How White Fella Dreaming awakened to Belonging

Have you ever hit one of those points where you knew the next move you made was vitally important to the rest of your life and you weren’t quite sure which direction to take? This year the White Fella Dreaming project took me way outside of my comfort zone and forced me to rethink the reason behind it: how ‘new’ or non-indigenous Australians feel more at home on the land, so that we treat it better, and achieve a more satisfying and respectful reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in the process.

Two Humpbacks underewater

The story begins on the remote desert-fringed beaches of the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, where I spent most of June and July this year. I was a long, long way from electricity, let alone mobile phone or internet networks. I snorkeled, fished, cooked over a fire with my lovely little family, and dreamed of what the sands and salt water would say to me if I could be awake enough to listen to them. I meditated in the sand dunes and heard the rustling of the ocean breeze in the desert grasses. I watched bands of olive-coloured budgies flock overhead, chirping a sussuration across the sky as they headed one day south, a few days later back north, on some mini-migration that remained a mystery to me. As I so often do, I wondered what knowledge the original inhabitants of this land would have had to share, if they still lived here on the land. I saw the occasional ’roo at sunset or dawn and eagles seeking roadkill along the endless highways; but there are not many animals out here, where the land is so sparse and the rain so rare.

budgies

In the water, it is different. I snorkeled alongside a manta ray while it fed in spiraling circles, before tipping upside down and swimming away with its under flank exposed, looking down at the sand and reef below. I flipped around with turtles, avoided a sea snake, kept my distance from the bronze whaler sharks, and marveled at the wild variety of other creatures that shared this ocean paradise: colourful fish, of course, but also sting rays, squid (which look almost celestially radiant underwater), cuttlefish, octopus, giant gropers and cod, flashy mackerel and tuna, harmless and beautiful reef sharks … the list goes on. But one amazing experience will stay with me for life. Around 2km out to sea, while free-diving from a boat, two humpback whales approached me, banked around to keep me in full view, and allowed me to swim by them for a couple of minutes. Those brief moments were some of the most special times that I have enjoyed in the company of other animals. I could hardly believe such magnificent creatures would come to me out there in the middle of the ocean. I wished that time would slow down to a stop, at least just for a while … but of course nature keeps moving, and they soon continued their migration towards the Kimberley, where they would calve some 1000km to the north of here.

manta ray

And it was up in the Kimberley – or at least that most exotic of Australian towns, Broome, which serves as the western gateway to this incredible landscape – that my calling became refined by fire. For here, in consecutive meeting with researchers into indigenous knowledge, I came to realize that I needed another way to teach alongside White Fella Dreaming; a way that did not put anyone off side, as I was told that my usage of the term “Dreaming” would, in terms of Aboriginal feelings about traditional and surviving culture. The Dreaming, for me, is a kind of mythology – or powerful story that links the physical world with a sense of the sacred – that listens to the song of the land and identifies people with the rest of nature, so they we are compelled to protect it as well as enter into conversation with it.

But this didn’t cut it on “country” (the “enlivened spiritual cosmos” of the land, as Deborah Bird Rose puts it). It didn’t matter how well I could defend my understanding or aims; the whole idea of White Fella Dreaming was just too close to cultural appropriation. I acquiesced to this and suggested I talk about “comparative mythologies” – which is technically my area, combined with the ecological humanities – but no go. The Kimberley Aboriginal peoples didn’t want their culture talked about in terms of myth, because this could also lead to misunderstandings. Once again, nothing I could do to help ease such confusions was going to be enough to get over that barrier.

So, I had to quit on the idea of working with this research centre and their people and move on. This didn’t mean the end of White Fella Dreaming, because I had seen this controversy coming, in one form or another, and knew I would have to weather such storms. And I had another set of allies who had also helped me to overcome this kind of challenge from a different angle – beautiful friends who had been advising me to find a ‘universal’ value, something in the human heart and soul that any and all could appreciate. While sensed they were right, the problem was that I still hadn’t found that theme. But now I was frustrated and that kind of energy, like anger, can be very productive when it is chanelled right. I was also lucky enough to be in Broome with another of these friends, my colleague Paul Pulé, who was interested in researching with the same group in his own field of ‘ecomasculinities‘. Together we workshopped my dilemma, using some of the phrases I had been advised to throw around: What is it that I do, everyday, that is behind all my efforts in the world? What is my highest, or deepest, calling? Put another way, what vision do I wish to serve, which will lead to ‘generative’ outcomes no matter what? And what word or phrase best describes this value in a way that does not lead towards possible misunderstandings or political disputes, conflicts or arguments (all that stuff we desperately need to resolve!). Finally, Paul helped me to name it. Regardless of who I am talking to or what the topic is – whether it is an intellectual conversation or an emotional support session, about spirit or football, at work or in the park, there is always one thing I wish to leave people with if I can – and that is a feeling of belonging.

