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Climate anxiety and the return of Pan

[Note: This essay was written just two months before the pandemic hit. The fever seems to have been in the air already, and these thoughts poured out. I think they are still relevant.]

A mighty bolt has struck our western consciousness. The Age of Climate Anxiety is here.

What a terrifying emotion. And what a heavy burden. It arrives with night sweats, an urgent need to act and a sense of paralysis. It seems the world is an open wound and we are drowning in it.

I've been part of several curious conversations with psychologists* who don't quite know what to do about all this fear. They want a method, an approach, and a framework to deal with it. They can no longer doctor the overwhelm, or offer coping strategies, or help shift perceptions to boost self-belief and ego-functioning. Clients can’t leave the situation. No one can. The threat is “real”, and the symptomatic response is “correct”. The natural order of mainstream psychological work is reversed and so... what to do?

As a participant in these conversations, I’d like to scratch open a suggestion. I think these concerns reflect a core problem that got us into this mess in the first place.

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.

The idea if climate change and the emotions it sparks turn our attention towards the world in a new way. It is a rare moment in which the world, in its woundedness, is speaking loudly enough to break through our collective sleep. This is naturally a terrifying experience. But it is precisely this intensity that can release the psychological and ideological strangleholds that have led us to this moment. There is an opportunity for greater communion with the wider world if we tend to the experience with care.

I will spend the rest of this essay exploring what I mean by this and offer an approach that might lead us there - to the Pan in the title.

A different take on emotion

When we think about our feelings, we usually consider them to be very personal, very individual, very private affairs. Even when emotions are shared with others, they are still happening inside us, and so belong to us individually.

With its emphasis on personal power and individual responsibility, popular psychology has reinforced the idea that we are the primary drivers of our emotional lives. Even with the rise of trauma-awareness and neuropsychology, emotion remains an individual, internal response to an external stressor, which we can doctor in some way. It can be healed through abreaction, or by resetting our nervous systems to regain the balance that is considered normal and healthy.

The divide between me as an individual with a closed interior world, and the outside objective environment is clearly delineated in this. And within the existing psychological paradigm, any approach that risks removing this delineation is considered dangerous. It might open the door to the idea that there are interior, non-human phenomena acting on us. That would constitute madness, and superstition. We did away with those things long ago, through clinical labels, diagnoses and carefully demarcated areas of containment.

And with them went our ability to “feel with” and into the world around us.

I will turn to James Hillman who summarises these opposing positions in his book 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.”

Hosting the phenomenon

There is a way to approach our inner experiences without making them personal. But it requires patience and a willingness to endure discomfort in a new way. This can be very difficult if the emotions are overwhelming. Psychological tools and therapies are useful to help us meet the experience. We may need to clear out the cobwebs of our personal history, we may need to stabilise our nervous systems to hold what we are feeling in a different way. But the work does not end there. If it did, we might miss something important.

For example: Pema Chodron, the Tibetan Buddhist teacher, tells the story of a meditation session in which she became highly agitated. She experienced a most uncomfortable state of mind and her skill at sitting still and being present 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 its 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, they re-arrange us and can leave us changed in some profound way.

So might our distress over the climate work in a similar way? 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?”

There is another way of dealing with the overwhelm of some internal phenomenon. A lovely example of this appears in the TED Talk by the bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert. She speaks about the way modern artists and writers have lost a sense of distance from the source of their inspiration. They feel an incredibly personal, almost narcissistic responsibility for their art. It's all about me-me-me and my genius. Gilbert suggests returning to the ancient approach of outsourcing our inspiration and creativity to an external muse. Then 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, and feel less distressed when the dance comes to an end, or isn't going so well.

So who is present in our collective climate anxiety?

The return of the repressed is a common theme in depth psychology. We experience childhood traumas in our dreamscapes, or fits of long stifled emotion that break through after excessive heroic flights of achievement. Climate Anxiety too is a return of the repressed. 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 through 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.

"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, modelled 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 that is 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 something that is both within us and around us that we can meet the psychological demands of this time. We are in distress with the world. We are feeling its distress as our own. And in this way, our sense of separation is being healed.


*The conversation with psychologists involved a series of meetings in 2019 and 2020 with Deep Adaptation facilitators as well as an interview with Caroline Hickman from the Climate Psychology Alliance, a psychologist in the process of developing programmes for therapists to deal with climate anxiety.

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