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Facing Climate ChangeAn Integrated Path to the Future$

Jeffrey T. Kiehl

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780231177184

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: September 2016

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231177184.001.0001

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Recognizing the Importance of the Transpersonal

Recognizing the Importance of the Transpersonal

(p.129) 11 Recognizing the Importance of the Transpersonal
Facing Climate Change

Jeffrey T. Kiehl

Columbia University Press

Abstract and Keywords

My story about an experience of the transpersonal dimension and how it transformed my view of the world. A discussion of how social transformation has occurred in the past and how it can take place around climate change.

Keywords:   consciousness, transpersonal, transformation, emergence, nuclear arms, racism

A radical inner transformation and rise to a new level of consciousness might be the only real hope we have in the current global crisis brought on by the dominance of the Western mechanistic paradigm.

—Stanislav Grof

In my early twenties, I spent time in the state of Washington as an intern working at an experimental nuclear power facility. This was my first time in the West, and the flat, dry terrain came as a great surprise. I was reminded of scenes from old Western television shows and expected to see cowboys riding over the horizon. Amid this desert environment was the small city of Richland, where I spent the summer. Often, on weekends, I would relax in a public park that stretched along the broad, lumbering Columbia River. One hot day, sitting beneath a large tree, I experienced a deep transcendent state of being. In a moment, the “I” had melted away, leaving an experience of the most profound sublimity. There was no feeling of separation from the world: everything was a part of me, or “I” was a part of everything. This profound state of centeredness seemed to last for a very long time. Eventually, I returned to my old awareness, in which again I was separate from everything, yet the memory of that transformative moment stayed with me. It was the opening of a door to a different reality, one (p.130) I have come to see as no less real than this world of apparent separateness. I now realize that transformation is at the foundation of our being in the world.

Transformation may involve changes within an individual, across an entire society, or, even, like my experience in the park, an engagement with the transpersonal. Often, the most profound transformations involve all three levels, from the individual to the transpersonal. I believe these transformations are more frequent than we realize, and I find a sense of hope in those I have experienced in my life. In terms of social transformation, I remember vividly three times in my life when people faced very challenging problems that were clearly recognized as morally wrong and appeared to be insurmountable. Yet each was surmounted.

The first time was the height of the Cold War, when I was in elementary school. I remember walking to school each morning not knowing whether this would be the day someone would “push the button,” bringing an end to the world. Newspapers were full of stories about the possibility of nuclear war, and the overall feeling was one of tension, anxiety, and resignation. Many were resigned to the fact that the two superpowers would continue to build more and more weapons and that one day something bad would happen. In the midst of this anxiety, there were a few people who resisted resigning to this fearful fate. These individuals were from all walks of life, and they worked tirelessly for arms reductions. Interestingly, scientific research on the climatic consequences of a nuclear conflagration was a key motivation in the step back from the brink of destruction. I was one of the scientists who worked on the possibility of a “nuclear winter” resulting from a nuclear exchange. This was my first foray into an issue where human actions had global climate implications. The (p.131) mere idea that a nuclear exchange could have consequences for the climate was very controversial at the time. I remember traveling to Washington, D.C., to participate in a meeting at the National Academy of Sciences on the issue. This was an eye-opening experience for a young scientist. I saw how critical scientists could be of one another and how important it was to be able to explain your factual evidence to others. Eventually, the superpowers woke up to the insanity of mutually assured destruction (MAD) and agreed to begin disassembling these weapons. Of course, the world still has nuclear arsenals, but the global threat of nuclear weapons is not as serious it was in the 1950s.

