Breaking the Mould :
Towards the end of 2009 I realised the life I had been living was over. The stories that animated the social change activism of my generation – the baby boomers – had, for me, run their course. Decades as a change strategist, community facilitator, process consultant, and social entrepreneur had reached a dead-end. For the first time in my experience I had no idea what came next. What could I usefully do or be at this stage of my life? The only way forward seemed to be to break the mould and step into the unknown.
I wound up my affairs in the region where I’d been living for more than a decade and retreated to a small coastal village near a mountain sacred as a creation site to the local indigenous people. There I found myself grappling with the personal implications of the vast disconnect I perceived between the existential challenge our civilisation faces if we are to restore “a viable mode of human presence on planet Earth”, and the hidebound nature of our responses. This collective cognitive dissonance matched the schism in my own psyche between the void of unmeaning into which I had fallen and my taken-for-granted habits of being and making sense of my life.
At times of personal crisis in the past I’d found solace in the healing embrace of nature. So now I spent the first weeks of my retreat in the bush, on the mountain or by the sea, feeling more alive, stronger, enheartened. Then, on about the sixth week, a great tsunami of dread crashed over me. All the hurts and heartaches of life’s disappointments, rejections, misdeeds and humiliations swirled into a vortex of despair. My energy collapsed, my joints stiffened, my mind clouded, and I was stricken with pain. For weeks I was unable to venture beyond my cabin. I despaired of ever again finding my place in the world.
I had set off on my quest for renewal with the metaphor of metamorphosis to guide me. Disintegration was indeed what I experienced. The structures of my old identity gave way and I spiralled into a place without form or meaning. But the outcome of this pupation was not what I anticipated. When I eventually began to feel my way back into the world I was startled by how different, how alien, my body felt. In the first weeks of my retreat I’d felt physically much as I had all my adult life. Now that familiar body was gone. I felt an old man. I’d entered a new stage of life.
I spent the next few months reaching out in small cautious ways to the local community. Life there was gentle and slow, tempered by the moods of the ocean, the sky, and the mountain. Days of quiet contentment made poignant by an underlying sense of meaninglessness and episodes of deep despair. Then I knew it was time to move on. I needed a more culturally stimulating environment and professional assistance to break the endless cycling from creative enthusiasm to black depression that had framed my life for decades.
A Life Without Meaning ?
At first city life was a roller-coaster ride of exhilaration and lassitude. When my energy was flowing I reached out to rebuild old networks and relationships, finding riches of friendship and wise counsel. When the dark fog of depression enveloped me I turned inwards and watched it pass by. And always the question: is it possible to endure life without meaning?
For someone whose identity had been built around a strong intuitive vocation and for whom meaning was more important than material reward, this was a very big question. To accept the limitations of my life as it was and to more fully embrace the consolations of friendship became my practice.
The city showed me its generous face. From my new place of acceptance I found the needs of friends opened satisfying opportunities to contribute. I was soon engaged in several modest collaborations, and a succession of house-sits allowed me to taste the rich diversity of city life. Slowly fear of the void receded and I found myself held securely in a web of mutuality.
But the existential crisis of our global culture continued to shade my days. I perceived a general unwillingness to face the possibility of catastrophic system failure or consider its meaning for the generations ahead. Even those who accepted that effective international action on climate change was unlikely, remained wedded to modes of adversarial politics disturbingly out of kilter with the nature of our predicament. To me their thinking seemed far behind the times. As a society we were evidently hunkering down in a fog of collective denial.
In this respect I felt very isolated – the proverbial voice crying in the wilderness. Was my perception of the dynamics of change in the contemporary world so off beam? An attempt to commit my thoughts and feelings to paper faltered, then stalled altogether. Try as I may I could not find a way to express what I wanted to say in words that others might be willing to hear.
Reconciling with the Earth :
Flashback to Easter 1998: I was one of thirty-four people who undertook a pilgrimage to a creation site on Gulaga, a sacred mountain on the NSW Far South Coast, led by Yuin elder Uncle Max Dulumunmun Harrison. The idea of the pilgrimage had come to me on a visit to the area some months before. Sitting late one afternoon on a great granite outcrop above a waterfall on the side of the mountain, I felt a powerful impulse to make a pilgrimage to the sacred site I had been privileged to visit the previous day. Some weeks later I travelled south again to tell Uncle Max of this experience and ask his advice. Yes, he said, we must do this.
