Bonnie Bright and Jonathan Paul Marshall (eds) Earth, Climate, Dreams: Dialogues with Depth Psychologists in the Age of the Anthropocene. Depth Insights Press.
0997955023 and 9780997955026
The book, as should be obvious, reports on what 13 Depth Psychologists have to say in response to the Anthropocene. It is a collection of interviews with people like Stephen Aizenstat, Jerome Bernstein, Veronica Goodchild, Jeff Kiehl, Susan Rowland, Robert Romanyshyn, Erel Shalit, and other important people, and finishes with a multi-logue between seven of the participants.
[For descriptions of the interviews, and some critical responses, see an earlier blog post]
These people are all major contemporary figures in Depth Psychology, as some of you will know.
I’m going approach this launch in three ways. Firstly I will talk about the background question of the book, then one of my problems with the book and, thirdly, what is great about the book, and why you should buy it.
The fundamental issue
The background issue is that in the West, and most likely elsewhere, we are facing what can be called an existential crisis. That is, we are coming to recognise that our whole modes of being, living in the world and preparing for our future, is undermining our capacity to exist in the world. If we keep on living, acting and thinking as we do, we face destruction generated by those ways of living and thinking. The Anthropocene (the world-systems changing effect of humanity) marks a problem for our whole existence, and undermines our future.
The existential crisis presents a problem at all levels of our being: it is a psychological problem, it is a sociological problem, it is an economic problem, it is a technological problem, it is a cultural problem, a problem for all our relationships to everything. Once recognised, it is both hard to ignore and disorienting, to put it mildly – approaching trauma might be more accurate.
This crisis is the starting point for the book, and the necessary starting point for almost any relevant discussion about the future. The conversations are conducted with Depth Psychologists, because Depth Psychology attempts to deal with the total span of human existence, which includes all that I have just mentioned, from psychology to the world. Depth psychologists are uniquely in a position to approach these issues from a non-specialist position, and to offer tools to help people work with the problems, from their experience of group and individual therapy, from symbolic work with art, literature, and dreams, and from their sense of the intertwining of individual and collective.
Let me begin discussion of this book by talking about one of the things I find slightly problematic about it, and show why it turns out not to be that problematic, and how it generates insight, when approached with fewer assumptions.
My problem in reading this book was that, sometimes, I thought people found it much too easy to talk as if ‘spirituality’ (whatever that is) was a solution to our problems.
As I argue in the introduction, some types of spirituality might help constitute our problem, and this has to be faced. It cannot be suppressed, and I don’t think anyone in the book would want to suppress this issue.
As a culture, we in this room, have a religious or spiritual history, and in that history people have primarily been taught to see the world as a prison, a testing ground, a den of sin and iniquity. We have been taught to see our human destiny as leading us somewhere else, not this Earth. We are heading for heaven or hell or, at best, the new World after the Day of Judgement. We are not fundamentally creatures of Earth, born with the earth and tied to the Earth. In that sense, the Earth has to be fought against and dismissed for our salvation. If you actually love the world, you are being distracted from your love of God who is not ‘material’; you are loving something inferior and fallen.
This form of spirituality constitutes a problem, it could well be part of the reason it is Christendom that has led the charge into ecological destruction as an unintended consequence of its otherworldly spirituality. If so, then implying that a move from ‘materiality’ to ‘spirituality’ is a solution to the problems of the Anthropocene, is not a solution. Spirituality is part of the problem. Rather than just ‘spirituality’ itself, we need a new psychological and spiritual orientation to the world and to our actions within it.
However, if you actually listen to what people in the book are talking about, and remove the assumption that you know what they talking about, then you can begin to see what they actually mean, and the kind of psychological orientation they are pointing towards, and how this is not just a matter for our consciousness, will power, or decision.
In our society, because of our (spiritual and other) heritage, ‘natural processes’ are largely seen as disposable or replaceable or, to use Heidegger’s term ‘to hand,’ as resources for our own use and mastery of. In our dominant ideology, natural processes only exist for us to exploit. If they cannot be exploited and turned into profit, then they have no value. Natural processes are not something we should have a relationship with. You can see this attitude everywhere, with things like the Westconnex tollway, where we chop down every tree, undermine housing foundations, dispossess people, and fill the air with smog and noise, while providing a tax on travel in Sydney. Or with mining under water tables, rampant landclearing, mining in agricultural regions and so on. Natural processes are, officially, a lifeless backdrop to be pillaged for profit. They have no other value. The world is to be subdued to consciousness and will. The world is secondary to what we can make of it.
