A mighty bolt has struck our western consciousness, like Thor announcing that the Age of Climate Anxiety has arrived.
What can we do with the emotion that so terrifies us as we scroll through posts of fire and flood, hear the warnings of seers and saints, the stories of wise men and fools, and the cries of children who have become leaders? How to even begin to house the experience of first-hand encounters with climate upheaval?
This feeling is a heavy burden. It comes with night sweats, with a desire to act and confusion about what to do. We think of death; we think of lives now never to be lived; we think about ourselves and our guilt and our blindness; we fear for our children; our pets; our dignity and safety. We agonise over scenes of injury and hurt. The world is an open wound and we are drowning.
There are many conversations about how to deal with the rising psychological phenomenon of climate anxiety. Some feel that traditional psychotherapy like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy or Positive Psychology does not does address it adequately. Some say this is because we’re undergoing something completely new, unprecedented in human history. There are calls for new types of intervention because we can no longer doctor the overwhelm, or seek coping strategies, or help shift perceptions to boost self-belief and functioning. We can’t leave the situation. The threat is “real”, and the response is “correct”. The natural order of mainstream psychological work is reversed and so it needs a new approach.
As a participant in these conversations I’d like to scratch open another view. Because I think these concerns reflect a core problem that got us into this mess in the first place.
A different take on emotion
Yes a different psychological approach is necessary. But that is not new. It has always been necessary. What this crisis appears to be demanding is a way of experiencing a direct emotional connection to the world itself. What if we stop believing that these intense emotions are ours alone? What if we no longer see them as rooted within our own personal individual psyche?
No longer me and mine alone, they become at the very least a shared distress, and at most something completely impersonal with the power to break the hold of the narcissistic character disorder that drives our consumerism.
This is not something unique to climate anxiety. Some have argued that our emotional distress has always had the potential to break psychological and ideological strangleholds and to lead us into greater communion with the wider world. In contrast, the acceptable view of the psyche has been that it is an entirely personal affair, whose symptomatic expressions must be doctored and corrected within the historical and familial context of the individual.
This has had a lot to do with our disconnection from the more-than-human world. It taught us that our emotions about that world are more about us than about anything out there. It affirmed the sense of dislocation, urging us to do our inner work here and our active work out there. It may even have encouraged us to feel empathic towards things… But never have mainstream clinical interventions allowed us to experience exterior, non-human phenomena as agents acting on us. That would constitute madness, and superstition. We did away with those things long ago, and with them our ability to “feel with” and into the world around us.
By all accounts, climate change is the first time in hundreds of years that the world, in its woundedness is alive enough and talking loudly enough to break through our collective sleep. This is naturally a terrifying experience.
To explain more precisely the radical shift needed in our understanding of emotion in order to deal with climate anxiety, I will turn to James Hillman who wrote a book about it (called Emotion).
“That an emotion gives the feeling that it is my private affair does not hereby make the emotion “mine”. Our [western] cultural bias attaches a me to whatever happens. We own experiences before we even feel them through or know what they want. Private property, ownership, is our way of life. Were we in Haiti, set on Greenland’s coast, up the river Niger, or in ancient Greece, an emotional seizure would be seen as a visitation of externalities. A mood descends, a passion strikes, an urge rises up and won’t let go. These would be imagined as “gifts” of the spirit - or of what? But not mine. And, they would be treated with the respect due to guests rather than with the hostility that would attempt to get rid of invaders by tranquilisers, moral commandments, or abreaction.
But if imagined to be inside me, emotions are, of course, “too much” to contain and so become, in Blake’s word, demonic, and need abreaction. So goes our usual theory. We express emotions to get them “out”. Whereas, if we follow Blake, and how emotions actually work, we begin to realise that they come to us from elsewhere, the not-me, enter our premises and enchant us into their condition. Blake also called emotions divine influxes, suggestion that they are the way the Gods flow into the soul, moving it to a more-than-human condition of excitement and fury, of sorrow and mourning, of folly and ecstatic desire.”
A depersonalised perspective on an interior landscape
What would climate anxiety look like when approached in this way?
