and better ways of leaving the world
In the summer of 2019 the US Air Force ordered all units to pick one day between August 1 and September 15 for a “stand down” intended to address the rapidly rising rate of suicide within its ranks.
“I loose the world from all I thought it was.”
— Workbook Lesson 132, A Course in Miracles
"Suicide is an adversary that is killing more of our airmen than any enemy on the planet," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said in a letter to commanders ordering the “Resiliency Operational Pause.” Averaging about 100 suicides annually, the Air Force had already suffered 78 by the mid-point of this year, a significant acceleration of an increasing trend. The suicide casualty rate surpasses all other single causes of Air Force fatalities, including combat, according to a report by ABC News.
Meanwhile, reporting on findings announced at the 2018 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, WebMD revealed that “One doctor commits suicide in the U.S. every day — the highest suicide rate of any profession. And the number of doctor suicides — 28 to 40 per 100,000 — is more than twice that of the general population…” As one of the study’s researchers noted, "It's very surprising" that the suicide rate among physicians is higher than among those in the military, always considered a very stressful occupation.
And in another service profession where one might least expect it, a self-destructive tendency is on the rise. “Veterinarians continue to die by suicide at rates well above the national average,” reported Alex Jones for NBC News. A recent report quantified for the first time an increasing rate of among female vets, although male practitioners still account for 82% of the profession’s suicides.
Lest one think that a suicidal tendency is on the rise only among high-stress service vocations, TIME magazine’s Jamie Ducharme reported in June 2019 that “US suicide rates are at their highest since World War II, according to federal data — and the opioid crisis, widespread social media use and high rates of stress may be among the myriad contributing factors.” The rate in 2017 was 99% higher than in 1999, surpassed only by previous peaks in 1942 (the height of WWII) and 1932 (during the Great Depression).
While one might assume that suicide rates would be highest in centers of urban density with their accompanying social pressures, the regional US leader is the sparsely populated state of Montana. This could be due in part to high rates of private gun ownership in such rural areas. While there is a great deal of public concern about the role of guns in mass shootings, there has been less attention paid to the fact that out of 40,000 gun deaths across the US in 2017, 60% of them were suicides.
In Colorado, so-called “red flag laws” — one of the rare gun-control measures supported by President Donald Trump — require state officials to remove guns from people whom law enforcement has identified as a likely danger to themselves or others. But at least half of Colorado’s counties have declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries” opposing the laws. Ironically, most of those counties have the highest suicide rates.
Across all regions of the US, according to TIME, youth suicide is becoming an especially significant problem, with the rates of self-inflicted death among 10- to 14-year-olds higher than any other age range. No one is entirely sure why, although the paradoxically isolating effects of so-called “social” media use is generally accepted as a significant factor.
One factor that may be in play across all these populations, but not yet recognized, is the likelihood that the human race in general is unwittingly committing suicide on a global basis, while taking countless other species of living beings with it. Especially for young people in their teens now, the future may be sensed as gloomy for reasons that are not merely economic or “social.”
The Reluctant Recognition of Extinction
From the initial warnings by seemingly alarmist environmentalists just a few decades ago, to the harder-to-ignore reality of global weather patterns now shifting in an increasingly erratic and apocalyptic manner, the spectre of catastrophic climate change is just now dawning on our species. Not long ago, climate scientists were warning that we had perhaps several decades to reverse the potentially lethal accumulation of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Recently that estimate has been lowered to a few years or even eighteen months — which in terms of the political, technological, and cultural measures required to effect any useful change, is really no time at all.
In fact, a few longtime observers of the ongoing climate change catastrophe are reluctantly speaking out to suggest that our time is indeed up, and nothing can be done to reverse the climatic and environmental damage we have done to the planet. If so, that means that we must start facing the music about our extinction as a species — possibly much sooner than we have been prepared to imagine.
Catherine Ingram is a dharma teacher with a background in journalism, specializing in social and environmental issues, who has conducted her own study of climatic change over the past decade. She has summarized her findings in “Facing Extinction,” a long online essay that most readers will likely find, as I did, emotionally challenging to complete.
“For much of my life, I thought our species would soon go extinct,” she begins. “I assumed we might last another hundred years if we were lucky. Now I suspect we are facing extinction in the near future…. We are now in the midst of the sixth mass extinction with about 150 plant and animal species going extinct per day. Despite the phrase ‘the sixth extinction’ making its way into mainstream awareness via the publication of Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer-prize-winning book of that title, most people still don’t realize that we humans are also on the list.”
