Finding light in darkness

We are learning how to feel

The apocalypse arrived last Tuesday in southern Oregon.

Like all of the crises now sweeping the globe, it was not surprising. Like the coronavirus pandemic, the rise of far-right authoritarians, or the fracturing Antarctic ice shelf, wildfires in the scorched West are the inevitable result of our current systems. This one, however, hit quite literally way too close to home (I took the photo above from my parents’ house, six blocks from where the Almeda fire began, right before running home to grab my children and prepare for evacuation). By the time night fell, two neighboring towns had been nearly wiped from the map (only the vagaries of wind direction sparing ours), and the illusion of security that we clung to had permanently shattered. 2020 continues to drum it into us until we understand: there is no escape. This is the world we are living in: behold. Don’t look away.

Living through this moment is almost unbearably sad. It feels like waves crashing on a fragile beach: how much more can we take before we too are washed out to sea? I want to use this post to look at our current moment through the lens of grief: to consider understanding this global “polycrisis” as an individual and collective journey, where each of us is experiencing — and enacting — grief in different ways.

Many of us can no longer ignore the suffering, much as we may wish to try (denial). Some turn to anger, taking to the streets to demand justice (or taking up arms to defend something we fear is under threat). Still others among us are bargaining: perhaps police reform would be sufficient to end our epidemic of racialized state violence? Maybe cap and trade could forestall the climate crisis? Increasingly, many of us are falling into depression, struggling to see a way out of the mess we have made. And: some are finding acceptance, learning to see the world for what it is.

TL;DR: The task of this moment, it seems to me, is to move individually and collectively through this cycle to the sixth stage of grief, which David Kessler identifies as finding meaning and purpose. This requires that we first allow ourselves to feel… to learn to reconnect not only with our emotions but with our bodies. This act of reconnecting with ourselves is key to our ability to reconnect with others, and with the world. As we heal we develop the competencies to live into the world in a different way: we made this world, and we can remake it. Our collective survival depends on it.

Learning how to feel: warm data

It’s hard to overstate how revolutionary this is. Here’s how deep our systems of oppression operate on us: we are disconnected from our own bodies, and we don’t even know it. In dominant western culture we don’t even have language for it. None of the “five senses” offer us any glimpse into the internal state of our bodies. How would we describe the physical sensation of anger? A clenching of the jaw, heat in the face, tightness in the chest…

Parenting has brought this home for me. We do our best to follow the Gottman concept of “emotion coaching,” helping our children identify and name their experiences and feelings. And it turns out: I’m terrible at it. That is, I’m okay at helping them name their own experience, but embarrassingly disconnected from my own.

After years delving into how patriarchy operates, I now know why this is: as a man, I’ve been socially conditioned to ignore my own feelings (don’t cry, you’re fine, don’t be such a baby, etc.) But only recently have I come to understand how deep it goes: it’s not just identifying and understanding my feelings. It’s identifying and understanding my sensations… listening to what my body is trying to tell me (after a lifetime denying my own physical sensations, of ignoring or “playing through” the pain). It’s a move from thinking, to feeling, to sensing… but sensing not in the superficial see/hear/touch/taste/smell, but in the inward-oriented meaning of bodily sensations (again, the limitations of language).

Increasingly neuroscience affirms how important this is: emotions are often our brains’ efforts to attach meaning to what our body (often subconsciously) has already told us. This is the emerging science around psychobiology (basically: the interconnection between our thoughts, emotions, and sensations). Nora Bateson calls this “warm data.” Cold data are the facts and figures that our dominant culture considers valid inputs: how many people are in the room? What is their gender and race? Warm data is everything else: what’s the vibe? Does it feel safe, or hostile? Are people speaking authentically, or through forced smiles? We are deeply relational beings… and increasingly science speaks to how much we co-regulate (our autonomic nervous systems tend to mirror and interact with each other, something you’ve experienced if you’ve ever been around one of those deeply calm people… and find yourself calming down).

From mindfulness… to embodiment

This is the core mantra of mindfulness, of efforts to tune into ourselves: it starts by paying attention to your breath.

There is something about the fact that the interlocking crises we are now experiencing are reminding us of the sacred and fragile power of breath... that fundamental starting point for life. COVID targets our lungs, literally robbing us of our capacity to breathe; the outcry galvanizing the movement for racial justice catalyzed by George Floyd’s murder offers this same desperate refrain “I can’t breathe”; and now the apocalyptic smoke hanging like a funereal shroud over the western United States forces us indoors and behind masks, choking our lungs and again robbing us of our breath.

These crises are asking us to pay close attention, for many of us perhaps for the first time in our lives, to what our bodies are telling us: is that a smoke headache, or an early indication of COVID symptoms? When I feel dizzy, unproductive, listless: what is my body trying to tell me? What am I feeling?

This is the shift: it’s not just about trying to quiet our minds to clarify our intentions (mindfulness). It’s about quieting our minds in order to listen to our bodies, to make space for another source of wisdom… one that is precognitive and often far more attuned to our needs than our conscious minds.

Sonya Renee Taylor is the foremost practitioner I’ve found right now guiding us through this process of reclaiming our bodies. She elaborates on her book (and an emerging movement) The Body is Not an Apology in the opening interview on Prentis Hemphill’s gorgeous new podcast.

