Photo: Luca Zanon, Unsplash. com
Adapted by the author from her keynote address at the 2012 International Psychosynthesis Conference in Rome, available here.
MOLLY YOUNG BROWN
What is the purpose and value of psychosynthesis in today’s world? Does it have a new role to play in the 21st century? Facing the many perils accelerating towards us today, we need to expand our understanding and application of psychosynthesis beyond the realm of the personal into our collective spiritual growth as a species. We must all take off our blinders and look at what is happening to life on Earth, and the lethal impact of so many human activities on that life. We must dare to deeply experience both the pain and the love we feel for the world, and share both with one another. It’s high time for humans to grow up and take responsibility for the well-being of life on Earth; psychosynthesis can help us grow up together.
Climate Change and Other Catastrophes
With the chaotic effects of global climate change impacting life around the Earth, it is clear that radical change is upon us, along with the suffering such change can bring. It looks likely that we face endure years and years of intermingled catastrophes as natural disasters and epidemics sweep through the lands, untold numbers of species become extinct, clean water becomes increasingly scarce, our oil-dependent economies unravel and collapse, desperate military interventions are attempted, and democracy struggles to survive. Add to this the likelihood of more nuclear disasters like the one still unfolding in Japan, contaminating the entire planet with radioactivity. David Korten calls this collapse of our unsustainable economic, political, and energy systems, “the Great Unraveling.” Things have gone too far for us to stop the process; who knows how long it will take out planet to rebalance and our human institutions to transform? Meanwhile, we see people reacting with fear, denial, anger and blame, grasping and greed, lies and violence—thereby amplifying the Great Unraveling.
The underlying cause of these crises has to do with our consciousness, our most essential understanding of who we are as humans. It has to do with the stories we tell ourselves about our relationships with one another and with Earth and its myriad life forms.
Three Stories About Who We Are
We hear one such story from politicians, business schools, corporations, and corporate-controlled media. This story, which can be called “Business As Usual,” would have us think of ourselves as separate and competitive with one another and with other living beings; it would have us forget that everything we require for life comes from the living Earth: air, water, food, clothing, and shelter; it would have us take for granted that humans can produce all we need (for a price, of course), apparently out of thin air. Business As Usual means we keep doing what we have been doing since the Industrial Revolution—exploiting Earth as resource, powerhouse, and sewer for our profit-making enterprises, no matter what the cost to people, other living beings, and our planet life-support system. This story has produced enormous suffering and damage; it has brought us to the brink of extinction.
From environmental scientists, independent journalists, and activists who recognize the disastrous effects of “Business As Usual,” we hear the story of “the Great Unraveling” This story is supported by evidence of the on-going derangement and collapse of biological, ecological, economic, and social systems. As we see the Great Unraveling happening all around the planet, many of us feel enormous fear, grief, and anger.
There’s a third story that can redeem us, a story that recognizes the limited truth of “Business As Usual” and even of “the Great Unraveling.” This story expands to the more encompassing truth of our profound interconnectedness and interdependence within the web of life. We can call it “the Great Turning.”
Psychosynthesis principles support the story of the Great Turning. In psychosynthesis, we learn to accept all the parts within our psyches, and work creatively and lovingly with them towards harmony and Self-realization. We can do the same in our relationships with one another and with all living systems of Earth.
Roberto Assagioli spoke to this in The Act of Will:
“Altruistic love is not limited to the members of the human family. It can also embrace all living things in the animal and vegetable kingdoms of nature. This inclusiveness is expressed in the Buddhist love for all living creatures, and by Saint Francis in his “Song of the Creatures.” One might say that an increasingly conscious sense of this universal brotherhood is behind the growing trend toward the cultivation of harmonious relations with the environment. This is the higher and broader aspect of ecology.” (Assagioli, 1973, p. 117)
The Buddhists call this kind of love “bodhichitta”—the fervent desire for the welfare of all beings.
When we look clearly and courageously at our world today, we can see the Great Turning occurring right now all around the world, right alongside the Great Unraveling. We see people turning away from the Industrial Growth Society, based on profit, greed, and competition,–and towards a Life Sustaining Society based on gratitude, love, and cooperation, honoring Life itself above all else.
In our individual lives, it often takes a crisis to catalyze change. We all know of people whose lives have been transformed by a life-threatening illness. So it is with groups of people, nations, and even humanity as a whole. At this pivotal time in human history, we walk into the unknown together, as into an initiation, a collective encounter with the human soul. We in the industrialized world have reached the end of our collective adolescence; it is time now to grow up, to move fully into true adulthood, with a broader, more encompassing sense of responsibility to the Earth, all its peoples, and all its life forms. As Elizabet Sahtouris wrote fifteen years ago,
We came to separate the “I” from the “it” and to believe that “it”—the world “out there”—was ours to do with as we pleased, telling ourselves we were either God’s favored children or the smartest and most powerful naturally evolved creatures on earth. This egotistic attitude has been very much a factor in bringing us to adolescent crisis. And so an attitude of greater humility and willingness to accept some guidance from our parent planet will be an important factor in reaching our species maturity. (Sahtouris, 1989, p. 24)
Global environmental and economic crises can summon a rite of passage for humanity. May we do more than just endure the dark times ahead; may we actively embrace them and use them for transformation. That’s what the Great Turning is all about.
