there is any guarantee or even possibility that it will come to fruition, but we embrace it because it will instruct and fortify us as we navigate our demise. On the one hand, we do everything humanly possible to manifest the vision, acting as if we have all the time in the world, and on the other hand, we savor every new day as sacred because it may be our very last. The vision, you see, is for the world, yes, but it is also for each of us. It may be an integral aspect of the dying process, and one must ask oneself: How do I want to die? What image(s) do I wish to hold in consciousness as I breathe my last breath?
A More Beautiful World That Our Hearts Know Is Possible offers the most urgent question we must ask in this moment—whether it is a hospice moment or a visionary moment. That question is: Who am I? When we deeply, heartfully, mindfully devote our lives to answering that question, it will be easier to hold both hospice and heaven in the same body. In fact, it will be impossible not to.