on letting go

A video clip recently came to my attention through my social network – it is the recording of a wise and generous talk given by Carolina Moeller to the Natural Leaders Conference. I met Carolina in January 2015 at a weeklong residential programme which we both attended – she was someone with whom I felt a very warm connection. We conversed only a couple times, but never with small talk; on the contrary, our talk was genuine and touched across generations. We conversed only a couple times but we parted as friends. This talk she gives is on the topic of letting go:

Letting go has a particular resonance to anyone who has experienced insanity. Letting go of consensual reality, letting go of our assumptions and of the mental framework which anchors us to our usual perspectives, can be terrifying, exhilarating, but also enlightening. It provides a visceral taste of the boundless state we normally block out at the margins of consciousness.

At one point in her talk, Carolina observes that “It is merely words until you experience it yourself. Direct personal experience seems to be at the heart of any change.” Certainly this applies to alternative states of consciousness. It is merely words – crazy sounding words – unless one can let go of conviction, let go of the rational, and allow oneself to simply be in the moment. Allow oneself to suppose; to imagine; to allow that perhaps… and maybe… and once upon a time… In some cases this becomes a plunge into chaos, but not always, not necessarily. In some cases it opens up a space that wasn’t there before. It some cases, it brings deeply worthwhile learning.

Carolina later poses the question: are there sometimes things we should hold onto? She proposes that “first principles – things like goodness, truth, beauty, love, unity – these are the things to hold onto, because they don’t change (though our individual understanding of them might.)” In my own experience, my crazy-sounding experience, even these first principles may be let go – because while we may let go of them, they will not let go of us.

actively hoping

I like to think of the Pandora Project as an example of active hope – a term coined by authors Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, in their book of the same name which was published in 2012. They define it as follows:

Active Hope is a practice. Like tai chi or gardening, it is something we do rather than have. It is a process we can apply to any situation, and it involves three key steps. First, we take a clear view of reality; second, we identify what we hope for in terms of the direction we’d like things to move in or the values we’d like to see expressed; and third, we take steps to move ourselves or our situation in that direction. (p.3)

The hope Pandora finds at the bottom of her box is active hope. It doesn’t just sit in the corner gathering dust – it is there to be acted out and acted upon. Step one, as Macy and Johnstone point out, involves taking a clear look at reality.

And here’s where I’d like to pause for a moment and consider the subtitle of their book, which is How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy. The authors don’t refer in the book to this flippant subtitle, but they do allude to its point in the Introduction. Up front and in your face, they name the elephants in the room:

As our world heats up, deserts expand and extreme weather events become more common. Human population and consumption are increasing at the same time as essential resources, such as freshwater, fish stocks, topsoil, and oil reserves, are in decline…. We can no longer take it for granted that the resources we’re dependent on – food, fuel, and drinkable water – will be available. We can no longer take it for granted even that our civilisation will survive or that conditions on our planet will remain hospitable for complex forms of life.

We are starting out by naming this uncertainty as a pivotal psychological reality of our time. (p.1)

A universal psychological reality: is there such a thing? There are plenty of people whose psychological response to these converging global crises is abject denial. And there are also plenty of people whose psychological response is what Stanislav and Christina Grof call “spiritual emergency.”

Spiritual emergency shares a number of features with psychosis, and these types of experiences overlap and merge. One person’s craziness is another person’s awakening. Again: is there such a thing as a universal psychological reality? In fact, is there such a thing as a universal reality? Or is reality multifold? I like the term ‘consensual reality’ because it indicates that we choose which parts of our personal reality we share with others. We hold the power within us to shape a collective reality.

How to face the mess we’re in without going crazy?  Well, with the greatest respect to Macy and Johnstone, perhaps going crazy is the healthiest response we could have to the mess we’re in; perhaps going crazy – that is, surrendering oneself to spiritual crisis and breakthrough – is precisely what is needed.

Those of us who have opened our own personal Pandora’s Box, unleashing a storm of disorder and mess into our lives, understand that survival rests on a psychological reality grounded in active hope. That is, grounding oneself in one’s own personal truth, and understanding one’s personal power to contribute to and help shape that shared consensual reality. “Because we can never know for sure how the future will turn out, it makes more sense to focus on what we’d like to have happen, and then do our bit to make it more likely. That’s what Active Hope is all about.” (p.167)


on language and beyond

“A mind enclosed in language is in prison.” Simone Weil

Imagine you are able to travel backwards in time, hundreds of thousands of years, to a time before the use of language. There is no consensus among linguists on how language developed – whether it occurred as a gradual process or a quantum leap – but we can safely assume that there was a stage in the prehistoric past that involved our ancestors existing without complex language. So imagine, then, that you have traveled back to this pre-language time with the following task: to convey information about our present human culture to those primitive ancestors.

