Resilience begins with the heart: All roads lead to grief

Photo: kaiyen/Flickr.

PART 3 OF 5. This article is the third part of a five-part series by Carolyn Baker on dealing with the emotions aroused by the collapse of industrial civilization, “What Collapse Feels Like.” Read the entire series here as it becomes available.

According to the Johns Hopkins Medicine website, “CHF [congestive heart failure] occurs most frequently in those over age 60 and is the leading cause of hospitalization and death in that age group. In over 50 percent of cases, sudden death occurs due to a cardiac arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat. Unfortunately, anti-arrhythmic medications may not be effective in controlling arrhythmias caused by CHF.”

Overwhelmingly, civilized people have congested hearts. Whether speaking physiologically or metaphorically, this ailment is rampant in industrial societies where conscious, intentional, unrestrained grieving is virtually unheard of and where “bereavement leave” and other arbitrary parameters around loss dictate that we are only allowed a ridiculously brief time for grieving, if any time is allowed at all.

I have written much about grief over the past few years, but as I develop this series of articles on “What Collapse Feels Like,” I am newly-inspired and incisively aware of the urgency with which our predicament has foisted itself on the human heart. It is asking, no make that demanding, that we evacuate the “cereb-esphere” and descend, both literally and symbolically, into the region of the heart because our profound rejection of its territory has brought us to exactly where we are in this moment.

The safety of the cereb-esphere

For the first half of my life, I navigated the world through the intellect. Education had liberated me from a stultifying, abusive childhood where Calvinistic, fundamentalist Christianity proclaimed that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” and indeed for my parents who were committed to keeping a naturally curious, vivacious child in check, it absolutely was. In grammar school I had superb teachers who instilled in me a passion for writing, reading, and history. In college I reveled in more history, philosophy, and psychology. I abhorred the “irrational” as reminiscent of the anti-intellectual, blind-faith milieu in which I was raised. Yet in my own way, I embraced a trajectory that was as rigid and intransigent as the ideology of my parents. Within that sealed chamber of intellect, the mystery, uncertainty, and inexplicable vicissitudes of the human condition could not survive without being torn to pieces by reason.

In my early forties, my life fell apart, and I found myself in Jungian therapy. I soon attempted to read and comprehend everything Jung had written, but I realized that I could not metabolize his wisdom through the intellect alone. Jung’s perspective is one that utilizes what he called the Four Functions: Thinking, Feeling, Sensing, and Intuiting. I soon discovered that my wounded psyche could not be made whole through reason alone and that reading the words of Jung is no substitute for experiencing a descent into the inner world where healing and transformation await our willingness to explore the depths of the soul. Through a lengthy process of enduring and witnessing the unraveling and demise of my own psyche, I reclaimed many parts of myself that had been sent away in order to survive—the very best aspects of me that generated my creativity, my passion for life, and my capacity to love and be loved. The price for such reclamation: a willingness to feel both the wrenching anguish and the unspeakable joy of my humanity.

In a sense, I lived through a personal collapse—a collapse of an inner empire that served only to oppress me and all who attempted to join their souls with me in loving and living. Perhaps this is why I write so freely about collapse. I have survived many, and I not only know that it is possible to do so, but I know in every cell of my body the incalculable mystery, yes miracle, of surrendering to a collapse, slogging through its misery, then suddenly realizing that one has survived and was not annihilated by it.

None of this is for the faint of heart, which is why remaining in the cereb-esphere is so tempting. Talking about the collapse of industrial civilization, reading articles, watching documentaries, and debating issues such as: when it will happen, how long it will take, the best locations suited for surviving it, and how much food, guns, and ammo to acquire—all of this, in my opinion and my experience, is supremely soul-stifling mental masturbation that misses the entire point of the momentous, unprecedented, species-altering phenomenon into which we have already descended. And yet, so many of us are willing to remain in this nether-world of collapse consciousness in order to spare ourselves the agony of feeling our emotions about the fact that our species is murdering and may succeed in annihilating this planet.

We love to speak of resilience—as long as it allows us to remain ensconsed in our cereb-esphere outposts. And if we allow ourselves to feel anything, those other emotions like fear, anger, and despair are permissible, but grief? Not so much.

