In some ways it’s antithetical at this early stage to be writing a review of Carolyn Baker’s Navigating The Coming Chaos: A Handbook For Inner Transition. I only received my review copy in early March. And as a workbook that invites deep personal exploration, I couldn’t just devour this in a month’s time.
Yet book reviews are meant to be a relatively quick process. Ideally, authors hope for reviews prior to a book’s release or just shortly after. Reviewers are meant to read quickly and observantly and then crank out that review without too much dawdling.
But what happens when the very nature of the book compels one to slow down and ponder some of the most pressing questions to face any human being?
A meditative approach to Transition
Such is the case with Baker’s Handbook. The more I got into it, the more slowly I moved. She’d be lucky to get a review out of me by the end of this year if I really took the time required to enter into its depths, to explore its themes and suggestions in my own life.
And that’s a good thing, particularly for someone like me who works on the Internet, chases down my fair share of Twitter recommendations and writes commentary several hours each day for immediate publication. It’s easy to get too worldly and hence too disconnected to one’s soul life and heart.
I love looking inward, and treasure times of meditation and reflection. I need to slow down and look within to stay sane. It’s a safe bet that others do, too, especially when the things on our minds concern the collapse and re-imagining of our world. Baker’s Handbook offers this in spades.
To get the most out of the book, readers should prepare to take as long as it takes, even setting up an intentionally defined period of time to really leave space to answer its questions. I could see reading just one chapter a month, and dedicating a night or weekend each month to shut everything out simply to explore the questions. Or working with a partner or in groups to get feedback and share ideas.
Plumbing your depths
Set up as a series of essays and commentaries on a variety of subjects related to The Great Turning, each chapter in Navigating the Coming Chaos ends with a series of reflections that Baker recommends you ponder deeply and respond to through written answers. She suggests taking it a step further, by journaling on an ongoing basis on the issues and ideas raised for you. She also suggests drawing pictures or creating other art as a response.
Clearly that’s not something that most of us can do with heart and soul as a quickie, on an accelerated schedule. As she writes in the introduction,
I want to tell the reader what this book is not. It is not a book for gleaning information; it is a study. If you crave more facts and do not wish to explore the myriad aspects of the human soul which may offer an antidote to the the lethal cocktail of horrors which our species has created, this is not the book for you. If you have picked up this book in order to get more for yourself but have little interest in giving anything momentous to yourself or the world, it is likely you will soon lose interest in what is written here.
She is so right. And there is no hurry. I’ve taken the time to sit with questions like:
- What does it mean to you to have an inner life? What does that look like? If you feel devoid of an inner life…do you notice any longing for one?
- Do you engage in forms of creativity that are not technology dependent?
- Contemplate and write about differences between soul and spirit in your world and in your own life—how do they show up?
- What experiences have you had with collective mourning or grieving rituals?
- Are you aware of any specific instances of your energy being drained by working hard to suppress your shadow?
And on and on I could go in citing the kinds of deep explorations that Baker encourages in her readers.
Embracing death, discovering life
Looking at the personal, the intimate, the communal and the collective, Baker’s reflections on socio-cultural, spiritual, financial and personal change amidst resource decline, environmental degradation and economic uncertainty set up no small task for the reader. Baker unmasks a good number of pretensions and delusions in our society while recognizing that such unmasking can arouse resentments, denial and fear. Her advice is to go into that territory unabashedly, as much to heal as to prepare.
Without adequate emotional and spiritual preparation for the collapse of industrial civilization, the human psyche is very likely to be overwhelmed to the point of madness or death. Collapse is humanity’s next rite of passage, our imminent initiation into adulthood as a species.
Sound advice. But not always a sound presentation.
In Chapter 2: The Momentous Distinction Between Spirit and Soul, Baker writes that “The history of the Christian church is the saga of the triumph of the spirit over soul.”
She then links soul with a deeper experience of human life than spirit can offer and weds Christianity to the soul-busting nature of industrial civilization. That she fails to ground this is an historical or theological analysis to support her claim is troubling enough. But that it is reflective of too many knee-jerk assumptions by those in the New Age spectrum is worse, especially among learned writers who should know better.
In full disclosure, I’m a Christian, and deeply passionate about it. But I can revel in a solstice ritual with the best of them, am a lay astrology devotee, treasure animal totems and regularly commune with river, clouds and sky. I don’t experience my Christianity as something that precludes my involvement in and enchantment with an animate natural world and a relationship to it from the depths of my soul. I respect that world, and move daily to protect that world precisely because of my Christianity.
And while Christianity, like all organized religions, has its history of misdeeds and fork-tongued charlatans, it’s a mistake to draw a line between that betrayal and the deeper strands of meaning and engagement that the world’s great religions offer. Sadly this is too often done, and Baker falls into the same trap. For example, a question at the end of Chapter 2 asks:
Organized religion is often the domain of spirit-mind dominance. How have you experienced this personally? How does your connection with soul differ from this? Be specific.
Yet she doesn’t go on to say, “If this has not been your experience, write how organized religion has been a deepening of your soul experience, and a source of inspiration, connection and fulfillment for you. Explore how your religion is not in conflict with other ways of encountering the world. Be specific.”
Who does Transition belong to?
In this regard, the book feels too heavily tipped in the direction of prevailing New Age assumptions and targeted to a certain audience predisposed to see the world through a very defined and somewhat narrow lens, in spite of the aim to embrace even the death of civilization with openness and non-attachment. That such non-attachment is also at the heart of Christianity, properly understood, escapes Baker, and in so doing she sets up false dichotomies while also narrowing the scope of connection that a world in Transition implies.
I fear that when soul is brought up in the Transition world, since so much emphasis is placed on earth religions and pagan experiences, as against organized religions, that walls will be put up, alliances missed and alienation sown. I also fear that Christianity is too often the stand in for Capitalism, which should be the proper target for criticism of a desacralized world view that eyes resources with rapaciousness and acts absent of an ethical system.
Again, I don’t say this as an indictment of earth religions, paganism or inherent soulfulness, all of which I not only appreciate but actively enjoy. I say this as an indictment of a mindset that presupposes the need for reaction against something in order to make its own case, and in so doing, creates its own spirit-mind dominance while accusing others of the same.
Isn’t this precisely what we’re supposed to be moving past?
In spite of those weaknesses, which will not bother all readers, I believe that Baker’s overall effort to invite the reader into a deeply soulful personal journey of loss, death, compassion, rebirth and creativity is well considered and a gift to all who will go there. Such journeys will benefit not only the traveler, but all who encounter her or him.
Baker’s advised level of exploration seems to me crucial for a world and individuals at the precipice of massive change.
–Lindsay Curren, Transition Voice
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