The Story of Here Begins

To read the first post in this series, "The Story of Here Begins" click here.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Why Words Matter-Part Two

In last week’s column, “Why words matter”, I encouraged readers to consider the power of mental images—and the words we choose to describe what we “see”—to define and limit (or expand) how we respond to the emerging crises of our time. In particular, I warned against seeing ourselves as headed “off a cliff”, in favor of the less paralyzing picture of standing at a “crossroads”.

Many people responded with a sigh of relief, happy to be reminded that fear is most often a matter of choice, not an inescapable force. They liked the idea that, by taking charge of the dark imagery our minds habitually offer up, we won’t necessarily alter the trajectory of the collapse heading our way—but we can fundamentally change our ability to act effectively in the face of it.

Others objected to the entire line of thinking. To them, the image of divergent paths in a green wood was far too serene, too safe. These thoughtful people have done their homework. Like structural engineers, they’ve run the numbers on this skyscraper called civilization, and have concluded it just won’t stand up much longer, no matter which path we take. They think it is time to start the evacuation, not hold hands and meditate. I seemed to be saying, “Hey, don’t let the end of the world as you know it get you down! Just think happy thoughts, put one foot in front of the other, and it will all work itself out.”

Clearly, I didn’t communicate as well as I should have, because I don’t believe anything of the sort. It is more proof that words matter—a lot. I really like Bobby McFerrin’s song, “Don’t worry, be happy”, but I don’t recommend it as a philosophy of life.

I had planned to move on this week in “The Story of Here” with a walk down to Clear Creek, the closest thing in my circular world to a wildlife refuge. (This is where I can see deer grazing under the overpass of an interstate highway, find raccoon tracks in the mud, spy great blue herons standing like feathered fence posts in the water, or pick wild rosehips and other plants for the medicine cabinet.)

But that trip can wait a week while I back up and take another stab at making myself clear. For starters, it’s important to acknowledge that, these days, looking the future square in the face, without the anesthetic of denial in its many forms, is traumatic. If peak oil alone hasn’t scared the pants off of you at some point, then you haven’t fully understood it. Period.

It is also true that waking up from the hypnosis of belief that tomorrow will always be better than today doesn’t happen just because Dr. Mesmer snaps his fingers. It is a process that proceeds at different rates for different people. The course it runs is best described by “the five stages of grief” laid out by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying. They are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. As others have pointed out, these don’t always occur in everyone, or in the sequence in which they appear on this list. Hell, I’ve been known to feel them all in a single day!

Here’s the point: Seeing the unvarnished truth of our present predicament is a lot like facing death. It is frightening and painful. If it makes you angry, you’re not alone. Depressed? Welcome to the club. You won’t catch me telling you to feel something other than what you feel. It is necessary to your forward progress. And, if you are in the stage where all you want to do is climb on your roof and scream bloody murder at your neighbors—to try and wake them up too—then you probably won’t appreciate someone who comes along and says, “Be careful. Words matter.” You might even share a few choice words of your own.

But…I stand by what I’ve said: Being mindful of the word-pictures we paint for ourselves is good thinking, no matter where you fall on the Kübler-Ross scale. To tell you why, I will leave the cliff vs. crossroads analogy for now, and turn to something I know a little bit about: martial arts.

Several years ago, as a brand new white belt karate student, I fully expected to get my butt kicked in the dojo. Getting a late start at age 48, I knew I would spend a lot of time looking up from the floor at younger, stronger, more agile students than myself. But I honestly didn’t think I would set a record for being especially dull and dense. Training in the early going felt like trying to plow a sun-baked field with my bare hands. It was hard. At the end of the night I’d be the only one in class dripping with sweat and covered with bruises.

Finally, the sensei took me aside. “I can tell you what you need in a single word,” he said. “Relax. You are getting beat up because your muscles are so tight.”

Relax? I thought this was supposed to be hand-to-hand combat training. Battle. Bruce Lee. What did he mean, relax? Besides, I begged to differ: I was getting beat up because everyone else was so much better than me. But, he was Sensei, so I would do my best to follow his instruction.

Over the coming weeks, “relax” became Sensei’s one word curriculum for me. But nothing I did helped. Even when I thought I was relaxed he’d shake his head. “Tight. And that makes you slow and extremely easy to off-balance.” (Think of the difference between trying to push over a hat stand, and a sheet hanging on a clothesline.)

