To make meaning of our circumstances requires us, at interludes, to look back in order to understand how we got to the present, why we are here, and what we need to consider in walking into the future. That truth speaks both to human individuals and also to the global human condition through history.
In writing organically, I find myself producing a `backstory’ to my present circumstances. I recommend it as a useful exercise, particularly for folks who find themselves in transition. These days, who isn’t?
The reason is, in this historic moment of accelerated change at multiple levels, it is important to find and identify the threads of life that provide continuity. Even so, new colours and types of threads inevitably need to be added, while some older ones either get cut away or rewoven into new patterns of being.
When the lens of life’s journey can span a number of decades, the long view can be both revelatory and troubling. This wide lens gazes upon unsettling human truths. Foremost is the human resistance to change, as well as the perennial need for caring individuals to continue fighting on behalf of social and environmental justice, and human rights.
The lived experience of learning someone else’s culture can be a superb way to unveil the workings of one’s own culture – Euro-western in mainstream North America – and it is not a flattering picture. Prior to engaging so intensely with Indigenous people, I already had a jaundiced view about Western materialism, and the utter selfishness of industrial capitalism. Furthermore, I was not impressed by schooling where study of Native peoples was absent, as if contemporary Indigenous nations no longer existed.
The full yin-yang of life was presented to me poignantly throughout my years working full time as a freelance journalist, visiting among North American Native peoples coast-to-coast. My first metamorphosis professionally, in fact, was the radical change from boring, unsatisfying work as a graphic artist to walk into a world of constant learning that transformed me, forever, at several levels of awareness, from political to spiritual.
Newspapers and magazines published hundreds of my articles, in my role as one of the few non-Native journalists to be committed to the pursuit of cross-cultural understanding. Those stories relate Canadian cultural history. I still want to write books based on unpublished interviews and documents now out of print, if and when I can receive the financial assistance to do so.
Life during those years as a journalist was an adventure, because I had a profound sense of purpose as a messenger. My professional life, moreover, continually evolved. For example, I became very active in media literacy, to challenge stereotypes and cultural racism. Also, I taught Native Studies for eight years at the senior School of Experiential Education (SEE), in Toronto. There I brought in Native guest speakers, organized field trips for students, and introduced them to books and films that foregrounded Native voices.
But, in the early 1990s, three factors brought that stage of my professional life to a close. First of all, stagnant freelance writing fees no longer could sustain even a subsistence income. I chose to do graduate studies, to open up other doors to earn a living. Secondly, repeated burnout from overwork also gave evidence I needed to change my way of life. Third, the issues of `cultural appropriation’ and `identity politics’ by the mid-90s, although originating in justifiable grievances, regrettably went overboard (in my opinion) in fueling reverse discrimination that obstructed cross-cultural healing.
In my heart, I am a storyteller. The above factors, however, pushed me into a new direction, along a road to recovering my health while expanding and deepening my bit of wisdom. I had come to recognize two important realities. Why I mention them here is because these insights could be helpful to other helping professionals and activists.
One reality is that passion, sacrifice, altruism, and commitment to relentlessly fight against what is wrong in the world makes a very limited difference, if and when it is done through activism based on the pillars of anger, judgment, righteousness and prejudice, all with a focus only on tearing down what exists. Negative energy attracts negative energy.
The second reality speaks to the individual activist or social change agent, albeit well-intentioned, who focuses on human suffering to the degree of shutting out entry of any light, joy, love, beauty, and everything that nurtures, into one’s life. If that door to your life force remains shut, your own focus on suffering will simply devour you.
In reference to the first reality I use the example of `racism,’ one of my own major areas of activity. I distanced myself from the forms of `anti-racism’ that were reactive, in other words, grounded in guilt trips that tend to alienate and be counter-productive. In contrast, my approach to challenge racism has been grounded in the proactive combination of media literacy and transformative learning.
Prejudice is learned, and manifests out of fear and limited awareness. In groups, people can engage in critical thinking and experiential exercises to awaken the unconscious seeds of discriminatory behaviours. Exploring historic sources of longstanding misrepresentations also can be a creative, productive process to expose and analyze formerly unknown origins. These processes, ultimately, transform consciousness to be more open-minded to different perspectives, at least to understand how and why they were formulated.
