A world turned inside out – on soul posession and the psychology of the climate crisis.

“The extent to which we are capable of rapport with other forms of life, or even with our own bodily self, depends on the extent to which we’ve been derailed by the industrialist view of life to which we have been relentlessly exposed.”

David Kidner, in conversation, from Explorations into Climate Psychology.

Go to the woods near where you live, around sunset.  On an evening when gold splashes the canopy,  comes a moment when the last bird falls silent.  The mood shifts from the busyness of  day, towards the shadow of night.  Crows scatter as night comes. 

The crow’s croaks herald the nocturnal hunt; talons of owl and the sudden death of mice.  In the moment between sunset and nightrise, you can feel the moment of rest.  It’s not just an “inner” feeling either.  It’s the presence in the world registered in you.

What do I mean by the presence of the world registered in you?   If I tell you about a glimmer I felt, you might get a glimmer of that.  That’s what language does, offer a glimmers between mutual threads of experience. It draws your attention to something you might not have noticed.

Some things are hard not to notice. At the moment the world’s leaders are meeting (COP27). At the moment, many of the presences the world registers in us are highly stressful – wildfires, floods, extreme weather. Many of the ways we have registered ourselves on the world -fracking of nature, clear cutting forests, discharging slurry in waterways, plastic in oceans, deformed salmon – also register a deeply uncomfortable presence in us. Perhaps even other things – lab grown meat, the shape and size of cities, the normalisation of overconsumption, also register disquiet.

Loneliness and anxiety seem on the rise along with the C02. The world registers its presences in you all the time and it registers these events and feelings as surely as that clear feeling of the moment of rest at sunset. It registers feeling that you did not create.

I’d like to bookmark that idea, that we register feelings that we do not create. I think it’s key to entering into relationship with the world. It connects to something I want to say about the ecological crisis and the role of an imaginal ecology.

Earlier this year, I conducted a dialogue with David Kidner, author and ecological thinker for the first edition of the climate psychology alliances Explorations Journal. David’s work is a remarkable synthesis of different disciplines, psychologies, anthropologies, and philosophies woven together in his inimitable voice. One thing I particularly like about his writing is the way he reveals the way industrial society has forged our selves in it’s image, often imperceptibly. Our sense of identity and belonging has been colonised by an industrial culture and it’s hiding in plain sight. Especially now that industrial culture appears before us not in the shape of factories and satanic mills, but in neon clothes and ironic cartoons on oat milk cartons. We know we are being not only seduced, but continually immersed in seductions of comfort.

I picked out the quote above, because at the heart of what David is saying, is that we do have a capacity for rapport with ourselves and other forms of life. It is just that under the invasive pressure of an industrialised psychology we are immersed in a culture designed to continually and relentlessly forget that rapport, until our own bodies and the living world seem alien to ourselves, and so can be sold back to us as commodities.

So in the first few paragraphs here, I can show you the woods at sunset, and I can also remind you that we live in a world where we clear cut forests to extract timber decimating it’s ecology, intensively farm salmon until they become sick and diseased, trawl oceans ripping the ocean floor apart and mindlessly taking life in bulging sacks full of gasping silver fish, foul rivers with cow excrement so nothing can lives in them. I can’t tell you how to think about all this or what to feel. This is one of the challenges of a climate psychology, to find a psychology that can apprehend not just the self but the world. But putting these two things in juxtaposition gives some food for thought about the idea of whether we need “hope” or “realism.” Do we need to “think positive” or ‘get real?”

Appropriate thinking

Before training as a therapist, I worked in adult mental health, visiting people in their homes as an outreach worker. I spent ten years doing this from age 21 to 31. Looking back I consider it now an apprenticeship to the human spirit. My job was to offer “practical and emotional support” in the hopes that this band of fellow humans would remember to pay the rent, the water bill, not get into trouble with the neighbours on the one hand, or on the other disappear into a private world of paranoia and only emerge into human contact via the cold fluorescent light of hospitalisation. (and so create expenses for society more than my cheap labour)

One of the things I learned was a way to talk to people about what mattered to them. They may or may not have wanted to pay the water bill and tidy the living room. Quite often they did. However, equally, if not more often what they wanted was the warmth of another person’s company, and a chance to talk and dispel loneliness and isolation. Of course then, as in any conversation that goes beyond pleasantries, we would get into the question of their problems. It was around this stage that I began to realise that it’s not positive thinking that really helps people. I couldn’t just “be positive.” For one thing it strikes an jarring note to say how great someone is doing in the face of the available evidence.

