An image that I come across often when meeting people in the peak oil world is taken from the movie The Matrix.
Morpheus offers two pills to Neo and explains, “you take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. Remember all that I am offering is the truth. Nothing more.”
If you care about creating a post-carbon society, you’ve already taken the red pill.
We hear about peak oil, climate change, or the economic crisis and because a light has gone off in our minds, we are driven to consume all that we can related to the subject. We want to educate ourselves on what the issues are and what is being done about them. At some point we hit a point of no return. Eco-psychologists Sarah Anne Edwards and Linda Buzzell have observed these stages in the “The Waking Up Syndrome.”
Perhaps you’ve just watched The Crash Course and Chris Martenson has connected all the dots for you: Where the world is headed and the bleak outlook for humanity unless it gets its act together. This might not be such a bad situation if you’re lucky enough to find yourself surrounded by like-minded people all of the time.
Sugaring the pill
However, few of us are surrounded by people who agree with us about the state of the world. Whether it is family members, colleagues, or just people who we meet at parties, sooner or later we find ourselves in a conversation that doesn’t bear any resemblance to our felt reality.
We’ve already swallowed the red pill. But others may have taken the blue pill — or, more likely, no pill at all.
“After all, things always get better eventually, don’t they?”
Or perhaps your interlocutor might get that something is up, that the infrastructure that we know is starting to wobble and show signs of cracking, but they are in denial about it right now, hedging their bets and bargaining with the future.
“Yesterday was OK, today was as well, so (hopefully) tomorrow will be OK as well. And the next day too.”
These are not stages to be dismissed. They are necessary emotional phases that we can all go through when dealing with change, comparable to the the Five Stages of Dying as explained by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. When encountering peak oil, climate change and economic crisis for the first time, someone may experience denial, anger, bargaining and other emotional states, as Martenson explains.
Yet, we are still called to ask how we hold the view of reality that the red pill has afforded us, while surrounded by those still living through the vision of either the blue pill or no pill at all.
The poison pill
Those who have tried, out of frustration, exasperation, care or fear to warn others, will know that simply trying to metaphorically yell in someone’s face about what you believe is going on will not result in any positive result. In fact, being too aggressive can achieve just the opposite. It can make the person you’re trying to educate dig their heals in around their view. This can close the door further on the chance of them hearing what you have to say.
This lack of agreement from others can touch something that can be deeply unsettling for us. Through having people not acknowledge what we have to say we are forced to face uncertainty. The Buddha spoke to this uncertainty in his first teaching, that life is suffering (though I find “discontentment” or “dissatisfaction” to be better translations).
Since this truth applies to all beings everywhere and at all times, we just can’t avoid discontentment in our lives. That means we have to learn to let go and be with what is.
But we should not confuse letting go with apathy. In fact, it’s almost the opposite. We are called to accept things as they are. There are many practices within the Buddhist teachings for learning how to let go, but once we start to let things be as they are, our mind becomes clearer and our judgment more accurate.
A bitter pill to swallow
We are called to build an inner, personal resilience in our minds like the resilience that the Transition Town movement is modeling for us to create in our communities.
It is a resilience that can hold pain and be comfortable being with pain. This personal resilience can look at pain in the face, breathe it into the heart, hold it, cradle it and breathe out the needs that those around us are looking for.
Tibetans call this the practice of Tonglen, literally “giving and taking.” For many years it was a secret practice in Tibet, passed down from qualified teacher to student but withheld from the uninitiated. Fortunately for us, Tonglen is now widely taught in the West as a way to build patience and strength in compassion, defined in Tibetan Buddhism as the wish for beings to be freed from their suffering.
The practice of Tonglen rides on our breath, so we can do it wherever we are. But by practicing it during a formal meditation session we enable ourselves to build strength in working with individual people or situations through utilizing the power of visualization.
It’s easy to try this powerful practice for yourself:
- Sit in a comfortable posture and breathing naturally, bring your awareness to the breath entering and leaving the nose.
- As your mind quiets down, bring to mind the situation or person that causes you concern, such as a good friend who you feel is not wanting to hear your news.
- As you breathe in, visualize that you are breathing in what you perceive as her denial, lack of hearing, confusion and fear. Breathe all that dissatisfaction down into your heart.
- You might feel some resistance as you breathe in. Allow that to be. That’s the part of your heart which is closed to people around you who you feel do not understand peak oil, climate change and their implications, whether you are aware of it or not. Imagine the resistance in your heart being chipped away at by your friend’s confusion as you breathe it in.
- Then as you breathe out, exhale all that your friend will need to overcome his denial or lack of wanting to hear, and come to his own clear decisions. Continue doing this, allowing the resistance in your heart to be chipped away a little bit more each time.
Prescription for empathy
As a way to prepare for Tonglen, it can be helpful to reflect on equanimity, the idea that all beings regardless of background are the same as you in wishing for happiness and not wanting to suffer. This gives us an even foundation to work from even when dealing with a difficult person or people. We recognize that there is a common thread running through us all and that at heart, even if we appear to have different points of view, even if we are struggling in communicating, we all wish for the same basic things in life.
None of this means that we do not continue in our efforts to help create the post-carbon world that we and our friends aspire to. What it does mean is that when we want to try to educate someone about peak oil and climate change, we stop and take a breath before we speak and ask ourselves a few simple questions:
- Will the message that I want to deliver be heard if I say it in in the way that I’m planning?
- Is my audience ready to hear it?
- Or do I need to ease my way into the discussion, meeting people where they are and allowing them to discover things in their own time?
I see educating friends, family and others about post-carbon living as an ongoing practice. And just as in a practice of meditation, just when you think that your patience is fine-tuned enough or your heart is open enough, someone will come along and show you that, well, you may still have a little bit further to go, whether in this lifetime, or in the next one, should you choose to follow that far horizon.
— David Johnson