This is what I want from now on: a slower pace,
a more centered existence, and the feelings of perfect happiness
to be found in the moments I come home to myself.
– Linda Weltner
The quote above by Linda Weltner is printed on a small scrap of colored paper I have had lying on my desk for more than a year now. I don’t even remember when or from where I clipped it. Its message, however, touched me so deeply at the time that I placed it reverently among the other special symbols and photos that sit on my writing desk.
Each day, it seems, amidst the life that my urban, techno-rich society has created, I must work to find the islands of peace that Weltner, and my own psyche, craves. And I ask: How did this happen? How did we come to live like this, where every day is marked by feelings of psychic exhaustion?
I have for some years now been formulating the idea that most definitely the culture in which I live is to blame for the forces against which I struggle for inner peace. That thought was no doubt crystallized as I read the works of many of the ecofeminists and ecopsychologists whose books I began to acquire in the late 1990’s. Chief among these, as I have mentioned in other posts, are the writings of Chellis Glendinning.
In her recent book, Off the Map, Glendinning tells the story of the effects of the rise of industrialized society by focusing on one village in England in the 18th century. I found the passage so poignant and telling that I want to repeat it here in its entirety:
The year is 1770. Lancashire County, England, heartland of Britain, where tales of the infamous Robin Hood still pass from mother to daughter by the crackling hearth. Find it on the map. Life is good here. The weaver is working in his stone cottage. His little ones play as they clean the weft; the weaver’s wife cards and spins. The older girls hoe their vegetable garden and walk about the village, gossiping and showing their skirts. The weaver climbs onto his roof to repair the thatching. His family is growing their own carrots and herbs, raising chickens and turkeys, earning twenty shillings a week.
The year is 1820. Lancashire County. The empire turns on itself. Life is no longer good. In a single generation the land has been made unrecognizable by the assault of industrialism. The houses, now better described as hovels, are blackened by smoke belching from six-story textile factories. Gardens are dry from neglect and overrun by char-faced vagrants. Just as in India, the local weavers are outaxed, and the lower prices of factory-made goods force them to give up. They labor now sixteen hours a day at machines that dictate the pace in filthy little rooms, earning five shillings a week. For any spinner found with his window open, the penalty is one shilling. For a spinner late to his machine, two shillings. Everything seems lost. The community is broken. The weaver’s children are strapped to their stations with hemp, and the foreman stomps down the aisles using a leather piece to whip those who are slumped over, hysterical with fear, or numb with boredom. (2002, p.14)
The problem with culture is we are born into it, with no opportunity to make choices of our own before we have absorbed it. We are like fish in an aquarium, knowing nothing beyond the confines of their watery environment within which they spend their life. We know nothing of how things used to be in an earlier time, what pollutants are in the air we breathe and the water we drink. We know nothing about from where the food we buy at the grocer comes, or how it has been processed and preserved, or what it really contains. Our lives are controlled not by the natural rhythms of the sun, the seasons, the weather and our own bodies, but by alarm clocks and train schedules.
How do we “wake up” and take back at least enough control of our own daily lives to feel “at home” with ourselves and our lives, as Weltner suggests? For me, my desire to live a more healthy, balanced life has been helped by reading people like Glendinning, who question the connection between our industrialized society and the disconnect from nature it has created.
Before I say more, I need to clarify that I am not, nor do I think that Glendinning is, suggesting that life in the 18th Century before industrialization was completely idyllic. That is not the point. The point is that there is more to this issue than simply the invention of technologies that changed how we live and work. As Glendinning suggests, the evolutionary path of industrialization did not have to take the course it did. In an essay in the book, Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, she writes:
We could, in theory, focus our technological efforts on inventions that would permit us to meet basic human needs in as sustainable a manner as possible. Instead we strive to develop technologies, from dams to anti-aging creams, that allow us an increasing degree of control over the natural world (1995, 48).
Several years ago while on a week-long retreat, I began to examine the streams of thought that had helped to form my own new awareness of the problems within Western culture. I was at the time reading the book, The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World, by Paul H. Ray, Ph.D. and Sherry Ruth Anderson. The book is based on survey data gathered from more than 100,000 Americans.
Ray and Anderson describe cultural creatives as people who “care deeply about ecology and saving the planet, about relationships, peace, social justice, and about self actualization, spirituality and self-expression.” They attribute the emergence of this subculture to the social and environmental movements in this country which began in the 1960’s. The lack of political power on the part of this subculture, say Ray and Anderson, is due to the fact that the individuals who make it up are largely invisible, choosing their own separate paths to freedom and sanity.
Perhaps as a result of reading the book, I became curious about the formation of my own consciousness. One day, I sat down and created a chart of all of the people and ideas that had influenced me up to that point, and were, consciously or unconsciously, shaping my choices about how I wanted to live. The predominant streams I labeled “feminism,” “spirituality,” “ecology,” and “leadership.” I also named some of the values carried within those streams. I realized a value common to all of them was “balance,” which implies a principle noted most strongly in the ecology movement: “limits.” It is a principle in direct conflict with the consumerism feeding the techno-industrialized culture of the West, which seems to scream at us: “More! More! More!” Only, who really benefits from the “More” we are encouraged to consume?
Glendinning argues that Western society is plagued with “techno-addiction.” She writes:
Throughout the technological system, the recognized symptoms of the addictive process are blatantly evident. They are obvious in the behavior of those who promote technology to maintain control over society or to inflate their own bank accounts and egos. And they are evident for us all because our experience, knowledge, and sense of reality have been shaped by life in the technological world (1995, 47).
Near the end of that retreat, I wrote a set of statements – questions, really – that for me seemed to capture my desire and decision to live more consciously. They spoke to me of ways I could on a daily basis try to create more health, peace, and happiness in my life by creating balance and setting limits. Next, I took the statements and placed them on a small poster that I now keep visible in a prominent place in my bedroom, where I can glance at it every day.
Glendinning says that some of the symptoms of addiction present in Western society include denial, dishonesty, control, thinking disorders, grandiosity, and disconnection with one’s feelings. It occurred to me this past week as I read her reflections and looked at my list of daily guiding questions, that those statements perhaps unconsciously reflect my own struggle to remain healthy against those addictive forces.
I end this post by sharing with you those guiding statements, both here and in the photo of my poster at the left. Feel free to print the photo, and to make use of the statements however you wish, if you think you might find them helpful in your own struggle.
Today, how will I:
Set a Limit on what I will do?
Let Life enter me without Judgment?
Enjoy the People and the Process and let go of the Outcome?
Comfort Another and Be Comforted?
Care for my Body?
Pray and Play?
Glendinning, C. (1995) Technology, trauma and the wild. In Roszak, T., Gomes, M.E., and Kanner, A.D. (Eds). Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, healing the mind. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club. pp. 41-54
Glendinning.C. (1999). Off the map: An expedition deep into empire and the global economy. Boston: Shambala.
Ray. P.H. and Anderson, S.R. (2000). The cultural creatives: How 50 million people are changing the world. New York, NY: Harmony Books.