The pilgrimage began in torrential rain at Sydney Central Station very early on Easter Friday as our group boarded a coach for the trip south. As we travelled through Yuin country Uncle Max showed us how, through its stories, it was possible to find profound meanings in a cultural landscape. That night we made our camp on the shores of Wallaga Lake at the foot of Gulaga. The next morning we walked up the mountain in silence to the sacred site. There, and at other culturally significant sites we visited over the weekend, Uncle Max shared some of his people’s teachings with their emphasis on understanding and respecting the proper relationships between people, the Earth, and all its creatures.
The pilgrimage was a seminal experience that showed me the possibility of a deeper connection with this ancient land. In Uncle Max’s words, the only reconciliation that really matters is between humans and Mother Earth.
When in 2009 I decided to step into the unknown, it was to Gulaga that I returned. And it was Gulaga that held me through the stages of my personal transition.
From Striving to Connection :
Over the last forty years I’ve faced the challenge of breakdown several times. For me the typical trajectory has been from high functioning, to over-reach, panic, crash, depression.
My first response was dogged resistance, soldiering on into the face of the storm. Then overwhelm. Capitulation. Collapse.
Later I’d find myself mired in the swamps of depression, clinging to medication to keep my head above water. Eventually my feet would find firm ground and I’d begin the slow slog back into the world, winding up my energy and sense of self, finding my creative fire, reconnecting with my passions.
Trying harder, I soon realised, was a dead-end – the trap of denial. Its inevitable result a bigger crash, a harder trek out.
The path of transition lay, I discovered, not through control, but through acceptance; not holding on to the familiar, but letting go of the sure; not shoring up defences, but opening to change; not forcing the pace, but dropping to a deeper connection.
The mountain, Gulaga, was and is my point of reference. A physical place of ancient power and a metaphorical window into our collective psyche. Gulaga is a place that calls me, and a presence I carry in my being. Earth’s creativity incarnate.
I found my voice again through surrender. By letting go of the angst swirling through the blogosphere and listening more carefully to Earth’s steady heartbeat. Not how can we save the planet, but how do we restore our place in the community of life.
Radical Revisioning :
These days I find myself living a life that, in the past, I would have considered pointless. I notice I am no longer caught up in the once so important – like identity derived from an evidently valued role in the world; a sense of personal security measured by material resources, however modest, and the predictability of home, community, and routine; and, for me most significant of all, a sense of purpose.
To an observer, my way of being in the world these days might appear passive, even fatalistic. But to me it feels fresher, more alert to what’s emerging, and more willing to consider and embrace the choices on offer. In short, more awake. And, in making these choices, I find I’m less driven by obligation, outrage, or fear – either personal or tribal.
The political nostrums that once framed my thinking and informed my actions have given way to a broader, less easily defined, more tentative, but perhaps more profound values cloud. It is seeded with the wisdom of some exceptional teachers I’ve had the great fortune to encounter, either personally or through their writings – like Uncle Max Harrison, Joanna Macy, and Thomas Berry – and by the many “ordinary” people of extraordinary commitment and compassion I have encountered on my journey.
Now my life is held within a more modest understanding of my limits, defined by relationships offering the possibility of mutuality. At the same time, the “big picture” that has always engaged me now seems even bigger, both spatially and temporally. This expansive viewpoint has brought with it a quality of disinterest, coupled with a desire to engage with others – not to persuade, enlist, or even facilitate – but to explore together the human condition at this pregnant moment, and reflect on how a radically new vision of the future might be birthed.
Of course there are days when I feel disheartened, when my inner landscape grows dingy and arid. These are times for stillness, for settling into the bleakness without trying to fade or fix it. Perhaps surprisingly, these days now feel like times for necessary healing. For recuperation. For doing very little and keeping to myself. And they pass.
My personal experience of transition has taught me that there are times when breakdown is not only likely but even desirable, providing an opening for much needed renewal. Such times are indeed fraught with danger. But they can also be numinous if we surrender to the embrace of their creative power.
The apparent paradox within the way I now experience the world – with humility and inspiration, with detachment and passion – calls to mind some words of Rabindranath Tagore (1921) that I first heard in a documentary many years ago. Their poignancy touched me deeply then and now seems particularly apt:
“I have wondered in my mind how simply it stands before me, this great world: with what fond and familiar ease it fills my heart, this encounter with the Eternal Stranger”.
Kenneth McLeod, 2012
Thanks to impermanence,
everything is possible.
Thich Nhat Hanh, The Practice of Looking Deeply