Enhancing emotional wellness in a collapsing world
I recently had the extraordinary privilege of sitting down with therapist and mentor, Carla Royal, to talk about collapse and how we can enhance our emotional well being as we prepare for and navigate it. Carla's perspective is incisive and her work essential in the current milieu of climate chaos, energy depletion, and economic upheaval. [CB]
Carolyn Baker: First of all, tell us a little bit about yourself and your background. Have you always lived in Virginia? What drew you to becoming a therapist?
Carla Royal: I'm originally from Augusta, GA. I still have family in that area (which concerns me given the severe southeastern drought). I was raised in a politically conservative, somewhat lifestyle-liberal family.
There were some family issues that were very difficult for me and I began struggling at an early age. I wasn't doing well in school so my parents decided to put me in a private, church-based school. I don't think they had any idea it was a fundamentalist Christian school. I was 12 when I first attended.
Within a couple months of attending I became a Christian; hook, line and sinker. The relationships I developed there probably saved my life at the time. For the next 25 years I devoted my life to Christianity; going to a Christian high school, Christian college and even a year at seminary. I always struggled with my faith though, never questioning that the problem may be with fundamentalist Christianity and not with me. I was prone to depression and anxiety, never being able to consistently "walk with the Lord".
As a result, I began seeing a Christian counselor at age 26. He was quite wonderful really. The greatest thing he did for me was to be present with me and accept me unconditionally. This was the beginning of my healing and coming out of the fog, but it would be over 15 years later before I really let go of my fundamentalist beliefs.
My experience with my first therapist piqued my interest in becoming a therapist. I started seminary shortly thereafter pursuing a masters in Christian Education and while there I took all the counseling courses they offered which I loved. I got a lot of encouragement to pursue this line of work from professors. After completing a year of seminary I changed course and attended the University of South Carolina from where I received a Masters in Counseling. Once graduated, I began my private practice as a Licensed Professional Counselor in Raleigh, North Carolina and was there for 13 years before moving to Virginia.
CB: What woke you up to the state of the planet?
CR: Several events came together over the course of a few years that woke me up to the state of the planet. My husband at the time and I were desperately trying to have kids but couldn't. From the time I was a child, being married and having children were all I had imagined for my future, all I wanted. It was devastating not being able to conceive.
At the same time my mother was dying of cancer, and her death rocked me to my core and sent me into a tailspin for the next five years resulting in my own brush with death and then a rebirth. My husband and I divorced during those five years, and I discovered that I was a lesbian.
If you have never been involved in fundamentalist Christianity it would be difficult to imagine the horror of these two things; divorce and homosexuality, especially homosexuality. My world was utterly and forever turned upside down, thankfully!
I began seeing a wonderful therapist, Sally Erickson, who has walked beside me for the last decade, who is now a friend and colleague.
It was she who first gave me Thom Hartman's book, The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight. She was giving this book to everyone she knew. I had never heard of Peak Oil until this book. At the back of the book was a reading list of probably 100 books, as I recall.
I was so moved by Ancient Sunlight that I begin to systematically work my way through the reading list. These books were about Peak Oil and much, much more. It was my relationship with Sally and my reading that this intensive journey began in seeing the world with different eyes. Eyes wide open. And it was during this time that I began deeply questioning fundamentalist Christianity eventually discarding those beliefs all together.
CB: Why do you think you are able to look fully at that? Why do you think others cannot?
CR: When my world turned upside down several years ago I was flung way out of a lifelong paradigm. While this was difficult at the time it enabled me to open my heart wide and see things completely differently.
Shortly thereafter, Sally suggested I go on a medicine walk (in short, a day in the woods from sun up to sun down with the intention of asking the Universe for its medicine). This was a powerful experience for me and I clearly felt my connection to the Universe and its love and care for me. It was then that I began my deep love affair with the Earth.
It was at this same time that I began my intensive reading of the books recommended by Thom Hartman. I spent several months reading practically everything on that list. I had the time to do this because I had gone through a very extreme crisis and was not working full time. In fact, during this time I realized that I never wanted to work full-time again because of the toll it took on my soul and how it kept me from being fully alive and connected to the larger community of life. Derrick Jensen, Chellis Glendinning, Daniel Quinn, and many others were instrumental in helping me open my eyes.
Why can I look fully? Because I make the time to look. I think that's partly why others have difficulty looking. They don't have the time. They work long hours at jobs they don't love in order to make ends meet. They come home to families who need attention. They are tired and stressed. They do all they can then collapse in front of the television where they are fed more of the propaganda of this corporatist culture.