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When people feel they truly belong, they are comfortable in their skin. They are at ease with their community. They feel loyal to the earth. They are more likely to do good work, to try and resolve conflict rather than inflame it, to protect what is worthy – including fresh air, clean water, healthy soil and other animals as well as all people (especially the defenseless or oppressed) and other manifestations of life (beautiful buildings, art, the scientific mind as well as the spiritual life, creativity as well as critical thinking – the list could go on forever, to include anything you stand for and love and wish to protect). In belonging I find what is most meaningful to me and to my work – something that underscores and takes priority over the intellectual labour of university life, something coded into the DNA of great stories and humble truths, a feeling that can emerge out of any compassionate interaction between myself and others. When I feel I belong and I share that feeling, all levels of possible conflict can be dissolved. The sense that we don’t totally belong in our bodies? Melted into a tangible sense of at-one-ness. Our experiences of conflict with others in our community, close or far afield? These can lead to a more robust order, a higher level of communications, better ways that allow for opposing perspectives. Our alienation from the rest of nature? Even this dissipates in the face of belonging, like a bad dream that fades as we awaken to a new life, transformed back into what we once and always were – at home, here in our bodies, with each other, born to this incredible fortune on our beautiful jewel of a planet.

For those keen to work with these ideas in a supportive environment, Geoff’s inaugural workshop on Belonging will be held on Saturday 10th October at CERES Environmental Park in Brunswick East. For more information and booking details please go to belonging.org.a

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Winter Solstice, Australia 2016

Winter Solstice Dawn 2016

Happy Winter Solstice everyone. Here in Narooma, on the east coast of Australia, i watched the sun rise over the beautiful Pacific Ocean and sent out my thanks for life to the sun. The traditional owners of the country here, the Yuin people, address our local star as Grandfather, so i was happy to take that on as a sign of respect for their ways of being here over thousands of years.

The Youtube video embedded here is of this dawn, Tuesday June 21st 2016.

The words are inspired by the evolutionary interaction of the elements, as well as by what i have learnt from Yuin elders, especially the Harrison clan (more to come on this in the City Living, Nature Calling ecomythic documentary film series). I’ve been spending as much time as possible around these parts watching and listening to the sun, the ocean, the sand and the land, the birds and animals around here, the stars at night, the wind and the trees and that deep inner voice that reminds us about what is important.

The sun gives birth to life, which rises out of the ocean. We, along with all creatures, give it body. Every day we are fired back into life by the power of the sun. We rely on the salt water to maintain the basis for life and the fresh water to keep us hydrated. We are elemental beings, with conscious minds, who are sometimes confused into thinking that the sideshow is the main attraction.

The earth, the sun, the ocean, the stars and the other creatures. This is home. This is what matters. When we get our minds and bodies together and remember this we are better for it.

Let the light return and draw you up.

Storms, Sea Monsters and Climate Change

In ancient mythology, there are stories about great sea monsters that roam the deep, far from the eyes and lives of mere mortals on the surface of the earth. Until times change, something goes wrong with the planet, and they resurface. Humans might not be guilty of any particular crime against life at the time; but often the old stories make it clear that we are to blame for the upsurge of the sea monsters. When the forces of good and evil go out of balance, they return from the deep, not to exact revenge but to even things back up a bit. The Kraken wakes, the giant squid come after boats instead of whales for a while, the seas roar and we are swept up in the tide. The shores are cleansed and humility is returned to the world; seeing this power, the human race remember that they can be swallowed up whole by the all-consuming power of the ocean, if they are not lucky.

 

Kraken

Here we go again.

But this time it is not gigantic, scary looking creatures we have to worry about; it is the spirit of the sea itself. Perhaps it was always this way and the monsters were just a symbolic representation of the power in the oceans. Regardless; watching the hugely impressive storms over the last few days on the south coast of NSW has been a humbling exercise and one that reminds me of something i thought following the Boxing Day tsunami, which killed hundreds of thousands of people just a few years ago. The sea itself is the monster now. And it is rising.

Sydney storm

 

Have we really even begun to accept what anthropogenic climate change is about to do to our coastlines? I live on one – the most beautiful place i have ever found, a place i have fallen in love with – and i am beginning to think about where to settle so that my kids can live there too. With 2m of sea level rise – something climate scientists have been telling us is inevitable, given the lack of change we have seen since we realised the ‘Greenhouse Effect’ had been given the stamp of consensus at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 (that’s right folks, we have known this was coming for around 25 years now) – not only will millions of hectares of fertile land go underwater, but heavily populated cities across the world will become emergency zones.

So, i will be thinking about that when I choose where to settle along this coast. More importantly, meanwhile, i’ll be supporting the community to change, to create bioregional networks of exchange and support, and to think in terms of resilience and loving kindness while we build renewable energy grids and figure out what grows best here.

And i will keep listening to the ocean, which on halcyon days like the ones we’ve been enjoying lately tells me life is beautiful, and on stormy days like these reminds me it is also deadly. How we respond to both extremes tells us a lot about who we are. Let’s remain mindful of these co-creative forces in the world all around us. And not become monsters ourselves …

 

Sou Brou beach

 

The Big Man – why macho leaders (sometimes) win in politics

New Philippine leader, Rodrigo Duterte, threatened to kill all the criminals and dump them in the sea, plus more statements of bravado. Seen as a potential liberator of the people – as well as a dictator by those more attuned to what statements can come to mean in no time at all – he wins by a landslide. Donald Trump threatens everyone, with walls or wars, and destroys his opposition – at least within the Republican party, whose voters he himself has called idiots. Vladimir Putin would no doubt love to be remembered as the bare chested Russian president with one foot resting on a bear’s head, the other holding a shot un pointing towards the sky.

 

rodrigo-duterte

 

So what’s going on with the macho leaders right now?

