Climate, Consciousness and Coronavirus
Dolphins swimming in harbours, skies clear of vapour trails and sales of bicycles soaring: these are signs of lockdown and of big shifts in behaviour in the face of the environmental crisis.
I include covid 19 as a symptom of the crisis. There is growing evidence that our destruction of habitats is one reason for the emergence of new illnesses like ebola and covid 19 into the human world. And poor conditions in factory farms for meat production are bad for workers as well as animals, resulting in clusters of infection. Our collective lifestyle spells trouble for us as well as for wildlife.
There’s plenty of discussion about what we need to do about the crisis, but it’s also important to consider how our consciousness needs to change. Transforming policy, economics and social structures is needed, but unless we evolve our consciousness we are likely to make similar mistakes. As Einstein is quoted: ‘the problems of the world cannot be solved from the same level of consciousness that created them’. What kind of consciousness shift is needed, and what kind of education would support it? And more specifically how can (my own speciality – Earth Wisdom Teachings – contribute to this needed evolution?
Part of the shift that’s needed is from human-centred anthropocentrism to Earth-centred ecocentrism as our dominant paradigm, but we need to go beyond intellect. If we only stay in the realm of ideas and ideologies our hearts won’t open to the innate wisdom that’s now called for. We are challenged to make a more fundamental shift. In the words of some indigenous elders, we need to ‘change the dream’.
The teachings that I carry are a strand of Earth Wisdom. They are not specific to one culture but evolved among many peoples in Central and North America. They support people to develop their self-knowledge through relationship with the Earth and all her offspring. They offer many tools for personal growth, and one that could our transformation is called the ‘Four Attentions’.
Most of us humans experience our waking life through an incessant flow of thinking. This is the voice in our head that fills our consciousness with thoughts, many of them random and involuntary. This internal and seemingly eternal dialogue creates a screen or filter between us and Life. Thinking so dominates our waking consciousness that it can seem impossible, or even dangerous not to think.
Thinking is a powerful tool but a tyrannical master. It is a valuable faculty of consciousness, but it can dominate to the exclusion of all else. We come to identify with our thoughts, opinions, beliefs and ideologies to the point of forgetting the deeper aspects of consciousness. We come to experience life only through this filter and interact as separate, competing egos. Actually we are far greater than this.
The first of the four attentions is an imperative to our self: “Be Present”. We can become more present by directing our attention to our breathing, our body sensations or to what we notice through our five senses. We can still the restless scanning of our frontal lobes and sit quietly observing our surroundings. Then we begin to sense the aliveness, ‘life-force’ within us and in all beings. In this state of consciousness we are relating directly with the Earth and all her other offspring without any filters.
When we learn to access inner stillness we can also activate other realms of consciousness and feel our connection with the unbroken wholeness of all life. We come to know our deep relationship with all the elements of the universe from stones to stars, from carrots to kangaroos. Shifting our attention into the present moment we have more awareness of sense-perceptions, feelings, core identity, intuition, dreaming and heart-knowing.
There is a deeper consciousness that’s behind ordinary thinking and even beyond words. We could label it by various terms such as ‘unconditioned consciousness’, ‘being state’ or ‘unity consciousness’, but any labels could simply trigger more thinking about the verbiage and its meaning. The words are not the consciousness, and to think about it is not to experience it. For now let’s call it ‘life-force’.
‘Life-force’ is always present, whether we’re aware of it or not. Our experience of ‘life-force’ is coloured by thinking and by the beliefs, attitudes and opinions we’ve taken in and grown. We can become aware of ‘life-force’ by dropping our thinking and being present inside the moment. This is pure perception without labels or thoughts. Our attention is not taken up with being on the way to something else or reliving what happened in the past. We’re simply noticing what is.
