Peter Russell studied mathematics and theoretical physics at Cambridge, and then experimental psychology. He traveled to India to study meditation and eastern philosophy, and on his return took up the first research post ever offered in Britain on the psychology of meditation. His principal interest is the deeper, spiritual significance of the times we are passing through. He has written several books in this area, including The Consciousness Revolution, Waking Up in Time, and From Science to God. He recently spoke to a capacity audience in Totnes, and the next morning I went to Schumacher College to interview him for Transition Culture.
What do you see as being the key aspects of the challenge facing us?
I see a key challenge is the psychological challenge, the mental challenge of making those inner adjustments. How do we let go of the habitual ways of doing things, let go of past way of solving problems to look at things with completely fresh eyes, because I think we’re going to be in completely new situations which we’ve never encountered before and the ways of the past are not really appropriate.
So I think that ability to let go, to really think afresh, is going to be absolutely critical. And that’s really challenging, because we don’t know how to do it, and it’s scary. And with that, I think also, how do we manage our fears? Or not create too many fears because I think that’s what holds us back from making change very often. It’s like, we may know what to do and we may have the means to do it, but we start resisting it because we don’t want to…it’s scary – we’re going to make ourselves feel uncomfortable, at risk.
It could be not just material risk but how we feel – it could be uncomfortable. We get scared, and so I think we need to know how to work with our fears, not create them so much. I think these inner dimensions are really important and also developing an inner stability, because what we’re going to see is unexpected things coming faster and faster and faster, and if we’re in a vulnerable state ourselves, we’re going to be easily thrown by them and get emotionally upset, or panicky, whatever. And I think if we can just really develop a stable core through ourselves, that can help see us through so that we can move through the winds of change as they come.
For many people when the reality of climate change and peak oil first sink in, they often go through something which is quite similar to a dark night of the soul, or what Stanislav Grof calls a Spiritual Emergency. What advice would you have for people when they get in to that state of really seeing, really sensing how impermanent everything is around them?
To really open up to that sense, to that feeling. It’s hard because our habitual reaction to some uncomfortable perception or feeling is to shy away from it, to push it away. But I think in these situations that’s the wrong thing. When we’re feeling whatever it is, how our whole world view has suddenly been spun around, or we’re in shock, or outraged, or disappointed, whatever it is, to get in touch with those feelings – and this is just a universal principle of life – to get in touch with what it actually is we’re feeling here, there’s a sort of metabolism of feeling that happens, when you start getting in touch with what it is you open up to it, you feel it.
Initially it may seem even more devastating, stronger, whatever, but by getting in touch with it, something begins to happen. It’s like the psyche works with it and it begins to work its way through. So it’s the opposite of what we tend to do which is a suppressing and keeping down of it, but to actually open up to whatever the feelings are and feel them, write about them, talk about them with your friends, just anything just to express the feelings. That’s the principle thing.
Do you think that fear is a legitimate motivator for change?
No, I don’t think it’s always helpful. It certainly can promote change, but I think often it’s a layer that’s added on. I think we can see a situation and really see the necessity for change and be able to change, the fear maybe an added driver, but the danger is it clouds our perception. If we’re acting out of fear, we may not always be making the best choices, because when we’re acting out of fear we tend to fall back on choices that are more secure – we’re looking to regain our security – and we may not be so willing to take the sort of risks that really need to be taken.
So I think very often it is fear that motivates us, but if we can somehow step beyond the fear and see what the real motivation is, and not have the fear triggered, or into be governed by the fear, then I think in the end we probably make better quality decisions. Because what we’ve been asked to do here is to be really creative…come up with new ways of doing things, completely new solutions to social problems we’ve never encountered before. And fear, to me, doesn’t enhance creativity.
The best creative state is to be able to step back, be quiet, be reflective, to draw upon one’s resources, and pull together different areas of thinking. The very nature of fear is to focus the mind on one thing – “There’s danger, I’ve got to deal with this danger” – and what we need to be able to do is to sit back and be able to say, “well I need to consider this, I need to consider that, how does this play out?”, to be much more level headed.
