‘We must allow ourselves to be disappointed, which means the surrendering of me-ness, my achievement. We would like to watch ourselves attain enlightenment ... with miracles and earthquakes occurring and gods and angels singing and so forth. This never happens. The attainment of enlightenment from ego’s point of view is extreme death. It is the ultimate and final disappointment. Treading the spiritual path is painful. It is a constant unmasking, peeling off of layer after layer of masks.’
– Chogyam Trungpa, from The Myth of Freedom
It was a beautiful autumn evening. We were sitting outside on the patio under the trees in ‘the garden lounge’ of a Cape Town social establishment that has existed for more than two hundred years. The leaves so still, as if attentively listening in on our conversations. So utterly wind-still, it was as if we could reach out and touch the air. As if the air was alive and listening in along with the leaves. With a smile of kind amusement curling about its mouth. We were just settling in at our table as darkness was falling. Darkness ... falling. Falling darkness. Settling in. Seeping down. Across the expansive wavy lawns flowing into the exquisite meandering garden. All the way, down to the river. The coolness of the river on our cheeks. Just ever so perfect, refreshing rather than cold. With a good friend I had not seen for years.
During my nearly thirty years in Cape Town, I have noticed magical moments like these. Out on town or in the gardens of the many homes I was fortunate to live in or visit. Usually blessed with the company of others I enjoyed and loved being with. Feeling such a complex mixture of emotions flowing through me as I’m touched by that glimpse of deep presence in those moments. But, such moments would also hold for me something else. Like a breathing live shadow of something deeply haunting, lurking just here, somewhere very close-by. Haunting me with a sense of such meaning, such immense meaning, coiled in with a powerful draught of deep longing. The longing to feel ‘it’. To touch ‘it’, to truly touch into and experience ‘it’. To understand ‘it’ more palpably. And, the sure knowledge that I am only touching its surface.
When I learned about ‘archetypes’ I felt I knew what they were. Even if I was never really able to communicate that meaning to others. Even if my understanding of them remains rather vague. Now, writing this, it occurs to me that perhaps what I experience in those moments is the call of archetypes. Or perhaps this is what James Hillman refers to as ‘the longing for archetypes’? Which he says, belongs itself to the archetype of Pothos. A kind of Eros that is a longing for the unattainable. A longing he seems to imply, it is essential to keep alive in our hearts. These ideas contain a significant paradox: when we feel too satisfied with our lives, Pothos leaves. And somehow he takes with him a good portion of that ‘sense of meaning’ so essential for a soulful life.
But such speculations can easily become intellectual noise that dislodges us from remaining inside our experience of these things. Is this not one reason why meditation is so important? Learning to stay with the experience. What I do know is that in my life Pothos has come and gone. And somehow, the lack of soul when he’s no longer there, is an important experience too. Experiencing that lack, being affected by that void, and acknowledging it for the meaning it contains. Is somehow essential to the alchemy of embodying the ability to stay. And teaches so much. Luring us to come back to a way of life that keeps alive the delicate butterfly-flame of soul. And this way of life is of necessity one where our longings are never quite satisfied.
I always felt a sense of such immense blessing during these ‘visitations’. And I’m so grateful to have been blessed with a good many of them. Not only in beautiful gardens at nightfall, but in many other unexpected nooks and crannies along my journey. I recall a time of immense darkness from early on, which possessed me for decades. Dominated by a paralysing cloud in my heart. When I did not have eyes to see ‘them’, nor ears to hear ‘them’, even if ‘they’ may have visited. I was convinced that this darkness was invincible, that it was ‘the truth’. Now I know that it was mostly Grace that I eventually opened sufficiently to ‘see’ them. And looking back, I see how their visits dapple the landscape of my short existence in this beautiful world. Like those white stones that guided Hansel and Gretel to find their way back home.
So, it is interesting that these are my associations with the evening it was suggested I google Jem Bendell. Interesting, because these ‘pebbles’ guided me to open and love this world. To participate in this world, even if only for the sake of growing up. Interesting, because their visitations often filled me with a clear feeling that ‘I was on the right track.’ Interesting, because, now I see how a vital element of my experience of their visits, is a sense of ‘futurity’. Of looking forward to the future, of relishing to continue my journey. Interesting, because it seems a deeply meaningful ‘co-incidence’.π Interesting, because the effect of Jem Bendell’s message has been to stir up again in me, the presence of that old darkness. Experienced now, from a very different vantage point. While I sense its potential to ‘fertilise the soil’ for the continuation of my journey.