One problem among many that she describes has yet to enter mainstream awareness:
“Methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon, and much faster acting. In the first twenty years after its release into the atmosphere, it is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Whereas the full effect of heat from a carbon dioxide molecule takes ten years, peak warming from a methane molecule occurs in a matter of months.
“The Arctic and Antarctic icecaps are melting at rates far faster than even the most alarming predictions, and methane is pouring out of these regions, bubbling out of Arctic lakes, and hissing out of seas and soils worldwide. Some scientists fear a methane ‘burp’ of billions of tons when a full melt of the summer arctic ice occurs, something that has not happened for the past four million years. Should such a sudden large release of methane occur, the earth’s warming would rapidly accelerate within months. This alone could be the extinction event.”
And just since the recent publication of Ingram's article, Business Insider has reported that a record number of human-caused fires in the Amazon "could be part of a doomsday scenario that sees the rainforest spewing carbon into the atmosphere and speeding up climate change even more."
Yet a relatively quick extinction might well be more merciful than decades of civilization declining violently under the pressures of climatic and ecological catastrophes. As Ingram comments:
“Of all the threats we face, the one I find most frightening is the breakdown of civilized society. We now see large regions of the world that are no-go zones. Failed states, where life is cheap and barbarism reigns. Huge swaths of Africa are now lawless and controlled by armed and violent men and boys roaming the countryside in gangs, engaged in despicable acts too sickening to write. The Middle East is much the same as are parts of South America. All of these areas are enduring severe drought. As professor and journalist Christian Parenti said in an interview with Chris Hedges, ‘How do people adapt to climate change? How do they adapt to the drought, to the floods? Very often, the way is you pick up the surplus weaponry and you go after your neighbor’s cattle or you blame it on your neighbor’s ideology or ethnicity.’”
In this light, the current and intensifying controversy over immigration at the southern border of the US is likely just a sneak preview of greater discord and violent chaos to come. What may seem like classic Third World crises will increasingly spill over First World borders, regardless of whether we build massive walls or enact more humane immigration laws. And America’s domestic problem of homelessness, caused thus far mostly by economic inequality, will likely intensify as we develop more “climate refugees” from regions of our own country that will suffer intolerable heat waves or coastal flooding as climate change progresses.
Do we still have time to save the world?
In an interview for our book Necessary Wisdom, I asked philosopher Jacob Needleman why the metaphor of “just in time” is so widely present in popular stories and media. In action and suspense movies, for instance, the bomb is defused or the secret code is broken with only seconds to spare — never a couple minutes or an hour. Why do we have such a strong sense of a countdown, that we’re only going to avoid catastrophe at the last second?
Dr. Needleman’s reply: “Off the top of my head I would say that our fear of time running out is a way of expressing the strength of evil. We have a sense that evil is equal to good — Moriarty was always as smart as Holmes — and this results in a major battle within us between these equal and opposed forces. What happens ‘just in time’ is the influx of miraculous, reconciling spiritual energy from above and beyond our inner battlefield.
“Of course it’s not really good and evil in traditional religious terms that are fighting each other; it’s our seeking for the Self and our own resistance to that seeking. Left to our own devices, we’d never resolve the battle. It’s the miracle of spirit coming from out of nowhere that resolves the inner struggle. When the action hero suddenly knows what to do, has an intuitive flash about breaking the code or snipping the right wire on the bomb, that could be taken as a metaphor for the arrival of spiritual insight. Something comes from another level — just as the hero is about to give up on saving himself or the world, the magic of spirit appears. This is what we know will save us in the nick of time.”
Every few years a doomsday prediction from an extremist evangelical preacher surfaces in popular media, giving us all a specific date by which the world will end if we don’t repent — or even if we do. When the date comes and goes without incident, the preacher predictably confesses some error in his biblical calculation, and the news media and social media universe chuckle nervously that “we’re all still here.”
Climate scientists and ecologists don’t announce doomsday dates, but they do proffer theories and predict processes of change based on them. So far their timetables have been wrong — but not in the direction we might wish, for climate disruption and biosphere degradation appear to be accelerating on a scale that has proved far more rapid than outlined just a few decades ago. In every respect that would count, we don’t seem to have caught on in time. In the current Presidential race, only one candidate, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee, has made addressing climate change the centerpiece of his campaign (and he dropped out of the race just as this article was completed). Mainstream media are still hesitant to address the crisis with full attention.
As Catherine Ingram notes, ”There has never been a greater news story than that of humans facing full extinction, and yet extinction is rarely mentioned on the evening news, cable channels, or on the front pages of blogs and newspapers. It is as though the world’s astronomers were telling us that an asteroid is heading our way and will make a direct hit destined to wipe out all of life to which the public responds by remaining fascinated with sporting events, social media, the latest political scandals, and celebrity gossip.”
