The appearance of the current Coronavirus, and the major disruptions that both the pandemic and the responses to it have brought on, reveals to us a major issue that is not new, and that is harder to ignore now than before: our modern way of living is making more and more of us unhappy and simultaneously giving us fewer and fewer options for creating change. In an article I titled “The Power of the Soft Qualities to Transform Patriarchy” published in the magazine Self and Society, I wrote: “At present, we are collectively using 1.6 Earths for all of our current consumption, including absorbing waste, with no evidence of actual satisfaction of true needs for most of us as we contend with massive amounts of addiction, depression, chronic illness, and violence around the world.”
Western civilization has painted itself into a corner, presenting anarchy or conservatism as the only alternatives to Enlightenment rationality and its twin offspring of liberal democracy and capitalism. When I wrote my Ph.D dissertation, which was focused on this theme, I encountered an astonishing number of writers, both past and present, who bemoaned the results of modernity and, who nonetheless ended up upholding reason, liberal democracy, and science and technology as pathways to a better future, hoping for some mechanisms that would regulate the worst of it. There is little that I have found by way of a true vision for how we can free ourselves from the trap we have created and embrace a radically different way of living.
Because we are so much within this trap, it may not be apparent how each of the previous pieces in the “Apart and Together” series zeroed in on its specific topic, while at the same time being about this very trap that unites them all. Here are two examples. Market economies are the focus of part two and part six of this series, which are also in part about ignoring needs and vulnerability, and focusing only on so-called rational mechanisms for the production and consumption of resources. Similarly, my most recent post in this series, is about the public and private spheres, and is also, in part, about the unattended needs of children and their emotional responses to the attempts to control their lives that schools, bedtimes, and much else is part of. In this piece, I want to focus directly on this part: how the patriarchal focus on control in its modern forms of the rejection of the emotional, the unruly, the soft, and the vulnerable, combines with the structural regimentation and isolation of life under capitalism to create mass unhappiness. My own conclusion, both when I wrote my dissertation and now, is that exiting this trap requires a full leap beyond reason so as to integrate non-rational elements of human experience, both into how we think and into how we live.
This piece is not a blueprint for how to do that. Liberating ourselves from the trap of patriarchal conditioning is a lifelong journey that never ends. All I am aiming to do with this piece – and that in itself feels like a lot – is to provide a conceptual map of what has led to our malaise and what pathways may support us in embracing a wider perspective that allows us to begin the shift from scarcity, separation, and powerlessness into reclaiming choice, togetherness, and flow (as recovering from trauma often happens in the reverse order). I’ve been on this journey myself for about thirty years, and I have written a full book about the topic: Spinning Threads of Radical Aliveness: Transcending the Legacy of Separation in Our Individual Lives. Much of the rest of this piece draws from, and summarizes, parts of this book, coupled with new insights I’ve had since I wrote it.
Modernity, Isolation, and Stress
In preparation for writing this piece, I tried to find information about the impact of the pandemic and the lockdowns on rates of depression and suicide. I was surprised, in the end, not to find sufficiently clear and organized data to confirm the more informal information that I have heard from people and that is assumed in what I did find, as if it goes without saying: that anxiety, depression, and suicide have gone up during the months of the pandemic. I wasn’t surprised that what information I did find links this increase with isolation and with the extra stresses that the current conditions of health risks and economic instability can bring. I also wasn’t surprised to see almost nothing that branches out of the entirely individualized lens of looking at this situation.
Isolation, a major culprit in the story, is not new to many of us in the global north. It’s baked into our current way of living, directly emerging from modern capitalism. Several of the previous pieces in this series shine a light on the physical and economic forces that have torn us from communities, from each other, and from land, leaving us dependent on the market for a growing number of our needs, either individually or in our individual families, disconnected from the whole. In the global north, this transformation is near complete. In much of the global south, communities still struggle against it, reasserting commons and subsistence economies, maintaining and restoring ties to the land and to creative and courageous mutual aid networks. Silvia Federici documents, in wrenching and simple prose, struggles around the globe – especially of women striving to sustain themselves and their communities under horrific conditions brought about by the onslaught of neoliberalism. We are definitely losing ground here even while resistance continues. As far as I can tell historically, we have been losing ground for millennia: more wealth and resources, and more physical force, are in the hands of fewer and fewer people, and almost all of us are now at least in part dependent on market forces that fully lack care for our needs. The rampant powerlessness these changes create is everywhere visible.
Meanwhile, as we have learned in the last two hundred years from people like Karl Marx and Max Weber, cultural narratives adapt themselves to changes in material conditions. This phenomenon has a variety of reasons. Some of it happens organically, because material changes shift what we can see and name. This is how I explain to myself, for example, the rise of psychology as a field of study: it is only when individuals are severed from communities that they can become a focus of study as individuals.