Going through extreme crises can also be helpful in opening up our hearts to let go of old paradigms and see with new eyes. It's often said that folks need to "hit bottom" before real change occurs. I think there is truth in this and has been so for me.
Being a lesbian already puts me at odds with mainstream culture and perhaps being at odds with it gives me some courage to look deeper into the world situation. And I'm certain that having no children frees me up to look. I think that many parents get so caught up in caring for their children that they don't dare challenge their assumptions, beliefs, dreams, etc. It's simply too threatening. I have real compassion for these folks because I believe that had I had children I would be stuck right there in my old paradigm, too afraid to look.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I have the support to look fully. Support from people like Tim and Sally and others, authors like the ones I mention above, and sites like yours, Carolyn. And I have the support of the Earth itself; the birds, trees, wind and land. I am deeply connected there, and they sustain me.
CB: When you look, what do you see? What's going on? What are we headed for?
CR: I see so much, Carolyn. Here in my own backyard there is a severe drought going on in the southeast. As of this writing I hear that Atlanta is less than 80 days away from running out of water. Raleigh less than 60 days. I have family and friends in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.
Each and every day I read multiple articles on Peak Oil, climate change, political unrest, population explosion, teetering global economies, dying oceans, species extinction, low food supplies, detainment camps built all over our country, and much, much more. I feel the temperatures rising where I live. I watch the trees simply drop their leaves from the drought instead of changing into their magnificent autumn colors.
I see people depressed, stressed, despairing and they don't know why. Toxins are eating up our bodies. People are working harder and making less. The government is no longer ours and more and more they are targeting their own people as enemies. I see destruction at every turn done in the name of growth and prosperity.
We are headed for collapse. In fact, collapse has already begun, but most folks haven't a clue. They are too tired from working long, depressing jobs. They are numbed-out and dumbed-down by mainstream corporate media. I don't know how collapse will look, whether it will be slow or fast, but it is happening and folks are not preparing.
It is a frightening time but exciting, too; a death and rebirth happening before our very eyes. You recently spoke of this in your article "Stop Calling me a ‘Doomer'". The destruction of the earth will not stop until this culture has crumbled so while that is a frightening prospect, I am looking forward to it; looking forward to the destruction ending and the healing beginning.
CB: What emotional work have you had to do for yourself to be able to look at these realities? What preparation are you making for collapse?
CR: I've spent many, many years in therapy working through my own personal issues and, in recent years, through the cultural and environmental issues that have affected me. I've been fortunate to have people support me through out my life. I've been fortunate to have a strong connection with nature for most of my life, especially in the last decade.
I have spent a great deal of time grieving the destruction I've seen, and the tears have been healing for me and healing for the Earth on some level I believe. As my good friend Tim Bennett says, "The least we can do is notice." So I spend countless hours with nature noticing. This helps keep me open and present. It gives me the courage to keep looking.
Your article about American Tears speaks eloquently to this. Tim says I have an unrelenting commitment to "hanging out". I've often said that hanging out is my meditation. I hang out with the birds, the trees and the wind. I hang out with good friends with whom I can talk openly about these things. This hanging out keeps me in touch.
The main thing I'm doing in preparation for collapse is readying my mind and heart. I do this by grieving the destruction, by loving the life all around me, by reading books and articles daily, by spending time with friends who are up to speed on the state of the planet and by spending time daily with my bird friends and other nature friends.
I also do this using a practice called Tonglen. It is a Buddhist meditation practice whereby I breathe in destruction, anger, grief, hate, et cetera and breathe out well-being, love, peace, compassion, release, etc. I learned this practice from Pema Chodron's book, When things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, and there you can find greater detail into this practice.
I have also simplified my life greatly. Over the last decade I have gradually scaled down my life to the point of having extremely low bills, cleared out most nonessentials, and I live in a single-wide trailer which I rent on some gorgeous land. Who needs a huge suburban home when you have this kind of scenery and connection to the land? I am also learning to buy and eat locally and organically.
I am making plans to join some friends in the next year or two to begin a community where we can live sustainably and in accordance with nature. We will practice permaculture and community-building. We will be committed to relationships and the land. We will be committed to being and staying awake. I believe it will be extraordinarily difficult for individuals to make it through the collapse alone. I know I won't be able to. Strong local communities will have a chance.
CB: What might other people do when they wake up?