The privatisation of emotion

On the other hand not making any response would be tantamount to letting all the water flood in and drowning both of us. I learned is it not necessarily a good idea to validate people’s negative thoughts and ideas by simply nodding and agreeing – you can’t in all conscience do this with someone who openly hates themselves or feels suicidal and it also has an effect on you. So rather than “positive thinking” I became interested in “appropriate thinking.”

Thoughts mostly act as interpretations of feelings. It might be appropriate to allow yourself to feel heartbroken, or furious, or filled with envious sadness or jealousy. And to interpret that as a liberation. Such a response might makes sense in the light of whatever’s happened. An appropriate interpretation brings a feeling of satisfaction, even if it appears dark. It might not be appropriate to to tell yourself to simply be more positive. Optimism can be it’s own kind of delusion just as much as paranoia. Optimism often has a suppressed violence to it if challenged.

Thoughts get supercharged and distorted by repressed emotions. These emotions often seem to want to make a claim on you who feel them, to possess you and make you think that you are what you feel. James Hillman makes this point in his book “Inter Views”. He argues that the first and most important move to make in therapy is not to “get in touch with your feelings.” Let’s note the privatisation of emotion that occurs here, “your feelings” and the encouragement towards possession of feelings – touching them, owning them.

It’s no accident that emotion has the word “motion” encased within it – emotions move through and between people. So identifying with your feelings “possessing them” really means preventing them from connecting you to others or yourself. It means privatising them. Hillman says that the first move to make in therapy is to dis-identify with emotions and feel them anyway – to allow them to move through you without having to feel they are you. To allow them to become archetypal. I found this when I researched the creative process in dramatherapy. My clients showed me that a creative process in therapy is often one that allows a pathological feeling to be first identified, but then dis-indentified with. So what’s repressed is first imagined as “that black shape” rather than “my feeling of psychotic rage.” This creative act allows the feeling to be dis-identified with. To feel something not to be it.

Emotions are not possessions

Now if this is the case within the human relationships that affect us most obviously, how much more so in relation to the subtle connection to the living world, the rapport that David speaks of being jarred so relentlessly? I suspect that this unconscious privatisation of emotion – what David calls it’s industrialism – is making it harder to understand and deal with climate crisis. It is no surprise to read an article speaking out against predictions that the climate crisis will lead to devastation with a call to stop “peddling fear” and with the striking headline “hope is a human right.”

In a world in which your emotions are your private possessions, then the intrusion of the world onto them might well feel like a violation of the sacred precinct of your emotional “safety”. In a world of private emotional possessions, emotions are there to be “peddled” – to be bought and sold – buy the happiness of a confidence workshop or the feeling of standing at the top of a mountain. Except that the world at it’s most fundamental level is simply not organised this way. Emotions are not really private, any more than rivers are or the currents in the sea, or for that matter the top of a mountain. They move through people and connect them to each other and to moments of time. When we seek to possess emotions we become possessed by them. What then do we need to “get” if not our feelings?

Being “got” by climate

What needs to be “got” might not always be be the moment of sunset in a beautiful place or the reality of climate change. What needs to be “got” is you, and you might very well need to be “got” by someone or something else other than you.

What I need to “get” is something that is always just beyond me – in fact I might need to be “got” by it. It might be the moment of sunset by the woods and way crows scatter from the bones of a lamb. It might be the legacy of witch burning, or knowledge of the trail of tears. Leonard Cohen in the song “the goal” on his elegiacal final , speaking as a man whom Death is looking hard at, puts it like this:

I move with the leaves
I shine with the chrome
I’m almost alive
I’m almost at

No one to follow
And nothing to teach
Except that the goal
Falls short of the reach

The goal falls short of the reach, not because of a lack of ability to stretch or reach out, but because that’s in the way of the world for what is other to be beyond what can be possessed. Beyond what can be “got”. Cohen here is “got” by the leaves, the chrome and the ebb of his life. So perhaps, we might conclude being “got” is preferable to getting.

