Musings # 4 – November 2007

How Then Shall We Live?

So many confusing thoughts and feelings arise as I sit down to write an essay on this question: How shall we live in these challenging, troubling times? I grapple with this question frequently, and often end up just going on with my personal and professional life, temporarily ignoring what is taking place in the wider world.  Then I read an article, or see a news account of some horrific event, or learn of a friend’s terminal illness or the death of someone’s son or daughter in Iraq, and it all comes back to me.  How shall we live with integrity in a world that seems to be crumbling around us, a world whose very life-support systems are in peril, a nation whose leadership seems to have gone mad, a world in which so many systems on which we depend are collapsing—or will very likely collapse in the near future?

Most of the time, however, my own life goes on with relative ease and comfort.  The threats of collapse seem distant, even imaginary.  Jim and I keep doing the regular activities required by our existing economic system and by our needs for relationship and recreation.  We do our work, buy food and household supplies, pay the mortgage and other bills, decide about insurance, read and respond to e-mail and postal mail, take walks in the woods, watch films and DVDs, drive a few hours to visit family and friends—as if it was all going to go on forever.  We base only a few of our daily decisions on the frightening scenarios for the future that we read about in environmental magazines or on-line, or see in films and videos.

When any of us do awaken, even momentarily, to the chaos and crisis around us, the emotional impact can be nearly disabling.  We can fall into depression and despair, and feel paralyzed with our apparent inability to have any effect on the situation.  Everyone around us seems unconcerned, so it is all too easy to rejoin the collective trance and go on with life as usual.

And if we want to change our lives in response, what do we do differently?  While living within the existing socioeconomic system, it seems nearly impossible to change in the dramatic ways that seem to be required.  The requirements for living within this system take so much time and attention.  It is often difficult to sort out what must be done (like paying the rent or mortgage for one’s home) from what we have come to believe must be done (like keeping a neat lawn).

On the other hand, going off to live in the woods would serve no one, even if it were possible to do. Very few of us could survive alone in the wilderness for long. How can we change our ways of living while still functioning within our existing system?  It seems we must make the necessary changes collectively, in community, at the same time that we do so one by one.

So much is wrong that a person could spend all available time every day reading articles on the Internet, signing petitions, and writing letters about: the war in Iraq, the threat of a military attack on Iran; illegal detention centers and torture of prisoners; our fragmented and expensive “health care” system in the USA; grossly under-funded public education and social services; prisons crowded with non-violent offenders and people of color; drug and alcohol addiction; the phony “war on drugs”; the probably equally phony “war on terror”; stolen elections, corrupt politicians, corporate controlled news media, and the shredding of democracy and the Constitution in the U.S; the burning of rainforests, clear-cutting, destructive mining, global climate change, peak oil, privatization of water and seeds, genetically modified crops, and factory farming; species extinction; human over-population; and on and on.  Clearly, we have to choose our causes, and leave the rest up to other activists.  But even with a limited focus for our activism, we still get burned out and exhausted, questioning whether this is the best use of our time, energy, and creative intelligence.

Some writers and thinkers whom I respect highly suggest that we consider the existing socio-economic system as irrelevant, focusing instead on creating new ways of living right now; they cite thousands of organizations and projects all over the world that are doing just that.  Paul Hawkin describes this spontaneous global grassroots movement in his 2007 book, Blessed Unrest.  Barbara Marx Hubbard speaks convincingly of it in frequent radio interviews and in numerous books.  Yes! magazine features inspiring stories of such endeavors in every issue.  David Korten, Joanna Macy and others write and speak of the “Great Turning” towards a Life Sustaining Society.

This message is full of hope and positive energy, but it is not the whole story.  What about the horrendous damage now being wreaked by the current Industrial Growth Society/ Military Industrial Complex, based primarily in the United States?  It may be on its way down, but it is dragging untold numbers of people, cultures, species, and ecosystems along with it.  Yes, we need to create new models and cultures of sustainability and cooperation, and we also need to mitigate the damage of the old ways and care for the victims. Moreover, I think we need to take long, hard looks at our own lives, to see how we can better limit our participation in—and unwitting support of—the current system.

How then shall we live?  How do we each find our path of integrity and service? How do we each find our unique roles in the Great Turning?  And how do we live with some degree of serenity, enthusiasm, joy, and humor in the midst of it all?

I don’t pretend to have answers to these questions.  I want to explore them in this and future essays, sharing some of the perspectives I have found meaningful and—perhaps in the act of writing—uncovering some new ones.

Systems thinking (or General Living Systems Theory) offers some insight on these questions.  According to systems theory, living systems maintain themselves through “deviation-reducing” feedback—that is, they keep themselves in balance with their inner and outer environment within a certain range, according to “codes” established genetically or through life experience.  For example, human bodies maintain a temperature around 98.6° F; if a human body’s temperature rises over 104-105°, or drops below 90-92° for very long, that body dies.  In addition to the body’s inborn mechanisms for temperature control (e.g. shivering and sweating), humans learn ways of maintaining a healthy range of temperature through exercise, clothing, external heating and cooling sources, and even mental discipline. Most of the ways we respond to the world around us derive from these codes, both inborn and learned.

Unfortunately, humans may have an ability unique to the species: the ability to block feedback.  We are experts at denial, manipulation of data, creating confusing noise, and “spin.”  Consequently, we often act against our own long-term best interests, because we pretend our actions are essentially benign, or at least have only minor impact on the life support systems upon which we utterly depend.  Many of our existing codes of self-maintenance would probably serve us well, if we allowed feedback into our awareness, and responded accordingly.  There is plenty of feedback available in the world today from the effects of global climate change, but it is overwhelmed by obfuscation, red herrings, and downright lies from our so-called leaders and the corporate media.

