PART 1 OF 5. This article is the first 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.
Lest anyone assume that this series is a rehash of my 2011 book Navigating The Coming Chaos: A Handbook For Inner Transition, let’s dispense with that assumption immediately. Two years and a boatload of human and ecological suffering since the publication of that book have produced much more to explore beyond what I wrote in it. In fact, most of what I have been forecasting for the past seven years about how people will respond emotionally to collapse has unfolded and with surprising rapidity. Not surprising, however, is how many collapse-aware individuals are eager and open for the level of exploration I am proposing.
What is more, I notice that people who have been attending to consciously working with their emotions in the wake of collapse are faring better than those who aren’t. The fact that some people are still resisting doing so and calling my offerings “psychobabble” is telling in terms not only of the brokenness of people in our culture but in terms of the fear we all have at some level of getting out of our heads and into our hearts and guts. That’s exactly how industrial civilization has programmed us to function—or dysfunction.
“No Fear” / KNOW Fear
So speaking of fear, perhaps that is the emotion that is calling to us with the most volume and vigor at this point in the collapse process and the one we should consider first in this series. I’m certain that regardless of how collapse unfolds or for how long, we will be confronted with fear, for how could we not be terrified to confront, at whatever speed, the end of life as we have known it?
And whatever fears we were facing five years ago, we have new and even more formidable events that cause us to shudder. Speaking for myself, and I’m sure many readers, the “disaster that keeps on giving,” namely Fukushima, in tandem with the likelihood of near-term extinction as a result of catastrophic climate change is horrifying on a daily basis.
Our fundamental premise when confronting any emotion, whether it feels positive or negative, should be one of viewing the emotion as instructive. Emotions are far more than random synapses firing in the brain, more than mere physiological phenomena. And whether or not one concurs with William Blake that “emotions are influxes of the divine,” at the very least, it behooves us to open to the possibility that not only are emotions aspects of our survival mechanism but may well serve an evolutionary function by perpetually inducing us to experience a higher quality of life.
Thus, when I am afraid, my fear serves the survival function of motivating me to explore what feels dangerous so that my well being remains intact. Yet I have the choice to do something more than simply preserve my life. I can also utilize the fear as an apparatus for deepening, amplifying, and enhancing my consciousness. In fact, my willingness to adopt the latter approach may not only result in my becoming a more wizened individual, it may also increase my empathy, compassion, and motivation to defend and protect my community.
The human psyche consists of many parts, but the two that are most relevant here are the ego and the deeper self. We have been enculturated to believe that we are the ego, and the ego is us. In some cultures, the ego is less esteemed than it is in industrially civilized cultures, and in those cultures, the deeper self or what I call “the sacred” is more valued. Both the ego and the sacred are essential aspects of who we are, but this value has been greatly imbalanced by civilization. I believe that one of the reasons we exist on this planet is to restore the proper balance between the ego and deeper self, and working consciously with our emotions is one avenue for doing so.
So what to do about fear? Well actually, there’s nothing to do about it, but there is much that we can do with it. Sadly, most of us instinctively attempt to flee from our fear or shut it off as quickly as possible. Often this works—for the time being, but fear, and all other emotions, really do have messages for us, and so when we ignore or flee from them, we can be absolutely certain that they will come back and bite us. In fact, they will bite us even harder and perhaps in more painful ways. If we are lucky, the fear will persist or even increase as it doggedly attempts to get our attention. If we are not so lucky, it will submerge into the body and somaticize in the form of physical illness or symptoms. But of course, the choice is up to us.
Another response to fear is “manning” or “womaning” up. We don’t want to be a “wuss,” so we channel all of our energy into doing, believing that if we stay busy or take action, we can keep the fear at bay. Not uncommon is hyper-logical self-talk like, “What’s the use in worrying? Get busy and make change happen.” Taking action is laudable and useful to the community, and yes, it often helps us feel better, but when we take action instead of feeling the fear, we are attempting to flee in yet another way, all the while assuming that the fear has nothing to teach us.
As unscientific as it may seem, I like to imagine emotions as sentient beings or energetic allies in the psyche that have extremely important information for me that will serve to protect, correct, or direct me in some fashion and ultimately serve to make my life and relationships more loving, fulfilling, harmonious, or dynamic. Paying attention to and working with my emotions serves everyone and everything around me. In other words, doing any form of inner psycho-spiritual work benefits the entire earth community as well as myself. Railing only against the collective, the macrocosm, as if all of humanity’s darkness resides there is to abdicate personal responsibility as a member of the earth community and actually serves to hold collective ignorance and oppression in place.
So for me, fear has many faces and forms. Chronic fears or fears that feel especially life-threatening are vigorously clamoring for my attention, so I oblige them. I find particularly helpful, sitting quietly without the possibility of interruption and just allowing the fear to be present.
