Lighthearted Sobriety in Our Interesting Times

It’s worth contemplating the paradox of our immense good fortune—to have been born, in the words of the Chinese curse, “in interesting times”.

On one hand, we are the luckiest and wealthiest people who have ever lived—enjoying unprecedented wealth and ease, with plentiful delicious food, amazing art and technology, and choices—including almost unlimited information and personal mobility. What’s more, we’re awakening together into the radiant joy of free awareness, in the midst of an unprecedented spiritual renaissance!

On the other hand, in the face of this bounty, most of us tend to feel the limitations on our personal options (comparing ourselves with even luckier people). Worse, we, and humanity, really do face unprecedented stresses and threats—we’re in a world crisis, with environmental degradation, global warming, mass species extinctions, extreme weather, and simultaneous real crises in all our institutions and infrastructure—financial, agricultural, educational, healthcare, political and more.

The bottom line: we face ample reasons to relax and rejoice in gratitude, and to get very serious about multiple “terrifying” challenges. I don’t think we do either fully enough; these times ask to go way further—in both directions, simultaneously. This is not merely a “deep paradox”, it’s a deep existential invitation to evolve our consciousness and culture.

In his bestselling book, You Must Change Your Life, German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk penned one of the most searing and prophetic paragraphs I’ve ever read. Please read it carefully: 

The….global crisis….as everyone has been noticing for some time, has begun to send out its apostles. Its authority is real because it is based on something unimaginable of which it is the harbinger: the global catastrophe. One need not be religiously musical to understand why the Great Catastrophe had to become the goddess of the century. As it possesses the aura of the monstrous, it bears the primary traits that were previously ascribed to the transcendent powers: it remains concealed, but makes itself known in signs; it is on the way, yet already authentically present in its portents; it reveals itself to individual intelligences in penetrating visions, yet also surpasses human understanding; it takes certain individuals into its service and makes prophets of them; its delegates turn to the people around them in its name, but are fended off as nuisances by most. On the whole, its fate is much like that of the God of monotheism when He entered the stage scarcely three thousand years ago: His mere message was already too great for the world, and only the few were prepared to begin a different life for His sake. In both cases, however, the refusal of the many increases the tension affecting the human collective. Since the global catastrophe began its partial unveiling, a new manifestation of the absolute imperative has come into the world, one that directs itself at everyone and nobody in the form of a sharp admonition: ‘Change your life! Otherwise its complete disclosure will demonstrate to you, sooner or later, what you failed to do during the time of portents!

 — (p. 444, You Must Change Your Life by Peter Sloterdijk, tr. Wieland Hoban, 2013, Polity Press, Cambridge, UK.)

On the surface, this might sound like a call for fear and grim austerity. And, appropriately, we don’t want to go there. Intuitively, we know terror isn’t healthy. Besides, apocalyptic hallucinations have been disproven again and again through history.

Worry is folly; lightheartedness and humor are the soul of true effectiveness. We need to regard this as is a developmental crisis, as humanity’s growth from adolescence to adulthood, or as a bloody “birthing” process, rather than a “dying” process. Biological and cultural evolution have always proceeded under life-and-death challenges, and again and again, amazing creative novelty has burst forth.

However, in the face of Sloterdijk’s searing prophetic words, we are called to examine our tendency toward “denial”. Is our optimism a way to push away anxiety? The human psyche has automatic mechanisms directed at restoring enough equanimity to allow us to function normally. To what degree is our hopeful attitude a reflexive defense?

Human beings’ propensity for apocalyptic delusion is exceeded only by our magnetic pull toward numbness and self-consolation. Jews in 1930s Germany kept telling each other the madness would soon pass. The case for rational optimism relies on many of us taking the crisis seriously enough to manifest remarkable resolve. Denial (that is, deciding to be optimistic without reckoning seriously with the challenges) is morally indefensible—in just the terms Sloterdijk so eloquently articulated above.

But because despair is a self-fulfilling prophesy, optimism is an even more essential moral imperative. To manifest the creativity, courage and cooperation the crisis asks of us we need fierce good humor and even a quality of ease and lightheartedness. More deeply, we need enlightenment—intuitive freedom from the implications of experience.

Notice: as the consideration deepens, the pendulum swings back and forth, taking us further and further into both ligththearted freedom and clear-eyed seriousness, finding a deep existential “yes” to life even while facing, with ever-clearer eyes, the danger signals that flash at us from every direction.

I’m an optimist, but it’s not based on a rational assessment and a prediction. I am pretty sure that no expert decisively knows our odds of finessing this crisis or being visited by various nightmare scenarios. This makes me very confident that those who think they know we’re doomed are wrong.

What to do? Many things, of course. But above all, we’re called to do them from a deeper and deeper existential ground. This means constantly awakening from “the consensus trance” into a more and more profoundly awake and joyful seriousness.

This is one of the bottom lines of the Integral Spiritual Practice I teach. 

I'd love to hear your thoughts. Please post your comments below. 

Comments

vision

Thank you, Terry, for your above expression.
It outlines very well the state of affairs we find ourselves in today.
Like many of us, i have been experiencing similar inquiries.
Truly, it more and more seems to me that we live in the belly of a huge lumbering beast. Yet there is also the experience of living in/as the heart of God.
I guess that what i most want to mention is the accessibility of beauty and grace. Many people have not consciously experienced grace and this leaves us very vulnerable to fear. The message that is coming to share today is to find yourself in nature. Yes, it is drier here in New Mexico than many have ever seen it. But i walk a very short distance and i am at the river. Near my house, the Rio Grande is pristine. I have observed her often clear a new coarse for her flow.I hike with a 'Devic' group. Sometimes we help out by moving fallen branches and debris. It feels good.
Perhaps we don't need a goal or a destination to passionately interact.
I thank all my brothers and sisters here for choosing love and facing the vast opportunities present now for us to express It.