As I interact with other collapse-aware individuals around the civilized world, I am consistently astonished at how forbidden the emotion of grief has become for us. Somehow when we feel our grief, we feel more vulnerable than when allowing any other emotion. Our personal and cultural histories are teeming with anti-grief messages that have convinced us that if we feel our grief: we will die; we will be too vulnerable; it means we are being wussy when we need to be strong; there’s no point in feeling it because it doesn’t change anything; if we start feeling it we will never stop, and then we’ll become incapacitated and on and on ad infinitum.

Since most of us born into industrial civilization are living with personal and cultural trauma, it makes sense that our defenses around feeling grief are so robust. After all, when you live in a war zone or have survived one, it’s much easier to become a bad ass than to allow a lump in the throat to dissolve into a river of tears that feels eternally inconsolable and ultimately feels like it’s dissolving you. We have so little support and safety, both of which are necessary for feeling the depths of our grief, that it’s much easier to suppress it under mega-layers of reason, anger, anxiety, or other emotions and distractions because actually feeling our grief seems life-threatening. All the while, grief is congesting our hearts and doing its multi-faceted, subterranean work creating symptoms in the body.

Heartbreak heals and fosters resilience

We say that we want to become resilient, but we continue to shut off the heart as if resilience is something that gets engineered in the head. In fact, if resilience doesn’t begin with the heart, we can never become authentically resilient.

If we are not first heartbroken by what is happening to our planet, the earth community, the people we love, and ourselves, all other forms of preparation for our daunting future are quite simply, incidental. The collapse of industrial civilization will result in unimaginable loss of life, and those who survive will either become bigger people, or they will be emotionally and spiritually decimated. The heart, not the head, determines the outcome of that reality.

So how do we become bigger people now, not in the throes of horror? How do we allow grief in our bodies in a milieu that counters every attempt to do so?

First, we need to understand that grief is already present within us and all around us. All we need to do is open to it. However, we need to consciously attend to our grief and create the conditions necessary for feeling it safely and thoroughly. One useful possibility is spending solitary time in nature in which we open to grief. In a natural setting, we need only look around us to see what will not be there in another fifty to one hundred years. How do we feel about that? The trees, streams, birds, animals, soil, and natural healing beauty of such a place—gone, and gone forever. A back leaned against a tree, the belly of a face-down body lying on the earth—conduits to and for our tears. Let them come. Honor and bless them because they are sacred solutions designed to cleanse the wounds of civilization.

It may also be heart-meltingly useful to look deeply into the eyes of an animal. Commune with some wizened animal being. Let the animal heart in you be touched by the animal heart in it. After all, why do so many war veterans with PTSD and people in stifling, stultifying literal and symbolic prisons of both concrete and trauma, begin to reclaim parts of themselves when they have intimate contact with an animal?

Create with your grief even as you commune with it. Express it in art, music, dance, storytelling, and ritual. Contrary to the model of industrial civilization, grief has never been and never will be “private.” In indigenous and ancient cultures, grief was a community issue, and people understood that the processing of accumulated sorrows was necessary for the tribe. They viewed grief as a toxin that is meant to be regularly emptied out because if it isn’t, collective grief harms the community whereas grief openly expressed heals the community and provides food for the ancestors.

Can you let your heart be broken by madness over which you have no control? Andrew Harvey says that the only heart worth having is a broken one. Why? Because as Joanna Macy notes, “The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe.” That’s called “becoming a bigger person.” If the heart is not softened, it becomes hardened which only perpetuates the paradigm of civilization and guarantees that whatever “next” culture humans might create will be a retread of this one.

Beyond and beneath all layers of anger, fear, and despair lies grief. All roads lead there, and until we embrace it, we can only talk about resilience from the cereb-esphere in a culture of congested hearts.

I offer these opportunities for support in plumbing the depths of your grief and discovering the life-altering empowerment available there:

    • The annual Day of The Dead Ritual, Oakland, California, November 2
    • Guatemalan Shaman Martin Prechtel speaking on Grief (scroll to bottom)
    • VIDEO: Francis Weller, Author of Entering The Healing Ground, in my opinion, the definitive book on grief

Collapsing ConsciouslyCarolyn’s forthcoming book Collapsing Consciously: Transformative Truths For Turbulent Times will come out on November 19. Find out more or preorder a copy. We reposted this article from Speaking Truth to Power.

– Carolyn Baker, Transition Voice

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  1. James R. Martin says


    While I’m in agreement with you about the importance of feeling our grief at what has been already lost and what is at risk (which is its own kind of loss, since it wasn’t so obviously at risk before), I’m worried that some might mistakenly grieve a loss which may never come–which seems rather unnecessary.

