We are each manifesting a universe, a potential brewing within ourselves Packed into infinitely small space, moments from bursting In an explosion of blinding light and matter ignited by the unbearable intermingling Of deepest joy and deepest suffering, until our skin is torn apart and Our innards are spread across the galaxy we’ve created in a great sigh of relief. We birth a world held together by indescribable strength, force, intention, and release. And then (because now moments and time exist) we stand aghast Unbelieving at what we have just created A complete world filled with our own pain, sorrow, joy, and bliss, Swirling together into physical bodies that will play out these emotions in innumerable stories Until one day, every last atom has experienced every possible variation of joy and sorrow, And peacefully dissolves back into itself Melts away once again into a potentiality, as if crawling back into a womb Where everything and nothing already exists, has existed, and will exist, And we already know all of it. Until we forget again.
A fierce wind rattles the window, forcing itself through invisible gaps into the room where I lay. I pull a blanket up further over my chest and listen to the gusts howl, and feel the errant drafts cross my cheek. Wind carries life and death with it, and life waiting to live. Minuscule seeds; insects; bacteria; viruses; all held aloft for miles and miles on their airborne journey in hopes of fertile ground.
I, on the other hand, am water. My veins transport fluids that also harbor life and death; life giving nutrients, dead cells to be disposed of. I feel heavy and uncoordinated. I yearn to flow and ooze into a mold that will unburden me, that will give me a shape so I can stop wondering what it is I am. But the liquid also cools my mind, and though my vision through it is hazy, it magnifies certain images so that I may examine them in all of their horrifying beautiful detail.
When the sun burns with its fire of life, its heat courses through my watery veins and reminds me that liquid has no shape; it is a shape-shifter. We have the magic to define who and what we want to be – if we can see beyond the illusory bounds that try to contain us. We are water people reliant on air, and fire, and earth too. Through our breath we bring in the knowledge of the universe, and through our feet we touch the wisdom of our own soul.
Fear is always easiest. It lives and breeds like damp moss on the underside of anger’s sharp rock. But a river flows freely across boulders and down deep ravines toward the sea without fear or anger. It flows with courage of self-knowledge. When it is no longer a river its energy still spreads and carries life and death, just as does the wind, and the soil.
It’s time to burn the lifeless shells within which we’ve hidden for lifetimes. The heat of creation is waiting for us to forge ourselves into vessels of peace and actualization. Will I let my ego evaporate with the beads of sweat on my brow? The fire may burn and scar, but we will be lighter for it, ready to scatter new seeds across the plains that will nourish those who come after us, if we are willing to tend to them. What will sprout from those seeds of intention?
In 1969, Psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published a book outlining five key steps in the grieving process. Decades later, these five steps have entrenched themselves almost ubiquitously into western society’s understanding of grief, with references to them occurring in everything from academic research to pop culture.
Flash-forward to 2015—another psychologist, Per Espen Stoknes, has published his own book that similarly proposes a five-step psychological process. But this one isn’t about grieving. In fact, it’s about not grieving—not grieving for the planet, that is. In his book, Stoknes describes five psychological barriers that prevent people from being concerned about, or taking action on, climate change.
The five barriers (distance from the problem, defeatism, internal dissonance, denial, and sense of identity) do indeed help explain why people in developed countries are largely ignoring not just climate change, but many other large-scale, high-risk challenges facing society and the environment. While each of these mental barriers relates to one another, I am particularly interested in the last—i.e., how our construct of personal identity (a.k.a. Ego) affects our perception of the world, and how that perception frames our values, connections, and resulting actions (or inaction, as the case may be).
“Each of us has a sense of self that is based in certain values — a professional self, a political self, a national identity. We just naturally look for information that confirms our existing values and notions, and filter away whatever challenges them,” Stoknes explains. “Psychologists know that if you criticize people to try to make them change, it may only reinforce their resistance.”
Personal identity, just like religion, has evolved to serve an important purpose in human society. It helps us cultivate a moral compass and allows us to interpret and filter the constant external information our minds are internalizing. However, as with religion, our sense of self can become a source of harm when it interferes with our ability to commiserate and connect with people or ideas different from our ‘own’. The ego grows by defining boundaries between ‘self’ and ‘other’, and by ignoring or outright denying any information that does not align with its self-cultivated identity.
We only have to look at neo-Nazi groups or extreme religious cults to see where the creation and defense of self-identity can go terribly, violently wrong. At the other extreme, philosophies such as yoga as well as many eastern religions emphasize the release from self-identity as the highest goal—i.e., moving beyond the ego to a place of enlightenment, or higher consciousness. For those of us in between those extremes, our sense of self is unavoidable, and crucial at least to some extent in our interactions with the day-to-day world. The goal then is how to maintain an identity without feeling threatened by other ways of seeing or explaining the world; an identity that is porous like sand on a beach, allowing ideas and knowledge to flow through it freely.
I believe that regardless of religious, philosophical, or cultural ties, our responsibility (and ideally, our ambition) as humans is to cultivate a sense of self that is pliable instead of rigid, that expands and evolves to accept new ideas and facts as they are made aware to us. Nothing on the planet, indeed in the universe, is unchanging, and neither is our Self, no matter how much we try to cling to whatever identity we’ve constructed over the years.
I Imagine, therefore I Am
One thing that we all are capable of to varying degrees is imagining. Imagining future scenarios, imagining alternative lives, or even imagining people or creatures that don’t ‘exist’ in our world. Whereas science-minded folks often exhibit high amounts of curiosity and openness to new ideas, its often religious people whose minds are more open to imagination.
As Stanford Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann explains in a TEDx talk, evangelical conceptions of God often involve people talking directly to God, hearing his voice direct them, or even seeing him. Her research has found that some people have an inherently vivid imagination, and these individuals are more likely to have these personal one-on-one interactions with God. Using brain scans, scientists can see that the same parts of the brain are active when someone is having a Godly experience as when they are asked to imagine various scenes.
Luhrmanns’ and others’ research also shows that we train our minds to be more imaginative—or more in tune with God, depending on how you interpret the results. The longer a person has been praying in the evangelical style, the more likely they are to experience God’s voice or image in their everyday routines.
These internal imaginative experiences highlight how adaptive and flexible our minds are. We can literally re-wire our brains by consciously changing and practicing new thought patterns. People are trained to do this to treat depression and anxiety, and we can even reduce chances of developing Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s by keeping our minds healthy and active.
Perhaps if we were to teach similar techniques on a wider level, our society would be better prepared for change, and more willing to make positive lifestyle choices to protect our health, environment, and wellbeing. Just as people are starting to advocate re-introducing children to gardening and real food at school, and some corporations are adopting socially and environmentally conscious guidelines that go beyond their financial bottom line, we do have it in us to expand our view about what values are important to cultivate.
It’s never easy to modify your identity or accept large-scale change, but we’ve done it as a species countless times before. Our identities will always be partially shaped by where we live, how we were raised, and to what cultures we were exposed. However, as a highly adaptive species, I have hope that we (at least some of us!) can yet evolve toward a higher collective consciousness in which differences are both respected and recognized as superficial compared to the larger sameness that we all share.