We spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and treasure in imposing our will on nature … dreaming of permanent solutions, monuments to our ambitions and dreams. But in periods of slack, decline, or collapse, our abilities no longer suffice for all this management. We have to let things go.
– Ernest Callenbach
This summer, I’m on an odyssey to five unique intentional communities and ecovillages, including the original hippie commune, Virginia’s Twin Oaks, and two communities in Missouri, Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage and Possibility Alliance. The latter is so off-grid that it doesn’t even have a website.
I’m on a quest for knowledge and experience for my own personal and professional Transition project, the founding of EcoDharma College – which, if all goes as planned, will fuse a Buddhist meditation center, trade school, intentional community, workers’ cooperative, organic farm, and permaculture demonstration site into one organic entity.
The curriculum will blend Buddhist meditation with Transition-related reskilling in a community-building context. Given likely energy depletion, economic contraction and environmental collapse, it seems to me that any attempt to teach spiritual and practical lifestyle skills is worth trying.
I also feel that the inner work of “letting go” central to Buddhist practice is an important and as yet unsung accompaniment to Transition and reskilling work.
I’m hoping that my journey will lay to rest one particular question: Do I personally have what it takes to transition away from my comfortable middle class lifestyle?
This is likely to involve much more contact than I’ve yet experienced with the challenges of agriculture and the outdoor life – physical labor, dirt, poison ivy, and my least favorite of nature’s plenitude, ticks.
Put another way, Do I have what it takes to let go?
Industrial civilization is here to stay, right?
Sometimes it seems that, like the evil dwarf Alberich who sets into motion Richard Wagner’s vast opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung, the movers and shakers of industrial civilization are demonstrating that they too are willing to forswear their own highest human potentials (love, compassion, justice) for power, control, and most of all, money.
For the rest of us, for whom stealing the Rhinegold and forsaking love for absolute world domination is not an option, the world that beckons us during these lazy post-peak oil days is ripe for our spiritual engagement.
In my experience, a spiritual practice can provide a sense of stability and tranquillity in the midst of an increasingly unhinged world. We clever humans tend to misperceive the world, because our perception is distorted by our concepts and beliefs – the shoulds and oughts and will be’s in which we invest so much emotional energy – and which are often at odds with the world as it actually is.
Worse, we become attached to our beliefs, even if it is those beliefs (and nothing else) that make the world seem a crappy, stressful, threatening place. For unknown reasons, it’s the human condition to cling to what we know, rather than to let go into the world as it is, without our beliefs about it, or demands upon it.
Attachment to our beliefs and our way of life defines industrial humans, as it has throughout human history.
What is new, though, is how rapidly our global civilization and natural environment is changing, and therefore how thoroughly we’re being challenged to let go of what we know and what we’re used to.
This, then, is the inner work of Transition: Questioning and letting go of the comfortable beliefs and unquestioned assumptions – conscious or unconscious – that we take as gospel truth, and that cause us so much stress (especially when the dissonance between them and reality-as-it-is becomes too obvious to ignore). For example:
- Industrial civilization is here to stay.
- Human progress is unstoppable; technology will save us.
- For the economy’s sake we must continue to extract and burn fossil fuels.
There are the more personal stories to which we may cling:
- I must find (or keep) a job in the money economy – if I can’t, I’m doomed and/or a failure.
- My children need these advantages today, even if they may hurt their futures tomorrow.
- Why waste time building community and getting to know my neighbors? We probably wouldn’t like each other anyway.
Other assumptions may keep us from changing course, or lead us in increasingly untenable directions:
- I doubt I have the inner or outer resources it would take to change my circumstances to live more sustainably.
- I don’t want to look like I’m falling behind, or getting poorer.
- If I stick to the grind of my job in the mainstream economy, I’ll be able to retire comfortably, like my parents and grandparents.
Since, to anyone paying attention, these stress-provoking beliefs and assumptions are dubious and/or counterproductive to making useful changes in one’s life, might it not be worthwhile to become aware of them, question them (asking, Is this true? Can I really know this is true?), and let them go?
On the farm
It’s my first experience living on a rural, farm-based intentional community (or any farm for that matter). Over the next two weeks I’ll end up learning and working at a variety of mostly manual, sometimes repetitive, occasionally physically arduous tasks, ending up considerably sweatier, dirtier, and more uncomfortable than in work as I’ve known it.