CR: I would recommend they find as much support as possible from others who are awake, making this a priority. Dealing with one's own internal demons and preparing emotionally, psychologically and spiritually will be paramount. I would suggest folks get connected and comfortable with nature. Our land base is our life blood. Apart from it we cannot live.
Folks need to learn about water purification, growing food, herbal remedies, wild edibles, how to stay warm in the winter without electricity, and basic survival skills. There is no way I, nor can most others, learn all these things alone which is why community is so important. Learn to deeply communicate with others now before everything hits the fan. We will be dependent on one another for survival.
CB: What should therapists do to help people wake up and face these issues? How can therapists support their clients as they wake up?
CR: The most important thing therapists can do is to wake up themselves; having a deep commitment to doing their own work and to look clearly at the world situation.
Secondly, a real relationship is vital. A connection must be made that is authentic. I believe change takes place in the context of a relationship. The therapist must be emotionally present with the client working diligently to set aside his/her assumptions, judgments and beliefs. Sally was able to do this with me, and in so doing I was able to see in her a vitality and awareness. I was drawn to this and thus extremely open to reading the book she gave me all those years ago. And as I read she and I were able to discuss these things deeply.
There must be a trust and openness between therapist and client. It's not about one being an authority and the other not. No, the authority is within each of us. Sally knew this, and I now know this.
As clients wake up it is imperative that the therapist recognize the agony this can bring; the deep and profound grief and anger. The therapist must support the client through this sometimes long process. For me the grief continues to come almost daily, but I am sustained by the support of others and the support of the Earth itself. That's what we must offer to our clients. Medicine walks and vision quests can be extremely helpful to people in gaining a deep connection to the earth.
CB: You say you were greatly influenced by reading James Hillman and Michael Ventura's book We've Had A Hundred Years Of Psychotherapy And Everything Is Getting Worse. What did they have to say? Tell us how that book influenced you.
CR: James Hillman is a psychologist who trained at the Jung Institute in Zurich. Michael Ventura is a journalist/author. There are many, many things worth deeply considering from this book, so I'll only briefly mention a couple here.
One is the realization that psychotherapy deals, primarily, with one's interior world. The soul is removed from the world instead of also being in the world. And the world is denied its soul. At this present time the world is sick. The sickness is "out there".
Traditional psychotherapy pathologizes people with very little, if any, recognition of the pathology of this culture. Hillman recounts, "As Sendivogius, an alchemist, said, ‘The greatest part of the soul lies outside the body.' If [the body of the world] is not kept healthy, we go insane.
The neglect of the environment, the body of the world, is part and parcel of our personal ‘insanity'. The world's body must be restored to health, for in that body is also the world's soul." Ventura says, "Therapy's theoretical base has not gone far enough, has not connected with the world, and without that connection it is incapable of treating the whole individual."
Secondly, Hillman and Ventura emphasize how traditional therapy is constantly returning to one's childhood, focusing primarily on one's own personal growth and development. This can be an insidious trap keeping people from becoming mature adults and responsible to the larger community of life. It also keeps people buying into one of the culture's principle lies: Growth and development must go and on.
We must understand, however, that this mindset is becoming the demise of our planet. Hillman contends that "the child archetype is by nature apolitical and disempowered-it has no connection with the political world. This is a disaster for our political world, for our democracy. Democracy depends on intensely active citizens, not children."
A Hundred Years of Psychotherapy has simply helped me further release some assumptions, judgments and beliefs I've had about helping people. It is really a new paradigm for therapy, and it has helped me be all the more present and open in my sessions with clients. The client him/herself is the authority, not me. I am there to witness them, to hold the space for them, to love them not to cure or fix them. I would recommend this book to all practitioners and many clients without hesitation.
CB: How does your work differ from traditional psychotherapy, especially in its interest in a person's connection and relationship with the natural world?
CR: I no longer consider myself a psychotherapist, rather I think of myself as a mentor. Traditional psychotherapy has a bit of baggage for me and others. I mention some of the reasons why above. I've moved away from viewing others from a psychopathology (mental health) model. Instead I help people meet the challenges and difficulties of their lives by addressing the larger social and environmental context.
Traditional psychotherapy often focuses heavily on family dynamics to the exclusion of the larger social and environmental context. As a result clients are left putting undue burden on the family not understanding how these families came to be, not understanding their lost connection to the earth, not understanding how our culture disconnects us from each other and all of life.
