The Four Denials

Earlier this week I was interviewed by Carolyn Baker for her New Lifeboat Hour podcast. The 33-minute podcast is now edited and up here.

This is the first time I’ve tried to weave in collapse and complexity theory with non-duality. It worked out pretty well.

The title of our discussion was How to Live at Peace With the World, and in it I explain how my studies and readings, about how the world really works, and about complexity theory in particular, led me to become a ‘collapsnik‘. And then I talk about my 5-stage resilience framework (reproduced above, and available as a PDF here) and how my more recent study of non-duality (as part of my ‘Stage One’ self-knowledge work) have affected my perceptions of how we can prepare for civilization’s collapse.

What I talk about essentially is four ‘denials’ — four apparent truths that until the turn of this century I would have labeled as preposterous (and most people still do). Now I see them as undeniable:

  1. That our civilization is in an accelerating state of collapse that has precipitated the similarly-accelerating sixth great extinction of life on Earth.
  2. That this global collapse, which will bring down our economic, energy and ecological systems and all the other massively complex, interdependent and self-reinforcing systems dependent on them, cannot be prevented or mitigated by human efforts.
  3. That neither humans nor other creatures have free will, choice, control, agency, volition or responsibility for what we do. Nothing is inevitable, predictable or foreordained, but under the specific circumstances and situation in which each of us finds ourselves in each moment, we cannot do other than what we do.
  4. That “self-consciousness” is not just a sign of a creature’s high intelligence, but is an evolved affliction, a dis-ease that prevents its victims from seeing and being in the world as it really is. And there is no cure for this dis-ease other than death, except for the rare individual who is either born self-less or whose self suddenly at some point in their life falls away. Self-consciousness confers a short term evolutionary advantage, but in the long term is unnecessary and highly dysfunctional, causing horrific suffering and much of the destruction and violence we now see in the world.

None of these truths is intuitive or easy to explain or defend. Overcoming our denial of them is hard work and takes a great deal of study and thought.

And each of these truths, as it is realized, makes us more ‘hope-less’. But rather than lead to despair, they can, when approached with an attitude of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, enable us to be at peace with our conflicted selves, other self-inflicted humans, and our desolated world. This realization doesn’t mean we then do nothing (or behave nihilistically). We humans have evolved to be a generous, collaborative and caring species. So we do the only thing, in the circumstances, we can do — our best.

Anything else is impossible.

I hope you enjoy the podcast, and encourage you to check out some of Carolyn’s other work.

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7 Responses to The Four Denials

  1. Michael Henning says:

    We wont and cant know anything until we know everything ( Richard Rose ) …doing the best we can with what have at the moment is all we can do and all we ever could do

  2. Theresa says:

    As you know, I’ve been keeping up with your blog for many years. It seems to me recently, that your interpretation of civilization’s end is a kind of mirror image or re-interpretation of the very seductive “end times” narrative that Christianity was so successful at harnessing from the 1st century onward. I became vaguely aware of this during the last few years while I was reading up on some Roman history. I was reminded of it the other day while reading Chomski’s take on the US election – “One of the difficulties in raising public concern over the very severe threats of global warming is that 40 percent of the U.S. population does not see why it is a problem, since Christ is returning in a few decades. .” . via Ecowatch. I’m not saying you are wrong, in fact I’ve mostly agreed with most of what you write. I’m just saying the appeal of this “end times” idea is similar to what the early Christians thought (that christ was returning in their lifetime), and what many religious people today seem to think. It makes me wonder what it is in us that makes us crave an end to all of this – regardless of what that “all” is in each of our lives. Sometimes I wonder if the idea doesn’t get its traction from the pull of a death wish, even a death cult. A longing for death. I don’t know what I think of this yet, but I must go re-read Walt Whitman’s Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking to find out. :) In any case, meditating on death might be a better solution than craving an end to “it all”.

  3. Arthur Noll says:

    Your community framework is interesting, and I largely agree with it.

    With regard to the four denials, I agree with them up to the third, which I partly agree with. I agree we don’t have free will. But after that, I see things as happening according to the laws of nature, and there is inevitability about this. However, my capacity to fully understand and measure precisely with these laws are limited, and so my vision of the future is fuzzy and could be missing things. However, I seem to have no choice but to make decisions about what looks best with this anyway. I try to get other people’s perspectives to help avoid mistakes, which can help but still doesn’t come close to perfect vision. But we do the best we can.

    As for number four, I don’t see why self consciousness is a disease. Perhaps I am not understanding what you mean by those words, but in your community resilience network, you list self knowledge as the place to begin. I see self knowledge and self consciousness as related. How can I know about myself without being conscious of myself? And of course, as with the observations about number three, my ability to see myself has limits, too, and the perspective of others can sometimes help.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Theresa, I don’t think longing for the end of the ‘self’ is the same as longing for an end to ‘it all’. What they have in common (and perhaps all movements have in common) is a longing for the end of suffering and unhappiness. But what non-duality is saying is that not only are there no ‘end times’, there is no time at all, that everything is oneness, and that suffering and unhappiness is just a consequence of the illusion of the separate self. The longing of Christian fundamentalists and their ilk is, I think, an expression of weariness, a desire for someone or something else to ‘fix’ their unhappiness. They’re still caught in the dream that their unhappiness is real.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Arthur, my search for self-knowledge is precisely what has led me to the conclusion that my self is illusory, a chimera. Perhaps it’s a paradox that you have to wade more deeply into knowledge and awareness of what the ‘self’ is, to begin to understand that it’s an evolutionary failure, nothing more than an embodied idea conjured out of nothing, that isn’t real. If I am fortunate enough that one day my self will just have fallen away, there will then be no ‘me’ and hence no knowledge or awareness (of my self or anything else, since everything else is dual). But in the meantime, ‘I’ find it comforting to explore the illusion, to “make the prison of the separate self more comfortable”.

  6. Don Stewart says:

    You might like to read Dan Siegel’s new book Mind: A Journey Into the Heart of Being Human. He talks about many of the same subjects you do, but comes to somewhat different conclusions.

    For example, I will oversimplify and say that he considers a mind to be an emergent property which results as information and energy flow through our bodies, our brains, our community, and our environment. It is not true that our mind is what our brain does, or that our mind is disconnected from our environment or our community. But the mind is real, nonetheless.

    Dan thinks we do have some free will, although we are obviously entangled with our bodies, our brains, our communities, and our environment.

    When you talk about community activism, Dan would say that we are using the community to change our minds.

    I hope I haven’t mangled his message beyond recognition….Don Stewart

  7. Your essay has stirred some significant reflection for me, Dave. The first two feel absolutely valid to me. Like you, I’ve been watching collapse for awhile, and continue to monitor the pulse of information about accelerating climate change (and fossil fuel depletion) which confirm them.
    It is your third “denial” that has me totally intrigued, and desirous of more input: that living beings have no “free will, choice, control, agency, volition or responsibility for what we/they do”…that notion is both liberating (farewell to guilt) and also puzzling (where does personal responsibility for our actions fit in? When “I” make a decision, is it simply being receptive to something that arises in my awareness (“I” am not the originator of that thought or decision)?

    I wasn’t able to read many of your blogs last year as you explored non-duality, and would love your recommendation of which I might read now. Your gift in articulating challenging concepts shines here, once again.

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