Possession and the archetype of evil

However, being “got” by something is also a dangerous moment. In Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales, Marie Von Franz cites possession as one of the archetypal experiences of evil. Being possessed by a powerful emotion like sexual attraction or the desire to save nature can burn with a dark fire. Von Franz sifts through shifting threads of similar but subtley different folk tales. She finds that again and again in folk tales from around the world and stretching back in time “possession” is feared and is felt to be at it’s most dangerous when accompanied by loneliness. It is in the state of lonliness then that the unconscious can become destructive. It’s a twist of fate – in order to enter into rapport with nature we need to be alone with it. Yet often this solitude brings up a huge welt of lonliness, even misanthropy. Often this lonliness get’s plastered over by a positive or spiritual persona. Lonliness can appear as secret superiority.

If we are to enter solitude to have a rapport with nature, we also need to find ways to become concious of the effects of lonliness Lonliness is not the same as solitude; is a function of being surrouded by others but unable to connect. It can manifest as a secret feeling of superiority, or in the sacred conviction that one charismatic other has all the answers. All of which act to alienate a person from their fellow humans. As my philosophy teacher said “Robinson Crusoe wasn’t alone until Man Friday came along”. To be possesed by lonliness is a deep danger, in a world that has systematically dismantled the roots of it’s own culture, and that culture’s kinship with nature.

David doesn’t use this kind of Jungian language of possesion. But the metaphor of possession runs deep in our collective psyche. Possession, in a telling twist of the language, refers to both being occupied by an alien spirit and to taking ownership of something, grasping it for yourself. Yet to grasp something for your self relies on a taken for granted divide between inner and outer – as David writes:

“The terms ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ may also reflect unsuspected
ideological assumptions. The term ‘inner’ is often used to imply a
sort of uber-individuality – a withdrawal into the ‘pure’, individual
self that is a consequence of a residual part of ourselves shrinking
away from an industrialist realm experienced as alien. But this
alienation from what is outside us is itself part of industrialism.

Perhaps we have been possessed our own sense of inner-ness. The more we recoil from the overtly industrial world into “me time”, re-framed as “self care” the more we find a fantasy of nature in the place of the experience of it. Our recoiling from the ugliness of the world is also a part of industrialism and it finds us with images of washing our hair in waterfalls, or buying a workshop that will teach us to be the heroic ecological saviours of the world, learning how to turn into a bear and living in the woods never to return. When we go too far into that sort of inner search we simply buy goods to clothe the shadow of our phantasmal sense of self.

David writes:

Industrialism has become so all-pervasive
that much of the world’s population now tacitly shares most of its
fundamental assumptions, including the intoxication with technology
and consumerism, the belief that the entire natural world is ours to
use as we see fit, and the unconcern with the future of life on earth
or even of our own children and grandchildren. Because it is almost
universal, this seems ‘normal’, even ‘natural’, to us; and thinking
beyond it requires a far-reaching epiphany”

A crisis so vast as to require a personal response from each of us.

Yet this thinking beyond is the least that is required of us. The ecological crisis is so vast that it requires a personal response from each of us.  It demands we find a connection to nature that doesn’t collapse into either a vast cold world of data or a magnified reflection of the small flame of our own life.  The ecological crisis undermines the illusion that we possess an “inner world.”  It’s not just an inner feeling that the tides are rising. It arises from human a broken agreement between industrialised human beings and nature.

One of the things that we discussed in our meeting about “Explorations” was the lacuna between “climate change” and a personal connection to it. Its in this gap that a climate psychology operates. In the gap between the apparently “inner” fortress of the self and the apparently outer world of nature.

In the gap between the vast hyperobject of “climate change” and my own small life lies climate psychology – a psychology that seeks to encompass how we have got into this state and what a psychology that recogises the reality of climate crisis might look like. In one piece in “Explorations” a group of Climate Psychology Alliance members ask each other what climate psychology is. However, what they discuss is how they personally connect to it, how they came to it.