Yet this is not humanly true at any deep level. It does not resonate with real human being. Almost every human I have ever met has some kind of relationship to other natural processes, whether living forms, place, or to their own part in the system. They might only notice the connection when the creature or plant or animal has gone, but that is part of our disconnection from reality. This relationship may be to individual animals (their pets, or the dog down the street), to specific trees they feel connected to, to landscape that may seem to be part of us, and so on. Even those people busy despoiling other people’s environments and landscape, can have deep feelings for their own.
This is not really strange, because we think with, and in, this world. We use objects in the world to think with, to feel with, to learn with. We cannot live outside the world. It shapes us. We cannot escape from it. Nature and ecology is part of us, we are part of it; we are plural and connected by our existence, in a living network beyond our understanding.
When we realise this, then instead of treating nature, or other people, as resource objects, we can approach this world with reverence and awe; with a sense of mystery, recognising that we do not fully comprehend it, that it is a being that is both independent of us and impinging upon us. It is us and not us.
We can approach the world with our full ‘psyches’ and, in this, recognition of ‘complexity’ and interconnectedness, are themes which keep recurring in the interviews.
Why use the term ‘psyche?’ Because when we use other terms like ‘psychology’, ‘mind’, or ‘soul’, we already think we know what we are talking about. But we don’t. We don’t consciously know how our minds function, as they function. At least I don’t. I don’t know how my mindbody functions, how one thought gets linked to, or progresses into, another, how language works, how brain action generates mouth and arm action, how my skin heals, my stomach digests, my lungs process air, and so on. Much, probably most of the important things in life, operate outside of our limited awareness, and necessarily so.
“Psyche” plunges us back into the unknown, the entangled complex, interconnected, mess which is reality. We are inextricably if vaguely linked; my psyche does not exist without your psyche. I did not invent the language or all the ideas I use. Interaction with and talking to other people and to world culture has shaped me, and I have presumably shaped some others for better or worse.
We are both collective and individual at the same time. Even a sense of heroic individualism is collective at its base; something we share with others. Our psyches are already alive and part of natural processes. Our full psyches include the land, spill out into the land, into other people, into the processes that are everywhere.
And a realistic view of our selves needs to include all of this material, our culture has generally defined as extraneous, to help us to successfully resist the notion of natural process as a thing to turn into resources to make profit out of. In this new mode, with new practices and ways of perceiving, we can begin to move towards rejecting the system of thought that is destroying the world that we live in. This destructive system no longer makes sense. It seems psychotically limited and self-destructive. That awareness opens a psychological, cultural and activist position. The more we become aware of unconscious process, the less we seem driven by them, and the more free we become.
Let us return to an earlier point. As already implied, there are many unconscious processes. We are not aware of most of what is happening, although we may be more aware than we consciously know. That lack of conscious awareness of how our minds work, and how our physiology works, and how mind and physiology connect at this moment, implies unconscious processes. Some of these happenings I will have perceived, but not made conscious, perhaps because my thought or culture focuses my attention elsewhere, perhaps because there is so much to perceive that I cannot hold it all in my awareness. Even if I perceived it all, I can’t understand everything that is happening, and affecting us, even in this room. Most of life’s ongoing processes are essentially and inevitably outside my consciousness, and therefore unconscious to me.
However, I can become more aware of what is happening or more sensitive to it. I can attempt to perceive reality in different ways. I can turn attention to my neglected or repressed perceptions and drives. Recognising this possibility and being open to the strange and the unknown is what Depth psychology is about. It is fundamental to the process of discovery.