That’s not to say that no one is responding with alarm or passion. The UK-based grassroots organization Extinction Rebellion proposes a strategy of protests and nonviolent civil disobedience to bring our survival crisis to the attention of stubborn or recalcitrant governments worldwide, and the activism of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg has drawn international attention. National Geographic has reported that “Most Americans now worry about climate change — and want to fix it” but the gap between this new concern and the massive technological remedies and cultural changes that would be required just to slow down the rate of climate catastrophe — much less reverse it — remains huge.
The Role of Spiritual Strategies
Like Catherine Ingram, I am both a journalist with a background in environmentalism and a spiritual activist. By the latter label, I don’t mean that I believe prayer will save the world — or that I’m only looking for ways to turn inward and feel better while the known world disintegrates all around me.
It does mean that I understand there is a vital connection between inner and outer realities — and that the inner work of self-transformation is key to developing sustainable life strategies. Finally, it is a spiritual outlook that enables me (on most days, anyway) to cope with the daily torrent of bad news that, as a journalist, I cannot simply ignore for the sake of some peaceful ignorance.
Near the end of her essay, Ingram lists a few of the inner and outer activities we can undertake not just to cope with the spectre of our extinction, but to cope in ways that are meaningful, sanity-saving and, for the time being at least, life-preserving. They include finding (or creating) one’s community; finding your calm; releasing dark visions of the future; being of service; and being grateful. Readers are referred to Ingram’s essay to read her useful explications of each point, but I will include the last and most intriguing recommendation in its entirety:“Give up the fight with evolution. It wins. The story about a human misstep in history, the imaginary point at which we could have taken a different route, is a pointless mental exercise. Our evolution is based on quintillions of earth motions, incremental biological adaptations, survival necessities, and human desires. We are right where we were headed all along.”
This poignant recommendation — which is essentially to forgive ourselves as the literal “end product” of evolution itself — touches on the central teaching of my own spiritual discipline, A Course in Miracles. In the explication of Workbook Lesson #132, “I loose the world from all I thought it was,” the aim of ultimate forgiveness is explained from another perspective:
"The present now remains the only time. Here in the present is the world set free. For as you let the past be lifted and release the future from your ancient fears, you find escape and give it to the world. You have enslaved the world with all your fears, your doubts and miseries, your pain and tears; and all your sorrows press on it, and keep the world a prisoner to your beliefs. Death strikes it everywhere because you hold the bitter thoughts of death within your mind."The world is nothing in itself. Your mind must give it meaning. And what you behold upon it are your wishes, acted out so you can look on them and think them real. Perhaps you think you did not make the world, but came unwillingly to what was made already, hardly waiting for your thoughts to give it meaning. Yet in truth you found exactly what you looked for when you came.”
Central to the Course philosophy is the idea that we actually live in our minds, not our bodies — and our bodies, as well as the entire physical universe of space, time, and matter, are collective delusions we have created and maintain at our own peril. These delusions give us a particular kind of homesickness:
“This world you seem to live in is not home to you. And somewhere in your mind you know that this is true. A memory of home keeps haunting you, as if there were a place that called you to return, although you do not recognize the voice, nor what it is the voice reminds you of. Yet still you feel an alien here, from somewhere all unknown. Nothing so definite that you could say with certainty you are an exile here. Just a persistent feeling, sometimes not more than a tiny throb, at other times hardly remembered, actively dismissed, but surely to return to mind again.
“No one but knows whereof we speak. Yet some try to put by their suffering in games they play to occupy their time, and keep their sadness from them. Others will deny that they are sad, and do not recognize their tears at all. Still others will maintain that what we speak of is illusion, not to be considered more than but a dream. Yet who, in simple honesty, without defensiveness and self-deception, would deny he understands the words we speak?
“We speak today for everyone who walks this world, for he is not at home. He goes uncertainly about in endless search, seeking in darkness what he cannot find; not recognizing what it is he seeks. A thousand homes he makes, yet none contents his restless mind. He does not understand he builds in vain. The home he seeks can not be made by him. There is no substitute for Heaven. All he ever made was hell.” [from the text of ACIM Workbook Lesson #182, “I will be still an instant and go home.”]