As for “tearing down what exists,” certainly whatever obstructs the evolution of the human family to experience more equitable, environmentally sustainable and joyful living needs to be changed. Doing so speaks – philosophically and bureaucratically – to political, economic, social and religious infrastructures. The essential transformation, however, begins in the beliefs and values within the human mind, deeply rooted in unconscious levels, when they are oppressive, invoking fear instead of love.
I say “tearing down” is not enough, to emphasize the other essential task for authentic and lasting change. The much more challenging work is to create new ways of being, thinking and doing, in order to build new infrastructures. New ways of interacting need to be based upon peace-making, collaboration across differences, and experientially learning why and how the whole web of life, human and nonhuman, is interconnected.
The second reality I mentioned above speaks to individuals – helping professionals, social change agents and activists. A fact that needs to be much more effectively addressed is the widespread phenomenon of burnout. I did extensive research on this phenomenon documented among helping professionals, while at the same time embarking on my own seven-year journey of healing and renewal.
Helpers, in other words, even while offering love and compassion, unconsciously can give it all away, and deplete their own life force to the degree of serious illness. Any server to humanity, from healers to activists, particularly needs to be vigilant about self-care in order to regenerate energy. Yet, in exploring the lives of accomplished spiritual teachers and healers, it appears that acquiring such wisdom often happens after the type of descent that I outlined in my previous blog.
What I describe above brought me to a second metamorphosis in my professional life, a shift to focus on healing rather than suffering. For I, similar to many people working in social justice, ceaselessly challenged what was wrong. Even though I did so proactively rather than reactively, the end result was the same. Inadvertently, I erased a personal life for many years in which I otherwise could have experienced joy, beauty and nurturing.
This metamorphosis was very different from the first. That had been an easy step, walking away from boredom and creative frustration into a profession of writing in which I felt that my life had purpose. The second metamorphosis was not a simple step, or even several steps towards a clearly seen horizon. The first metamorphosis was linear.
The second metamorphosis was holistic, taking me down into the bowels of my being. The initial steps took me to an abyss, and a journey through an inner landscape, sometimes in darkness and other times by candle light, tumbling down and climbing up again through rough terrain, with fleeting glimpses of light before the next tumble.
Through the journey, old emotional and relational patterns fell away. For a while, I even lost the meaning of my very existence, in a sort of transitional limbo. The impetus for that twilight zone partly came from inner transformation. Outer losses also happened, such as certain lifelong friends yet, most significantly, the passing of my mother.
Spiritual psychology, specifically, psychosynthesis, in which I trained and studied, was the path of illumination that guided me through the whole harrowing journey of loss and grief. Its concepts and processes, henceforth, would influence how I lived and why I worked.
The trajectory of my work now unfolded from a place much closer to wholeness rather than a place of woundedness. I felt much better equipped, psychologically and spiritually, to offer more effective service in the wider world – namely, the `boon’ from hard-won knowledge. As a life long learner, however, my own journey to fuller understanding continues to evolve.
For we never become immune to what happens around us. Indeed, life’s purpose is not grounded merely in work. The fundamental questions of existence include: Why are we here? What really matters? The ground of our being resides in human love and compassion, and how we treat each other.
The first priority in expressing new found joy, accomplishment and inner peace, was to extend it to my father during his final year. We always had been close. Being a witness to his stories, however, and receiving his trust at deeper levels as he bravely embarked on a quest to make meaning of life’s events, was a sacred gift.
Upon his passing once again the earth moved, and everything that had made sense shifted. While trying to move forward and do meaningful work, the outer world also had changed.
The digital world had inserted its fibrous threads into every aspect of human interaction. Then, the 2008 global economic downturn arrived with a thud, and its ripple effect continues to alter human society, cultures and nation states globally and, accompanied by climate change and increasing natural disasters, the planetary environment.
Another metamorphosis in professional life, once again, has become the imperative. Once again, it is not linear yet involves multiple levels of reality. This time, moreover, my reality is interwoven with transitions happening in the lives of thousands of people internationally.
The changes upon us affect all generations. How can we be more supportive to each other? What is it that I can best offer in this moment, based upon the medicine bundle of skills, knowledge and experiences that I have gathered?
My next blog examines the journey from the second metamorphosis to the third, confronting my own resistance, what led to a meltdown and, since then, the recovery of my self confidence.