By Terri Rubinstein, MFT
The new political climate that will take hold when President-elect Donald Trump takes office in 2017 stands to heighten the current ecological crisis. He is outspoken in his skepticism about the validity of global climate change, and his proposals reflect a lack of respect for the biodiversity of life. In the face of such political leadership, it is even more essential that we find the courage, and help our patients find the courage, to face the reality of the ecological crisis. By this I mean not only engaging with the reality of changing weather patterns and the melting of the Earth’s icecaps but also being undaunted in our willingness to turn toward the mass extinctions happening throughout the biosphere, the famines facing large segments of humanity, and the indignities of homelessness and poverty that exist both locally and globally.
Many people, from diverse fields, have suggested that our current ecological crisis is associated with, if not caused by, alienation. Some have also suggested that alienation, or disconnection from our deeper selves and the whole of humanity, as well as from the natural world, is inherent in a capitalist, growth-based paradigm and that such alienation drives the very development that both isolates us and fuels the present global ecological crisis. I concur and can recognize this alienation in President-elect Trump’s language and ideas. However, I can also recognize it within myself. To varying degrees, I believe alienation from self, from others, and from the natural world dwells within most if not all of us.
Viewed from this perspective, President-elect Trump’s comments and views about the natural world as well as his fellow humans reflect the painful degree to which he is disconnected and alienated. When I can remember this, the gap I feel between President-elect Trump and myself diminishes. This small internal act serves to ameliorate the external ecological crisis. On the nondual level, as understood in Buddhism and deep ecology, internal and external are not distinct and changes in one affect the other. Thus, when I position myself in opposition to the other, and in so doing negate the vulnerability of the other, I create alienation—the very thing that drives the ecological crisis. When I can relate to the other through our unity, alienation subsides. In other words, facing the ecological crisis includes being willing to confront the places within myself where I divide the world into me and not-me, into wanted and unwanted experiences. It is within these places and ways of thinking that alienation and othering take hold. If we are to heal the wounds of such disconnection, we need to embrace all experiences, even those that at first feel uncomfortable and unwelcome.
The 13th-century Persian poet Rumi spoke to this challenge in his often-referenced poem “The Guest House”:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
(Rumi, 1997, p. 109)
Rumi captures the essence of equanimity—of being gracious and welcoming to whatever presents itself. When we inhabit an attitude of equanimity, the guest house of our being is unconditionally open. As I open to the ecological crisis, especially within the current political climate, I feel the loss of certainty that there will be a human future on this planet. I feel the pain—the grief and fear that cannot be reduced to concerns for my own individual skin. In Joanna Macy’s words, “planetary anguish lifts us onto another systemic level where we open to collective experience” (2013, p. 149). Within the collective experience, we find both our shared suffering and our profound unity and benevolence.
I invite you to join me on March 25, 2017, along with internationally renowned eco-philosopher Joanna Macy and local playwright and performer Naomi Newman, in a conversation about how we can face and metabolize the anguish of our times—how we can orient ourselves toward healing the divides that live within us and between us. The event, titled “The Ecological Crisis: Taking Responsibility and Cultivating Hope,” is co-sponsored by The Psychotherapy Institute and the Sanville Institute. The program will feature a dramatic reading of a screenplay, a presentation of a paper considering the psychological underpinnings of the ecological crisis, and a discussion of ways to find hope and to transform the despair we feel in the face of the current social and ecological crises.
For more information, please go to https://www.tpi-berkeley.org/ecological-crisis
Macy, J. (2013). The greening of the self. In L. Vaughan-Lee (Ed.), Spiritual ecology: The cry of the earth (pp. 145-156). Point Reyes, CA: The Golden Sufi Center.
Rumi (1995). Rumi: Selected poems. (C. Banks with J. Moyne, A. J. Arberry & R. Nicholson, rans.). New York: Penguin Books.
Terri Rubinstein, MA, MFT, is a psychotherapist and consultant in private practice in Berkeley, CA. She supervises and teaches at The Psychotherapy Institute, where she is also on the faculty of the Supervision Study Program. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Sanville Institute. The focus of her dissertation involves bridging aspects of psychoanalytic theory with Buddhist philosophy and deepening the conversation about dual and nondual forms of intersubjectivity. She has published and taught on relational psychotherapy and clinical supervision.