In times of distress, rapid change and seemingly endless conflict, many people who think there’s no alternative back the guy they think will protect them. (And such potential leaders love you to think there’s no alternative – remember Margaret Thatcher’s shut down of any other form of modern society other than neoliberal free market globalization?) This kind of domination has been going on since civilization was invented, well before the Romans began ruling the Mediterranean.

In ancient Mesopotamia, before Babylon’s permanent military had been installed, a city-state’s local ‘big man’ was voted in whenever a city had to go to war. This is like the neighbourhood tough guy leading the pack against the enemies from ‘over there’ – wherever ‘there’ happens to be. You now the guy – the football captain, high school jock, or local stand over man, or the gang leader who shows less fear and more convincing moves. The one who will lead us to victory in our tribal conflicts. Who will protect us and keep them out.

 

trump angry

 

In crazy times, reason takes a back seat. Pugnacious types come to the fore. Thoughtfulness is almost a liability. Compassion is weakness. Open hearted love and open armed welcomes come to be seen as mere foolishness, a luxury we cannot afford, a path to ruin.

 In evolutionary terms, we’re not that different from a pack of apes protecting their turf. We’re certainly not far distanced from the Mesopotamians. And we seem hell bent to vote in those most likely to incite world war three, or any number of other, smaller dirty wars, with other fearless leaders, filled to the brim with sabre-rattling rhetoric and stocked, perhaps, with chemical and/or nuclear weapons.

 

Putin-+-gun

 

Can we ever be forgiven for this crime against the planet and all its life? Only if we choose to act with love and compassion, environmental awareness and reflectivity. And en masse, we’re seeing some dangerous signs.

How to react? Don’t. We’ve got to take our time and help convince everybody we can that violent bluster is no way forwards. You know the old saying: There is no way to peace, peace is the way. Along with active ecological awareness and the actions that go with that. Support your local food growers, or become one. Help build your local community towards resilience for the tough times ahead. Welcome those in need. Don’t vote for warmongers. Anywhere.

 

MLK Peace

 

Integrative Psychology – inclusive, open-ended, and working in consort with nature

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Modern psychology begins with a medical model, so it comes as no great surprise that the current regime of diagnosis and prescription follows a mode that defines most mental health issues according to symptoms and cures. But in the 21st century, we are learning more about the extent – and the limits – of our knowledge of the mind. Sure enough, the human mind works within a physiological system – it’s part of our bodies and our environment – but it cannot be reduced to a merely causal mode. Like nature, the mind has self-healing capacities. And, mirroring the world, our mind – or psyche – sometimes operates according to patterns that are too large or too small to appreciate in the moment. The recent documentary Earth From Space provides some metaphors that are useful for a discussion about the parallel (and interconnected) worlds of mind and nature.

Sometimes when we are sick, we only find out later that this was a symptom of the body attempting to heal itself. The common cold can often be seen to work in this way, especially when we work too hard for too long; sickness stops us in our tracks and allows the body to force us to rest. Who knows how often a minor illness has given our bodies time for white blood cells to eradicate some intrusive threat? Similarly, a severe tropical storm is damaging in its immediate effects, but (according to the meteorologists behind Earth From Space) it is also a way for the atmosphere to release energy that has built up from the combination of heat and water vapor over the oceans. And our minds can be understood in a similar vein; pent up anger can rise to the surface unexpectedly, due to external or internal pressures we may not always recognise. The difference between this and a weather pattern is that we can choose how such energy is expressed and we can create safe release valves so that it does not become dangerous, like a perfect storm or debilitating physiological illness.

 

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Such understanding can help us to reframe the way we think about psychology – including the self-healing possibilities of the mind – today. Consider a reframing of the three great movements in 20th century thought, which saw them in conversation, integrated in a more inclusive way of understanding the human mind as an interconnected part of the even wider spheres of ‘the meaning of life’ on our planetary home, the earth. Far from reducing our understanding of the psyche to a merely medical model, the conversation between existential, phenomenological and depth psychologies can extend the way we think about what it means to be human in the Anthropocene.*

All three of these great movements, in different ways, deal with the ‘meaning of experience,’ and they all work as a creative response to the reductionism of a merely bio-medical model of the psyche. An existential psychology asks how we can create meaning in the face of the meaninglessness of the physical universe, especially knowing what we do about the enormity of the endless galaxies (and the even more vast abyss of empty space beyond) and the brutal injustice of the natural world of animal life. But existentialism responds not only to the cold hard facts of science; it also asks questions of meaning in the face of what some people are prepared to do to each other. The paradigmatic example was the concentration camps and Victor Frankl’s way through this horror, although Sartre’s recognition of our more everyday angsts such as the fear of freedom, alienation, death and others is also an important set of considerations.

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Phenomenological psychology, on the other hand, sought a framework for understanding the way we experience things, which counters or complements the classical philosophical standard of truth (the abstract or ‘pure’ reason revered by Plato and Kant and integrated into the scientific method of empirical observation and theoretical extension). Can we trust our personal observations, of our inner lives and of the way we experience embodied life in a social context? How do we make sure such considerations matter, in the face of scientific reductionism and the logic of the markets, for instance? Such questions lead to some incredibly rich discussions about the poetics of the human condition and what we find meaningful and worthwhile in terms of fact and value.

