Can We Really Walk Away From Empire?

Can We Really Walk Away From Empire?

I recently had the opportunity to engage in conversation with Guy McPherson about a number of topics and subsequently began reading his book Walking Away From Empire, Guy’s personal journey of leaving a tenured professorship to radically alter his living arrangements in preparation for the collapse of industrial civilization. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this touching, inspiring, thought-provoking, sometimes snarky, sometimes heartbreaking saga of awakening and courageous abandonment of civilization’s paradigm.

Yet throughout my reading of the book one question would not relent, namely: Is it really possible to walk away from empire? In my dialog with Guy I discovered that he would be the first to agree that for a variety of reasons, walking away from empire is not possible. In dialog with myself, I realized that the tentacles of empire reach so far into my own psyche and have entangled themselves so deeply that I am profoundly limited in the extent to which I can walk away, yet at the same time, I believe that we all must make every attempt to do just that.

For me there are three enormous obstacles to exiting empire, all of which are related to the internal dynamics of empire programming, and they are so profound that, on one level, radically altering one’s living arrangements may be the least daunting facet of making the break.

Enlightenment Enculturation

The first of these is Enlightenment enculturation. The Enlightenment, that intellectual about-face that occurred in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the West following what we now call the Dark Ages, was committed to eradicating the ignorance and superstition perpetuated by the Roman Catholic Church and folk wisdom. On the one hand, the Enlightenment was a breath of fresh air when compared with commonplace beliefs that women and black cats caused the Black Death of the fourteenth century and the Church’s implacable insistence that the earth, not the sun, was the center of the universe. On the other hand and equally implacably, the Enlightenment committed itself to one path of knowledge only, namely reason. In doing so, the Enlightenment paradigm, in part, set in motion the paradigm of industrial civilization which glorified logic and the masculine, disparaged intuition and the feminine, and instituted a way of living based on power, control, separation, and resource exploitation. Ultimately, how different the rule of this paradigm was and is from the hierarchical, fundamentalist domination of the Church is arguable.

One of the few places in Guy’s extraordinary book with which I must take issue is this same dichotomy, which I believe to be a false one, that is, a dichotomy between reason and mysticism. Curiously, the intellectual giants of Classical Greece whom most modern thinkers admire, were deeply mystical. The word mysticism is related to mystery, and very specifically, to myth or mythology in which Classical Greek thinkers had been steeped since birth. Myths were sacred narratives for the Greeks that served as models for behavior. The predominant theme of all myths of their time was the notion that humans were not superior to the gods and goddesses and that as soon as they attempted to be, they would experience some aspect of personal or community demise.

Author, Peter Kingsley, has written extensively in his four books Reality; A Story Waiting To Pierce You; In The Dark Places Of Wisdom; and in Ancient Philosophy: Mystery And Magic of the likelihood of widespread contact between Ancient Greek philosophers and sages of Eastern philosophy. In an article entitled “The Paths of The Ancient Sages: A Sacred Tradition Between East And West,” Kingsley documents instances of contact which are overwhelmingly excluded from traditional histories of philosophy in the West. The Western philosophical tradition has attempted to surgically remove accounts of the interpenetration of East and West in the Ancient and Classical Greek eras, but more extensive research reveals that for philosophers such as Pythagoras, Parmenides, and Empedocles, to name only three, knowledge was as much about direct, intuitive, physiological experience as about intellectual understanding.

Thousands of years later in the twentieth century, psychologist Carl Jung began writing about the four functions of consciousness: thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition. Jung theorized that although everyone has a dominant function, as well as an inferior one, if we exclude any function or fail to develop it, imbalance results, and we become one-sided individuals. At approximately the same time, a fairly reliable personality type indicator was devised by Katherine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers. The Myers-Briggs inventory is a useful assessment of personality and how we construe our experiences. All personality types have strengths and weaknesses, and knowledge of the types can prove extremely useful in both personal and community relationships.

For me, Jung was the ultimate reasoned mystic as were his contemporaries such as Albert Einstein, David Bohm, Werner Heisenberg, and Erwin Schrödinger. If any humans are around a hundred years from now, they will be incapable of forging a human existence that radically departs from our own without the integration of the rational and the sacred.