Perhaps, I tell myself, I’ve been habituated by my middle-class existence to take for granted dirt-free floors, shiny bathrooms, and spending my days comfortably sedentary. Perhaps I can let go of my attachments to those things, and get used to considerable physical labor, discomfort, and indoor dirt (though hopefully less dirt than at this particular community!).
Like all industrial humans, I’ve been habituated to artificial environments whose boundaries are defined by how they keep nature (dirt, rain…and ticks) out.
I’ve lived in these environments all my life. What would it be like to relax these boundaries? To allow nature back into my human environment, and to let myself back into nature, as a farmer or even hunter-gatherer (if it came to that)?
The immense financial and material investment required to artificially separate billions of human beings from nature is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. How much letting go will be asked of us?
Transition is letting go
The practice of religion involves, more often than not, clinging to teachings, sacred texts, and interpretations, moralizations, and beliefs about life, what is good or bad, and what might happen to me after death. The essence of spirituality is much simpler – it’s letting go. One of the first spiritual books I ever read repeated this simple fact ad nauseum, which at the time I found difficult to understand, and unpleasant to contemplate. Wasn’t spirituality about cool transcendent states? Transcendent states were much more appealing than letting go, whatever that was.
Letting go is a scary thing to the mind, the ego, to me as I think of (or think up) myself.
This is peculiar.
We all know that we must let go, eventually, of everything and everyone we know, and finally, of the self we think we are. What are we to do with that knowledge?
The mystic-sages from all the world’s spiritual traditions tell us to let go now, rather than later. Yes, freedom and peace and transcendence – the kind of things I thought spirituality was about – are genuine potentialities within us, but they are only found in letting go.
There’s a common misunderstanding about letting go – that it means renouncing people, things, or lifestyles. We might think that, in Transition terms, letting go means that I must sell my car, leave a relationship with someone who doesn’t get it, or abandon a way of life, middle class or otherwise.
Transition may require us to give up certain possessions and comforts. Relationships with those who are not on the same page may fracture; new relationships will be born. Yet the real work of letting go happens inside us.
I may sell my car yet remain mentally or emotionally attached to it, thinking how nice it would be to have a car again, and of all the conveniences that having a car, my car, would bring me. But I can also do the inner work of letting go of my mental and emotional attachments to having a car before I sell it. Perhaps I’ll discover that it’s the right time to sell it. Or maybe it’s not. Either way, I’ll be a freer human being who has let go just a little bit more.
Can a civilization let go?
Spiritual work is usually perceived as individual work, and from a certain perspective, that’s true. But what if, collectively, enough of us were to let go of the beliefs, assumptions, privileges, demands, and expectations that conceptually hold together so much of our Earth-destroying civilization? What if we did this work together?
What if we questioned the assumption that a decline in material wealth and energy use must lead to a decline in quality of life?
What if we let go of our beliefs about climate change and allowed our body and senses to inform us instead: Does this weather feel normal?
What if, on a planet in which the sustainable carrying capacity for human beings was exceeded long ago (and in which possibly dozens of species are going extinct each day due to our domination of the biosphere), we relinquished the privilege to reproduce ourselves with no thought as to the impact?
What if we let go of the assumption that such a massive transformation can’t possibly happen in time?
Not for sissies
I’ve decided that life on a farm isn’t for sissies. Fortunately, I think that a life that demands more physical effort, the learning of new skills outside my comfort zone, and the embrace of nature in all its wonder, is something that I’m ready for.
Except, maybe, for ticks.
After two weeks here, I (not without a great deal of mindful caution) have not discovered a single unwanted tourist. My fellow participant, Nick, hasn’t been so lucky. Not only has he found several of the evil things on his body, but one of the bites has developed a ring, a possible sign of Lyme disease. Nick heads to the doctor and returns with a bottle of antibiotics. (Thank you, industrial medicine.)
I ponder my aversion to ticks. What is it about them that’s so disturbing? And then it dawns on me. Of all the creatures that I know – even more than humans – ticks have the hardest time letting go.
–Doug Hanvey, Transition Voice Magazine
Doug Hanvey is the founder of EcoDharma College and an adjunct faculty member at Indiana University Bloomington, where he teaches The Art of Meditation and Meditation, Buddhism, and Sustainability.