Some of the emergence of new cultural narratives happens intentionally, because of the moral dilemmas that progressively more extreme differences in access to resources create. Moral dilemmas require justification stories to prevent at least some mass uprisings. This is how I explain to myself a whole range of cultural myths about wealth being the result of hard work and poverty being the result of individual or cultural deficits. This is also how I understand the imperative of individual self-sufficiency.
Neither organic nor intentional shifts explain everything, and some of how cultural narratives and norms change remains a mystery I won’t even pretend to understand. Nor are these changes flowing only in one direction. Collectively held beliefs, attitudes, and ways of being, what some people call the “story field”, also become part of what drives the material reality, both economically and politically. This is so even when the cultural narratives are imposed on us. We keep reenacting them even when we actively reject them, because they are deeply internalized.
Isolation, then, is an existential and material condition of modernity and also an orientation to life that has become normative precisely because of the rejection, in the name of self-sufficiency, of needs as “neediness” and of vulnerability as “weakness.” Coming as I do from a culture that was substantially more community-based than the US, the country I made home for 36 years, I never stopped being surprised by how often I have seen people choose to isolate themselves whenever they encounter a challenge in their lives, instead of walking towards more connection and community.
In this way, isolation contributes to stress. Stress is not simply a function of what happens and what demands are made of us by life. It is also a function of the capacity we have to engage with, process, digest, make sense of, and integrate what comes at us. The conditions of capitalism and modernity have both increased the stimulation, information, and challenges that we encounter as input and decreased the capacity we have to usefully engage with it. This reduced capacity is the direct result of isolation and intense self-expectations.
This, then, is how we came into the pandemic: isolated, stressed, and powerless. Already in epidemic levels of anxiety, depression, and suicide. Many more of us than ever before living alone, separate from others, passively watching events and stories happening elsewhere. Then, in much of the world, the response to the Coronavirus has only intensified both the stressors and the isolation. As with so much else I have explored, this makes more visible and stark the conditions that have already been unsustainable for human life. We are social creatures, requiring touch and communion to thrive. In most of our time on this planet, we lived in small bands, moving around together. Even after settling down, we still mostly lived in small communities where we knew everyone, and where we leaned on each other for material, emotional, and spiritual needs. We are made weaker, less able to meet the challenges of life, and less capable of wisdom, when we are separated from each other.
Being with the fullness of our experience
As far as I can tell, this aversion to feelings, to needs, to the messiness of the inner life, was the water I was swimming in and not seeing when, in the mid 1980s, I had an odd fight with a friend I still remember to this day. She had been trained in a therapeutic modality that focuses a lot on catharsis, and was suggesting that I might benefit from revisiting pain from my past. I, on the other hand, got agitated and upset at this idea. Why would I ever want to feel any pain I don’t have to? I already survived what had happened to me, I insisted, and I couldn’t see any reason to dredge it up again. Our friendship survived the fight and continues to this day, though the fight itself was left unresolved in that moment. This all happened before my own journey of reclaiming myself back from patriarchal socialization began in earnest, a journey that has taken me, many times over, to grieving much that has happened to me. Along the way I discovered one of my favorite quotes, the one from R. D. Laing I chose for this post.
The journey began, tentatively, when I first encountered feminism, not too long after this friendly “fight.” It was the discovery of vision that shook me out of how I lived until then. Feminism gave me the first, and deep, inkling that what we have in the world, which I never liked or felt part of, isn’t the only possibility. Feminism painted a picture of a world long before patriarchy in which women, men, and children lived in full collaboration, care, and freedom. Once I saw that, there was simply no way for me to continue as I was.
One of several “before-and-after” turning points on this journey was my choice, in 1996, to embrace my vulnerability. I was born a sensitive organism, no doubt one of the many reasons why I was ridiculed, ostracized, and bullied a lot in my school years. The choice to cease the fundamental orientation of protection that I had had up until then meant inviting many more feelings into my conscious experience. Having been raised in a secular environment, with scientific materialism as the ultimate access to truth, learning to venture into the world of feelings, and, even more so, needs, was neither simple nor easy.
Demoting rationality from its throne and learning to integrate reason with emotions became a passionate endeavor, and the topic of my Ph.D. dissertation, which I titled Beyond Reason: Reconciling Emotion with Social Theory. Leaning on feminist theory and Nonviolent Communication, my dissertation called into question the entire project of Western Civilization from the Greeks on, especially in how it shaped modern social theory. As a core part of my work, I challenged the 18th century Enlightenment framing of rationality as something to celebrate. I dug deeply into each of the figures who have come to define modern sociology in the US: Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber, and did the same with Sigmund Freud. I put everything I had into showing, with each of them, how their adherence to reason – seeing it as the best of what is human – diminished what they were able to bring to the world. Even in the case of Freud, who made it his life’s work to investigate the non-rational elements of human life, his view of human nature was deeply suspicious and negative, seeing us as fundamentally asocial and in need of immense work, either of socialization or of therapy, to bring us in line with civilization. The free man – and it was always a man, regardless of who was actually in his office for therapy – adopts the reality principle and renounces the pleasure principle.