The work I do, Beyond Therapy, is grounded in the understanding that human health and the health of the Earth are inseparable. Our well-being depends upon our interdependence and interconnection with all of Life. Helping people expand their awareness of this connection (which I believe all people know deep in their core) is the crux of my work, and as people become more aware they are able to be more responsible to the larger community of life.
My job is to help support them in the process of becoming aware, connected, and responsible which leads to wholeness. As James Hillman says, the treatment is "to speak and listen to life: and the goal isn't that the life heal, or become normal, or even cease its suffering, but that life become more itself, have more integrity with itself, be more true to its daimon." I love that. My job is to speak and listen to life.
CB: You live a really simple, non-consumptive life. Many people would find it hard to conceive of living without so many of the culture's diversions and distractions. How do you see people's growth and development as paradoxically leading them to a simpler lifestyle?
CR: As a fundamentalist Christian my focus was always on heaven or the new earth and the new heavens. There was no connection to this earth which, in that tradition, is to be subdued and ruled over rather than lived with as one, here and now.
As I've become so closely connected to this earth, here and now, I've had to re-evaluate my lifestyle. Actually, this has not been so difficult because I have a relationship with the earth. I love the earth; therefore, I am compelled to act more responsibly toward it as I would toward anyone I love. As people become more conscious and aware of the here and now, as they become more connected to the larger community of life, it is often inevitable that they also become more responsible to that community.
Responsibility, in part, means caring for it. If folks connect to the earth and the larger community of life then they will be compelled, finally, to act responsibly toward it. This takes a great deal of awareness, however, which is increasingly difficult to come by in this culture.
I'm also deeply aware that my life ultimately depends on the health of this planet. That compels me to act responsibly toward it. We are consuming our planet, our life blood, our larger family. Being conscious means, in part, to stop consuming. Simple. Stop consuming.
Of course in this insane culture we a born and bred to consume, so it can take awhile to let go of that brainwashing and learn the joys of simple living. As one lives more simply one is less enthralled with the distractions of this culture and more enchanted with the natural world. This makes simplicity far easier to embrace. This has certainly been true for me.
CB: Do you have insights about what the impending collapse of the economy and the unraveling of our present support systems are going to require of people in terms of their emotional and spiritual health in order to navigate such huge changes?
CR: I think very few have any clue what it's going to take. I don't. I believe it's going to take more courage and sanity than I can imagine. And it's going to take community; deep, committed authentic community. It's going to take strong connection to the land and a strong sense of self. We are going to have to be flexible and resourceful, letting go of most of our old paradigms and stepping into new ways of being. Learning these things now, before everything hits the fan, will most certainly make the transition less painful.
CB: You have mentioned paradigms often throughout this interview. Can you say more about this?
CR: Basically, a paradigm is the usual and accepted way of doing or thinking about something. Our current culture has multiple paradigms determining how it functions. In Tim Bennett and Sally Erickson's documentary, What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire, they speak powerfully to this.
Here are some of the current cultural paradigms as that they have identified them: "there's never quite enough, humans are innately flawed, growth is good, hard work is good, more is better, we can solve any problem, stuff will make us happy, subdue the earth and have dominion over it, the concept of ‘ownership', the concept of ‘resources', only humans have rights, you can't stop me." I bought into many of these cultural paradigms for far too long.
As I have deeply connected with the earth and the larger web of life, and become more conscious, these paradigms have fallen away. I see them as destructive and very small boxes which keep people very small. For us as a species to face collapse we will have to step out of old paradigms into new ways of being.
CB: How does the ability to communicate clearly and vulnerably and to form close relationships with others figure into all of this and what will be required as we move into more and more interdependency with people during and post-collapse?
CR: It will become imperative to our survival to have such relationships. Other than food, water and shelter nothing will be more important, in my opinion. Letting go of our judgments, assumptions and beliefs will become a daily practice. Expanding our awareness and stepping into a new paradigm will be our challenge. Life as we have known it will not exist post-collapse. We will have to learn to negotiate whole new ways of being in the world and with each other. This will require a rigorous honesty and strength of character few of us have had to develop in the present culture.
CB: What's been your journey in coming to terms with the triple threat of Peak Oil, climate crisis, and economic meltdown? Have you gone through various stages? How can people not just either shut down or go into deep despair?
CR: Earlier in the interview I recounted my coming to terms with these threats through a series of life events. I have definitely gone through various stages, and it can be truly daunting. I have both shut down and gone into deep despair at times. I have grieved deeply and for long periods of time. I am often so overcome with joy and love for this planet that I burst out into spontaneous songs of affection. I weep and I wail. I laugh and I sing. I spend long hours with friends talking about these things. I consistently read about these subjects with a dogged determination to see the truth.