And the same would apply for anger presumably as well…
Definitely for anger. Any of these emotions. They tend to be there but they’re not constructive, so learning how to work with these emotions…fear and anger are quite closely related, and anger in particularly usually comes when the world isn’t behaving according to our expectations, if other people aren’t behaving according to our expectations. And what we tend to do, is we get upset because the way we thought things were going to pan out isn’t happening, and then we blame the world, or the other person, or the other people for upsetting our plans, our ideal plans of how the world should be.
Then we get caught up in this antagonism and blaming, and when we’re really in anger, the mind gets really crowded. But if when you feel anger, you can actually step back and see the conflict that’s there between what is actually happening and your expectation, if you can see, “Aagh, I expected my life was going to be unfolding this way, what’s happening is this, and it’s just my expectation that’s being challenged.”
What happens is you begin to get a little bit of distance from it, and as soon as you get a little distance from what’s going on, then the intensity of the anger or rage begins to subside. It’s like, because we stop blaming the other person, we’re seeing that in a sense, I’m partly responsible here. There’s the way the world is which is because of what somebody else has done, changed, and there’s my attachment to my expectation.
Do you think there’s a danger that emphasising consciousness change above practical action, in that sometimes you might hear people say that actually we can just evolve magically out of this crisis that we’re in, that the universe will somehow sort it out for us, we don’t actually need to get our hands dirty ourselves. How do you see that balance?
I see there’s a bit danger in making consciousness change the top thing or the priority or getting it out of balance. It’s going to take a lot of physical work, social changes, economic changes, many sorts of changes which are going to require work, adjustments, decisions, in the active world. And those things are going to happen more fluidly, more easily, and I think more constructively, if at the same time we are freeing our consciousness up from the old mode, that old, self-centred, materialistic mode, which actually created the problems in the first place on a larger level.
If we don’t also tend to our consciousness, our mind, our psyches, if we don’t also attend to that, then we’re going to be repeating some of the same mistakes. So I think the opposite error is equally important to avoid – which is purely looking at what must be done, without bringing in the consciousness element. That’s the way we normally approach things – we see a problem out there, we must fix it, change it, do something about it. And we have to bring in the mind – what is it in our thinking that’s causing our problems or stopping us solving them in the right way?
So there definitely needs to be a balance…of the two supporting each other. But a shift in consciousness is going to support the work we have to do on the outer. And I don’t believe that if we all just meditate and sit back, the world will miraculously sort itself out. I don’t believe that at all. It’s definitely going to need a lot of very challenging work, challenging decisions, which is going to probably push through some personal discomforts, hardships maybe as we make adjustments. That’s not going to be easy, and that’s why I think we’re going to need to be looking at our consciousness at the same time so that we can ease our way through that process.
One of the main projects that we’re doing with Transition Town Totnes is building up to developing what we call an Energy Descent Plan, which looks over a fifteen, twenty year period. We’re doing lots of visioning work with the community in terms of, given the reality of peak oil and climate change, how could it be? Given those scenarios, what would your vision be, and to really get the idea that actually, if we did it properly, it could be fantastic. What do you see as being the power of those collective visions – you touched on it last night a bit – but could you say a little bit more about where the power is in a group of people doing that kind of collective visioning work.
I think there’s a power…there’s several levels. One, it’s a motivator. If you really feel there’s something tangible that you can see happening in your own experience – 10, 15 years down the road for most people, that’s within their own experience – there’s something that’s positive to work towards, that’s a motivator. If the vision is we’re just surviving somehow, you don’t get so much motivation.
So it’s certainly a very good motivator. Secondly I think another power of vision is it’s a guideline. It’s helping us make the right choices as we move along, because we’re continually making decisions, adjusting according to this vision. So it’s an attractor, it’s moving us on towards that. So I think a vision – in that sense it’s like a goal, it’s a very clear goal that you’re working towards.