Before I go any further in describing the Great Turning, and how psychosynthesis can contribute to it, I invite you to go within for a short reflection.
Gratitude and Grief
Please take a moment to think of one thing you love about life on Earth at this time. Just pick the first thing that comes to mind and spend a few moments contemplating it. Notice how thinking of this thing you love affects your feelings and your body, perhaps how your heart expands.
Now please take another moment to think of what troubles you most about the world at this time. Again, pick the first one or two things that come to mind. There is plenty out there to be troubled about; what comes to mind may be closest to your heart.
Notice what feelings arise as you think about what troubles you, and how your body responds. How does your heart feel?
We feel both gratitude and anguish about the world because we love our world, we love this life. We love because we are all deeply interconnected within the web of life. Love and anguish are two sides of the same coin, and they are the keys to the Great Turning. We must honor and embrace our love for the Earth, as well as the pain we feel at the injury to its living web.
The Great Turning
In our book Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to the Work That Reconnects (2014), eco-philosopher Joanna Macy and I identify three mutually reinforcing dimensions of the Great Turning.
The first dimension includes practical work-in-the-world, actions to slow the damage to Earth and its beings, to buy time; e.g. protests, boycotts, education, and legal action; cleaning up rivers and lakes; bringing legal actions against polluters; recycling and changing personal habits to save energy and resources. We call this dimension “Holding Actions in Defense of Life.”
The second dimension, which we call “Transforming the Foundations of our Common Life, includes both the analysis of the institutional causes of the problems, and the creation of alternatives. We examine, for example, the tacit agreements that create obscene wealth for a few, while progressively impoverishing the rest of humanity. We explore the interlocking causes of our entanglement in a greedy economy that uses our larger body, Earth, as supply house and sewer.
As part of the second dimension of the Great Turning, we may create new laws and Constitutional amendments to support our efforts on behalf of the web of life. For example, in 2008, Ecuador rewrote its Constitution to recognize “the rights of nature,” saying nature “has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution” (“Ecuador Rights of Nature” [online], 2014.) What other new institutions can we create to live more harmoniously with one another and the Earth? Ecovillages, cohousing, community gardens, Farmers’ Markets, and Time Banks come to mind, among many others.
The third dimension is more inward work that we can do alone and together: Joanna and I call it “Shift in Perception and Values.” It includes psychological and spiritual study, processes, and practices that can bring about a shift in our world-view and values, and connect us with a Source of strength, love, and courage for the challenges before us. In this third dimension, we work to change our essential world view, from “anthropocentrism” to “ecocentrism,” from seeing humans as the center of the world, to seeing ourselves as interconnected participants in the web of life, no more or less important than any other parts. Yes, humans may have a special role to play, but so do the decomposing bacteria that turn waste into nutrients. Think of where we would be without them!
Many people today are engaged in at least one, if not all, of these three dimensions. All three are necessary for the creation of a sustainable civilization, and each supports and feeds the other two. For example, people who are engaged in defending a particular watershed against destructive development may have to study the history of corporations to understand why they seem to have so much power (second dimension). They may need to deepen their sense of connectedness within the web of life, and strengthen their commitment to non-violence (third dimension).
Since before the turn of the century, and for a decade or two before that, we have seen this Great Turning happening within and around us, and it seems to be intensifying in the last couple of years. We have seen a worldwide awakening of concern for the planetary environment. Many young people especially have taken up the cause of defending the environment from destruction. We have seen people rising up to claim their human rights and demand more democratic governments. We have seen Occupy and similar movements take to the streets, calling attention to the criminal behavior of some of the super-rich and the growing economic injustice that results.
Paul Hawkin has written a book called Blessed Unrest about the more than 2 million grassroots organizations and projects underway today all over the world—dedicated to restoring the environment and fostering social justice. His subtitle is: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming. He provides us with proof positive that the Great Turning is real. It is happening right now, and each one of us is playing a part.
However, the Great Unraveling is happening, too, and we face the real possibility that our civilization will not survive, certainly not in its present form. Change nearly always requires a certain amount of unraveling. I am a knitter, and often have to unravel several rows of knitting to correct an error. However, if I can’t pick up the stitches after unraveling, or if I unravel too far, I may have to start over. If too much harm is done before we radically change our ways, we could be reduced to a few isolated groups of people scratching out a living from a devastated environment. The outcome of the Great Turning remains uncertain, but that doesn’t mean we should give up.
