A soulful guide to society’s collapse

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.

Navigating

Navigating the Coming Chaos: A Handbook for Inner Transition, by Carolyn Baker, 201 pp., $25.95.

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.

Narrow definitions

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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Comments

  1. Auntiegrav says

    As an atheist, I am offended by devout atheists. I think that, like Ayn Rand fans, the competitive bent overwhelms the reality of humanity. The Evil of any organized belief lies in the actions taken based on ignorance or unquestioned belief, not necessarily in any general problem with believing things or organizing. When people put too much emphasis on the process instead of their actual needs, they take actions to support the process instead of each other. The allegorical nature of the old testament leaves a lot of room for interpretation, but when we think in terms of supporting the process or supporting needs, we see that the problems with idols (worshiping the process instead of God), manna and isolation are real problems when people have needs to be met. God is the ultimate metaphor for creating Everything from Nothing. WE only have to give a little more to the future than we take from it (this is also a fundamental feature of evolution). All the rest is just gossip and entertainment to get us to do it together, because survival is a group effort. Nobody is secure if their neighbor is hungry.

    • James R. Martin says

      Auntiegrav says: “Nobody is secure if their neighbor is hungry.”

      That’s a fabulous way of concisely stating one of the most crucial insights of our day. It would make a fine chapter title in An Honest Handbook for the 21st Century. (Subtitle: How to Wake Up from the Fiction of Ultimate Separateness”)

  2. Leigh says

    Thanks, Lindsay. This is one of my concerns as I aim to set up an exploration of Transition in my area: Specifically, how shall we address diversity, of backgrounds, beliefs, etc.? I have enjoyed Carolyn Baker’s work, but what you point out strikes me as a large blind spot, one I’m cognizant of, but not quite sure how to address other than to stay aware of it and always, always maintain a full LISTENing presence and encourage others to do so as well. Seems there will be a big role for those versed in conflict resolution and mediation to fulfill in this regard.

    • says

      Thanks for weighing in Leigh (and Auntigrav.)

      I know Carolyn Baker as an e-mail acquaintance through the peak oil movement and I know she shares the value of tolerance as well as holding the tension of opposites in one’s mindful space. So I hope my criticisms of her book wont be confused with criticisms of her, nor taken as an indictment of her work. I think she’s doing some really great things.

      But I too look for more ways to bring Christianity into a fair and favorable place of consideration as a deeply meaningful religion for many and one that has much devotion to earth and creation care to offer both in and outside of the Transition movement.

      We have several articles on Transition from the Buddhist perspective, but hope to have more from Christianity and the world’s other great religions, too. We always invite submissions through our contact us page.

      Best,

      Lindsay

  3. tribeseeker13 says

    Sadly, Lindsay fails to realize that religion is merely another escape from reality; another avoidance mechanism in a vast field of avoidance techniques that we humans must use in order to try to tolerate the intolerable-ness of “civilization”. Certainly, being a self-proclaimed passionate christian, she will be blind to the reality that exists beyond the veil of her religious blinders. Thankfully, Caroline Baker’s message will be heard far past this one stunted review!

    • says

      Dear tribeseeker13,

      Thanks for your comments.

      If I had given Baker’s book a wholesale bad review, or condemned all her writings on the basis of my own predisposition as a Christian, I could better understand your criticism.

      But since I not only praised the book’s many merits, but also encouraged everyone to undertake the kind of introspection she advises, and concurred with the values of the nature-religion end of the spectrum, and merely criticized her false conclusions/blame about Christianity, I think my review was both fair and comprehensive.

      My passionate Christianity is precisely what makes me open to not only Baker’s view, but to religious and non-religious persons and views alike. If I was not loving my neighbor as myself I would hardly be a Christian.

      If there was a blindspot here I believe it was in your reading of the review, which failed to recognize the many places of concurrence and support that I wrote.

      Better luck next time.

      Best,

      Lindsay

      • James R. Martin says

        Lindsay, Although I do not identify as a Christian, I find your comments in response to tribeseeker13 admirable. Perhaps there is a universal form of spiritulity which is simply human? We find it here and there in various places, in Buddhism, in Christianity, in Taoism, in Islam … well, even in atheists. Maybe we ought simply to call it love and compassion? Generosity and kindness? Honesty and truthfulness? Courage and service? All of the above?

        Joy to you and all whom you serve in universal lovingness!

        • says

          Thanks James. I definitely find that all the major religions have more in common than they have differences. I also find that all can be guilty of being associated with bad things—corruption, rationalization for injustices, etc. Yet all are redeemed by the larger message and actions that the faiths represent. The same can be said for the goodness of people outside of faith traditions but who try to live by a meaningful ethical code, or through compassion, kindness and generoisty.

          Best to you too,

          Lindsay

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