Unconscious-and-the-Universe

Responding to both these schools of thought, not in terms of chronology but as another way of considering human consciousness and our cares, depth psychology wonders aloud what deep historical, sociocultural and biological patterns lie behind (or give rise to) the unique value of each of our individual lives. Such patterns were seen by Jung as ‘archetypes’; ancient templates according to which even our most spontaneous experiences could be seen as endless repetitions of certain master codes of biology and psyche. In dreams and hopes, we spontaneously reinvent the same kinds of outcomes as our ancient forebears, even though we live such different kinds of lives. Little wonder that links to animal wisdom and strange intimations of spiritual beings inhabit the deepest recesses of our minds, if the body itself gives rise to such codes. We dream in a timeless realm, where human socialization only has a certain amount of impact on the whole self we are in mind, body and the depths of the soul.

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When combined, these explorations into the human mind could all be seen as mirrors of nature’s attempts to heal itself. Just as our bodies, like the earth itself, express symptoms of imbalance in minor colds and violent storms, so the mind pushes itself into difficult realms of challenge, times where it must create healing powers such as white blood cells to consume the poisons that have accumulated within. Out of the relative darkness of these mysterious explorations we seem to be able to become more aware of healing powers within.

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A truly integrative psychology must therefore work to be inclusive of all our concerns for a meaningful life, which takes into account these three great schools of thought while also embracing and transcending the potentially reductive realms of scientific reason and empirical observation. Such an integrative psychology must also be greater than the sum of its parts, by pointing towards the unfathomable depths of the human soul, the endless nature of psyche, the open-ended way we can consistently strive beyond our limits and find possibilities – for love and adventure, growth and embrace – no matter how hopeless circumstances sometimes seem. And for this integrative psychology may find its ultimate home in the way it mirrors nature, where life always finds a way to keep seeking growth in the face of any and all challenges.

 

*The Anthropocene – a new geological era that recognises human responsibility for our world-changing effects on the global climate and on the environment everywhere.

Can the Earth Survive the ‘Reason’ of Modern Myth?

Four-seasons

Joseph Campbell believed that if your way of life and thinking did not link you to the sacred, then it is not myth but ideology. He meant myth in the positive sense of the word, as the worldview within which your way of life and thinking is embedded, or as the belief behind your worldview. Myth as the thing that makes things make sense, puts them in order, keeps us believing in life.

 

Modern society is mythic in the way that it rationalizes endless economic growth – making a goal out of something we know cannot possibly ‘come true,’ a model that cannot be an abiding truth for life. We know from the cycle of civilizations that they grow and die, like everything else that lives. In this sense modern life believes – against reason – in its own form of endlessness, or immortality, or the eternal. I call this modern mythic vision the eternal feast, as it is premised on the abolition of want, the end of the seemingly endless cycle of famine and feast, by a power greater than the natural cycle of things. At the culmination of my PhD thesis on this, I suggested that the eternal feast takes place in the cities of light, which are symbolic of this quest. Modern light – electricity, which is so often supplied with the burning of fossil fuels – thereby represents a symbolic victory over death, which in turn is associated with the darkness of night. This light-filled vision relies too much on ‘daylight’ reason, which it places as the most reliable bringer and checker of truth. We have art to remind us that this can only ever be a partial reality, because it puts to one side the emotional aspect of being human; the intangibles, the experiential, the feelings that we know are every bit as meaningful as belief or reason. Art at least recognizes the shadows to its light.

London from above

So the way we use reason, on behalf of the modern myth of the eternal feast in the cities of light, is ideological. It does not link us to the sacred – which can most simply be defined as whatever is most meaningful to us, what we hold most dear, what we would not see defiled, what we would act to protect. If anything, the type of reason employed on behalf of the eternal feast in the cities of light works against our loyalty to such a realm. All well and good if you are considering a scientific hypothesis or analyzing empirically verified data. But what does this mean when we consider the earth, as our home, as a place we hold dear – and by extension, when the feelings urge us to protect it, as a place that is sacred?

 

What it means is that we must either accept that the earth is simply a place we live, that it is a set of resources at our disposal; or, that there is a conflict between the myth of endless economic growth and our sense that the earth is sacred. Remember this the next time you witness a stock market report. It is an innocuous act of propaganda on behalf of the myth that is killing life on earth. We know we have to stop consuming so many of the ‘resources’ of the earth, stop destroying it and its carrying capacity with our technologies. But as a race, we continue to plunge headlong in this direction.

 

Until we take a stand against continual growth, we will struggle to be aligned with an idea of the earth as sacred. And until we live as if our home is a place that deserves our loving attention – that requires protection from harm – we allow that myth of the eternal feast to continue defiling what we know we love. This will eventually, ironically, lead to great famine and ‘the waste land.’ The cycle of life cannot be overwhelmed by human ingenuity. We can create abundance for some time, in some places, but even then it is at the cost of some other place, which provided the excess consumables.

 

So what to do about this conflict in our hearts and minds? Face the music. Economic privilege has too long been bought with the destruction of the earth. The cycles of nature demand a cease to growth. We must seek ways to live within the limits of the earth and its carrying capacity. If we cannot do this voluntarily, the earth will remind us. And the longer it takes to listen, the more powerful the lesson must become. The sound of us waking up to the life of the world around us is whatever you hear right now. That’s a living system, which lives and dies. Let’s remember that and transform our myth accordingly. To a sacred earth, of more-than-human proportions and dimensions, to which we owe our loyalty and our attention, at least. And our devotion and love, at last.