All in all, I see the rationality principle, from its roots in ancient Greece to its contemporary forms, as a core aspect of the relentless attempt to control life that patriarchy brought to us. This understanding is based on several years of dissertation research and continued reading since; twenty-five years of applying and sharing the principles and practices of Nonviolent Communication, including encounters with thousands of people from all continents; and thirty-one years of active, conscious liberation work aiming to undo my own socialization. Because of rationality and control, we have been in an accelerating fight against ourselves, our fellow humans, and life as a whole. The more “rational” we have become, the more “developed,” the more we have been at odds with life and the more destruction we have wrought upon our planet.
I am longing for integration, within and around us: reason and emotion; individual and group; theory and practice; efficiency and collaboration; autonomy and interdependence. The integrative approach has many ramifications, ranging from the most internal to the most global. In this piece, I touch on the former: liberating ourselves from patriarchal training through practices that integrate heart, mind, body, and spirit. In the next piece I take on the prospects for changing how we make decisions, integrating the local and the global.
Instead of full rationality, control of self, and a sense of freedom based on separation from others as the measures of human development, I have to see the capacity for inner freedom in interdependence with all life as that which I continually aim for and invite others to. This kind of freedom, as I have come to understand it, is the capacity to choose consciously how we respond to life, no matter the circumstances, guided and fueled by what matters to us most. It’s not about controlling ourselves, negating our feelings and suppressing our needs. It rests on a vast field of self-acceptance, of seeing ourselves as whole; not about fighting against ourselves.
Over the years, I have catalogued a number of core practices for inner freedom, and I have been slowly writing a book on the topic with my sister Arnina since 2009. Some obvious practices include letting go of attachment to outcome, increasing our capacity to face the consequences of our choices, and deepening awareness of our purpose and values. As I am here looking at some of the emotional effects of what the Coronavirus situation brought to us, I am highlighting, in particular, only one of the inner freedom practices: walking towards the difficult emotions.
The fight with my friend was about emotional pain, which I turned away from for years, accepting some idea that the sensitivities I have which result in my life being as full of pain as it has been (and continues to be), are a problem. Once I was able to open my heart to my own pain, the hard edges of it softened. I wrote about vulnerability as a spiritual path, and I watched as my relationship with pain shifted over the years. I have also walked some distance towards fear, I have walked all the way towards shame, and I have done some tentative walking towards helplessness, my most difficult emotion, which is still an edge for me, after many years of practice. My tentative conclusion is that some of the difficult emotions melt away and disappear when we walk towards them, and others simply shift their way of showing up, and may remain as strong. Ultimately, what happens with the journey is a mystery each of us will discover on our own. I share here my own discoveries simply because I have them, and in the hopes that they may illuminate the choices made and may thus inspire others to embark on this journey.
In my own experience, shame appears to be the most likely to be transmuted in the process. I have named for myself a goal of becoming 100% shameless, and I see myself as being quite close to it, maybe up to 97% at the time of this writing. My process with shame, which I offer to many, is to never let shame stop me from doing something so long as what I want to do is aligned with my own purpose and values. I chuckle at seeing that while none of us want to experience shame, the goal of being shameless is uncomfortable for many. This is so even though many agree with me that shame is a problematic emotion and thus aim to function without shaming, even when challenging people on deep patterns of power and privilege. This discomfort with shamelessness as a positive trait doesn’t surprise me, because I believe shame is used as an active and conscious part of our socialization, and many of us still believe shame is required to stop the worst of the harms some of us have inflicted on others for some time.
Committing to living without shame and without shaming is tantamount to reclaiming the faith that our deepest orientation, naturally, is to meeting our needs in interdependent engagement with others and with life as a whole. This is one way in which the individual journey of liberation coincides with moving towards the largest vision possible of what life on earth can be.
My journey with pain took a very different route. Walking towards my emotions of pain, despair, grief, and related flavors of feeling led to my having no less pain now than I did at any other point in my life, and still it feels entirely different. I know my pain to be grief and mourning at the unbearable gap between the vision burning passionately at my center, and the reality I see around me in the world we have created. In fact, it’s getting only stronger and softer as I sense the prospects of transformation receding and those of social collapse increasing. The softer it gets, the more it feels like clean mourning, necessary rejuvenation in times of global crisis. Mourning tends to be difficult to stick with, precisely because we’ve all been trained out of crying, boys earlier than girls, and for different reasons. Allowing our hearts to rip that open, that deep, instead of closing down is an ongoing discipline. The benefits are still astonishing to me, because I am still learning. To quote again from my article about the soft qualities (mourning being a central one of them): “The practice is intense, and with the willingness to surrender to it come more capacity to envision alternatives, more creativity, more energy, and more capacity to mobilize to do the work of transformation.”