Is it possible? Could you transmit the concept of a skyscraper, for instance, without using language? Your first instinct about sharing your idea might be to attempt to describe it: they are watching you there, as you stand and move your hands about while you make a long string of various weird vocal sounds. Or perhaps you’d try to draw a picture in the sand with a stick. You point to the stick figure people you have drawn beside an enormous rectangle, and try to convey that the figures represent people, by pointing first to the drawing and then to oneself and to individuals in your audience. Do they understand that the drawing is meant to show images of people? And if so, do they then understand the relationship of the figures to the large rectangle? Do they even understand that you are trying to give them an idea from inside your own head? Or do they instead simply regard you as different, not to mention demented, and probably even dangerous?

When our species developed language, a whole new level of consciousness emerged, and our reality changed. Before language, there was no way to even convey the existence of an object that was out of one’s line of vision, let alone its characteristics, its history or its potential uses. For heaven’s sake, we can’t even manage it sometimes during a game of charades. We take language utterly for granted, when it in fact facilitates our entire human culture.

Now imagine you are visited by a person from hundreds of thousands of years in the future. This person is no longer Home Sapien – we very likely will have evolved into something else by then. What might that be? And what if that person’s consciousness constructs a different version of reality to the one we currently share with one another? What if they live in a world with its own equivalent of “skyscraper” – unimaginable to us in our current state of mind and degree of experience. How would this individual communicate their understanding of reality to us here and now?

This thought experiment is speculation of course, about something which words can never capture. Words cannot adequately describe that imagined future reality because by its very nature it would have been shaped by a different kind of consciousness, one that had evolved beyond language.

Now what if – just what if – our present mental states already hold the potential for our future evolution, in the same way that our ancestors’ mental capacities held the potential for venturing into the terrain of language? After all, our ancestors were set up somehow to permit language, such that it was a viable course for evolution to follow (otherwise language couldn’t have happened.) What if there is another state of consciousness that transcends our current language-bound existence, and which would shape a very different version of consensual reality? What if that state of consciousness is showing its first glimmers in the form of mystical experience and/or psychosis?  What if we as a human race will reach a point of critical mass wherein we collectively experience this transcendent state?

A common feature of the mystical experience is its ineffability. As John Horgan writes in his 2003 book Rational Mysticism, “Over time, mystical knowledge came to be defined as that which transcends language and so cannot be revealed.” Moving to a state beyond language means moving into the unknown – and it evokes fear and trepidation in most people. “Universal insanity?”you might think. “Are you crazy?”

Yes, perhaps I am. But I will end this here with a thought articulated, through language; the wise words of a very smart man:

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” Albert Einstein


starting over

When I set up the Pandora Project in March – six months ago now – it began as the scratching of an itch. For years I’ve felt the Pandora myth tugging at my sleeve, beckoning to me to look a little more closely and listen a little more carefully to its message. What intrigues me most is that whenever I mention Pandora to other people, they respond with wariness. For many people the story is a parable about disobedience and punishment, with that reckless Pandora letting loose all the ills of the world. But for me, the point of it all is the hope that she finds at the bottom of her box – the hope that redeems the world’s troubles.

Originally I set the project up as an exploration of gender – you can see what I was on about if you read this retelling of the Pandora myth. But no sooner had I published the site when I lost interest in it. The itch had been temporarily scratched, yet somehow still not satisfied. Explorations of gender issues just didn’t go deeply enough into what Pandora means to me. I decided to put it all on the back burner while I focused on other things, trusting that it would speak to me again when it was good and ready.

Eventually I found myself describing the Pandora Project to my friend Cat – connecting with me in the guise of life coach (and an excellent one too, I must add. Web of Living: well worth a look!) What emerged from that discussion was the idea of recrafting the project to explore a simple idea: that the alternative states of consciousness which we call insanity are windows to the next stage of evolution.

With that, Pandora’s myth took on a fresh meaning for me. As a person who has experienced psychosis, the evils of the opened box easily symbolise the chaos of insanity, while the hope at the bottom of the box resonates deeply with the joyful bliss of surrendering oneself to that which is beyond one’s control, and coming through crisis to a state of redemption and healing.

Does this sound scary? Of course it’s scary – letting go of anything is scary, and letting go of one’s grip on consensual reality takes the cake. But those of us who have survived it return from the journey with a much richer understanding of the reality we inhabit with other people.

blessedarethecrackedAnyone paying attention to the critical issues that have developed in our world (climate change, nuclear waste, overpopulation, industrial pollution, rampant materialism, gross inequality…to name just a few) will easily become overwhelmed. Surely the mindsets that lead collectively to these ills are themselves insane, and the paradigms in which we live as well, so full of destructive power are they. As the great Erich Fromm wrote in his book The Sane Society, “that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.”

Or to put it much more bluntly: maybe the crazy people have something worth telling us. Maybe the breakdowns we experience in this troubled world are offering us information we need. In fact, there are cultural traditions which regard mental anomalies as just that: messages from a spirit realm, trying to communicate with us and set us right. Some cultures listen respectfully to their crazy folk, rather than doping them up with olanzapine.

I will be writing about this and various related ideas on this blog, and using the Pandora Project as a vehicle for my curiosity and research. I am starting over, and look forward to the ride.