City Living, Nature Calling: Biophilia as the new (old) story

NB: URGENT callout! Crowd funding campaign for CLNC film ends this Saturday 12 noon AEST. If we haven’t raised 20K by then, we don’t get funded at all! Please help this film be made!

City Living, Nature Calling: Biophilia as the new (old) story

When E. O. Wilson made the term ‘biophilia’ famous, he articulated something deeply rooted in human consciousness: an innate love of home, the places we live and the other forms of life we share this beautiful planet with. In our age of increasing environmental destruction, this sense of love for the earth must equate not only to local places but to the entire planet. Let’s tap into this deep ecological stream, which underscores even the most urbanized consciousness eventually, as a way of shifting more smoothly towards the climate change adaptation that we can now see is inevitable.

The love of life Wilson discussed sits well with the ‘new story’ being told by cosmologists like Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, ecological therapists and activists like Joanna Macy and John Seed, and many more. Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh also asks us to recognize our ultimate interdependence with the other beings of the earth. And even earth systems scientists now remind us that our survival as a species is imperilled without a healthy environment, filled with flourishing biodiversity, fresh air and water, good soils and renewable energy sources. So the big question for the 21st century is – how do we transform modern society in line with ecological limit; call upon our deep reserves of love; face and move through our grief at what we are doing to the earth; and dismantle the infrastructure of damaging industries all at the same time, without falling prey to becoming disheartened?

I want to deal with this seemingly enormous task by asking this question from a particular perspective, which may seem ironic at first: what would we think about the way we live if we looked down at our cities from space? On the one hand, this is the most disembodied and abstract way of looking at humanity imaginable; but on the other, it allows us to see the modern urban way of life as if from the outside. Perhaps by being removed from our everyday assumptions in this way, we may be able to learn something new and helpful about ourselves.

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What I learnt from trying this uniquely modern meditation was that our urban environments tell a story about humanity and its place on earth; a story about large-scale civilization and how it fits into the planet’s ecology. And one of the first things we notice about the city when we set ourselves outside of and above it is that it works in grids. Instantly we realize some things about the ways we are socialized – to accept grids of streets as a normal way of life, along with the tall squares of buildings lit at night, the traffic that lines the streets, the constant buzz of commerce … all of these things come to seem natural to us in the modern city. After only eight millennia or so since it began – a drop in the ocean of evolutionary time – the city now has its own sets of rules and in fact has become a new natural environment. We modern people have learnt those rules very well; we adapt well to living in grids, in buildings, with artificial lighting, using technologies driven by the fossil fuels of the machine age and taking for granted all the other seemingly natural aspects of modern urban life. And there is a name for the kind of story that tells you that the way you live is natural. That kind of story is called a myth.

As Roland Barthes pointed out in Mythologies, myth is a story so powerful it removes us from history. Joseph Campbell would agree that this is one of its unique qualities – that myth returns us to one of our other natural homes, in our sense of the timeless. As virtually all religious commentators and many philosophers have averred, we humans sense that the phenomenal world is underpinned by something more. This may be a dimension of eternal creative power out of which the universe arises and back to which it returns; it may be imagined as an eternal feminine matrix or womb of life; it may be a void or fount, beyond phenomena or within it. Reconnecting us to this unlimited source has always been a core aim of myth and finding new versions of this ancient and ongoing experience is central to the ‘new story’ of a flourishing earth for all life.

But Barthes also wanted to point out the negative aspect of this function; for him, myth could also be utilized, for example, to advertise consumer products and justify wars. Either way, as Campbell agrees, a myth is a powerful story that convinces us that it is true. Now I think it is time for us to look at our modern way of living and recognize its mythic aspect. For me this turn has a real urgency, because the stale myth of endless economic growth now imperils the very habitat of the planet. This old story needs to be transformed to a new myth – one informed by humanity’s inherent biophilia, considered in both local and global contexts.

The new myth of ecological identity is also, of course, the oldest myth around. Humanity spent most of its evolution absolutely at home in nature, living in very close contact with the elements, the other animals, the soil and rivers and trees and mountains. It makes sense that the deepest layers of our psyches identify with the natural world, with animal and other totemic powers and the like. It is only very recently, in evolutionary terms, that we have learned the new environment of the city, with its new sets of rules. And there’s the rub: because while we retain a deep-seated loyalty to the natural environment, we have transferred much of our everyday loyalties to the new natural environment of the city. This way of life exacerbates the environmental crisis, because the cities draw up energy from everywhere around them, and we have not noticed this enough.

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Extricating ourselves from everyday life for a while, to consider the cities from space, we may see things more clearly. We notice more immediately, for instance, that for our power we draw on fossil fuels from other places; that for our food, we rely upon huge agricultural tracts laid out in the same grids that we recognise from our towns; that in order to draw constant fresh water, rivers have been dammed. In fact, it is according to an urban logic that most non-urban land is designed today. The desires of urban society extend far beyond city limits, to order the world according to a seemingly unending appetite; and this is what brings us to the precipice of the ecological crisis today. Because this way of life not only pushes the planet beyond its carrying capacity; it concurrently disables our capacity for feeling at home in the natural, or non-human world.

The agricultural revolution resulted in large-scale urban developments based on a shift in the way people considered the world around them – what was once a set of subjects in communion, as Thomas Berry so eloquently put it, became a set of objects, or rather resources, for our use. With the inventions of the industrial revolution just centuries ago, magnified by the rise of fossil fuel use, technologically developed humanity quickly convinced itself it was independent of nature.