Enlightenment enculturation can be particularly damaging if we exclude other functions besides thinking from our interpersonal relationships. For example, if one is a thinking type, relying primarily on reason and intellect, one will need to work harder at intuiting a situation, identifying and expressing one’s feelings about it, and noticing the sensations that occur in the body during interactions with others. The classic situations where I have witnessed this challenge is among members of a living community, a regional community, or with people in romantic partnerships. Repeatedly, I encounter individuals who are working together on collapse preparation or community-building projects and are endeavoring to proceed primarily from a thinking-type perspective, as if reason and logic alone can solve problems and resolve all adversity.

For example, let’s say that a guy named Joe works very hard at being reasonable and analyzing situations logically, but he may not have noticed or even heard the tone of voice with which Nancy in the group has uttered a response to Joe’s comment. Frank, who’s very intuitive, has sensed a potential conflict brewing in the group, and Frank’s wife, Vivian, a sensate type, may have experienced a sharp sensation in the pit of her stomach during the conversation and perhaps later, a sense that something was “off.” None of these individuals need verbalize their responses in the moment, but they absolutely must pay attention to them. Hopefully, they have learned or are learning some solid dialoging skills, otherwise, their collaboration will probably be short-lived.

I never tire of ranting about the need for emotional literacy and communication skill development in preparing for and navigating collapse because the more I work with groups and individuals who are preparing, the more I witness how woefully unprepared most of us are for dealing with the non-logistical aspects of attempting to walk away from empire.

Passionately echoing my missives, from The Ascent of Humanity is Charles Eisenstein’s assessment of the limits of reason:

Reason cannot evaluate truth. Reason cannot apprehend beauty. Reason knows nothing of love. Living from the head brings us to the same place, whether as individuals or as a society. It brings us to a multiplicity of crises. The head tries to manage them through more of the same methods of control, and the crises eventually intensify. Eventually, they become unmanageable and the illusion of control becomes transparent; the head surrenders and the heart can take over once again.

The positive legacies of the Enlightenment are many: Learning to think rigorously and critically, questioning authority, freedom from the impediments of superstition, reveling in the delights of understanding our world and making sense of it. Yet, Enlightenment enculturation has become yet another face of fundamentalism in the last four hundred years as a result of its intractable insistence that reason is the only valid method for coping with the vicissitudes of the human condition. For me, Jung was brilliant not only in his assessment of the four functions of consciousness but in his realization of the value of the dark and irrational aspects of humanity.

The “lights” of the Enlightenment are literally darkening in terms of global energy depletion but also metaphorically in terms of a cloud of ignorance, apathy, and terminal distraction (texting while driving, walking, or doing just about any activity) that engulfs a human species that has no interest in becoming conscious and is thereby obtusely crafting its own extinction. While there is never a guarantee that any individual or culture will come to its senses, doing so is unequivocally impossible without the darkness required to suck an individual, a community, or a culture into the depths of an excruciating descent. For all of us, that means feeling the knives of attempting to walk away from empire and then all the other emotions that bubble up as we commit to living the new paradigm every day.

Then come the really big questions: In the face of this loss, destruction, and possible horror, who do I want to be? How do I want to live the rest of my life? What gifts of mine are people around me crying out for? How will I live with myself if I don’t give them? Did I really just happen to fall from the sky on the day that I was born, or did I come here to do something that matters momentously? What does a life of service look like when the culture and the planet are in a spiral of descent or possibly death? Who are my allies, and if I don’t have them, how will I find them? What parts of my personality do I need to modify in order to maintain workable relationships with my allies?

Which leads me to…

Empire’s Sticky Shadow

Another stellar contribution of Jung was the concept of the shadow. While indigenous people had been well aware of the notion for millennia, few Westerners were when Jung began writing about it in the twentieth century. Overall, the shadow means everything that lies outside of consciousness which may be positive or negative. The shadow is usually the polar opposite of what we perceive as true about ourselves. For example, part of us is committed to leaving empire and radically changing our living arrangements, but another part resists doing so. Or on the one hand, we despise the entitlement we see around us in our culture, yet some part of us feels entitled, and if this part of us is not made conscious, it can sabotage our efforts to leave empire or manifest as entitlement within the parameters of our new living arrangements. In fact, any aspect of the shadow can surface unexpectedly and unconsciously sabotage us or harm another individual or group that we consciously cherish.

We may proclaim our desire to join with others in a living community or a group endeavor, but some part of us actually resists joining and will find a way to undermine a person or a project. This may manifest in myriad ways, including hyper-criticism, passive-aggressive behavior, blaming, adopting a victim stance, or even abandoning the group.