An example that could lead us in the right direction is a TED Talk by the bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert. She spoke about the way modern artists and writers have lost a sense of distance from the source of their inspiration. They've become enmeshed with the muse, and therefore feel an incredibly personal, almost narcissistic responsibility for their art. It's all about me-me-me and my genius, rather than the work of the genius that guides me. With a shifted perspective the work flows through me from elsewhere rather than coming from me. This allows more freedom to dance with the creative presence as it appears, in the best way possible.
This example may seem far removed from the realm of climate disaster, but actually….
To find this kind of distance and sense of not taking an internal visceral, overwhelming experiencing personally, and yet still feeling it and observing it, is a skill. One that even advanced practitioners sometimes struggle with. For example, Pema Chodron the Tibetan Buddhist teacher tells the story of a deep meditation session in which she became deeply agitated. She experienced the most uncomfortable state of mind and her skill at sitting still and being present simply made the experience excruciating. She sat like that for the entire session and was deeply relieved when it ended.
She went to her teacher and asked him about it. Wanting advice on tools for coping with such a thing. He simply shrugged at her and said “Samadhi” - referring to the highest state of bliss attainable in meditation.
She was shocked to realise that what she had experienced as suffering was in fact a deep form of bliss. But her discomfort with the unfamiliarity had taken over and so she lost the gift of the experience. The sensation was in fact working on her, slowly having it's way with her to take her further into a new state of being.
This is often the way of strong emotions if we don't attach interpretations, or personal stories to them. They touch our molecules, the re-arrange us and can leave us changed in some profound way. So is there a way to be present to this state of distress differently. It may not be Samhadi, but if we allow ourselves to take it less personally it too may be revealing something new to us.
Not “what”, but “who?”
So what is being revealed by climate anxiety. Or rater, we could better aske who is speaking?
The return of the repressed is a common theme in depth psychology. We experience childhood traumas in our dreamscapes, or fits of emotion long stifled breaking through after excessive heroic flights of achievement Climate Anxiety too is a return of the repressed. in some ways ot is a trigger for all that is unresolved in us. But essentially it is the repressed “other as subject”, the living, conscious non-human world that we have repressed in our culture. This now is returning, awakening and shaking us up with fits of Panic.
The root of the word panic is Pan, referring to the ancient god of wildness whose presence often made itself felt though states of extreme panic. A kind of seizure of electrified agitation indicating a deep communion with an impersonal yet living elemental consciousness.
In his book Pan and the Nightmare, Hillman writes beautifully about the repression of Pan and what this has meant for our world today. "A cry went through late antiquity: 'Great Pan is dead!' ... One thing was announced: nature had become deprived of its creative voice. It was no longer an independent living force of generativity. What had had soul, lost it; lost was the psychic connection with nature. With Pan dead, so too is Echo; we could no longer capture consciousness through reflections within our instincts. They had lost their light and fell easily to asceticism... Nature no longer spoke to us - or we could no longer hear. The person of Pan the mediator, like an aether who invisibly enveloped all natural things with personal meaning, with brightness, had vanished. Stones became only stones - trees, trees; things, places, and animals no longer were this God or that, but became 'symbols' or were said to 'belong' to one God or another. When Pan is alive then nature is too, and it is filled with Gods, so that the owl's hoot is Athene and the mollusc on the shore is Aphrodite. These bits of nature are not merely attributes or belongings. They are the Gods in their biological forms. And where better to find the Gods than in the things, places and animals that they inhabit, and how better to participate in them than through their concrete natural presentations. Whatever was eaten, smelled, walked upon, or watched, all were sensuous presences of archetypal significance.
When Pan is dead, then nature can be controlled by the will of the new god, man, modeled in the image of Prometheus or Hercules, creating from it and polluting in it without a troubled conscience. ... In the nightmare, repressed nature returns, so close, so real that we cannot but react to it naturally, that is, we become wholly physical, possessed by Pan, screaming out, asking for light, comfort, contact. The immediate reaction is demonic emotion. We are returned by instinct to instinct."
Could we begin to unpick this complex experience of climate anxiety, acknowledging the natural fears for our safety, the grief at loss, the uncertainty? Could we then dig a little deeper and find within it the stirring of a world, larger than me making itself known to me, speaking directly through my emotions of its own distress?
I believe it is only with this kind of awareness and willingness to encounter that we can meet the psychological demands of this time.