The Course definition of “Heaven” has nothing to do with the traditional concepts of Christianity or any other religion. It is not God’s own divine real estate, nor a faraway realm of eternal reward for having lived a good life. There are no streets of gold, joyful reunions with lost loved ones, or a resplendent buffet that will never make you fat. In the one passage that comes closest to describing the Heaven of ACIM, it is clear that language does not quite suffice to define it:
“Beyond the body, beyond the sun and stars, past everything you see and yet somehow familiar, is an arc of golden light that stretches as you look into a great and shining circle. And all the circle fills with light before your eyes. The edges of the circle disappear, and what is in it is no longer contained at all. The light expands and covers everything, extending to infinity forever shining and with no break or limit anywhere. Within it everything is joined in perfect continuity. Nor is it possible to imagine that anything could be outside, for there is nowhere that this light is not….
“Here is the memory of what you are; a part of this, with all of it within, and joined to all as surely as all is joined in you. Accept the vision that can show you this, and not the body.” [ACIM Text Ch21, I: The Forgotten Song]
From Ecological to Spiritual Awareness
When I was a child growing up in an upper-middle class home with a swimming pool and other modern luxuries, I remember being perplexed by the fact that only human beings, compared to all the other species of animals I could see or knew about, had to go to great lengths to assure their physical survival and comfort. Birds could fashion nests every year from the simplest materials available to them, sticks and grasses. But their homes didn’t need foundations sunk into the earth, and neither heating nor air-conditioning systems were required. Our dogs loved to roam free in the nearby woods, but had nowhere to go that would require a gas-burning automobile.
Every animal but the human one, it seemed, had adapted to the environment provided by “Mother Nature” without altering it in any lasting or significant way. Yet for some inexplicable reason we had to build over and “master” Nature in order to answer the needs of our survival — and beyond that, to answer our other apparent needs to be as comfortable, mobile, and entertained as possible.
By my teens, this perplexity over humanity’s relationship to nature was turning to concern that our proclivity to build over, pave, and pollute nature was becoming self-destructive, not to mention destructive to other species of life.
In my early twenties my writing career began as an investigative journalist focusing on environmental issues. I righteously believed that I was on a world-saving mission to point out the mistakes and miscreants of bad environmental policy. Surely when people and their governments had all the correct, scientifically-derived information that defined ecological sanity, they would correct their errant and thoughtless ways and learn to live in harmony with the natural environment.
I was certainly not alone in these convictions, and in fact the environmental movement probably had its heyday for most of two decades, beginning in the 1970s. In the earlier years, the chief issues were air and water pollution, overpopulation, nuclear power and weaponry, and what was just beginning to be known as “global warming.” And with the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in the US and similar governmental forces in Western Europe, some progress toward environmental health was made. Air and water pollution decreased significantly, at least in key urban areas. But the much thornier problem of the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide load was not being substantially addressed, and nothing effective was achieved in the realm of population control.
In the early 1950s, when both Catherine Ingram and I were born, there were about 2.6 billion people on earth; now there are 7.7 billion. As Ingram observes, "Our use rate of resources would allow for our planet to sustainably host only about one billion people…. [thus] the load on resource use is far in excess of its carrying capacity. Of course, the only way we have been able to pull this off is by stealing from the future, just as we might have a garden of food that could last ten people through the winter and instead we have a wild party for a thousand and go through the entire supply in an evening.”I burned out quickly on the rigors and frustrations of investigative journalism, learning first-hand that world-saving was beyond my individual capacities and I just didn’t seem built to be a lifelong warrior for the cause. By my early thirties I’d fallen prey to an auto-immune disease that was partly triggered by chemical sensitivities, with deeper roots in a traumatic family history that had left me with much unrecognized and unresolved anger. The seven-year struggle to rebuild my health was also the beginning of my spiritual path, and thereafter I would re-enter journalism as a feature writer and book author on the subjects of health, psychology, and contemporary spirituality.
In a very real sense, I switched my mode of world-saving from outer to inner — and from the strategy of calling out others’ errors to forgiving everyone, including myself, for what we do and do not know that we’re doing. I still have the highest respect for sound investigative journalism and, unlike many in contemporary spiritual circles, I pay attention to the daily news — albeit it with a more skeptical and practiced eye than most people who don’t know how that kind of sausage is made, as it were.
And in terms of personal lifestyle, I’ve remained a bicycling/recycling/resource-conserving environmentalist even as I gradually concluded that the struggle to achieve ecological sanity on a broad scale was being lost.