Some of the feedback a system receives cannot be matched to existing codes—and therein may lie some of the motivation for denial and distraction. When a system is faced with novel conditions or events, it must go into another mode of response: it must adapt, deviating from its previous codes, and self-organizing around new ones.  Faced as we are now with cataclysmic change, many of our established codes no longer apply.  We literally don’t know what to do. As living systems, we humans must adapt and learn new behaviors to survive individually and collectively in the years ahead.

How do we figure out the new behaviors we need to adopt?  How do we establish new codes more fitted to the demands of ecosystems in upheaval?  Most of our planning and strategizing is based on what we already know, what has worked in the past.  Most of what we already know is rapidly becoming obsolete.  So where do we look for guidance?

Inquire within.  That seems to be the only and best choice.  There is nowhere else to go, no better experts to consult.  As living systems that are all part of larger living systems, our best source of guidance abides within, embedded in the Intelligence that created and sustains our bodies and psyches, beneath and beyond our thinking, rational, conscious minds.  This is where we can open to the feedback coming to us along the strands of interrelationship in the web of life.

Feedback changes as the larger system changes, moment to moment, day to day.  So guidance/feedback we received in the past may or may not be relevant to what we need to do now.  Our “marching orders” can change from time to time; they can be temporarily supplanted by more urgent needs, and then revert to our standing orders.  Even our life calling or vocations may change.

So it seems to be it behooves us all to check into guidance/feedback constantly, every day, even several times a day.  I personally don’t believe in a Master Plan that has been put in place with every detail worked out in advance.  I see life as a constantly evolving, adapting, changing affair, and likewise our individual roles in it all.  As members of a living, evolving system, feedback is always available to us.  Guidance is always available to us for the asking.  All we need to do is tune in, listen, open—which I realize is not an easy thing to do in our noisy, complicated, busy, distracted world.

Because the challenges we face are collective ones, we need to listen collectively to inner guidance, as well as individually.  Many people already do this—in meditation circles, Bohmian Dialogue groups, Quaker Meetings, and in other forms.  We listen within collectively when we deeply listen to one another, not simply on the level of content (ideas, suggestions, complaints, etc), but also on the deeper level of life experience and worldview.  We listen within collectively when we read each other’s writing, view each other’s art, listen to each other’s music.  Guidance may arise from any of these communications, and each person will receive it slightly differently, filtering it through his or her own predispositions.

As unique individual subsystems within the larger living system of Earth, we each receive guidance/feedback according to our situation, inner and outer resources, capacities, strengths and limitations.  I may compare myself to other people, and think that I should act more like one or another of them, but in the process I only distract myself from serving in the particular way I am called to serve.  When I remember that each of us truly has a unique path to follow, I can more fully appreciate and support what others do, while faithfully following my own marching orders.

On a walk in the mountains yesterday, I noticed a rock that stood out from those around it, because of its color and composition.  Later I saw another “outstanding” rock.  When I asked for what these rocks could teach me, I understood that both stood out from their neighbors by accident.  They had been tumbled there by the action of water, perhaps also wind, rain, and sometime in the distant past, volcanic upheavals.  I did not perceive any master plan at work; they simply landed where they landed, and became part of the landscape.  If a rock landed in the water, it might help form a small barrier, creating a waterfall, a water chute, or a smoothing surface for the water to flow over.  It may land on a pile of different-looking rocks and stand out, or on a pile of similar rocks and more or less disappear from notice.

So we land where we land, through the “accidents” of circumstances and events.  Sometimes we stand out from the crowd, with special gifts or talents.  Sometimes we seem to be just another rock in the pile.  And wherever we land, we end up performing some kind of role, affecting the way life flows around and through us.  No need for ego; no need for either pride or shame—simply acceptance.

Perhaps I have found one answer, however temporary, to my question, “How then shall I live?”  I want to attune myself constantly to what I experience as my inner guidance—what I understand to be the ever-present feedback from the Living System of which I am a part.  I want to listen to the specificity of that guidance, as it applies to this particular person, in the particular life situation in which I have landed, with these particular gifts and limitations.  I want to live by that guidance, even if my filters weaken or distort it, even if I totally misread it from time to time.  How else can I learn to discern its ever-changing message?  I see that I must be willing to make mistakes in order to improve my ability to listen.  And I see that I must remain ready to set aside any previous guidance or beliefs or ways of acting, in order to follow whatever new guidance I receive.

Sounds simple, right?  But we all know how difficult it is—to overcome the conditioning of our culture, to listen through the noisy demands of our daily life, to find sufficient peace and solitude to focus within, to quiet our fears enough to hear anything else, to even imagine the possibility that guidance might be available.

The other night I was awake about 3 am, stewing about this and that.  I thought of trying to tune in to guidance, but a more dominant voice insisted that it would do no good.  After an hour of wakefulness, I finally made myself get up and write in my journal about what was going through my mind.  Soon I found myself writing words that reminded me to “live here in this moment, when I am warm in my bed, snug in my house, safe with Jim at my side.”  After that, I was able to go back to sleep.

We each need to develop practices that help us tune into guidance/feedback, whether it be journaling, meditation, prayer, sitting under a favorite tree, walking in the wild, dancing, playing music, or reading inspirational books and poetry.  There are many such practices available now in our awakening world.  Let’s use them, for the sake of our own health and happiness, and for the sake of all life.

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I expect that I will write more on this subject in future Musings.”  I invite you to send in suggestions or thoughts—either about the larger question of “how then shall we live?” or about practices that help you tune into guidance.  I will post them on my website as comments, and/or include them in future essays.  Thank you for being part of global community of people who are facing the challenges of our times with integrity, wisdom, and love.