Opening Keynote for the International Psychosynthesis Conference
Rome, June 21-24, 2012.
Hello, brothers and sisters in the global psychosynthesis community. I am so happy to be here with you on the Summer Solstice to begin this International Psychosynthesis Conference. I want to thank the Istituto di Psicosintesi for accomplishing the enormous will project that has brought us together in such a beautiful place, with such an amazing program before us. For these four days, we’ll explore how psychosynthesis can help us face the enormous challenges of our world today.
Let’s begin with a centering exercise. Please find a comfortable position, close your eyes if you want, and pay attention to your breathing for a few moments. Notice how your body feels. Notice any areas of tension or pain, and send your breath to that area. Notice any feelings that you have brought with you from your day, or that are arising now. If you can, just watch your thoughts flow by for a few moments.
Now in your imagination, go to a place in nature where you feel especially good, to a place in nature that you consider sacred or especially meaningful to you, probably a place close to your home. Experience this place with all your senses, as fully as you can.
Now imagine that you can breathe in the qualities and energies of this sacred place, and then breathe them out into this room. Do this for at least 3 breaths.
Now let us sit together in the silence, now filled with the combined energies and qualities of our sacred natural places from all over the world.
Let’s allow this soulful energy hold us as I talk now about the challenges we face today together.
Climate Change and Catastrophes
With the chaotic effects of global climate change impacting life around the Earth, it’s clear that radical change is upon us, along with the suffering such change can bring. It looks like we will have to endure years and years of intermingled catastrophes, one after another, as our oil-dependent economies unravel and collapse, clean water becomes increasingly scarce, natural disasters and epidemics sweep through the lands, untold numbers of species become extinct, desperate military interventions are attempted, and democracy struggles to survive. Add to this the likelihood of more nuclear disasters like the one still unfolding in Japan, contaminating the entire planet with radioactivity. David Korten calls this collapse of our unsustainable economic, political, and energy systems, “the Great Unraveling.” Things have gone too far for us to stop the process; who knows how long it will take out planet to rebalance and our human institutions to transform? Meanwhile, we see people reacting with fear, denial, anger and blame, grasping and greed, lies and violence—thereby amplifying the Great Unraveling.
The underlying cause of these crises has to do with our consciousness, our most essential understanding of who we are as humans, and our right relationship with Earth and its myriad life forms. We have been thinking of ourselves as separate and competitive with one another and with other living beings. Everything we require for life comes from the living Earth: air, water, food, clothing, and shelter. Yet conditioned by the modern industrial world, we tend to forget this; we have come to assume that humans produce all we need—apparently out of thin air! This story has resulted in enormous suffering and damage to our life support systems; it has brought us to the brink of extinction.
There’s another story that can redeem us: a story of our deep interconnectedness and interdependence within the web of life. Psychosynthesis supports this story. In psychosynthesis, we learn to acknowledge and accept all the parts within our psyches, and work with them towards harmony and peace. We can do the same in our relationships with one another and with all living systems of Earth.
Roberto Assagioli spoke to this in The Act of Will, in 1973:
“Altruistic love is not limited to the members of the human family. It can also embrace all living things in the animal and vegetable kingdoms of nature. This inclusiveness is expressed in the Buddhist love for all living creatures, and by Saint Francis in his “Song of the Creatures.” One might say that an increasingly conscious sense of this universal brotherhood is behind the growing trend toward the cultivation of harmonious relations with the environment. This is the higher and broader aspect of ecology.”
The Buddhists call this altruistic love “bodhichitta”—the fervent desire for the welfare of all beings.
When we look clearly and courageously at our world today, we observe another movement accompanying the Great Unraveling; we see what many people call the Great Turning occurring right now all around the world, a Great Turning from the Industrial Growth Society–based on profit, greed, and competition–to a Life Sustaining Society–based on gratitude, love, and cooperation, honoring Life itself above all else.
In our individual lives, it often takes a crisis to catalyze change. We all know of people whose lives have been transformed by a life-threatening illness. So it is with groups of people, nations, and even humanity as a whole. At this pivotal time in human history, we walk into the unknown together, as into an initiation, a collective encounter with the human soul. We in the industrialized world have reached the end of our collective adolescence; it is time now to grow up, to move fully into true adulthood, with a broader, more encompassing sense of responsibility to the Earth, all its peoples, and all its life forms.
Global environmental and economic crises can summon a rite of passage for humanity. We can do more than endure the dark times ahead; we can actively embrace them and use them for transformation. That’s what the Great Turning is all about.
