Be the change 2012

IMG_1102It is a dark, cold, winter’s morning, gray with a pelting mixture of sleet and freezing rain that has even the birds huddling for shelter in the thickest fir trees they can find.

I’ve just gotten up, lit the fire and the lights on the Christmas tree, made myself a cup of strong coffee, and thought to myself: where do I put my focus?

If I focus on the warmth and coziness inside the house right now, this seems like a wonderful morning, a perfect opportunity to curl up on the couch and make some progress on grading the papers students turned in to me before they left for the holidays.

If I focus on the sleet and wind outside, and begin to fixate on the way the trees are blowing around the icy power wires, I feel threatened, rather than protected, and start to worry in advance about whether or not I’ll be losing power later today.  Should I rush to take my shower and do some cooking before the power goes out?

Small dilemmas, and yet in the daily crucible of making these choices w of how to focus our attention, a lifelong habit is born of seeing the glass half-empty or half-full.

I must recognize that I have a tendency to see the glass half-empty.

I was a fearful, cautious, worrying sort of child, and I have not changed much as an adult.

In today’s age of aggravated climate change, random violence and the immediate potential for it all getting a whole lot worse in the near future, this attitude can make for a great deal of depression and anxiety.

But does it have to be that way?

Back in the 1980s, I spent a fair amount of time listening to recordings of Esther Hicks channeling the group of spiritual beings who called themselves Abraham.  The crux of their advice for us humans is to focus on what you want, with as much intensity and lavish detail as you can muster, and watch the Universe deliver it to you.

“You can have anything you want, if you exercise the Law of Attraction and call it to you,” Abraham would say over and over and over.

This idea has been picked up and popularized by others as well, and it is guaranteed to appeal to our can-do, feel-good American society.

We want to believe that we have the power to improve our lives, and it seems to happen often enough to keep the belief going.

But I always wondered, and wanted to ask Abraham, what about the people who were having terrible life experiences?  Did they “attract” these horrible situations to themselves too?

Did the 20 children who died in Newtown “attract” their destiny?

I cannot believe that they did.

It could be, however, that the killer’s vision was so strong that he was able to enact it, to make it come true.  Maybe he did what Abraham suggests, and replayed over and over again in his mind the details of what he wanted to do, until it was so well-thought-out and planned that he was able to unroll it in reality with no problem at all.

We need to pay more attention to the power of the human mind to affect reality.

It happens on an individual level, as when I can transform this gray, nasty morning into a warm, cozy one just by focusing on the peaceful interior of my house rather than the storm raging outside.

Focus on the outside

Focus on the outside

Focus on the inside

Focus on the inside

And it happens on a societal level, as when so many of us feel unsafe that we all start buying handguns and assault weapons, with the result that our feeling of peril becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: with all those weapons circulating among our neighbors, we really are unsafe.

If we all settle into the mindset, amply seeded by the steady beat of the sci fi/disaster movies that have come out in the past decade, that the Earth is doomed and we are doomed with her, we will collectively give in to despair and simply go about business as usual while waiting passively for the end to come.

On the other hand, if we begin to collectively dream an alternative future, one based on respect for the Earth and respectful stewardship of her life systems, it is still possible that we may be able to manifest this positive vision.

The popular author Don Miguel Ruiz, whose book The Four Agreements has sold millions of copies worldwide, ends a recent interview by asserting that “We all came into this beautiful planet with a mission. The only mission, and it’s the same for every single human that we have on this beautiful planet earth, is to make ourselves happy.”

The only way I could agree with that principle of the human mission on Earth is if it is understood that we cannot be happy on an unhappy planet.

In other words, it is impossible for us to achieve real happiness when the dominant paradigm of human existence on the planet is based on oppression, suffering and violent destruction.

We may be able to achieve temporary “highs,” shelters in the storms of our lives, but real abiding happiness will elude us, at least those of us with enough sensitivity to be aware of the suffering always going on beneath the surface.

Events like the Newtown massacre break through the veneer of our superficially happy existence, here in the comfortable USA, and send many of us spiraling into depression.

And not just folks like me, who are habitually attuned to the malheur of life, but many more of us, who suddenly wake up and ask Why?

Why did this senseless massacre happen?