Changing our living arrangements is but one small, first step in the journey away from empire. The “well-adjusted” citizen of empire abides with us wherever we go or alongside everything we do in order to live the new paradigm. Constant introspection, not of the obsessive variety, but deep reflection and conscious intention to make conscious our residual shadow is imperative for ex-patriots of empire. More than likely, our new living arrangements will catapult the shadow to the surface, and how much better it will be for us and everyone else if we know that and work with it in advance.

Journaling is an excellent tool as well as working with polarities. In my forthcoming book Love In The Long Emergency: The Relationships We Need To Survive, I will be providing specific journaling tools for working with shadow polarities, and in the meantime, if the reader wants to learn about them, they may contact me. The reader may also wish to read my review of Paul Levy’s book Dispelling Wetiko entitled “Our Collective Psychosis.”

Collapse Bypassing

Curiously, another aspect of the shadow may be what I call “collapse bypassing.” Emotional bypassing is anything we may use to avoid dealing with deep issues which if truly seen would evoke painful or intolerable feelings. Some people use spirituality, for example, to avoid feeling troublesome feelings or dealing with emotionally challenging situations. Meditation, writing affirmations, thinking positive thoughts, chanting, or other spiritual techniques may be used to bypass.

Last year a young woman from another country contacted me for life coaching. She had a one year-old baby, and both she and her partner who was the father of the baby were fully aware of collapse. They had read extensively and seen a host of documentaries on the topic. The woman reached out to me because she was “feeling so terrified about collapse.” As we explored her fears, it turned out that her partner had told her very clearly that he was going to do nothing to support her or the child while he invested the next year or two in building a permaculture garden. Meanwhile, she was working part-time, menial jobs while her mother cared for the child, so that she could support herself and her daughter. Her fear was not so much about collapse, but rather how she was going to survive with no help from her partner other than “moral support.” In addition to fears about collapse were survival fears in current time which she had been trying to rationalize because of the “greater” fear of collapse. I soon realized that this was a form of “collapse bypassing” because the focus was entirely on the future rather than coping with the realities of present time. First things first, and so it was clear that what both partners were avoiding desperately needed to be addressed.

Similarly, I am now frequently hearing people who are aware of the possibility of near-term extinction make statements like, “Well it doesn’t matter what I eat now, I’m going to be dead in seventeen years,” or “I’m not going to be here after 2030, so what’s the point of getting involved in any kind of service?” or “What’s the point of learning new skills when none of us will be here by mid-century?”

Both the woman with the young child and some people embracing near-term extinction are consumed with living in the future. In my recent article on “Preparing For Near-Term Extinction,” I stated that our species may well be in hospice care, preparing to die, yet even people in hospice care can have meaningful lives. In fact, it may be that the best measure of a life well-lived is how people choose to die, and the most remarkable deaths are those in which people are living fully, consciously, and with awakened intention right up to their last breath. If all that matters is that you’re going to die by mid-century, you’ve bought into the devil’s bargain, and you’ve sacrificed meaning and purpose for civilization’s “brass ring” of longevity. Welcome to the real world that empire never told you about. What a concept: Middle class people coming to the bone-marrow realization that some day they are going to die! What’s wrong with us? Indigenous people know that they begin to die at the moment of birth. Why should we make meaning in our lives when it’s too late? As Guy McPherson would probably say, we should do it because it’s too late.

Wherever I go in circles of collapse-aware people, I feel a palpable hunger (perhaps a better word would be “starvation”) to process their feelings about collapse and near-term extinction. Energetically speaking, they are projectile vomiting the massive amounts of information that many talking heads in the collapse community are shoving down their throats. “Please,” they tell me, “no more charts, graphs, PowerPoints, books, or documentaries. I need to sit and talk about this with other people who understand our predicament. I need to hold somebody’s hand or just sit beside them in order to at least know that I’m not alone.”

Enlightenment enculturation seductively whispers that if we just get more information, we’ll be safe or secure or satisfied or that somehow, some way, we’ll “feel better.” That has not been my experience—not today or yesterday or ever!