Before I go any further in describing the Great Turning, and how psychosynthesis can contribute to it, I want to invite your participation.
Please take a moment to think of one thing you love about life on Earth at this time. Just pick the first thing that comes to mind. Turn to someone sitting next to you or in the next row and take turns sharing one thing that you love and are thankful for–in your life and/or in the world; take just a minute each to share this.
Now let’s allow this experience of gratitude expand our hearts. Let’s make sound together that expresses this feeling—however it comes out.
Thank you. Let’s hold this energy of love and gratitude alive in our hearts.
Now please turn to another person sitting nearby, someone new or the same person. Decide who will speak first in response to the question I will pose. Each person will have 3 minutes to speak, while the other person listens with an open heart, but without saying anything in response. Just listen.
The question is: what troubles you most about the world at this time?
Now please switch roles. The second person speaks and first listens silently. What troubles you most about the world today?
Now I invite us all to make a sound that expresses the anguish we feel right now. Just a big sound, whatever comes.
Thank you. We feel this anguish because we love this world, we love this life. We love because we are all deeply interconnected within the web of life. Love and anguish are two sides of the same coin, and they are the keys to the Great Turning. We must honor and embrace our love for the Earth, as well as the pain we feel at the injury to its living web.
The Great Turning
Joanna Macy is an eco-philosopher and activist—and my beloved mentor, with whom I co-authored Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World. She identifies three mutually reinforcing dimensions of the Great Turning.
The first dimension includes practical work-in-the-world, actions to slow the damage to Earth and its beings, to buy time; e.g. protests, boycotts, education, and legal action; cleaning up rivers and lakes; bringing legal actions against polluters; recycling and changing personal habits to save energy and resources.
The second dimension includes both the analysis of the structural and institutional causes of the problems, and the creation of alternatives. We examine, for example, the tacit agreements that create obscene wealth for a few, while progressively impoverishing the rest of humanity. We explore the interlocking causes of our entanglement in a greedy economy that uses our larger body, Earth, as supply house and sewer.
As part of the second dimension of the Great Turning, we may create new laws and Constitutional amendments to support our efforts on behalf of the web of life. In 2008, Ecuador rewrote its Constitution to recognize “the rights of nature,” saying nature “has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.” A proposal has been brought to the General Assembly of the United Nations for a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. Lawyer Polly Higgins has organized a group called Eradicating Ecocide, working to make “ecocide”—the destruction of ecosystems—the fifth of the internationally recognized Crimes Against Peace.
What other new institutions can we create to live more harmoniously with one another and the Earth? Ecovillages, cohousing, community gardens come to mind.
The third dimension is more inward work that we can do alone and together. It includes psychological and spiritual study, processes, and practices that can bring about a shift in our world-view and values, and connect us with a Source of strength, love, and courage for the challenges before us. In this third dimension, we work to change our essential world view, from “anthropocentrism” to “ecocentrism,” from seeing humans as the center of the world, to seeing ourselves as interconnected participants in the web of life, no more or less important than any other parts. Yes, we may have a special role to play, but so do the decomposing bacteria that turn waste into nutrients. Think of where we would be without them!
Many people today are engaged in at least one, if not all, of these three dimensions. All three are necessary for the creation of a sustainable civilization, and each supports and feeds the other two. For example, people who are engaged in defending a particular watershed against destructive development may have to study the history of corporations to understand why they have so much power (analysis of structural causes). They may need to deepen their sense of interconnection within the web of life, and strengthen their commitment to non-violence (psychological and spiritual work).
Since before the turn of the century, and for a decade or two before that, we have seen this Great Turning happening within and around us, and it seems to be intensifying in the last couple of years. We have seen a worldwide awakening of concern for the planetary environment. Many young people especially have taken up the cause of defending the environment from destruction. We have seen people rising up to claim their human rights and demand more democratic governments. We have seen the Occupy movement take to the streets, calling attention to the criminal behavior of some of the super-rich and the growing economic injustice that results.
Paul Hawkin has written a book called Blessed Unrest about the more than 2 million grassroots organizations and projects underway today all over the world—dedicated to restoring the environment and fostering social justice. His subtitle is: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming. He provides us with proof positive that the Great Turning is real. It is happening right now, and you are each playing a part.
However, the Great Unraveling is happening, too, and we face the real possibility that our civilization will not survive, at least in its present form. Change nearly always requires a certain amount of unraveling. I am a knitter, and often have to unravel several rows of knitting to correct an error. However, if I can’t pick up the stitches after unraveling, or if I unravel too far, I may have to start over. If too much harm is done before we radically change our ways, we could be reduced to a few isolated groups of people scratching out a living from a devastated environment. The outcome of the Great Turning remains uncertain, but that doesn’t mean we should give up.