I think shutting down and going into deep despair are part of the process of coming to terms with these threats. Staying there is where it becomes dangerous and ineffective. As Tim and Sally talk about in their documentary What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire and as Derrick Jensen speaks about in his books, hope can be a dangerous thing, keeping us stuck in passivity. So despair and hopelessness can open us to a new paradigm, to a new way of thinking.
In order to keep from shutting down or staying in despair we need support. Support from others and support from the larger community of life. We need to pull ourselves away from the distractions of this culture and tune into the natural world. We need to grieve deeply and fully. We need to feel. We need to look and then look some more.
CB: How is your current mentoring practice helpful to people? How do you work with people? And who do you feel like you have the most to offer to?
CR: I witness people. I walk with people on their journeys. I offer support helping them to grieve and to feel. I support people in expanding their consciousness so they can really see. I think one of my strengths in this work is my patience.
One of my animal totems is Turtle. You will often hear me say that I am on turtle time. This simply means that I understand that my process can seem terribly slow and tedious at times, but I'm doing it. I understand that my clients must find their own way in their own time, and I am able to come alongside them in a very present way as they do this. I have a keen ear and eye to catch the nuances of people's emotional content.
This is very important in helping them come to know themselves, expand their consciousness and connect to the larger community of life. As my friend Tim Bennett says, "Our feelings are the swiftest path back to our forgotten selves." I am constantly presenting folks with the larger context of culture and environment. Many clients have told me this makes them feel less insane.
To whom do I have the most to offer? One of my clients recently described me as Neo, ready to snatch people from the matrix. I kind of like that metaphor. Yes, I think I have the most to offer those who are already beginning to wake up, and I want to support them in their extrication from this insane culture.
Folks need to know that I am not out to "fix" anyone. Hillman says that trying to fix our clients is a way to "repress the ore". In other words, fixing simply represses the essence of a person. He also says, "I'm not sure that any of these working-through modes, psychological processing, really do it. What I think does it is six months, or six years, of grief. The mourning. The long ritual of therapy." I'm very good at the long ritual of therapy; sitting with the grief, avoiding the urge to fix.
CB: Please say something about your connection with animals and why that connection is so essential for you.
CR: This question makes me smile because I derive so much pleasure from my animal and bird friends! This is something difficult to put into words. It's a kinesthetic/emotional experience for me, not particularly rational or intellectual so words are difficult. It's a soul experience.
Right now I am working on this interview while sitting on my porch with my bird friends. They fly in and out of the porch, sometimes right past my face. There is not much I enjoy more than the sound of a bird's wings fluttering near me. This summer I went through a difficult and stressful experience. One day I decided to stand on a chair with my face only inches from one of my hummingbird feeders waiting. After a couple of minutes three hummingbirds came to the feeder with their wings humming inches from my face! Then one of them turned and moved towards my eyes hovering two inches from me looking into me. My anxiety went way down, and I decided to do this everyday as a way to experience immediate calm, and every time I did this a hummingbird would come connect with me like that.
I feel a kinship with the animals and birds. I feel this kinship with all of nature. I know we are deeply connected, and the more deeply I come to know that the more they seem to respond to me. Some call me an animal troubadour because I seem able to call them to me. To me, their presence is simply their gift to me. When the insanity of this culture gets to me, nature brings me back to myself, back to them. For the most part the wild animals and birds have not lost their sanity and paying close attention to them reminds me of my own sanity. I feel grounded. I feel OK. I feel Life and Connection. We gift one another with our presence.
CB: Why are you on this planet? What did you come here to do?
CR: I'm not sure I have a full concept of that yet. I think some things are unfolding in my life that have yet to come to fruition. Perhaps I'll have a fuller understanding of my purpose here in another decade. What I know for now, and most certainly, is that I am here to witness. I am here to witness the earth and its life and destruction. I am here to witness other people and their life journeys; their pain and joy, their struggles and triumphs. I am here to see and feel what is going on in the world and peoples' lives. I am here to love the birds and all of nature. I am here to notice and to say what I see. That's what I do in my mentoring practice, that's what I do on my front porch everyday and that's what I do through my photography.
Carla Royal, M.Ed. currently lives in Blacksburg, VA where she has her mentoring practice, Beyond Therapy. She works both face to face and via the internet. You can learn more about her services through her website at http://www.carlaroyal.net/...