And so it went—until one of the black belts in class took pity on me. (Actually, he told me later he was tired of working so hard to train with me. It turns out my tightness was making it difficult for everyone to learn drills that were meant to flow like water, not break down doors like a battering ram.)

One night during sparring he stopped me. “I can read your mind right now.”

“Really?” I said, grateful for the chance to catch my breath.

“It’s plain as day. You are saying to yourself, ‘I’m old. I’m slow. I don’t stand a chance.’ This is why you are so tight. You expect to go down, so you’re already flinching before I get anywhere near you. That makes it impossible for you to do the simple things that might give you an advantage.”

Suddenly the light went on. He was exactly right. When I stood across the mat from him, all I saw was his black belt and his years of experience. I assumed (told myself) that I had no tools that would work against him, and that I had no time to employ them even if they existed. He was too smart and too fast. I was too dumb and too slow.

“Try telling yourself you have all the time you need,” he went on. “Try visualizing yourself stepping easily out of the way of a punch. See yourself anticipating the kick and blocking it effortlessly. You know the technique, you just need to know you know it.”

Miracle of miracles, it worked. From that moment on I began to improve by leaps and bounds. I realized the most important element of defending myself is believing that I can. It doesn’t matter what I “know” if I let fear freeze me and rob me of the chance to put it into practice. Making sure that doesn’t happen takes conscious effort. It matters what I see and what I say.

The truth is, the future may be a dark alley we can’t avoid. The hardships we face may be like a gang of vicious thugs. But we are far better off if we relax and face them calmly, than if we go rigid with fear. In the first option (standing calmly at a crossroads of possibility), we have a chance of dodging as many hits as we take—because our heads and hands are up, our eyes are open, and all our tools are available.

In the latter case (teetering on the cliff of expected defeat), well, let’s just say panic is a lousy survival strategy.


straker said...

This is going in familiar territory...

It seems like as the prognosis for the future grows dimmer, the circle shrinks to the point where people politely share individual survival tactics, whether they be physical or mental.

This seems to avoid the prospect that we may one day be engaged in a game of musical chairs and have to fight for access to resources, black-belt vs. black-belt.

So what our pain is--is really an empathic pain. It's a pain for the collective. Pain that the future will require that there be winners and losers, that community may not take a more evolved form than violent tribalism, that some places, some people, are going to be left holding the short-end of the stick in the game of die-off.

What we'd like to have is a narrative in which we can have a guilt-free conscience: that we aren't going to have to resort to lifeboat ethics.

It's the attempt by some to obscure the bleak math of overshoot in order to somehow say our problems are all mental that your critics are responding to.

While it's true that regardless of how much human agency can impact our collective or individual survival odds can be sabotaged by our outlook, sheer survival for the sake of survival is not enough to wash away our grief over collapse.

Alan Ray said...


A very thoughtful comment. I hope very much to avoid "obscuring the math of overshoot." I don't think our problems are all mental--only that a big part of the solution is, no matter what form collapse takes.

I honor those who grieve.


terrymcneely said...

some small thoughts on a massive change of consciousness:

Some of us see that Western Industrial Civilization is leading the human race and hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of other species, off a cliff, as in sayonara. Some of us look to ecological solutions that advocate a sustainability that is essentially more of the same, the same thinking, the same life-styles that got us here, here at the end of the road where the reigning hope is that, to the blaring of the trumpets, the 7th cavalry, ie technology, will ride to the rescue, at the last minute.

Some hope for a massive change of consciousness, that the mass of humanity, faced with disaster, will see the errors of their ways, and change direction. Well, that ainʻt gonna happen, not unless consciousness already pervades everything at some level, unless consciousness is one of the extra dimensions of string theory, unless consciousness, as the buddhists posit, was here before the BigBang. Now that would turn science upside down. And could well be true. But still leaves a problem or two, whatʻs the change going to be, and how do we activate it. For it seems that when one fights against enlightenment it doesnʻt occur. And fight we will. And what new-old world view would allow us to live harmoniously with the planet?