The ancient Greeks would have called this hubris, or unreasonable pride, and would have looked for a warning in close proximity with the signs of such arrogance. The ancient myths continue to speak truth. And now with the climate talks in Paris, we need the decision makers of the polis – the leaders of the major urban societies, which have been responsible for most of the ecological damage enacted upon the earth over recent centuries – to stand for real change. We need the old myth of perpetual economic growth to be transformed to a new myth of ecological being. To do this we need to trust our experiences as modern peoples and look to our great traditions; we need to combine climate science with indigenous wisdom and earthy farming inventions such as permaculture, which works with and not against the cycles of nature.

It is time for us to remember that we do know how to live at one with nature. We have always known how to do this. We might have forgotten for a while and allowed technology to convince us that we can be free of the limits of nature; but reality reminds us that we have to deal with limit – both as people, as individuals, and as a society, as a global civilization. Let’s continue to explore ways of rekindling the fires of culture; of transforming modern civilization and indeed human consciousness, in alignment with that deep ancestral knowing that we love our home. Then we can transform modern society and ourselves as people, as members of an ecological community and a better world.

My ‘ecomythic’ documentary film City Living, Nature Calling intends to do this and I hope you will enjoy the trailer and support the crowdfunding campaign here.

Dr. Geoff Berry, Researcher, Writer & Presenter
City Living, Nature Calling – an ecological documentary like no other!

City Living, Nature Calling – an ecomythic film for our times

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 What better way to support the new myth, the ‘big story’ that is growing within and around us in response to our need to treat the earth better, than to make a film. Film is the great myth-making machine of the modern era. And when impactful visuals are combined with convincing narration, documentary film can help change the world. This is what is intended for City Living, Nature Calling, an ecologically inspired documentary film that shows how modern societies can be adapted to meet the challenges of climate change and bring more balance to human/ecosystem relations.

City Living, Nature Calling is an ecomythic documentary, a story for our times that points out that the dominant myth of the modern world has been one that promised technological abundance for all. Nowadays we know that this is a convenient fiction and our hearts, minds, bodies and souls draw us on to the next grand vision of life in balance, of flourishing life for all on this beautiful planet. This doco draws upon our innate care for our home, wherever we live, even when our ‘natural environment’ has become a landscape of city grids, motorized traffic and credit cards, tall buildings lit at night and bustling pedestrians on mobile phones. City Living, Nature Calling offers answers to the ‘big story’ of modern society by looking first at how we got here and then at how technology can work hand-in-hand with respect for nature to heal our wounded world.

 geoff Berry insitu

City Living, Nature Calling opens with a story about how humanity evolved, over countless millennia, in close contact with wild nature, before so many of us moved into cities with the rise of civilization. The doco shows how the current ecological crisis is exacerbated by the fact that the majority of the human race now live in urban environments, which now dominate the planet and its ecology, drawing energy and resources up from the planet around them. It points out we all love our home to some extent, but that transferring our loyalties from the countryside to the city leaves us alienated from our ancestral place in nature. The ‘big picture’ that this film presents is that we need to relearn how to fit in with the cycles and limits of nature rather than assuming that our advanced technologies will continue to provide us with abundance.

Author and narrator Dr Geoffrey Berry draws on his academic research into the mythic history of civilization from an ecologically-informed perspective. So rather than presenting a merely materialistic account about the benefits and dangers of technology, his work also investigates the timelessly shifting mysteries of symbolic stories and their relationship to human consciousness. Geoff asks questions like: how do we think and behave in terms of the kind of environment we grow up in? And what effect do our technologies have upon our attitudes and feelings (and vice versa)? These questions led him to uncover the mythic substrata of human consciousness and the way great symbolic narratives motivate human behavior according to certain historical and environmental contexts.

City Lights at Night - a Planetary Perspective

      How we love to light our cities at night …

Geoff’s ecomythic presentation in City Living, Nature Calling aims to motivate mainstream populations towards ecological adaptation by reminding us that the home we love includes city and country, in a wider sense of biodiversity. But just as importantly, the doco also discusses the modern myths that are holding us back from the rapid and systemic transformation required of us today. Geoff’s research into myth and symbol taught him that these powerful stories and images convince us that the way we live is natural and ‘true,’ as if they (and therefore we) are aligned with some greater reality beyond the material world. His work led him to the discovery that we still live by a dominant myth, a dangerous misconception that is now being dismantled by environmental science and our collective recognition that we cannot continue exploiting the world forever.

The ‘dominant myth’ that Geoff uncovers in modern society is that we can endlessly consume the earth’s resources as if they were unlimited; it is an ‘eternal feast’ in our modern cities of light. This vision implies that we have overcome the vagaries of seasonal cycles, which afflicted traditional societies with famine (as well as providing feast). We know such afflictions still threaten us, but somehow the imagery of modern consumption works to avert our eyes from this reality and draws us instead to constantly dream of the glowing treasure available at the end of the shopping aisle. For more on how this kind of dreaming can be adapted to the limits of nature, please see the film trailer and crowd funding campaign at www.startsomegood.com/clnc

Geoff headshot Belonging

Following a successful funding campaign, Geoff and film maker Darcy Gladwin will head out to ask experts in fields such as climate science, renewable power, permaculture design and urban development how we can adapt better to ecological limit, right now. Geoff also aims to interview other kinds of influential voices such as Aboriginal elders and politicians. This footage will then be interspersed with visually poetic reflections on the big questions of our times. Join the many of us already on board the City Living, Nature Calling movement!