Instead of finding a definition they find a  conversation: a deep one about the place of a person within life, and their connection to a deeper ecology, the problem with solutions, to the deep and subtle ability to move between worlds and to keep holding onto both possibility and reality. 

The conversation leads to a discussion of hope and despair and how to hold a middle ground that sees through both and holds it’s own ground.

At one point in it Steffi Bednarek, a co-editor of the Jounal says:

“Sometimes people who die are only able to
make peace and beauty and meaning in relationships in their last
days of life. At some point, we may go extinct. That may not be
a terrible thing for life on Earth. There may be this shift in
consciousness, maybe at the last minute something enormously
beautiful can happen.”

We cannot by definition be given a straightforward answer about how things will be. This sense of the apparent luminous acceptance that some people attain when death approaches contrasts with what Von Franz calls “frevel.” Frevel, she explains has a kind of link to the word “frivolous” yet has another kind of meaning. It is a kind of bold reckless transgression against a greater power in the face of danger – a kind of jokey taunting of fate, such as is shown in certain fairy tales where all warnings are ignored and the worst happens.

Right now, three quarters of the internet appear to be powered by “frevel”. We may go extinct. Something enormously beautiful might happen. But we cannot know the outcome. It is not ours to know. Often when we hope, we want to take possession of the future. Yet the future is always a chimera constructed out of the fantasies and defences of the present situation. Within what Steffi counsels here is the ability to entertain both possibilities with equanimity and without reaching for either. At another point she adds:

Queen under the Mountain by Toby Chown

“there’s a polarity between lending my life in order to be of service
to life and trying to do what I can to mend the bits that I’m in contact
with. But at the same time, living with the notion that things may
not be able to be fixed.”

Steffi calls for awareness of a holding the tension of a polarity, but combined with a sense of service. Perhaps service might be an antidote for that loneliness that brings with it the risk of possession by destructive psychological forces. Service to life would be a move against a kind of frivolous loneliness that seems to surround us. It would require a sense of purpose as well as a sense of humour and a sense of respect.

The conversation turns to grief. Sally Gillespie another co-editor says:

“we can’t just sit down and become drowned in grief – that’s not what it is about for us. We have work to do here. We are custodians. This is our mother
that’s being torn apart. And we’ve got to hold the life thread of
what is of most value, and safeguard and live by this as much as
we can. I think we need to not suppress our feelings and our grief;
to find ways of honouring them which don’t involve losing sight of
where we can meaningfully and lovingly contribute to the thread of
living in a time of dying.”

I take note of the message here that there are ways to grieve that are not in the service of life, and there are ways to grieve that are. That grief, whose expression is sorrow, may be of service to life when it knows itself to be a part of a thread of life. In other words a grief it might be a weaving, a tapestry. But Sally cautions is that this might be so only when we are not drowned in it – or as Von Franz might say possessed by it.

Check out the Explorations Journal, you will find the richness of the climate psychology dialogue I quote from. You will find more from David Kidner’s dialogue about the colonisation of the self, find him turning his spotlight on how the industrial infection of our psyche allows the climate crisis to hide in plain sight. Yet also the hint that in turning on that spotlight a subtle rapport may be felt that turns towards the strange living world. Perhaps we have been so focused on seeking to possess this rapport that we fail to clear out the sticky shadows of industrialism we trail around with us.

I am not overly fond of the word “spiritual” when applied to the individual . Still, the word has some valance when applied to the world, and I will leave you with this final quote from David, that hints at what might be possible when we find the same kinds of rapport that are in fact ecologically normal, and enter a kind of reciprical relationship with the living world:

when we look within to find our own spirituality, what we discover is a world
that is spiritual. ‘Innerness’ doesn’t have to be about being unsullied
by continuity with anything ‘outside ourselves’, which is a denial of
our systemic character as beings who are at one level ‘individuals’
and at other levels continuous with natural systems. We are truest
to ourselves not – or not only – as isolated atoms of experience,
but when our experience can encompass all these levels”

A world that is spiritual cannot be possessed, only experienced.