Perhaps it happened to remind us of the daily massacres of innocent wild creatures and feedlot animals, lab animals and vast flocks of birds, tons of fish in the sea and endless miles of coral and forest, all going down in a relentless bloodbath of human making.

Perhaps it happened to remind us of the children who are being trafficked into sex slavery or forced labor every day, of the children dying daily of hunger and preventable diseases, of the wasted lives of children whose poor-quality early education dooms them to lives of struggle and want.

When great tragedy strikes, survivors have a tendency to affirm to each other, Let their sacrifice not have been in vain. Let us learn from what happened and vow never to let it happen again.

Hence, in the wake of Newtown, the great outcry for better gun control laws, which may indeed, finally, be enacted in the coming year.

Abraham would say that you have to know what you don’t want in order to get clear on what you do want.

But the emphasis has to be on the positive; on building the vision, both personal and collective, of what we want for our society and our future.

We do not want an America where any random psychopath can get ahold of an assault weapon and wreak havoc in the neighborhood school or mall.

We do not want a lifestyle based on unsustainable consumption, oppression and callous disregard for the welfare of other living beings.

Now: what do we want?

We must get clear on our positive vision for a just and sustainable human civilization on our beloved planet, and then do the work of dreaming it into reality, day by day.

We must be intentional in where we focus our attention, not to ignore negative realities, but in order to put the power of our creative energies to work in manifesting the world we want to see.

In other words, as Gandhi said, be the change you want to see in the world, starting with your own thoughts and radiating outward.

Be the change.


Living with fear

In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, I have been doing some thinking about fear.

I am no stranger to anxiety.  When I was a kid, between the ages of about 8 and 12, I suffered terrible anxiety attacks whenever I had to be separated from my mother.  I worried something would happen to her, and although I had a loving father, brother and extended family, I felt like I would be totally unable to cope with losing her.

When she would go out for the evening, I would get a full-blown anxiety attack, complete with hyperventilation, nausea and panic.  It wouldn’t subside until she was back home safe, and it was not rational—there was nothing she or anyone else could say to calm me down.  I just had to live through it, over and over, until finally, as I moved into puberty, the fear dissipated and went away.

Sometimes I have wondered whether this was related to a past-life experience.  Did I lose my mother in a previous life?  Was I left alone and unprotected?

Is it possible, as Linda Hogan and others have suggested, that we can be haunted by ancestral legacies of violence?

Both of my sons also suffered from irrational fear during their childhoods.

My older son went through a period of terrible night terrors, where he would sleep-walk under the influence of gut-wrenching anxiety and sobbing fear, not calming down until we managed, with great difficulty, to wake him up from whatever nightmare was possessing him.

He would not remember the episode in the morning, and would be sheepish when we’d tell him what had happened; in his waking life, he was calm and unencumbered by fear.  He hasn’t had one of these night terror attacks for about five years now.

My younger son developed a stutter and a nervous twitch in his early childhood, and would cry and talk about being almost paralyzed with what he called “worry.”  No amount of rational talking-through made any difference; he could not explain what he was afraid of, he was just deeply, inchoately fearful.

Mt. Greylock, MA; summer 2012

Mt. Greylock, MA; summer 2012

One day, when he was about five, I decided to take him on a long hike up a tall mountain, and we picked up small rocks along the way.  When we got to the top, I told him we were going to throw his worries over the edge of the mountain cliff, and they would be gone and leave him alone.  A smile lit up his face, and he began chucking the rocks off the cliff with intensity.  That day he was happy, and slowly, over the next couple of years, his unexplained anxiety did lift.

What’s perplexing to me about this “family anxiety” is that none of it has any basis in actual trauma.

Each of us did experience a minor trigger, it’s true.

I was separated from my mother when I was seven, for about two weeks, after a car accident landed her in the hospital; but then she came home and was fine.

My older son attributes his night terrors to an incident where he accidentally locked his younger brother, an infant, in the car on a very hot day, and the police had to come and break into the car to get the baby out.  But we were all fine, and of course we absolved the older child of any blame, it was just an innocent mistake.

My younger son developed asthma after an incident of severe pneumonia at seven months, and he was always afraid of the hospital, with the dark x-ray room, the menacing machines, and the possibility of separation from his parents.