 

 

Mythtelling around the Campfire

After facilitating the first Belonging workshop last weekend, i want to reflect upon one of the themes that arose there: how do we find embrace technology and express our innate love of nature in the same life of body and soul? And how can we do both in an ecologically sustainable way? This is a core issue for modern people to come to terms with and it runs right through my work, including the documentary film City Living, Nature Calling (more details soon) and my mythtelling story session around the campfire in Castlemaine this Friday evening. (If you’re anywhere near there, or are coming to the Local Lives, Global Matters event, see details below)

 

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Let’s start with Prometheus, the mythic character who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. He was a Titan, which generally puts him on the side of humanity against the haughty Olympian gods (Titans descend directly from mother earth, or Gaia, and father sky, or Uranus). Sometimes he is even credited with creating humanity, but mostly he is known as the same culture hero who was responsible for granting us the powers of technology. There’s the irony, because even though modern technology has become so powerful that it is now seen as a major driving force behind the destruction of the environment, it was originally created out of loyalty to the earth and its people. Obviously, the problem is not technology per se, but the ways it is used. Prometheus, in another myth, is also responsible for lifting up our chins towards the heavens, in what sounds like an evolutionary shift from primate to free standing homo sapiens. From then on, we are looking at the stars, employing some of my favourite of all human qualities: imagination and wonder, dreaming of future and further possibilities, looking beyond immediate experiences with hope and maybe even love for the universe.

Prometheus

This is the force that expands us beyond our bodies, hopefully in a way that increases our appreciation for this physical life, this embodiment of consciousness and self-aware intelligence that we are so lucky to have. There is no reason we can’t have all of this dreaming and be good ecological citizens of the earth at the same time. But in order to do so we might have to recall the Greeks’ great warning against hubris, or over-exaggerated pride. If the philosophical attitude of this culture may be summed in the oracle to Know Thyself, then obviously this ‘self’ must also be restrained by the ecological limits of its home. While the ancient Greeks were no doubt just as often warning against the excessive domination of tyrants in the polis – a social ill, rather than an environmental one – there are precedents for my intuition that there is a notion of ‘care for country’ in this mythic cycle. King Oedipus becomes aware of pollution in his land, for instance, when it is laid waste by plague.

 

Oedipus & the plague

Across the seas in ancient Britain, a similar set of circumstances besets the land as the Knights of the Round Table set off in search for the Holy Grail. There, the ill health of the king is directly associated with the suffering of the land. Metaphorically speaking, when cultural authority is weak (the king is wounded or defiled), so nature becomes barren, the land laid waste, the fruits of the forest left to rot or the desert sands dotted with corpses and crows. There is a direct association, in the Grail and Theban cycles of Kings Arthur and Oedipus, between vigorous rule and the fertility of the land. And again in both sets of stories there is a concern with just rule, with the good king, who serves his people with honour and in accord with a higher calling, a greater law, something more than mere political convention. There is a myth, or metaphysic, of interconnectedness between the way we live and the flourishing of our bioregion. Calling this the law of the land might make a nice counterpoint to the unsatisfying way Darwinian evolution has too often been reduced to a ‘survival of the fittest’ ideology that suits capitalist aggression a lot better than it suits an empathic collective of caring souls who like to cooperate towards a better world.

 

Grail wasteland

Also, this myth of culture and nature being strengthened by the same commitment to a just society also links mind and matter in a way not dissimilar to the identification with nature we recognize as a core feature of so many indigenous traditions. Where Psyche and Gaia are seen as codependent, the warning against hubris can be seen extended to become the magical formula of Hermes Trismegistus, “As Above, So Below.” This is another way of saying that what is within is without, or that our individual minds can ultimately be identified with the world, that what we see is what we are, only with a particularly human kind of reflection added. I find this way of thinking obeys the laws of both myth and reason, once the unlimited inter-relating qualities of metaphor are taken into account. And while we can imagine better worlds beyond this one, it is now our duty and pleasure to imagine a better way of living right here on this earth, amongst a community of inter-related beings dedicated to the flourishing of all. According to this logic, it makes perfect sense to act as if we are born out of the earth and must remain loyal to it, because it is mother and matrix, the ultimate ground of being; technology and all.

 

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Geoff presents mythtelling around the campfire at Murrnong Co-Housing Community, Castlemaine, from 8pm this Friday 16th October. Bus leaves Market Building Steps, Mostyn St. Booking essential! See locallivesglobalmatters.org

Belonging to the Earth – Deepening that Feeling

Geoff headshot Belonging

While we are working on feeling more at home in our skin and strengthening our sense of community, we are already deepening the sense in which we belong to the earth community. But we can go way further than this, by opening our minds (or soul, or psyche) to the intelligence of the earth itself. You know the saying, that indigenous peoples believe that the earth doesn’t belong to them, but they belong to the earth? Let’s drop into that one, as modern people, together. This can be done with a change of consciousness, the kind you may have felt listening to great music, while dancing, or during any exercise where you felt transported to another place. This is the spirit of Dionysus, who guides us to dissolve the ‘iron cage of reason’ (as sociologist Max Weber called it) so that we can enjoy the sense of freedom traditionally available to all members of society in ritual or other celebrations. Sure, we know how to celebrate modern life – and yes, sex & drugs & rock ‘n roll count as valid expressions of the Dionysian too – but we don’t get enough opportunity to do so within the context of the sacred, where deep meaning dances with intoxicating experience.

