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Collapse and Renewal: Musings on Sacred Space and the Decline of Civilization

Posted by Bonnie Bright on April 23, 2011 at 5:46pm

We are in an interesting juncture as I write this, a liminal space which is the day between “Earth” Day when we remember the divine feminine archetype we call the “Mother”--and Easter, a day inimitably dedicated to honoring the divine masculine that inhabits our universe. In this time between the two, this powerful threshold where both archetypal energies are alive and engaged, when the focus is on the devastation to our precious earth and on the resurrection of Christ, the savior of humanity, the archetypes of life and death, renewal and rebirth emerge as a particularly powerful force in the collective unconscious.

An article by Ecopsychologist and author of the classic The End of Nature, Bill McKibbin, struck me particularly this morning as he listed recent calamities and inquired as to our responsibility in recent disastrous acts of nature in his recent post in The Guardian, “Floods, earthquakes, landslides: 2011 is a year of disasters” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/apr/02/natural-disasters-flood...). Somehow, seeing them all concretely aggregated in one place resulted in a visual image for me of the trajectory we are on, eerie confirmation that our civilization may be headed into decline.

For years now, I have been conscious of collapse as an entity, a pending presence that seems to hang over me, flows around me, threatens me, caresses me, and begs me to regard it. Collapse is an ancient archetypal force that has had its way with our human world and will continue to exist long after those of us who can contemplate have, ourselves, dispersed and disappeared. As an archetype, collapse manifests in a multitude of situations, but impacts my personal consciousness in the ending and disintegration of species, habitats, ecosystems, lifestyles, heritage, and civilizations.

In my own life, I have listened to the call to engage, utilizing a depth psychological lens to inquire intimately into the systematic destruction of the honeybee population as it fell prey to a sudden mysterious decline beginning at the end of 2006, a progression that continues to worsen nearly five years later, and to regard the collapse of the Classic Maya through fieldwork on an archeological site in northern Belize. I have visited pueblos and populations of Native Americans in the American Southwest and drunk the echoes of ancient ruins of Knossos in Greece and of Catal Huyek and Ephesus in what is now Turkey. Everywhere I go, I am aware of what has ended in that place, and from my own perspective in my own place and my own culture, what is ending now. I am painfully conscious even now of the destruction wrought in recent months by the oil spill from DeepWater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico and the deadly toxic impact of radiation leaking into the air and the sea at Fukushima, Japan. I am also aware of how our cultural lifestyle—and the choices I am making for myself as well—are contributing to the upset of a fragile balance that may ultimately be catapulting our civilization—and even our species—toward collapse by way of an Apocalyptic end-time that will cause much loss and suffering on our planet—not only to humans, but inevitably to animals and nature as well.

History shows us a seemingly endless string of losses as cultures collapsed due to overexploitation of the earth’s resources, environmental issues, natural disasters, disease, starvation, warfare, and political power struggles, among others. With the loss of a civilization comes the loss of so much more. The people, culture, language, heritage, traditions, rituals, plant lore, tribal wisdom, stories, myths, artwork, handiwork, craftwork, and ways of beings are all wiped away. Along with them, as more civilizations, species, and ecosystems fail, so does the diversity which makes up the myriad rich dimensions world soul, leaving a planet and species that has been homogenized into an aesthetic, generic one-dimensional environment. When even one aspect of a civilization dies, such as language, the resulting loss is in heritage, tradition, and wisdom is amplified many times over.

Certainly, as we examine the archetypal elements of endings, the modern human propulsion toward science and the drive to develop new technology such as nuclear power or the capacity to drill ever deeper to obtain fossil fuels has had a significant impact on incidents of destruction, decline and collapse. It is also noteworthy to consider what influence the heavily technocentric lifestyle we lead in current western culture is having on our collective and individual psyche and what may be the outcome in terms of increased dissociation, narcissistic tendencies, and even psychopathology. Equally critical is the corresponding tendency we have as a culture to objectify and avail ourselves of nature, which has resulted in a multitude of major declines throughout history. Jared Diamond, in his best-selling Collapse, suggests many incidents of civilization collapse have been due to unintended ecological suicide (ecocide).

C.G. Jung foresaw severe consequences propelling our civilization toward collapse even from his vantage point of the mid-twentieth century, saying:
[This] nihilistic trend towards disintegration must be understood as the symptom and symbol of a mood of universal destruction and renewal that has set its mark on our age . . . . This peculiarity of our time, which is certainly not of our conscious choosing, is the expression of the unconscious man within us who is changing. Coming generations will have to take account of this momentous transformation if humanity is not to destroy itself through the might of its own technology and science. (Civilization in Transition, 1970, p. 304)

However, the initiatory progression of decline resulting in loss, sadness, suffering, and pain—even annihilation—may also lead to new birth, a new place of safety, home, and the capacity to thrive. Engaged witnessing of this downward sequence may be akin to finding the shards of a broken vessel and re-forging them into a new vessel. Though we can never restore or duplicate what has collapsed to the way it was before, there may be a way of re-sherding the broken pieces and forging a new vessel that bears the honor of the previously broken whole. Depth Psychologist Jergen Kremer asserts that adding missing pieces to a broken vessel found during an excavation would be a dishonor to the maker, and more, a dishonor to the history of the breakage. However, he encourages us to imagine there is a way to remake the pot without dishonoring it, such as the way in which Pueblo Indians grind the sherds to powder making them an integral part of the material that constitutes a new vessel.

In the end, the pain and loss associated with collapse is a fire that forges, and it must be witnessed rather than disregarded by sweeping it under the rug and hoping against hope we can combat the dread we instinctively feel from the constant companionship of the archetype of end-times. This time now—in the delicate balance between feminine and masculine, between destruction and resurrection is a sacred space in which we can look—no, must look--at what's going on in the world and allow ourselves to wonder about the impossible—but we must also know that our personal actions and thoughts can change things, can bring hope.

In Swamplands of the Soul, Jungian James Hollis writes, “We must be still and still moving, Into another intensity, For a further union, a deeper communion, Through the dark cold and the empty desolation. . . . We cannot avoid the swamplands of the soul, but we may come to value them for what they can bring us.” In his iconic work, Re-visioning Psychology, James Hillman asserts, "The study of lives and the care of souls means above all a prolonged encounter with what destroys and is destroyed, with what is broken and hurts” (1975, p. 56). Thus, to regard destruction and loss is soul making, and making soul must certainly be of paramount importance in authentic restoration. Simply witnessing the natural cycles of life and death may be not only the first step, but the totality of what is required, a spiritual take on a very tangible situation, usually separate in our minds, but potentially so powerful if we find and honor the balance in this space between the traditional opposites, feminine and masculine, destruction and resurrection, life and death. “Spiritual” may have many connotations, but ultimately, in the powerful words of writer and activist Aurora Levins Morales, “The spiritual is whatever allows us to notice the miraculous nature of life, how it keeps coming back, asserting itself in the midst of destruction”.

Copyright 2011. Bonnie Bright.

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If you imagine someone who is brave enough to withdraw all his projections, then you get an individual who is conscious of a pretty thick shadow.

Such a man has saddled himself with new problems and conflicts. He has become a serious problem to himself, as he is now unable to say that they do this or that, they are wrong, and they must be fought against…

Such a man knows that whatever is wrong in the world is in himself, and if he only learns to deal with his own shadow he has done something real for the world. He has succeeded in shouldering at least an infinitesimal part of the gigantic, unsolved social problems of our day.

--Carl Gustav Jung

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