Succinctly put, Jem Bendell’s message is this. The collapse of our societal, political and economic structures is inevitable. Which means, it can no longer be prevented. And. It is imminent. Which is to say, it is likely to happen within the next ten years. Basically, we have already crossed the tipping point as regards global warming.
Now, I know the filtering processes I have put such messages through. How I minimised my glimpses of their meaning, preventing them from hitting home. But it is not my place to try ‘sell’ his message. We all have to do our own research and come to our own conclusions. (See some links below.) Suffice to say that Bendell’s message is hitting home for me. That I am being impacted by it.
His diagnosis is one of collective terminal illness. Since his message, several other ‘experts’ on global warming have come out in support of this diagnosis. While not always supporting his conclusions for how to respond. Bendell risked a very successful career as an exemplary university professor by sending out this message. Because his conscience would not allow him to continue being a ‘professor of sustainability’ while his personal truth now was that our world is no longer sustainable.
Bendell’s conclusions in the face of this contrasts starkly with the messages out there aimed at inspiring heroic activism. Which is very refreshing. In fact, it is heartening to witness his journey in all of this. Even if he’s become something of a public poster for what it looks like to experience a spiritual awakening.
Bendell’s message is basically that now is a time to turn inwards. And find a connection again ‘to what really matters.’ Spend time with those we love. To let go of our obsessions with worldly exploits and ‘busyness.’ To reflect and grieve. Take leave and say goodbye. To reminisce on the immense implications of this. To allow the power of this message to take us on a journey into the depths of our beings. Rather than wasting time hatching plans to selfishly save our skins. Which would really only be a continuation and perpetuation of the very culture that has made our world so ill. Still, he does not promise that doing these things will save us from a terrible fate. Nor from perishing in the fray to come. Instead he emphasises that the time of dying can be the richest time of our life. If we allow it to affect us deeply.
Much need to be said on the implications of this for anyone who takes soul and spirit to heart. Which is a conversation that still needs to unfold. So, these are very early comments. The place where Bendell’s insights have brought him to, is no different from what spiritual teachers have said throughout the ages. Except that their message has been to consistently cultivate a sense of the realness and proximity of death. Even while we don’t feel ‘actual’ death as imminent. To open to the reality of death to shape who we are and how we live. We may even suggest that doing this is one of the keys delineating what it means to follow one’s destiny. To be on a spiritual path. As opposed to merely remaining embroiled in the ‘surface-life’ of materialism. If anything, Bendell’s message should wake up in us the urgency to do this.
‘So really’, I hear you ask, ‘if you have been following a spiritual path, then this should not change anything?’ And I guess, in a world of absolutes, this is true. But there is something profoundly impactful when hearing, ‘you will die soon.’ Maybe one of the difficult truths that finally hits home because of this is that, ‘in fact, I have not been following my spiritual path wholeheartedly.’ Perhaps now we see why spiritual teachers have always emphasised the urgency to do so. Perhaps now, at last, we are truly touched by the truth that life is so short. To pretend not to be impacted by news of our imminent death, would be to no longer follow our destiny. To miss out, on what I now only truly see, is a deeply powerful part of our spiritual journey. Because, ‘baby, it ain’t over ‘till it’s over!’π
Jem Bendell originally sent out his message in July 2018. He did this by making available an academic paper he had written on the topic. He wrote this paper during a year-long unpaid sabbatical. Which he took off because he felt the urgency to do his own research on global warming. You may find that paper on his blog-site, here.
Bendell’s talks are particularly informative. Here are some of them: 1) Jem Bendell and Toni Spencer. 2) In conversation with Amisha Ghadiali. 3) In conversation with Dean Walker. 4) A recent Q & A session with Jem Bendell.
Supplement this piece with the poem, Enveloping Night. Which contains something of the mood of our deep vulnerability in the face of vast darkness. And yet, there are moments of immense beauty that comes with it.
Also see the article The artful lovemaking of darkness and light. Which somewhat addresses how embracing darkness, including death, is fundamentally a source of new life.
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