To do this, we need to balance the rational with the irrational, the ‘logos’ of everyday consciousness with the ‘mythos’ of the more-than-human world, the calculations of the ego with the archetypal (and humbling) realm of spiritual intelligence. This is where both sides of the mind converse, because there is a logic to myth (once its symbolism can be interpreted), just as there is a mythic aspect to our ‘reasonable,’ everyday lives. In the metaphor used by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Apollo was the god of form, who guided the ‘reasonable’ side of our minds, while Dionysus was the god of frenzy, of unreasonable pleasure such as we might experience while lost to the dance. Both lend us great qualities, but too much measure and logic leads to a frozen heart, while too much partying leads to … well, you know about hangovers and addiction and failing to realize our potential because we got lost in too much intoxication. The trick is to let each inform the other, until we no longer need to differentiate between them: the ‘rational’ is energized by the ‘mythic,’ while the irrational, uncontrollable realm of the dreaming has some measure and meaning brought to it by our human concerns.

dreaming collage

For example, consider this:
My experience of the rainbow serpent rising out of the Yarra River, teaching me how to get more grounded in my work so that I can withstand the pressures of everyday society better, has a certain logic to it. The fresh water of the river cuts through the earth as it travels along the clay pans near my home, just as aspects of our emotional life cut through our bodies. There is an elemental parallel that makes sense: water is a metaphor for feeling and the earth is like our body, the ground of experience. Symbolically, the river brings healing; it refreshes me in mind and heart and body for new growth, just as rivers always do in reality. The logic of this ‘ecomythic’ vision (yeah, I’ve just coined a new thing) can bring another dimension to our everyday lives, where suffering is suffused with meaning and painful wounds open us to more-than-human possibilities, like being visited by archetypal or ancestral spirits with powerful medicinal properties.

Participants in a Belonging Workshop are led in experiential exercises that work with this kind of ecomythic material, to heal wounds, to evoke warrior spirit, to stand tall in our human selves and in our sense of the eternal flow of life that nourishes all things without limit.

If you can’t make it along, try this simple practice at home:

Meditate on your inner wound, while invoking it as an opportunity to open you to more-than-human powers, archetypal wisdom and the ancestral spirits of the land. Finding the logic of mythos draws the deep healing and energizing power of the more-than-human into your body, your mind, your heart and your soul. In Zen we call this opening a dharma gate and I will sign off as does my favourite old master, Yun Men: Take care.

Belonging in Community – Workshop Experiential

Reflecting on what makes people feel they really belong to a place, so that they treat it well and care for the way it flourishes, a sense of belonging to their community comes high on the list. If alienation has negative effects on people’s inner, personal lives (as discussed here), it is even more damaging in terms of our relationships with each other. More people live in cities now than ever before; more people live alone now than ever before; and more people report suffering from mental health issues associated with feeling alone and being cast aside by an unfeeling society than ever before. The link is lack of community; someone to check in on you if they sense you feeling down; someone to lend a hand when you are struggling, as well as celebrate your victories; someone to talk to about whatever is happening. What has too often gone missing is a range of people who actually care. And this works, in an ecosystemic sense, because those people know that if something is wrong with one member of a community it will spread to others; and that all of us are involved with each other, in the end.

 Fixing thatched roof

 

American writer on the ecological spirituality of Mayan village life, Martin Prechtel, claimed once that communal life is over when people don’t have to get together to help mend each other’s roofs. With tin or cement tiles over our heads, we don’t have to care about the home next door; if we both relied upon thatch, which had to be renewed each season, we’d be forced to remain on better terms. And And Martin Shaw, resident myth teller at Schumacher College in Devon, England, and leader of wilderness retreats designed to get participants back in touch with the powers of nature, points out that community also includes ancestors past and elders present, those that touched our hearts and minds, whether they be ancient sages or rock stars, poets or cranky neighbours. Electronic social media today presents us with an unparalleled opportunity to tap into a ‘community of souls,’ no matter what we are into. Not only can we choose friends from a local group nowadays, but we can link up with those who share our interests anywhere in the world. And sharing tales around a campfire in suburban Thornbury the other night, I once again heard people tell of their ‘longing for belonging’ and an associated yearning to connect more deeply with others; in other words, to grow community.

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This leads me to the next aspect of the Belonging workshop; grounding ourselves in each other’s company, in a way that consolidates the ecomythic aspect of our relationships as part of a sacred earth community. This experiential combines deep listening with ‘story stick’ telling, as each of us is given space to share with the group our most cherished hopes for community, so that – at least for those few hours and in the way we carry them onwards in our hearts – we do in fact form that community of deep listening and allow it to inform our souls. When it is consolidated with reflections from the mythic realm, this sharing of care can become a rich response to our yearning for a community that sustains soul. Ecomythic belonging nourishes us beyond our personal cares and even beyond human bias. It replaces us in a biodiverse ecosystem of physical and symbolic beings and more-than-human powers.

 

The author of White Fella Dreaming, Dr Geoffrey Berry, presents Belonging workshops that work across three levels; the personal, communal, and ecomythic aspects of feeling more deeply at home on earth. The first is to be held at CERES Environmental Park in Brunswick East on Saturday 10th October. For more information visit belonging.org.au/news and you can book here.