These thoughts inspired by an article in EnergyBulletin by Alan Wartes on how words matter. Indeed they do, and he suggests changing the cliff metaphor with a crossroads metaphor. But the problems too big for that, unless the crossroads crosses at an angle, and we take the turn somewhat that traces back into the past, that simplifies, that decomplexifies our world. For it is this highly complex industrial world that depends on always new sources of energy that is coming to an end. We need, in short, to relearn some of the attitudes of peoples of pre-history, a respect for the otherness of life, a sense that everything is alive. unfortunately such a dramatic change would involve tremendous amounts of unlearning. But if can not learn to recognize again that everything we do involves a thousand “echoes” humanoid life will disappear from this earth.
And for a modern world(not forgetting that billions do not share in the modern) where nerve endings depend on constant stimulation, relearning the richness of a much simpler life, may prove too difficult an adjustment.
We need a new-old world view, with the emphasis on old. And even then, it will be a close call.

Betsy said...

I've been drifting around in Kubler-Ross's 5 states but have recently added a 6th: "don't care". I examined that closely an realized that it comes from a feeling of powerlessness, an inability to alter the tragic outcome of our civilization's foolishness. I'm also feeling a lot of what Straker refers to as empathic pain, pain for the (loss of) collective. So your essay on relaxing helps. It helps unlock the paralysis that results from the powerlessness. Thank you.

Rick Dworsky said...

"the most important element of defending myself is believing that I can" Hmmm... It almost seems a nuisance to have to point out that: Belief alone never assures the desired outcome! Someone might fully believe (stupidly) that they can take on a 1,500 pound Grizzly Bear all by themselves with their bare hands... until total loss of consciousness, forever. No doubt our minds are the best tool we have... we should use them. But I don't imagine that the power of our minds can maintain 'civilization' or even our population levels. I think the best we can hope for is to alleviate some suffering and mitigate enough of the damage to avoid extinction.

Alan Ray said...

To Terry, the problem is only too big when you try to solve the whole thing at once. Hence, my emphasis on one step at a time. No, we won't avoid reaping what we've sown, but we can avoid the worst kind of fear and helplessness along the way.

Betsy, paralysis never did anybody any good. If you've been told you're terminal by your doctor, you may not be able to change that outcome, but you sure can decide how best to live each moment you have left. Welcome back from "don't care."

Rick, I didn't say that belief was the only important element in whether I am able to function in the face of crisis--just that it is a very important one. It sets the stage for everything else. If you are on the top floor of a burning building, but don't believe the fire escape will hold your weight, you will fail to use, perhaps until it is too late.

Further, I don't for a minute believe we will "maintain civilization or even our population levels." To me it is a given that we will not. That's the crossroad we face. What I advocate is to assimilate that understanding without falling into panic or despair. Neither will get you anywhere. We will need every tool in the box, including a measure of control over what and how we think, "to alleviate some suffering and mitigate enough of the damage to avoid extinction."


Wandering Sage said...

Great post and an excellent blog. I can particularly relate to your martial arts training story.
On my blog I've added you the list of blogs I follow and I look forward to reading more of yours.
in peace,

Alan Ray said...


Thanks for coming along for the journey. I am in a different part of the country, or I'd be tempted to join you for a workshop. When I get the chance, I'll look for your books. You are obviously making an excellent contribution to mindfulness...just what we need now!

Be well and be free,

imaginethat said...

Yep, I'm with you brother on why words matter. Is life a series of obstacles, or a series of opportunities? The choice is ours. And that choice will influence exactly our response to life.

Terry, please don't be too quick to dismiss a change in consciousness. Perhaps I'm self-deceived, yet I not only see a change in consciousness around me, I see it within myself.

I fully dismiss the idea of unlearning, as unlearning to me is yet another either/or, false dichotomy viewpoint so characteristic of our egos' assemblage of the world. When I went from first to second grade in school, I was not required to unlearn what I'd learned in first grade. Life's no different.

No reason exists to fully divest ourselves of modern technology. No reason exists to demonize it. Technology is neutral, as is fire. Fire may cook one's food, keep one warm, or it may, if carelessly tended, burn down one's house. The worth, or harm, of technology or fire depends on how it is employed.

And how it is employed depends on decisions made. Decisions made emerge from consciousness. If we dismiss changes in consciousness, we dismiss any hope for the future. If we form in our own consciousness the words, the images, of doubt concerning a mass change in consciousness, through that choice we align ourselves with the unseen force opposing a change of consciousness.

We are what we eat. We are what we think. We are what we feel, and we are what we believe.