That’s really important, and it’s known time and time again, if you don’t have a really clear vision of where you’re going, you just meander. You may get somewhere but you may not. So vision’s really important from that point of view as well. And I think there’s something deeper which I can’t really explain, but when there is a vision, it’s somehow not just a motivation, but somehow the psyche gets involved in some way that seems to interact with the world in a way that makes it easier for things to actually happen, things seem to fall in place.
I can’t explain that rationally but it’s something that people notice time and time again. If you’ve got a strong vision of where you’re going – it’s as if the world seems to want to support that vision. It just seems to do it. There’s many books been written on that – The Power of Positive Thinking – those sort of things. I can’t explain it but it seems to work.
That seems to be what’s happening here as well…in that context, how attached…what degree of attachment should be develop to the outcomes of the process?
Zero! In terms of attachment, and this maybe just how I’m using the word ‘attachment’ … attachment as I think of it is when we get emotionally involved with something, and we fall in to thinking, “I’ve got to have it this way, I can’t have it this way, I’m not going to be happy”. And then what happens is, two things: we start making our inner well being at the expense of what’s happening in the world.
With a project like this, who knows what change is going to come along? So as soon as the vision starts deviating from what we’re attached to, we’re going to start getting upset, or depressed or whatever, or we’re loosing that clarity of mind that we really need. So, as the Buddha said, attachment to things is the source of so much suffering, when we’re clinging to an idea of how things should be.
I think we should have goals, very clear goals, have vision, but not be attached to them because…you may find you need to completely adjust the vision as you go along. Who knows what’s going to happen? It’s a fine edge, but a really clear vision, without that emotional attachment. So that if things change, that comes back to the flexibility and stability – you can make those changes and it not be the end of the world.
What stops us changing when we’re faced with something that’s so obviously screaming, “change for heaven’s sake!” at us?
I think it’s in general the fear of losing something, the fear of losing something in the short term, whether it’s our comfort, status, maybe economic issues. But I think it’s fear of loss. And human beings are unfortunately, but naturally, short-term orientated. All creatures are. We deal with the short-term needs.
That’s part of the problem, that we are intelligent enough to see the long-term needs, but when we’re faced with a quick decision, we tend to go for the short-term. A simple thing; we see a bit of chocolate cake and the short-term me says, “I fancy that”, even though the long-term me says, “That may not be so good for your weight or your health, or whatever.”
It runs all the way through our society. And that is a challenge for all of us. How do we follow the long term needs and not go for the instant gratification. And I think that’s what’s behind a lot of the difficulty of changing – it means giving up some short-term comfort, short-term gratification. That’s a question of just practice, discipline, support for each other. With the chocolate cake analogy, if you’ve got a friend who says, “come on, you know that’s really not the best thing for you right now”, then you might have that support to actually see the long term. So, that is a challenge, but I think that’s the basic conflict there.
In terms of how we tell people about peak oil and climate change, would you have any thoughts of how to present those things to people in such a way that they feel inspired and motivated to change, rather than just saying, “here’s loads of really bad news, go and do something”. It always strikes me that the environmental movement has been really not very good at that. It has expected people to accept lots and lots of information, read it and go, “oh my God! I had better do something!”, whereas the reality is that it hasn’t worked like that.
And it comes back that it’s fear based – this is how bad things are, and unless we change, it’s going to be the end of the world or whatever, which naturally brings up fear. Again, if there’s ways to include a positive vision of where it can go in that presentation, I think that’s important. Not to pull the wool over how bad it can be, not to cover it up, but to see it as an opportunity as well – an opportunity perhaps to live life in a different way, and even live a more fulfilling life at the end of the process, or during the process.
The way we live our lives – the material lives we live aren’t that fulfilling for many people. We do it almost on automatic – come home and sit down and watch the telly and go to work the next day without even thinking. Maybe, out of this comes a more fulfilling life. That’s just one option, there could be many others. But if there’s a way in seeing the other side of the crisis; the Chinese word for crisis, (wei-chi), is ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’. If we only see the danger then we can just get depressed and be in the fear. If we can see the opportunity, to hear, do something different, then I think that’s useful. So it’s balancing the two – the danger and the opportunity.
Energy dependence, and then food.