When we align with this deep consciousness, ‘life-force’, we are supporting the evolution of the collective human consciousness. We are making a space for life-force’ to move and create through us, because it loves to create. ‘Life-force’ is in our bones, blood and brain-cells. It’s in house-plants, flowers and trees. It’s in our food, whether that’s animal vegetable or mineral. It’s in the sky, clouds and matter, in rocks, rivers and rainbows, volts, watts and amps, electrons, quarks and quanta and in our memories, dreams and reflections. All energy has consciousness. This is the unbroken wholeness of all creation. Connecting with it we go beyond separation and generate wholeness.
Presence leads to stillness, stillness to spaciousness and spaciousness to expanded awareness.
Awareness enhances emotional intelligence. When we’re aware of feelings, we can understand their meaning and choose how to express them. Without presence, space and awareness, emotions drive us into reacting, perhaps in life-diminishing ways. But with presence, space and awareness we can harness emotional energy and choose a life-enhancing response.
Take for example, the emotional impact of the environmental crisis. When we learn of the destruction of other species, ecosystems and the Earth caused by global heating, pollution and greed, it’s normal to feel a range of troubling emotions. Common responses are avoidance, denial or some indulgent behaviour (which could well add to our impact on the planet). Or we get lost in thinking. But we can’t think our way out of anxiety, anger or grief. As Carl Jung said, “What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.” Being present with difficult feelings allows them to change. We can transmute emotional energy and use it to motivate us to take action for change.
The first attention opens the door to the second. The second attention is about being aware of our thoughts, and we need to be present in order to be aware of them. We can then notice if they are supporting or undermining us and be alert for thoughts that distract us from our purpose. So the first and second attentions work closely together.
Of course it takes a certain kind of effort to be aware of our thoughts and to choose thoughts that are in alignment with our true purpose. Thinking has a lot of momentum, almost like a whirlpool that sucks our attention in. Many times we lose awareness and become caught up in the stream of sub-conscious thinking. We need to remind ourselves of our commitment and come back into spacious awareness.
It’s easy to be swept along in the ace of modern life and get busy in action and thought. We come to identify with our thoughts: our thinking shapes our identity When we create spaces between thought we connect with the core of identity, our self-essence, which is far greater than who we think we are. We remember the truth of who we are and what we have come into life to be and do. We recall that we are expressions of the Earth and stars.
Awakening this expanded identity as a spirit of universal light changes everything in relation to the environmental crisis. It enables us to draw on far greater resources to meet the challenge, and makes it impossible to continue with the status quo. And individual awakening also generates a field effect on others around us – which is an aspect of the third attention.
The third attention recognizes interrelatedness. Everything in the universe is related to everything else, and energy moves in cycles and sequences. Education for sustainability will teach this fundamental principle of interrelatedness and we will understand the natural cycles – for example of water, sunspots, the Earth herself, the human body, blood and the many rhythms that permeate our universe from the briefest pulse to the greatest spiralling of galaxies. It will also teach of the cycles of cause and effect.
Everything is affecting everything else and co-creating the flow of life. Interrelatedness means that our thoughts and feelings, words and actions are all affecting the ecological web of relationship around us. They are subject to the law of cause and effect and influence the future in this co-creative web. The third attention is about awareness of the effects we are causing and what the universe is reflecting back to us. This enables us to look for the learning in the events that happen to us.
When we live with awareness of interrelatedness it is impossible to ignore the consequences of our impact on nature. It will be difficult, for example, to think that fracking could not cause the ground to quake.
By activating the first three attentions we are more able to notice and care for our own state of consciousness. The fourth attention is about being aware of and choreographing our energy to keep it clear and bright. It enables us to notice when our actions, words and thoughts are not life-enhancing and to shift them to keep the fire of our spirit vital. Sometimes we can do this through lightness and humour and at others through gravitas: we have a whole spectrum of energies to play with. But in essence this attention enables us to care for life on Earth by caring for life within us.
As long ago as 1890 the American psycho-philosopher William James predicted that education would have a focus on developing students’ attention. This way of structuring our consciousness, the Four Attentions, comes from an old ecological model, but it is relevant to our human predicament now. It will help us shift our collective consciousness and come back into conscious relationship with the planet. From there it will be much easier to make the needed changes and put right the damage caused in the past.