Humor as Light

Terry, this well written article resonates with my heart. Funny, just today I posted on my Facebook a quote on humor.
I am discovering curiosity leads me into this lighthearted container where it meets up with intensity. One of the Big facts that my curiosity lingered on is that of Death.....small deaths and, of course, the Big death that comes for us all. Shifting into higher levels of awakening also simultaneously shifted my embracing of death.....it is laugh out loud hilarious, a darly comedy, how we, as a humanity think nothing of killing, yet, we live in the craziest denial of this final act we all perform.

Changing my life to this realization that living in light hearted humor...optimism ..... while living intensely from the core that death is always in the next room; helps me to embrace both light and dark. Every day is a birth for me and every night a death......Grace and Gratitude, a book I'm starting to write, teaches me Grace is my core Presence and Gratitude, to wake up everyday, is how I live my Grace.

Love and Light dear friend,
Mary Linda

Collective Intel Emerging

Thanks Terry for this grounded evolutionary message. As a radical optimist, intensely aware of the BIG Challenges we face, I appreciate your radical and evolutionary call to waking up, growing up and taking responsibility. I sense from the Sloterdijk quotation that the Great Catastrophe (GC) is one of the Spirits of Change who are calling us to evolve beyond our self and ethno-centric concerns. I hear/see that accompanyig GC, the Spirit of Great Opportunity (GO) is also calling us to face the realities that GC is showing us. These are the Great Dissonance (GD) that moves us to make the changes in service to the very survival of our species and all Life. As you note, we have a history of overcoming major challenges (and an equally strong track record of being comfortable in our complacencies). Perhaps it's only when complacency is no longer an option that we finally wake up? Your humuour and lightheartedness is so invitational. When we can smile at our behaviors then I thank there IS hope. So thanks so much for that encouragement.

And as a footnote from a bean-counting city evolutionist (ha!), if nothing else the GC has spawned a plethora of new metrics that are becoming widespread. And if we measure what GC says is important, then I see the beginnings of our great turning (thank you Joanna Macy). Lighthearted sobriety is absolutely needed so people can listen to these messages to spread the word. Namaste with a meshful smile!!

Seriousness, humor and responsibility

Thank you dear Terry for this eloquent message that arrives just at the right moment. I resonate very much with everything you state and I too feel that we are in a developmental crisis as humanity, and in a phase of growth from adolescence to adulthood. I specially feel in my environment in Mexico a lack of seriousness and responsibility in general, and an exacerbated narcissism. I am truly for that slogan from Peter Sloterdijk "You Must Change Your Life", in that we have to be able to respond to the changes we are facing through cooperation instead of denying through evasive means, with seriousness and humour, balancing both which requires practice as it is an art. One must not wait for the changes to knock us down in passivity, one must actively step out with courage and participate in its personal domain by one's acts and consciousness, as little or big the latter might be. The creativity this crisis asks of us will come from that ability to respond in every stage and I agree that we must meet what we are asked to do with humour and in a lighthearted attitude, breathing all the way and doing what we can with a smile.

I remember a quote from the Dalai Lama stating that our own actions protect us.

I am curious and enthusiastic about this next step in our journey towards consciousness.

Much Love,

Paola

Mass media, consumerism, and the consensus trance

Thanks for your courageous invitation for optimism. I'd like to see further discussion of how we are in collective trance -- a cultural trance. Sustained by the lulling routine of busyness and distractions, a majority of people seem unaware we are moving through a turning zone in human development. We now either wake up, grow up, and move into our collective maturity or we will likely veer off into a new dark age for the Earth and humanity. A primary engine for either awakening or generating the status-quo, collective trance are the mass media.

On the positive side for our collective awakening, within the space of a few decades, humanity has gone from geographic isolation to profound intimacy and connection. The combined power of television and the Internet has produced a global revolution in our capacity to see ourselves as a species -- the world is becoming transparent to itself. The entire human family is increasingly conscious of the simple fact that we can be conscious of ourselves through the mirror of mass media, the Internet, and other tools of the global nervous system. The world is being enveloped in a growing web of communications and humanity is becoming a “super-organism” able to collectively witness and participant in our own journey.

On the negative side for our awakening and development, television programming and much Internet development is being created with a profound consumerist bias. In turn, people tend to use consumption levels and patterns portrayed in TV and the Internet to establish their sense of identity and measure their personal well-being. Yet, those same consumption patterns are simultaneously devastating the ecological foundations on which our future depends. By programming television and the Internet primarily to achieve commercial success, the mind-set of our species is being programmed for ecological failure.

Our media environment -- dominated by television and the Internet -- reflect and constrain the workings of our collective mind. As we collectively think, there we will go. As the media goes, so goes our future. It’s time for a new “politics of collective consciousness” that breaks the consensus trance generated by the mass media. A citizen-based, trans-partisan movement –- a “citizens voice” movement -- could break the trance of consumerism and call for an entirely new level of conscious communication about our collective future -- local, regional, national, and global.

With love,

Duane

I Needed This

Terry -- I saw you read this at the UN a few months ago here in NYC. We didn't get a chance to meet, but thank you for this. I am going to put this passage on my wall. There is much to be done. I'm happy to have teachers like you to see that it happens.

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