First, I relax with eyes closed and take a series of long and slow breaths. When I feel relaxed and grounded, I inwardly invite the fear to show up and talk to me. I accept whatever form it takes and whatever it may communicate. Somewhere in that process I consciously ask the fear what it wants, what it is attempting to tell me, what it would like me to see. Very importantly, all the while I breathe into and through the fear. I understand intellectually that I am not my fear, and my fear is not me. I am much more than my fear, but while breathing into it, I allow it to pass through me. In this way, I experience in my body that fear is not going to kill me, that I can sit with it, learn from it, and that doing so empowers me.
Make no mistake, the answers are not always pleasant nor the results peachy. Sometimes the messages I receive from fear evoke other emotions such as sadness or regret or anger. Often, the fear has layers, and in sitting with it, I discover deeper and more intense textures of it that I was not aware of. I take plenty of time to just be quiet and listen, notice, and pay attention.
Huge fears about the macrocosm such as our fears about planetary radiation poisoning or near-term extinction obviously evoke our fear of death. Ultimately, invariably, and unequivocally, this is precisely the reason that we seek to escape our fears so automatically and reactively. It’s all about dying, and at the slightest suggestion of the notion of dying, the ego catapults into total panic. While on the one hand we can argue that the fear of dying and the wish to survive are “only natural,” we probably all know of countless instances, perhaps some of them very personal, in which people have been able to surrender consciously and with great clarity to their own death.
On several occasions in my workshops I have led participants through a “Die Before You Die” exercise in which they have the opportunity to imagine and walk through their own death. Without exception I have noticed that when people are able to complete the exercise, they report feeling much less anxiety or fear regarding collapse. And of course, the denial of collapse and humankind’s insistence that it isn’t happening and won’t happen is all about the fear of death. When that fear is dealt with, it then becomes much easier to talk about and prepare for collapse.
In fact, in a patriarchal culture, that is to say, one embedded in the values of power and control, people, particularly men, are disconnected from the earth and from life and death. Women, on the other hand, have the capacity to bear children and know the life/death/life cycle somewhat more intimately. However, this enormous death denial in any culture allows people in general, and particularly men, to live in the intellect and rarely move into the heart and emotions. Therefore, much of the work that men must do if they desire to learn the value of emotion is to confront their fear of death.
So back to the process of sitting quietly with fear. As we let it pass through us, we listen and intentionally ask what it wants from us or wants us to see or wants to teach us. We will probably need to do this process more than once because our fears are enormous, and we have so much to learn from them. When we feel complete with our sitting, then we take some deep breaths and slowly and gently open the eyes. Afterward, it is very useful to journal or draw something about our experience of sitting with fear.
Almost without exception, this process is extremely useful in learning from fear. In all my years of suggesting it, no one has ever told me that it was a waste of time or that they learned nothing from doing it. Rather, I have heard many more stories of empowerment and courage and unexpected awarenesses as a result of consciously sitting with fear. Frequently, people discover, paradoxically, that working consciously with their fear has resulted in feeling more grounded, more present, and more resolute in facing and preparing for collapse.
Lone Rangers, Marlboro Men and Women
Feeling overwhelmed with fear in itself is frightening enough, but feeling fear without support is cruel and unusual punishment. When we are feeling fearful about collapse, it is crucial to share our fears with other collapse-aware individuals. At least ninety percent of people who contact me for life coaching are struggling with feeling alone and isolated with their awareness of collapse, and they experience a significant emotional shift just by connecting with another person who is aware and with whom they can openly dialog on the topic.
If you are the only one in your family who is aware, and you are unable to discuss your fears with other family members, then finding support should be a top priority. Is there a sustainability or Transition group in your community or region where you might find folks of like mind? If not, look for conferences or speaking engagements sponsored by groups or organizations who are aware, even if you need to travel there. If there are no like-minded people in your community and you are not able to travel to events that resonate with you, then at least become part of an online community by way of comments on blogs or via social networking.
Confronting one’s deeper fears is courageous work, and we should acknowledge and reward our willingness to do it. After sitting with fear, do something fun, relaxing, and nurturing.
Remember always that if we work with our fear and follow it to its ultimate destination, it will take us to love, and of course, when our empathy and compassion are strengthened as a result of working with fear, we invariably become kinder and more caring human beings. Thus, conscious engagement with the emotions of collapse is anything but narcissism or navel-gazing. Everyone we care about benefits from it, including perhaps people we don’t even know.
Yes, collapse is scary, often terrifying. Fear hovers and waits in the wings, and we can continue fleeing from it, or we can face it with intention and a desire to be taught by it. Billions of people are ignoring collapse and will consequently learn nothing from it. However, the individual who is awake to it and willing to be taught by the emotions it evokes may be the most fortunate of all.
Carolyn’s forthcoming book Collapsing Consciously: Transformative Truths For Turbulent Times will come out on November 19. Find out more or preorder a copy.
— Carolyn Baker, Transition Voice