But these are such minor precipitating incidents, compared to, say, the shock of bearing witness to a massacre, or living through a rape or domestic violence.

I can’t claim to have any inside knowledge of the kind of traumatic stress that survivors of serious violence must deal with, but having been taken for a ride by severe, irrational anxiety, I can sympathize deeply.

The truth is that all of us, in today’s hyper-linked media age, are living with the scars of bearing repeated witness to violence.

One of our greatest strengths as human beings is our imagination.  Put our active imaginations together with our empathy, and it should be no surprise to find that so many of us are feeling in our own bodies the fear and anxiety that are properly part of others’ experience, not our own.

How many murders and massacres, real and fictional, have we witnessed through the news and entertainment media?  How many times have we watched homes being bombed, people being shot, crazy predators on the loose?

The presence of 300 million guns in civilian hands in the U.S. does not make me feel safe.  It makes me feel afraid—and this time, the fear is rational.


Standing strong against the Furies


Just as people in places like the Maldives, Bangladesh and Japan shook their heads at the cluelessness of Americans who suddenly woke up to climate change when Sandy came to town, people living in hot spots of violence around the world now have every right to be shaking their heads at the collective American refusal to see and understand how, in the wake of the Newtown massacre, we are the cause of our own misery.

t1larg.pakistandronerally.giThe U.S. is the largest arms manufacturer and exporter in the world.  We have by far the largest military.  We are also by far the most heavily armed civilian population in the world, with some 300 million guns circulating among our population of about 300 million people.  Americans, we need to acknowledge that collectively, as a nation, we have been responsible for hundreds, and probably thousands of deaths of children worldwide through the weapons we sell abroad.

There is not a conflict in the world today that has not been fueled by American weaponry.

It is hypocritical to weep crocodile tears for the slaughter of innocent children in a kindergarten in Connecticut but to callously ignore the slaughter of innocent children by American drone fire in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

We need to start connecting the dots and realizing that the violence we mete out to the world will come back to haunt us a thousand-fold.

I’m not just talking about gun violence or missiles. I’m talking about the violence of inhuman labor practices and poverty, leading to rage that is sometimes turned inward, as in the spikes of farmer suicides due to heavy-handed Monsanto tactics in places like India and Asia, and sometimes outward, as in the terrorist strikes against targets inside the U.S. (9/11, anyone) or at our representatives abroad (did someone say Benghazi?).

I’m talking about the violence Western-style “development” has wreaked on the natural world, which is now boomeranging back to slam us against the wall of a destabilized climate.

Orangutan with a tranquilizer dart in his side; will be relocated away from palm oil plantation site

Orangutan with a tranquilizer dart in his side; will be relocated away from palm oil plantation site

If you create lethal weapons and spread them widely among the populace, you should not be surprised when they discharge and kill people.

If you overheat the climate and bulldoze all the trees, you should not be surprised at the deadly droughts, wildfires, storms and temperature swings that result.

Back in the 19th century, Charles Darwin taught us to understand that competition is good, that the strongest and fittest will survive, and that if the weak perish it’s all for the best.  It was a perfect rationale for the capitalist/imperialist narrative of the past 500 years, domination as evolution, at gunpoint and bulldozer blade.

Would Darwin look out at today’s dangerous world and proclaim serenely that the coming population drop of humans, due to violence of our own making, is simply part of the grand scheme of Evolution?

If the answer is “yes,” does this mean we should just sit back and watch it all unfold with detachment?

I don’t think so.  I believe it’s the great task of our generation to meet the violence of our time with unwavering, clear-eyed resistance.

To a large extent, the damage has already been done.  The guns are circulating out there in the world; the nuclear power plants are whirring; the oil and gas rigs are pumping; the myriad plants and creatures with whom we grew up in our era on the planet are disappearing.

Pandora’s box is wide open, and the Furies have been released in the world.

We may not be able to get them back, but we can continue to insist that they do not represent us.  We can continue to stand as beacons to another mode of living, based not on competition and aggressiveness, but on collaboration and respect.

As we move into the darkest week of the year, let us not give up hope that as the planet swings back towards the Sun on December 22, we can collectively climb up out of the abyss of violence and pain and unite around the finest human values of life, peace and love, for our fellow human beings, and for the planet as a whole.

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