Okay. What would a revolution in consciousness look like on the ground? If you were to wake up and that vision had happened, how would you know that it had happened?
On the ground, initially it wouldn’t look any different whatsoever in terms of physical reality, but people would be functioning from a different set of motivations. There wouldn’t be that fear of each other, there wouldn’t be people judging each other out of their own needs for security or status or whatever. There would be a compassion for other people, a caring for other people. There would be a wisdom about what was important, what was right, and these factors would start playing out in the way people inter-related.
So people wouldn’t be using each other, or abusing each other in order to support their own individual egos. People would be much more…a much more generous spirit – that’s the best way to put it. There’d be a much more generous spirit in everybody, and that more generous spirit would play out in many different ways which would lead what appears on the ground to gradually change, because the motivating consciousness wouldn’t be that fear, that ‘me first’. It would be a much more communal, collective, compassionate, kinder consciousness.
It brings to mind the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths..
Yeah. Buddha said it and…many people have said it. But as Buddha said, if we stop that clinging, stop that attachment, if we can undo that…I think what he saw was that we do it the whole time but it’s not necessary, we don’t have to live our lives that way. So he talked about helping people to live a life where the four basic principles of living were compassion, kindness, not taking things, not stealing, respecting each other, speaking the truth – these are basic principles.
Right livelihood, that what you’re doing is not damaging the planet, so that we don’t consciously and intentionally do things which are damaging. That’s a negative way of putting it but I think if we start doing that in our lives, in our interactions with other people, we actually don’t say things or do things which we know are going to upset or harm others. If we just did that in our lives, I think miracles would happen. If we all just infused our lives with the attitude of “how can I interact with this person so that they feel appreciated, supported, loved”, and we all did that to each other, I think we’d all be living in a different world immediately.
One of the big challenges for an initiative like TTT is the thing of engaging young people in the process at a time that’s probably the most materialistic time there’s ever been to be growing up. Do you have any thoughts on how to…draw them in to the process and make it most relevant, and so on?
What I see is, yes they’re in a very materialistic mode, and the way education and college has gone, they’re looking forward to earning lots of money or whatever it is, all that technology. But what I also see is, not all but lots of young people are passionately concerned about what’s happening. They’re growing up in this world, and they’re passionately concerned.
They see things so much clearer than I ever did at that age, so much clearer. And I think they have a fresh approach to creativity which is really valuable. I find very often, I meet these people very often because they’re kids of people I know and I end up having conversations with them whilst round visiting their parents or something; they’ve got so much wisdom to share. So, I’m not saying all but there’s quite a lot like that. I would see the question not so much how do you motivate them to get involved, but how do you make contact with them?
If you can find ways of making contact in the right way…and maybe with people through their own generation. I’m seeing an interesting thing happening in the US – this is on a much broader level – but there’s new people coming along from the younger generation who are becoming figureheads for that younger generation. And most of them actually turn out…they’re kids of people who’ve been vanguards in this movement, as parents, but they’ve had their own children.
Now the children are taking it on. Like Ocean Robins, who’s the son of John Robins who did all that work on food, or Julia Butterfly Hill who sat in a tree for a year – she’s become a very significant leader amongst younger people. Noah Levine who is Steven Levine’s son. Steven Levine wrote a couple of books on death and dying…
Yeah, Who Dies? His son has become an incredible punk Buddhist teacher. And he’s teaching…he’s got this whole sort of Dharma punks movement. And so these new leaders are coming out who are actually part of that generation. So probably one of the things you could do is find those people who are already there, making contact with them, because they could speak to those people.
Great. And lastly, if you had any final thoughts or tips for this process that we’re…any parting advice, or…?
Have fun, I think, have fun! A friend of mine says, “If it’s not fun, don’t do it. If you have to do it, make it fun.” So I think, find ways to make it fun. Like that lady said at the end of my talk last night, let’s celebrate. So find ways…because what you’re doing is hard work, it’s challenging, you’re coming up against stuff, scary at times, so find ways to have fun, make it fun, so you’re actually getting good humoured nourishment out of the process.