The paradox of separation

The Enlightenment has dutifully inculcated in civilized humanity yet another tenet which both gave birth to the Enlightenment perspective and perpetuated it indefinitely, namely the notion of separation. In the light of what I would argue is Western civilization’s most definitive and damaging myth, the story of Adam and Eve, those who minimize the power of myth in the human psyche must take notice. As a symbolic narrative, it offers insight into the value and omnipresence of paradox, but as with so many narratives, it was literalized, that is to say, concretized, so that the flow of its subtler meanings was impeded

Older meanings of Eve were synonymous with “life,” and Adam simply meant “earth.” The deeper meaning of “the fall” is simply that the mythical couple, living in a paradise of unity, free of paradox, chose to end their puerile state by eating from the tree of knowledge. Thus separation became a fundamental part of the human psyche, and the story has continued since the proliferation of an Adam and Eve-like myth in myriad cultures around the world. In fact, the crux of the rest of the story is that the psyche seeks to find the center again—the place where opposites become united and we become united with ourselves, our fellow earthlings, and the entire earth community. Yet, there has been irrefutable value in the notion of separation as Eisenstein explains:

We are faced with a paradox. On the one hand, technology and culture are fundamental to the separation of humans from nature, a separation that is at the root of the converging crises of the present age. On the other hand, technology and culture explicitly seek to improve on nature: to make life easier, safer, and more comfortable.

It may well be, as Eisenstein suggests, that the next gargantuan task of our species would be the resolution of the paradox: the appropriateness of separation, individuation, and making distinctions and the underlying necessity of uniting the opposites of our existence which he names “The Age of Reunion.” That Age, Eisenstein insists, “…is nothing more or less than falling back in love with the world. Nothing, not even an electron, is generic. All are unique individuals, special, and therefore sacred.”

But what does “falling back in love with the world” really mean? From my perspective, in order to experience the Age of Reunion within ourselves and with the rest of the earth community, two things must occur. One of those is the collapse and disintegration of the current living arrangement called industrial civilization because only that, as Eisenstein argues, “will be sufficient to awaken us to the truth of who we really are.” However, we can bring down as many civilizations as we like, but if we aren’t working to transform the internalized empire, to refine and refurbish the inner world, we will continue living and demonstrating the disastrous aspects of separation and invariably, inexorably, incontrovertibly re-create empire wherever we go and by means of everything we do.

Falling in love with the Earth when it’s too late

With no wish to romanticize the tragic fate in which we find ourselves in the face of what may be near-term extinction, I would offer the archetype of the Star-Crossed Lovers which permeates much of our art, music, and literature. Whether it be Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Inman and Ada in Cold Mountain, or the Count and Katherine in The English Patient, Western culture has provided us with myriad examples of “better late than never” relationships that radically alter the inner and outer lives of the protagonists. And so if it is too late for our species and our planet, if we truly are in hospice, would our last days not be deeply enriched by falling back in love with the earth in a manner we have not yet experienced or even begun to imagine?

Only a fool would suggest that there is a “right” way to do this. After all, there are as many ways to experience falling in love with the universe as there are life forms in it. However, I have been intrigued by one path that integrates science and the sacred. For some years I have been a student of the works of the late Thomas Berry, cultural historian and eco-theologian, and Teilhard de Chardin, philosopher, priest, and paleontologist. Another student of Berry and Teilhard de Chardin is physicist, mathematical cosmologist, and California Institute of Integral Studies professor, Brian Swimme. In 2004 Swimme produced a video series entitled “The Powers Of The Universe” in which he explores ten cosmological forces that shaped the universe, offering observable examples, as well as a variety of suggestions for conscious participation by humans in them for the purpose of empowering people to discover who they are in the greater story of life. In other words, the supreme intention of the series is the facilitation of intimacy with the earth and an openness to radical change in our lives as a result of it.

Swimme recognizes the dire predicament of our planet in the present moment and echoing Eisenstein, asserts that “All of the structures that are destroying the earth are releasing us into the essential nature of who we are.”

We cannot sever ourselves entirely from empire, but we can utilize both its wounding and its few admirable aspects to fall back in love with the earth and in so doing, engender a revolution in our human-beingness. This requires confronting our Enlightenment enculturation, grappling with the shadow of Empire that will forever inhabit the psyche, and a willingness, even on our ecological deathbed, to immerse ourselves in unrestrained intimacy with the universe.

This article appeared on Transition Voice.

About Carolyn Baker

Carolyn Baker's most recent book is Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse.

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About The Author

Carolyn Baker's most recent book is Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse.

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