She offers a powerful metaphor in this pandemic moment, speaking to the “epidemiological triad”: basically, for a disease to spread it needs (1) a host (2) a method of transmission and (3) a pathogen. The pathogen in this case could be the coronavirus, but we could expand the metaphor to conceive of white supremacy, or patriarchy, or capitalism as a parasitic system (indigenous people have a term for this, describing the “wetiko” virus). The method/site of transmission could be coughing (COVID), or language and our dominant culture institutions (white supremacy). Her radical idea: without the host (the body) these diseases cannot persist. That is, if we learn to reclaim our bodies and deny refuge to these diseases by inoculating ourselves against them (white supremacy, patriarchy, wetiko, or COVID)… we can set ourselves and our societies free.

It’s hard to do justice to the depth of what she’s trying to convey, but it feels really powerful, and resonates with my own limited experience so far exploring somatics.

Darkness of the tomb…or the womb?

There’s no question we’re living in dark times: 2020 seems determined to drive that point home (increasingly difficult to remain in the denial phase…). Yesterday’s Washington Post front page featured articles on: the highest daily COVID count yet; the likely future collapse of a major Antarctic ice shelf (causing sea rise up to ten feet); raging wildfires around the western U.S.; five active hurricanes in the Atlantic for only the second time in recorded history… and all this in a major election year with rampant voter suppression and escalating violence.

As I’ve driven around Oregon this week with my kids in tow, fleeing toxic smoke, I’ve found myself reflecting on a conversation between john a. powell and Meg Wheatley, hosted by Nipun Mehta and Michelle Long. It’s a confronting discussion, and one that seems apt for the moment. It’s about hope… or not. The metaphor I use: Meg believes our car has already gone off the cliff, and the only question is how bad the wreckage is, and how we support each other on the way down. john believes our car is hurtling toward the cliff, and only our actions have any possibility of averting catastrophe… but even then we may go over. I reflected on this question last year after listening to Meg, and reached this conclusion:

The starting point is the assertion that transformation is possible… and worth working for.

I’m with john: we simply don’t know how things are going to turn out, and as actors in a system our actions change that system. Will it be enough, or in time? Perhaps not. Valarie Kaur invites us to consider this possibility:

Is this the darkness of the tomb or the darkness of the womb?

Birth too involves transition, and tremendous pain… but necessary pain, pain that gives life. I wrote recently about Resmaa Menakem’s work distinguishing clean pain and dirty pain; there’s something powerful there. We need to continue to work hard to avoid and limit unnecessary suffering…. and part of the way we do that is stepping into clean pain. This is what we are so desperate to avoid, for we fear where it may lead us. David Kessler reminds us:

Anger is pain’s bodyguard… under our anger is always pain, but we don’t name that.

We are in tremendous pain; so much pain, in fact, that we can’t bear to look at it. This is why grief so often arrives with denial, and then anger. Anything to avoid acknowledging what we fear to be true. But it’s not enough to allow ourselves to feel the dirty pain… we have to hold space for our necessary healing, for the clean pain as well. We are in a collective trauma response: we need to be gentle with ourselves, and each other.

Toward “wise hope”

Writing about this moment of intersecting crises, Roshi Joan Halifax wrote:

Wise hope doesn’t mean denying these realities. It means facing them.

I love Kessler’s introduction of a sixth stage of grief (understanding the Kubler-Ross model of grief as a useful heuristic for a nonlinear process, not an empirical fact). Because it offers something beyond acceptance: yes we must accept (per my last post, I prefer another term like acknowledge, since “accept” holds connotations of “am okay with”). What happens after we face it? As we allow ourselves to experience the full cycle of our grief… what then? I’m not interested in cycle as revolution: a revolution by definition returns us to the same point we started. I’m not interested in the status quo ante: I am facing my grief in order to move purposefully in the direction of the new world I long for… without knowing whether it is attainable.

Barry Lopez had a beautiful piece recently, aptly titled “Love in a Time of Terror”, in which he said:

We have to reimagine what it means to live lives that matter, or we will only continue to push on with the unwarranted hope that things will work out. 

This is what we need to let go of: false hope. Naive hope. Look-away-and-pray hope. We need to look. To behold. To feel. And then still to find the courage to take the next step.

I think I’ll close with Rev. angel Kyodo williams, who offered this for OnBeing:

There’s both this possibility and there is the reality we’re experiencing. The distance between the reality that we experience and the possibility is the actions that we take. And those actions that we take are rooted in how firmly we are grounded in that possibility.

The bold sentence feels exactly right for me. It’s that famous line: “think you can, think you can’t, either way you’re right.” We may not make it out of this mess. But the only way we have any chance is if we try. It’s staying with not-knowing, and still doing. Letting go of control, but holding onto care. As the saying goes:

The antidote to fear is action.

I’m finishing this in the dark, my kids asleep on the hotel floor beside me, in our temporary refuge from the smoke in the coastal town of Bandon, OR. As we explored tide pools and oohed at starfish this afternoon, I could look west, out to the blue beyond of the Pacific: clear skies. And east, inland, where the smoke still hangs like a pall over everything. Both exist at the same time. And in the present, in between: my children are playing. Finding light in the dark.