Uncertainty is always part of life, especially in important transitions like birth, child rearing, marriage, or a new job. Uncertainty can bring us more fully into the present moment, awake and alert. Uncertainty can evoke our will, our vision for the world we want, and endow the present moment with meaning and purpose—all familiar principles in psychosynthesis.
Each of us is already contributing to this Great Turning in large and small ways, perhaps some we don’t even recognize. Yet we may be held back by fear, a sense of inadequacy, or confusion about how to proceed. We may feel over-whelmed by the challenges of our personal lives, with no time or energy available for action in the larger community. We need time for inner work on ourselves, as well as outer work in the community.
This inner psychological and spiritual work will help us make a fundamental shift to a new relationship to our planetary life support system and with the whole human family. It will help us develop what Assagioli called a broader altruistic love, what the Buddhists call bodhichitta. It is the work of the third dimension of the Great Turning.
The Role of Psychosynthesis
I believe the third dimension is where psychosynthesis can make its greatest contribution to the Great Turning.
1. Psychosynthesis can help individuals heal the wounds from their past, wounds that create grasping, fear, and confusion—what the Buddhists call the three causes of suffering. Psychosynthesis applied to counseling, psychotherapy, family therapy, addictions, and personal growth does this effectively.
2. Psychosynthesis can support us, and help us support others, through the Great Unraveling. No matter how successful we are in turning things around, many processes such as global climate change are already underway. We may be able to mitigate some of the worst effects, but there will be hard times ahead. We in the psychosynthesis community may be called upon to act as chaplains, to guide people through various challenges and traumas, and to teach the skills we know: centering, disidentification, self-observation, developing the will, and more.
3. Psychosynthesis can help strengthen activists who are working on the front lines, in the first and second dimensions of the Great Turning, strengthening their courage, compassion, and connection to Self. I would like to find ways of making the powerful principles and tools available to more of these people, perhaps with foundation funding.
4. I see psychosynthesis contributing to the shift in consciousness we all need, away from self-centeredness and egotism, to experiencing and acting from our essential oneness in the web of life. I believe the tools of disidentification and Self-identification can help with that shift, as we expand our sense of who we are—from little monads, little embattled egos to interconnected participants in the grand adventure of Life.
Joanna Macy calls this the “holonic shift.” It’s as if we are starting to think, feel, and act as one larger organism, using our collective wisdom, not simply adding up yours and mine. We still act as individuals, but we sense the promptings of a larger Intelligence guiding us. Our actions arise from what deep ecologist John Seed once described as “the rain forest defending itself” through us. We expand our identification from separate egos, groups, or even nations, and begin to identify as part of Ecological Self. Perhaps this is another name for Higher Self or Transpersonal Self. And we celebrate the diverse roles that everyone plays, including our own.
As we continue our study of psychosynthesis, imagine that everything we learn can potentially contribute to the Great Turning. How can this technique or concept or approach help us to heal old wounds that may be holding us enslaved to addictions, fear, or powerlessness? How can it help to strengthen and center us, preparing us for the challenges ahead? How can it help to expand our identification to an inclusive, interconnected, and compassionate sense of Self?
We face huge and complex challenges in the coming decades, possibly greater than any other challenges humanity as a whole has ever faced. Here we have no experts, because no one alive today has ever dealt with this enormity of change. We truly walk together into the unknown. So we must call upon our deepest spiritual resources, and the wisdom of wild nature, to guide us, moment to moment, on the journey ahead.
We can do this! We have enormous capacities and resources within and around us. Let’s throw off limiting beliefs and conditioning and release the power, creativity, and beauty that lie within each of us. We are so much stronger, so much more capable, so much wiser than many old stories have told us.
And we can draw upon the vast Intelligence of Life, an intelligence that has brought us this far. Life has transformed itself through the eons of Earth’s evolution, overcoming life-threatening challenges many times. We can draw upon the Love and Intelligence that surrounds and supports us with every breath.
Help and guidance are available to us for the asking. When we don’t know what to do, we can align with Self, ask for guidance, and then act on it. Self is an inexhaustible Source that can act through us if we open ourselves to it and get out of the way. I believe Self may refer, in fact, to the intelligence and love of Life itself.
May psychosynthesis contribute to the transformation of humanity and to the birth of a new era of cooperation, diversity, ecological health, and joy.
Assagioli, Roberto. The Act of Will. Penguin Books, 1973.
“Ecuador Rights of Nature. [online]. [cited September 13, 2014]. rightsofmotherearth.com/ ecuador-rights-nature/.
Hawkin, Paul, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming. Viking, 2007.
Korten, David, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community. Kumarian Press & Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2006.
Macy, Joanna and Molly Young Brown, Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to the Work That Reconnects. New Society, 2014.
Sahtouris, Elisabet. Gaia – The Human Journey from Chaos to Cosmos. Pocket Books, 1989.
Seed, John, Joanna Macy, Pat Fleming, and Arne Naess. Thinking Like a Mountain, Philadelphia: New Society, 1988.