Liberation, love, and community
Having been at this for now decades, I know the journey is really difficult. Embracing the difficult emotions takes us against the grain of patriarchal, modern capitalism, in which shopping, distracting ourselves, isolation, induced peak experiences, consumption, and numbness are deeply grooved pathways we take when we are challenged.
Those of us who are able to embark on such a journey, on our own, are by necessity few and far between. For most of the journey, I had my beloved sister Inbal as a steady companion, even in the months leading up to her death in 2014. Oddly, and perhaps not, my journey accelerated since. Into the wrenching void she left behind, many stepped in to support me in recovering basic capacity after the knockout of losing her.I didn’t plan that her death would create a wider community of holding for me. Once my need became more acute, and I was able to own it and make requests, the temporary support became a way of living. In 2015, I posted a piece I called “What It Takes to Support a Conscious Disruptor,” in which I made the connection, for the first time, between how far from the mainstream I was living, and how much support was needed to do so.
This is where my mourning coincides with the theme of this piece: the overwhelming majority of people don’t have access to the love and community that I do. I want it, for everyone, and it’s not there. Even within communities and groups I have called into being directly or indirectly, patterns of isolation continue to show up, surprising to me, often surprising to those who enact them. Now, during this pandemic, as so many of us around the world are separated even more from each other, the bar to cross to move towards community and love is even higher. Even those who fully believe that masks, lockdown, and keeping a distance from each other are fully necessary are aware that the consequences are psychically devastating. (In case you are wondering about me: I am fully agnostic, and I operate based on the precautionary principle and thus follow the regulations in the places where I’ve been since the pandemic was declared. I also know that many of the places that have done best with the pandemic never imposed total lockdown, only selective based on caseload. More on this in the final piece in this series, subtitled “Can We Mend the Tear in the Human Fabric?” coming soon.)
The situation we are in is, for me, indescribably tragic in terms of the stress we face. At one and the same time we have more stressors and reduced capacity to face them. We are overwhelmed with all that is happening. Economic crashes, including working from home, being exposed, or losing jobs; intensified polarization affecting many parts of the world; and uncertainty about where the pandemic is going, and how much continued suffering of all kinds there will be, all combine to increase anxiety. Vulnerable populations in particular are likely to also experience fear, loss, and rage over what has been unfolding in some parts of the world. Significant swaths of the population in much of the global north are questioning the way the pandemic is handled. Firearm sales in the US have continued to grow month by month since the pandemic has been declared. Nothing points towards any safe harbor for anyone.
And we are facing all of this more isolated than ever, our only resource to community being the people immediately with us, in our households, or abstract and virtual experiences on Zoom and other online platforms.
I already said earlier: this is not a blueprint; only a conceptual map. It is clear to me that if we are to use the call to transformation the Coronavirus is carrying to us, we will need to change our habits dramatically. Change of this magnitude starts with a vision. I would like to share one that Emma Quayle and I, co-vagabonders, are leaning on as we make our way from place to place: “A global web of conscious relationships focused on service, play, simplicity, humility, and reverence in all areas of life forming a relational foundation for living in choice, togetherness, and flow within the means of the planet.” Ours is an unusual path, a choice few will make at this time. We move from place to place in search of people, frameworks, experiences, tools, and resources that will eventually support us in seeding a community aligned with this vision. Our purpose, within this vision, is “to create possible blueprints for reintegrating human relationships, communities, and systems into the flow of life.”Two is not enough, we have already learned. Step by step, we are building a network of support, learning, and love so we can dedicate ourselves to this purpose. In large part, this means surrendering to the reality that, vision notwithstanding, we will regularly encounter patterns of patriarchal conditioning that will interfere. Walking towards the difficult emotions, essential to transforming such patterns, is then aided by the knowledge and lived reality of community that supports our resolve when our capacity diminishes.
This, then, is one possible path, not quite a blueprint. We wake up to recognizing that we have been living within a patriarchal narrative that is destroying us; individually through isolation, and collectively in so many ways, and that another world is possible. We build our vision of the world we long to live in. We mourn the gap between the current reality, within us and around us, and the luminous, uncompromising vision we discover, hidden within our distant yet clear cellular memory. We take an honest look at our current individual and collective capacity, whoever we are, with whomever we are doing this awakening. We name our values to pull us, internally, towards our vision. We give shape to our purpose, to pull us, around us, to take action to change the conditions that make living our values more difficult than they might be. We make agreements with ourselves and others with whom we engage, so that we can anchor the values, the purpose, and the vision itself, in the actions we take on the most material plane. And we vow to never be alone, to always reach for more support, as well as offer it to others who take similar paths. All of us are free, or none.