    You say: “In a natural setting, we need only look around us to see what will not be there in another fifty to one hundred years. How do we feel about that? The trees, streams, birds, animals, soil, and natural healing beauty of such a place—gone, and gone forever.”

    I presume you’re referring to a prognosis of near total planet-wide ecological collapse — a near total extinction of life on Earth — brought about by the unfolding climate catastrophe. And I’m presuming you’re mostly basing this prognosis on the prognostications of Dr. Guy McPherson.

    McPherson has published in numerous places online his view that industrial civilization has already engaged an irreversible runaway climate change situation, regardless as to how much more carbon might be dumped into the atmosphere in the future. But the world’s climate science community hardly seems to think so! The IPCC’s recently published Fifth Assessment Report says that worst case scenarios can be avoided if humanity were to stay within its “carbon budget,” which allows roughly a doubling of the CO2 emissions released since the dawn of the industrial age — which would occur in roughly 30 years if business as usual continues along its current trajectory.

    Having read Bill McKibben’s book, “Eaarth,” I can’t help thinking that the IPCC’s “carbon budget” grossly exaggerates how much CO2 can be released into the atmosphere without catastrophic consequences. But are we to assume that the IPCC’s take is irrelevant? If so, that needs a lot of explaining. And it would surely call for a lot more public discussion and debate! After all, I don’t see much talk in any of the media which calls this carbon budget into doubt, at least not from the perspective that it grossly underestimates the havoc which will be wreaked by current or only slightly highter atmospheric carbon concentrations.

    I suspect that the truth about our “carbon budget” is probably much closer to McPherson’s end of the spectrum than the IPCC’s end. After all, the Arctic sea ice is precariously near total dissolve in summer, which would engage several very serious positive feedback loops. But the sheer fact of the distance between the IPCC’s “budget” and McPherson’s suggests, at least, that there is a great deal of uncertainty about how the future *must* unfold — especially if humanity were to make dramatic strides in lowering future carbon emissions. Aside from broad uncertainty, the only other plausible explanation would be the existence of a conspiracy within the ranks of the world’s climate science community to dramatically underestimate our risk level.

    Unless you’re seeing something I’m not.

    Until these issues are worked out satisfactorily, I’m going to assume that the IPCC’s carbon budget is a gross exaggeration of the “wiggle room” we have while McPherson’s NTE prognosis exaggerates on the other end of the spectrum.

  2. says

    Let’s take Near Term Extinction off the table, and let’s pretend that Guy McPherson never existed, and while we’re at it, let’s pretend that industrial civilization will never collapse. Even after/before all of that, we have light years of grieving to do for the plethora of losses humans have created on our planet. My perspective on NTE or anything else does not eliminate the need for doing that work.

    • James R. Martin says

      “Even after/before all of that, we have light years of grieving to do for the plethora of losses humans have created on our planet. My perspective on NTE or anything else does not eliminate the need for doing that work.”

      You have 1,000 % agreement from me on that! And I’ve been doing this greiving, myself. And it’s damn painful. Worse, it’s damn lonely. So we’re doing others a favor by doing it in such a lonely space as it usually is done now — as a result of massive cultural denial.

      As for civilization collapsing? This seems almost certain to occur, though my hope is that there will be some sort of massive awakening / transformation in which we manage to build considerably greater resiliency into our culture as we continue down the downslope of the post-peak energy world.

      I have profound respect and appreciation for your work, Carolyn. It’s necessary and good work. And I thank you for it from the depths of my heart.

  3. James R. Martin says

    Excerpted from –

    The Real Budget Crisis: ‘The CO2 Emissions Budget Framing Is A Recipe For Delaying Concrete Action Now’ – By Joe Romm on September 30, 2013:

    “There is some noise around the idea that it useful to think about some amount of “allowable CO2 emissions budget” that would keep the world under 2 C of global warming.

    This concept is dangerous for two reasons:

    1. There are no such things as an “allowable CO2 emissions.” There are only “damaging CO2 emissions” or “dangerous CO2 emissions.” Every CO2 emission causes additional damage and creates additional risk. Causing additional damage and creating additional risk with our CO2 emissions should not be allowed.

    2. If you look at how our politicians operate, if you tell them you have a budget of XYZ, they will spend XYZ. Politicians will reason: “If we’re not over budget, what’s to stop us to spending? Let the guys down the road deal with it when the budget has been exceeded.” The CO2 emissions budget framing is a recipe for delaying concrete action now.”

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