My second memory of transformation in the face of collective resignation was the reality of racial discrimination. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was rampant segregation throughout large regions of the United States. I believe that most people who looked around and saw what was going on knew this was morally wrong. Many people felt the problem could not be resolved, that it was too entrenched in the psyche of our nation, and that political resistance to change and deeply rooted racist behaviors were too powerful to overcome. Again, a relatively small group of individuals banded together to fight for civil rights. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other brave individuals worked tirelessly to transform the nation. Has racial discrimination been eradicated from this country? No, but compared to the late 1950s and early 1960s, a radical transformation has occurred. In a matter of a decade, change became a reality, in spite of the feeling that transformation was impossible. Of course, the recognition of racial discrimination extends beyond the borders of the United States. South Africa’s movement to eliminate apartheid is another example of how moral concern can lead to great social transformation. (p.132) The recent troubles experienced in U.S. cities reminds us that we must be forever vigilant with regards to racism.

My third memory is that of the Vietnam War. The memories of this event are palpable for me; I was of draft age during this conflict. I knew people who went to the war, some who did not return, and others who returned disturbed and confused. The suffering and anguish surrounding this so-called police action divided the nation. This was a time of profound polarization in the nation, rivaled only by what is taking place today. The nation, communities, families, and even individuals were split over the moral imperative of the war. Once again, grassroots activists took to the streets to call for transformation. The energy that flowed through people at this time was exhilarating, the single goal of ending the war unparalleled for the time. In the face of tremendous opposition by powerful political forces, people organized and fought for change. These three memories of mine reveal how transformation can occur on the social level through well-organized, focused dissent.

If we look further back in history, we see other times when great transformations took place in a short time. The independence movement in India began with a small group who recognized that change must occur in their country. In particular, Mahatma Gandhi led an entire nation of millions through massive social and political transformation in a relatively brief time. I’m sure that many people at that time said such change was impossible given the power of the British Empire, yet it happened. History is rich with such moments, all giving me hope that we will awaken to the moral imperative of addressing the threat of global warming and transforming our current world.

As in the past, once again we find ourselves in a situation calling out for transformation, a situation in which we know (p.133) that continuing our uncontained consumption of Earth’s natural resources is morally wrong. We know that the exploitation of the developing world to satisfy the perceived desires of the developed world is morally unjust. Equally unjust is burdening future generations with the immense disruption caused by global warming, given that they did not cause this problem. Indeed, we are in great need of transformation. As usual, the world is full of voices proclaiming the impossibility of such change because the fossil-fuel industry is too strong, politicians are too weak, and, worst of all, humans are too self-centered. If we choose to listen to these voices of negativity, transformation will not occur. Their voices are indicative of a strong, negative cultural complex that wants to preserve the old way of seeing the world. In terms of stories of old, these are the people who want to prop up the old ailing king. Fortunately, that complex always encounters resistance; there are always those willing to risk much to defy the rigidity of the status quo. As in the cases of nuclear armament, racial discrimination, and the Vietnam War, today we hear some arguing that rampant consumption and environmental destruction cannot continue.

This type of resistance to the status quo on energy production is useful because it keeps the issue alive and present; however, I feel that we must go far beyond these approaches to address the issue of global warming. An inner transformation must occur to create a flourishing world: inner transformation insures that any outer change will last and become the new dominant paradigm.

We require a transformation unique in human civilization, a transformation in which we relinquish our dependence on something to which we are highly addicted. It is for this reason that we need to look beyond a technological (p.134) transformation and recognize the need for a transformation of our very being in the world. We need to look toward a transformation of consciousness; our behavior toward the world and toward one another needs to change. We need to recognize our interconnectedness.

We may view the emergence of the Internet as a technological sign of this yearning to be connected to one another. To date, connecting this way has been used for purposes both creative and destructive. Latent within the Internet is an ability to reach around the globe and communicate with one another. We are witness to its role in the recent revolutions in the Middle East, and the shadow side of this connection is in how religious ideologies use it to spread destruction. This is why we need psychological transformation to accompany our technological tools. We need more than just the technological ability to bring people face to face via computer screens. A transformation in caring about others has yet to occur on a global scale. We continue to see ourselves as sufficiently separate from one another, and this perpetuates our sense of emptiness. The only path forward that will fulfill us is caring for others.