Yet I have to agree with Catherine Ingram that the ultimate blame, if it must be affixed, belongs not to greedy, earth-raping corporations, thoughtless or even demented politicians, or humanity’s wholesale ignorance of a “sustainable lifestyle” in favor of unending self-indulgence. In a very real sense, we’ve been undone by the evolution of our own brilliant if fatally short-sighted intelligence. As she describes the relatively brief arc of our astonishing flame-out as a species:
“We plunged forward with each new way of doing things, each new invention, because it made life easier at the time. There was no intention to destroy ourselves. On the contrary, for most of the time since the Industrial Revolution, it seemed that life was getting better for greater numbers of people. With medical advances, we wiped out most of the contagious deadly diseases, controlled infections, and greatly extended life expectancy. We built transportation capabilities that allowed us to travel to the far ends of the earth in a day and thereby learn of other cultures while on their own turf. And then we hooked ourselves up to each other in a world of instantaneous communication, which has been a whole lot of fun. But we didn’t factor in the cost of all this bounty as we built modern civilization. We didn’t understand that running the world on fossil fuels that were needed for our machinery — our cars, planes, cargo ships, tankers, electric grids, and just about everything — would someday do us in. Nearly all of us went along on the ride and enjoyed the benefits, and now the party’s over and the bill has come due.”
Indeed. So be it.
Intimations of Mortality
This essay was just beginning to suggest itself in my mind when I happened to get a haircut. At age 65, I am the beneficiary of some remarkably youthful genes from my mom, meaning that so far I haven’t dealt with most of the ailments that plague many of my contemporaries: no heart or cholesterol problems, no diabetes, no joints that need to be replaced, no arthritis, no memory lapses.
Because I spent most of my 30s feeling like I was in my 80s, I often feel like I’m regaining some of my lost youth in my 60s. So I was startled when my hair began falling in clipped, grayish clumps onto the black apron spread over my lap, and I silently asked myself in horror, “Where are those ashes coming from?”
Sooner or later, each of us faces our own mortality, the inescapable fact that we all face extinction. This realization is almost always the source of significant anxiety or grief, and the prospect of our entire species’ extinction simply delivers a more intense degree of both. It is also worth remembering that every civilization has had its own doomsday scenarios — and that massively fatal catastrophes like Pompeii just happen sometimes. (Mother Nature never promised us a rose garden.)
Years ago when I was studying for a few weeks with the African shaman and ritual teacher Malidoma Somé, I remember him laughing aloud at some environmental literature advertising a campaign to “Save the Earth.” He waved the brochure in front of our workshop group and exclaimed, “Save the Earth?! Save our asses, you mean! No matter what we do to it, the Earth will do just fine in the long run. We’re the ones without much time left.”
Some twenty years after Malidoma’s warning, we have even less time. We may soon be leaving this world en masse via extinction. Those who are particularly sensitive to the pressures of living in the world of time, space, and the body are choosing to leave on their own initiative.
What a spiritual perspective and discipline can bring to this predicament is the awareness that “the world” we think we are leaving, by one means or another, is actually a construct of our own imagination. Or as A Course in Miracles puts it, in even more radical terms:“Experience that is not of this world” is available to us if we allow it. We can find it in meditation, prayer, ritual, dreams, art, music, and dance, disciplined self-care, and in selfless, transcendent acts of relationship. Such experiences of otherworldliness may seem brief and transitory. Yet whenever we connect ourselves to a reality beyond time and space, we can find a healing that transcends the temporary experience of the body and our species on this earth. The rediscovery of our spirit always saves us in the "nick of time," regardless of the body's fate.
“There is no world! This is the central thought the course attempts to teach. Not everyone is ready to accept it, and each one must go as far as he can let himself be led along the road to truth. He will return and go still farther, or perhaps step back a while and then return again.
“But healing is the gift of those who are prepared to learn there is no world, and can accept the lesson now. Their readiness will bring the lesson to them in some form which they can understand and recognize. Some see it suddenly on point of death, and rise to teach it. Others find it in experience that is not of this world, which shows them that the world does not exist because what they behold must be the truth, and yet it clearly contradicts the world.” [from the text of ACIM Workbook Lesson 132]
This is why learning to "loose the world" before we die is so important. It's best if we can find ways to leave it behind daily — and mindfully, joyously, without fear, grief, or violence. At the very least, it's good practice.
© Copyright 2019 by D. Patrick Miller. All rights reserved.
Thanks to Catherine Ingram for permission to reprint portions of her essay 'Facing Extinction'. Find information on her podcasts, retreats, and private sessions at catherineingram.com.
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First trained as an investigative journalist, D. PATRICK MILLER began writing about spirituality, human potential, and creativity after a seven-year illness initiated his spiritual path. Since that time he has intensively studied A Course in Miracles, the Enneagram system of personality, Jungian depth psychology, shamanism, and related fields of contemporary spirituality. He has also applied spiritual principles and disciplines intensively in his own life, and written about the results. As a magazine and online journalist, Patrick has written over 100 articles for Yoga Journal, THE SUN, Elephant Journal online, and many other media. He is also the founder of Fearless Books and Literary Services.
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