(Photo above by Richard Millington)
I’ve spent the last week at a retreat in the French countryside, run by an organisation called Art Earth Tech.
It brought together 25 people — scientists, historians, philosophers, activists, artists, entrepreneurs and a couple of Buddhist monks from Plum Village — for seven days of discussion, contemplation, creativity and hugs.
(Yeah, I know, hugs…yuk! Stay with me).
The theme, broadly, was how can we live wisely and well in a time of climate crisis.
That’s a big, urgent, frightening question, and at times we felt like passengers on the deck of the Titanic discussing how best to arrange the deck-chairs.
It was also challenging, sometimes, to live in close proximity to other people for a week.
I can be an introvert, and spend most of my life on my own, so sudden immersion into communal living can trigger all kinds of defensiveness and social anxiety.
There were times when I felt like doing a runner, or found myself counting the days until the end of the retreat.
Yet I relaxed into it, and ended up feeling a real sense of togetherness and even love for my fellow participants.
Yesterday, we began by doing a session of mutual appreciation and hugs (I know it sounds ridiculously hippy), and then went into a talk by a Buddhist monk about the non-existence of a separate self.
Something about the combination of the love, the hugs, and the talk really relaxed me and thinned the walls of my ego.
I briefly stopped comparing and rating and judging myself and the other people.
I started to feel like we were one organism, one ecosystem.
I really do feel the heart is a spiritual organ of great, mysterious power.
It is not just an organ of feeling but of knowing.
Our knowing of the world, our cognitive hold on it, is shaped by the heart.
When our heart closes in fear and separation, that deeply shapes our sense of reality, and can push us into all kinds of mad beliefs and behaviours.
A closed heart warps reality around it, like a black hole.
When we relax and feel safe, our hearts open.
We feel a sense of oneness and togetherness, rather than fearful antagonistic separation.
The heart weaves connections to the world, it weaves our reality together. We notice what we care about.
We begin to know the world through our mother, through her love, through her touch and smile.
I also think there is a strong connection between our minds, our heart and our bodies.
That’s probably obvious to you, bear with me, I’m an emotional illiterate, I have to figure this all out for myself.
What I mean is that, as mammals, we overcome our sense of fear and separation partly through touch, through hugging and being held.
I think the lack of touch in my life these last 20 years has deeply shaped my sense of self and reality. It has led to me feeling much more separate and atomised.
When I give and receive a lot of hugs from a group of people, as I have this last week, then I start to feel less like an atomised individual, with all my personal fears and hang-ups, and more like a member of a tribe.
This relates to academia, our official organ of knowing, because it is an institution which privileges the cognitive, largely ignores the affective (except to analyse it) and completely ignores the physical.
It was lovely to meet some academics this week, meditate together, share stories from our lives, walk in the woods, hug.
I felt closer to the academics I met this week than I have felt to my colleagues at Queen Mary in the last eight years.
In eight years, I have never met socially with one of my colleagues, never been to one of their homes or met their families. Never shared a story from our personal life. Certainly never hugged.
That’s not their fault or my fault, really. It is a cultural, institutional problem in academia.
But that separation from our hearts, bodies and each other affects our cognitive knowing. We end up uptight, unhappy people clinging to our concepts.
I left the retreat this morning and headed back into the world. I’m writing this from amid the maelstrom of Gare du Nord.
As usual after retreats, it was a somewhat rough re-entry.
The rustic French cab driver ripped me off. There was a long queue at the train station which fulminated into a row.
Then I logged onto Facebook and read about the fires raging through the Amazon, the Arctic, through France and Spain.
I wished President Bolsonaro was dead.
I figured he was the most dangerous man in the world, capable of destroying our ecosystem and threatening all our existences.
Wouldn’t it be better to take him out?
Today I feel embarrassed by this homicidal thought, entertained during a Buddhist retreat.
Why has a quarter of the Amazon been deforested since the 1970s? Because of our appetite for meat.
How can I accuse Bolsonaro when I eat meat?
As one reads about the fires raging, one can feel totally helpless.
This fearful thought grips me: We’re not going to make it. Things are going to collapse, perhaps sooner than we think.
But who is ‘we’? Who am I? What am I?
What does ‘make it’ mean?
In some ways, although the times are scary, we’re facing the same question humans have always faced.
How will you live your life, before you die?
As a civilization, we’re like a bon viveur who’s just been told they have a serious illness and possibly only a few years left to live.
Our reaction has been to ignore it, light another cigar, and go and stuff our face in a restaurant. Plenty of steak, plenty of wine, maybe a lap-dance before we pop a sleeping pill to still our nightmares.
Me, die? How ridiculous. How alarmist.
How could anything happen to me, who lives so well, who everybody likes?
Yet gradually, after a few crazy nights out, we start to sober up and face reality.
And we feel furious. Why weren’t we told earlier? Who’s fault is this? Heads will roll!
Then we grab for any possible cure. Cannabis oil. Psychedelics. Carbon capture. Sea-steading.
Finally we sink into a completely immobile despair. Nothing to do. Nowhere to run.
Poor, poor me.
We start to howl like a baby.
But what we’re going through is what every human in the history of the human race has gone through before us.
We are facing up to our mortality.
We’re having a collective near-death, or actual-death, experience.
And like every human in the past waking up to the realisation that they’re mortal, we can choose how to respond.
We can respond with fear, despair, denial, anger and grasping. Or we can respond with love, care, togetherness and hope.
Every confrontation with death is also a massive opportunity for rebirth and liberation.
For putting things right and living with greater love, care, honesty and integrity in the days that remain.
How will we spend our last decades, our last years, our last days?
The choice is the same, however long we have left.