Reflect on your feeling when you are with someone you care about and love. In these moments of close relationship we feel full and do not need something else to make us feel better. Our ability to relate is our greatest gift; now we are called to manifest this gift. We have reached a point in our evolution where we must choose between self-delusion and emptiness or self-fulfillment and creativity on a collective scale.

We are beings that create so much beauty in the world, and our capacity to love is boundless. Allowing this capacity to unveil and be expressed in the world is all that is required to create a flourishing world for our children. Our transformation of (p.135) consciousness is tied to our ability to allow beauty to unfold within and outside of us. Our transformation of being in the world depends on allowing ourselves to experience our world in a richer sense of time, space, and body. This transformation is dependent on our embodiment of the creativity that dwells within us. The creation of the great cathedrals exemplifies our ability to bring beauty into the world. The ability of artists to evoke awe in us through beauty continually reveals our creativity. These structures were not built in a single lifetime but extended over many generations. This shows that we can look out into the future and stay connected.

Complete transformation occurs at the intersection of two ways of dwelling in the world; the most familiar, horizontal dwelling, is being a part of society. We are born into the world as social beings. Our families, friends, colleagues, and social groups surround us and help define who we are. Our social connectivity allows us to transcend our sense of individuality. This type of enthusiastic experience can be either positive or negative; we can get caught up in a collective excitement that allows us to feel our connectedness to others, or, from the shadow perspective, we can become an unquestioning follower and be inauthentic. In contrast, the vertical way of dwelling is one in which we connect to the transpersonal. Some may call the transpersonal God, others a Higher Power, Self, Buddhan-ature, Tao, or Nature; there are many ways to describe that which is greater than the individual I. The transpersonal is more an experience or process than a thing. When Augustine was asked to explain time, he said, “I know what it is, yet when you ask me to explain it I know it not.” I feel a similar answer can be given concerning any attempt to define the transpersonal. Anyone who has had an experience like the one I had when I sat by the bank of the Columbia River will know what I (p.136) mean by the transpersonal, and if we fall into the trap of trying to catch and define it, in that moment we kill it. As in horizontal dwelling, with a connection to the transpersonal, an individual is merged within something greater than the individual.

Horizontal and vertical ways of dwelling have existed for ages, and most of us have chosen to spend our time dwelling on the horizontal plane, immersed in our social worlds. In dwelling on this plane we dedicate ourselves to family, work, community, and nation. Others choose to spend much of their time dwelling on the vertical plane, dedicating their lives to spiritual pursuits. What we are called to now is to dwell at the intersection of these two planes, in which we transpose our orientation from the horizontal plane to the vertical without leaving the horizontal. The challenge of dwelling at the crossing of the two is to embody both states of being.

Our ability to follow the path of transformation depends on a connection to our inner archetypal world—the vertical—and the outer phenomenological world—the horizontal. Opening to the greater archetypal patterns in life, we find that the way forward is filled not with difficulties but opportunities. Jung felt that there was a central archetype of transformation, and this archetype often manifests at particular times, leading to the reorganization of an individual’s life or an entire society. The ancient Greeks called such moments in time a kairos. Facing climate change as an opportunity to create a better world transforms our relationship to the issue. The appearances of spiritual traditions like Taoism, Buddhism, or Christianity are examples of such transformative moments. We are at a turning point in human civilization: an archetype of transformation is occurring; a new coherence is arising around our global interconnectedness. The transpersonal dimension is needed to support us in this process. Jung notes, “Everything now (p.137) depends on man: immense power of destruction is given into his hands, and the question is whether he can resist the will to use it, and can temper his will with the spirit of love and wisdom. He will hardly be capable of doing so on his own unaided resources. He needs the help of an ‘advocate’ in heaven.”

Who or what is this advocate? It is the archetype of transformation, the deeply rooted part of the psyche that works through us to accomplish a healing of both the inner and outer worlds. It lies at the intersection of social and transpersonal realities and enables us to create a new way of being in the world, leading to our flourishing future.