This is why Depth Psychologists pay attention to dreams, which are in some ways messages from the unconscious and the world; from our unconscious perceptions, pattern detections, and ways that we symbolise the unknown. Dreams often require work to understand. It is not always easy, but it can become more so the more we take these fleeting images and stories seriously and treat them as beings themselves. Paying attention to these, and other, neglected processes (fantasies, spontaneous images, scribbles, slips of the tongue, senses of unease, neglected feelings, suppressed thoughts) becomes a way of getting, or admitting, more understanding and data. It starts a new process of being in the world. If we repress our bodies and our dreams, we are likely to repress our awareness of the world. The more we attend to them, the more likely we are to be able to perceive messages in natural processes which are now hidden to us. Our tools for learning can expand outwards…
This new attention can represent a complete change in how we regard ourselves and experience our role in, and on, Earth. We can call this change spiritual if we want to. We can analyse and live our lives from that point of view. We might even be able to see this realisation as having much in common with reports we have classed as mystical.
This awareness involves experience of paradoxes, similar paradoxes to those around reported experiences of God, We are part of the world but separate from it. It is greater than us but still within us. The depths can lead to the heights. We are double sided: our goodness might be cruelty; our aspirations can be unreal or unsatisfying. Reality is ultimately unsayable, but it is pointable too through images and word, and it can be experienced, if we are open to it as it is. This is a new way of being, which can be called spiritual if you wish, or not if it makes you uncomfortable.
So even in the bits I personally have problems with, the book is still full of insights. Full of ways of proceeding. You may have problems too, but encountering this book may help you ponder them and open you. That is why this book is important.
The Good Bits
Let us now turn to the unproblematic virtues of the book. Its chapters are edited and concentrated conversations. They are generally excellent conversations. The primary interviewer Bonnie Bright is really good at her work. She participates in conversations. She contributes to the conversations as process. She draws people out. She listens carefully, and gets people to explain when needed. You could not have a much better interviewer for dealing with issues which could otherwise be quite difficult.
Reading these conversations, you will learn something about a family of understandings of how psyche works, through the dynamics of imagery, metaphor and feeling, and the effect of the unintended consequences of particular modes of consciousness which repress things you need to know about. As I have implied, if you take this seriously and start some of the practices, then you might gain a new view of the world. You might find a way out of the existential crisis, or a way to flourish in that crisis.
Depth psychology is important, because its mode of being, continually deals with problems that the conscious ego cannot understand. This is especially useful for facing the paradoxes, complexities and dilemmas of the Anthropocene.
Topics vary throughout the book, apart from the obvious topics of climate change and ecological destruction, subjects discussed range from discussions of pilgrimage, the aspirations of Dr. Frankenstein and what that tells us about modern life, the collapse of Mayan civilisation, colony collapse disorder in bees and its metaphorical connection to culture collapse in humans, the ways that politics and psyche interacts, the driving cultural complexes of capitalism, systems theory, unconscious forces, communication with the world, and the uses of dreams to gain insight into the world and relate to the world.
The book argues strongly, in various different ways that we need to engage with our full range of psychological processes, and perceptions, to deal constructively with the changes and problems we are facing. We need to understand how the systems we participate within, condition our minds when we suppress awareness of what is happening. If we stay in the psychology of mind we are conditioned to have, then psychological inertia, denial or other processes of repression or projection of problems and hostility onto others are likely to win out. Even if we manage a revolution we will probably replicate the problems we have, plus we will project our guilt onto others, and solve our problems through revenge.
This book explores possible tools to move beyond these psychological limitations and barriers.
Depth psychology can prove useful in this quest, because it tends to focus on neglected aspects of life and assumes that our individual psychology is at least partly collective, and it works through encouraging creativity, imagination, art and symbol production for their own sake, irrespective of judgement or profit..
As well as enlightening, this process of approaching reality is potentially fun and enjoyable; it can also be pretty horrible too, but everyone has the possibility of life changing realisations for themselves and for everyone else. As we are collectively facing similar problems, solutions to personal problems, or the symbols around those solutions, can turn out to be effective solutions for collective problems…. especially when we are working in and with groups. Anyone has the potential to contribute to our collective solutions. You go in and bring the solution back out. It is a cyclic process.
The book tries discuss ways of opening what may be a new way of perceiving the world, and approaching the world, and the role of human psyches within the world, and the way we all could develop.
This is, simply, vital work….. That is why I hope that this book will reach a large audience, even if they disagree with it, it could start discussions.