Uncertainty is always part of life, especially in important transitions like birth, child rearing, marriage, or a new job. Uncertainty can bring us more fully into the present moment, awake and alert. Uncertainty can evoke our will, our vision for the world we want, and endow the present moment with meaning and purpose—all familiar principles in psychosynthesis.
Each of us is already contributing to this Great Turning in large and small ways, perhaps some we don’t even recognize. Yet we may be held back by fear, a sense of inadequacy, or confusion about how to proceed. We may feel over-whelmed by the challenges of our personal lives, with no time or energy available for action in the larger community. We need time for inner work on ourselves, as well as outer work in the community.
This inner psychological and spiritual work will help us make a fundamental shift to a new relationship to our planetary life support system and with the whole human family. It will help us develop what Assagioli called a broader altruistic love, what the Buddhists call bodhichitta. It is the work of the third dimension of the Great Turning. And I believe this is where psychosynthesis can make its greatest contribution.
The Role of Psychosynthesis
I see psychosynthesis contributing to the Great Turning, especially in the third dimension, in four powerful ways.
1. Psychosynthesis can help individuals heal the wounds from their past, wounds that create grasping, fear, and confusion—what the Buddhists call the three causes of suffering. Psychosynthesis applied to counseling, psychotherapy, family therapy, addictions, and personal growth does this effectively—probably it’s why most of you are here.
2. Psychosynthesis can support us, and help us support others, through the Great Unraveling. No matter how successful we are in turning things around, many processes such as global climate change are already underway. We may be able to mitigate some of the worst effects, but there will be hard times ahead. We in the psychosynthesis community may be called upon to act as chaplains, to guide people through various challenges and traumas, and to teach the skills we know: centering, disidentification, self-observation, developing the will, and more.
3. Psychosynthesis can help strengthen activists who are working on the front lines, in the first and second dimensions of the Great Turning, strengthening their courage, compassion, and connection to Self. I would like to find ways of making the powerful principles and tools available to more of these people, perhaps with foundation funding.
4. I see psychosynthesis contributing to the shift in consciousness we all need, away from self-centeredness and egotism, to experiencing and acting from our essential oneness in the web of life. I believe the tools of disidentification and Self-identification can help with that shift, as we expand our sense of who we are—from little monads, little embattled egos to interconnected participants in the grand adventure of Life.
Joanna Macy calls this the “holonic shift.” It’s as if we are starting to think, feel, and act as one larger organism, using our collective wisdom, not simply adding up yours and mine. We still act as individuals, but we sense the promptings of a larger Intelligence guiding us. Our actions arise from what deep ecologist John Seed once described as “the rain forest defending itself” through us. We expand our identification from separate egos, groups, or even nations, and begin to identify as part of Ecological Self. Perhaps this is another name for Higher Self or Transpersonal Self. And we celebrate the diverse roles that everyone plays, including our own.
As we listen and learn from one another during this Conference, no matter what workshops we attend, let’s try to see everything we learn as potentially contributing to the Great Turning. How can this technique or concept or approach help us to heal old wounds that may be holding us enslaved to addictions, fear, or powerlessness? How can it help to strengthen and center us, preparing us for the challenges ahead? How can it help to expand our identification to the most inclusive, compassionate sense of Self?
We face huge and complex challenges in the coming decades, possibly greater than any other challenges humanity as a whole has ever faced. Here we have no experts, because no one alive today has ever dealt with this enormity of change. We truly walk together into the unknown. So we must call upon our deepest spiritual resources, and the wisdom of wild nature, to guide us, moment to moment, on the journey ahead.
We can do this! We have enormous capacities and resources within and around us. Let’s throw off limiting beliefs and conditioning and release the power, creativity, and beauty that lie within each of us. We are so much stronger, so much more capable, so much wiser than we have believed up until now.
And we can draw upon the vast Intelligence of Life, an intelligence that has brought us this far. Life has transformed itself through the eons of Earth’s evolution, overcoming life-threatening challenges many times. We can draw upon the love that surrounds and supports us with every breath.
Help and guidance are available to us for the asking. When we don’t know what to do, we can align with Self, ask for guidance, and then act on it. Self is an inexhaustible Source that can act through us if we open ourselves to it and get out of the way.
May this conference in the auspicious year of 2012 contribute to the transformation of humanity and to the birth of a new era of cooperation, harmony, synthesis, and joy.