(First published April 2010)
I’ve been noticing a certain sorrowful response to the Louisiana oil spill. In overheard conversations, on Internet article comment sections, on Facebook and elsewhere, there's a certain authentic depth of sadness being expressed that I’ve never quite heard before. It’s coming from somewhere deep in the guts. It sounds slightly winded, heartbroken. It’s hard to say what all the contextual coordinates are of this collective response to this latest environmental disaster, but it strikes me as important. But as ever in our troubled world, this sensitive response is in danger of retreating into denial and the comforts of distraction. We turn away for many reasons; it hurts too much, it’s too frightening, or it rakes too hard at our conscience. But it’s now more than ever that we must never look away.
The ethic to never look away comes from the legendary Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa. In a documentary on his life, Kurosawa retells a story that had a profound impact on his life and work, and that’s been seared (sometimes uncomfortably) into my brain ever since I heard him tell it. When Kurosawa was a kid there was a devastating earthquake in Tokyo, Japan, one that reduced buildings to rubble and killed over 100,000 people. Kurosawa walked through the aftermath with his brother- “I saw corpses charred black, half-burned corpses, corpses in gutters, corpses floating in rivers, corpses piled up on bridges, corpses blocking off a whole street at an intersection, and every manner of death possible to human beings displayed by corpses,” he writes. “When I involuntarily looked away, my brother scolded me, ‘Akira, look carefully now’” (1).
Kurosawa’s brother Heigo explained to him, “If you shut your eyes to a frightening sight, you end up being frightened. If you look at everything straight on, there is nothing to be afraid of” (2). It’s a powerful ethic and one that had a direct influence on Kurosawa’s own unflinching look into the human condition. Martin Scorcese has praised Kurosawa for being, “a great humanist, with a fierce, even desperate desire for humanity to abandon its endless resorts to terror, destruction, fear, and intimidation” (3). It appears that Kurosawa put this ethic into practice in his monumental body of work.
But it’s easier said than done. Another issue that’s currently in danger of the turning away is industrial meat production. Despite the huge amounts of positive energy that’s been swelling behind the alternative food movement in recent years, I’ve also heard many people say that they don’t want to watch the documentary Food, Inc. because they just can’t bear to witness the animal cruelty they know they’ll see. So instead, they turn away.
What exactly is happening in this process of turning away?
Surely one part of what’s happening is that there’s a part of ourselves that’s implicated in the destruction and brutality we’re witnessing, and this part isn’t interested in owning up to this fact or to giving up the lifestyle that this activity provides us with. This is especially true of the West, particularly North America, where the majority of the world’s resource use takes place. What would happen if I truly opened to the scandalous and torturous conditions that industrially raised animals live in? I’d probably have to stop eating all that cheap industrial meat, because there’s another part of us that is profoundly connected to how unethical this is. Or when we see that well unstoppably gushing all that oil into the Gulf of Mexico, soiling so much life around it, there must be an unconscious part of us first worlders that knows all too well the lifestyle that such oil is providing us with. So instead of heeding the faint traces of our deeper connection, we quietly look away.
But this ignorance is no longer bliss. This ignorance is increasing environmental deterioration and increasing chronic disease in our societies (4). Ignorance is coming at greater and greater costs. This is one reason to no longer look away.
There is, however, another part of this story that’s arising from a different and vitally important part of us. Behind this sad, sensitive reaction is also a big expansive heart that cares so profoundly about the world and its inhabitants that it can sometimes hurt too much to feel the full depths of its compassion. When we really feel into that love that wants to radiate out and embrace and protect all of creation we can feel utterly overwhelmed by the strength of emotion that pours itself forth. We can also feel trapped and helpless in the face of the enormity of the problems we witness, especially when it seems like there's nothing we can do about them. The turning away is thus also hiding an enormous center of compassion, and one that most of us have yet to open to in its fullest potentials.
But it’s precisely this brave love heart that is so needed in our world right now, and we can hear echoes of this ethic in some contemporary spiritual teachings. In Andrew Cohen’s teaching of evolutionary enlightenment, the third of his five tenets is to “face everything, avoid nothing” (5). In theologian Matthew Fox’s latest book on men’s spirituality and the sacred masculine, he devotes a chapter to the archetype of the sacred warrior. According to Fox, the sacred warrior is capable of going “into the darkness, the wounds, the pain, and also the silence and solitude of existence to learn what’s in there”. The warrior is “so much in touch with his heart that he can give it to the world” (6). These and other spiritual teachers are currently challenging our compulsion to turn away, and they are stepping forth with a variety of tools for facing our situation straight on.
There’s one last layer of context worth adding to this overall story, and for this we can turn to the work of the philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). For Heidegger, a passionate critic of modernity, modernity and the modern subject are both characterized by our separation from the world. In the process of becoming modern individuals, in the individuation process at the core of this interior development, a certain dissociation from the world also took place. From our new distinct, separated interior worldspace, modern humans started to view the world as simply a store of material reserves to be moved around and used for our own material pleasure. There was no longer any meaningful connection to the world; it was now seen as merely a storehouse of resources (out there) to be dominated and used by us with maximum efficiency.
It’s arguably this mind that’s responsible for so much of the environmental carnage in our world. There's indeed something strangely detached and brutal in the operations of the industrial food supply. And perhaps some of the authentic response to the Louisiana oil spill is a new wave of the continuing struggle to finally break through and burn off our dissociation. Somewhere deep down, our heart is continually being broken by our continued separation. Somewhere deep down it’s no longer ok to keep going on this way.
So we have a separated and solely self-interested modern self, pulled in one direction by the pleasures of the material world, and we have this deeper part of ourselves that's calling for the overcoming of this separated existence.
The eco-theologian Thomas Berry often spoke of The Great Work that was ahead of us. The Great Work consists in “the task of moving modern industrial civilization from its present devastating influence on the Earth to a more benign mode of presence” (7). It strikes me that this big awaiting love heart of ours will be central to this transformation. And so will the post-postmodern ethic of never looking away.
No more turning away
From the weak and the weary
No more turning away
From the coldness inside
Just a world that we all must share
It’s not enough just to stand and stare
Is it only a dream that there’ll be
No more turning away?
-Pink Floyd, On the Turning Away
(4) “The chronic diseases that kill most of us can be traced directly to the industrialization of our food. The rise of highly processed foods and refined grains; the use of chemicals to raise plants and animals in huge monocultures; the super-abundance of cheap calories of sugar and fat produced by modern agriculture and the narrowing of the biological diversity of the human diet to a tiny handful of staple crops, notably wheat, corn or soy. These changes have given us the western diet that we take for granted: lots of processed foods and meats, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of everything- except vegetables, fruits and grains”. Michael Pollan, Vancouver Sun.
Also: “Cancer and heart disease and so many of the other Western diseases are by now such an accepted part of modern life that it’s hard for us to believe this wasn’t always or even necessarily the case. These days most of us think of chronic diseases as being a little like the weather- one of life’s givens”. Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food. US: Penguin Books, 2008.
(5) Having me interpret and explain Andrew Cohen’s teachings is somewhat akin to watching an episode of Ernest Goes to Camp, but I feel I should say a few words about how I currently understand his teaching to ‘face everything, avoid nothing’. For Cohen, this teaching is not so much a practice to engage in (although it’s that too), but a pointing out exercise for a dimension of ourselves that's always already facing everything and avoiding nothing. What Cohen calls our ‘authentic self’ is still, present, free and fearless, and it’s the goal of his evolutionary enlightenment to learn to live from this Self (or at least that’s how I understand it). However, as always with deep spiritual matters, they're difficult to express in words and impossible to understand in a solely cognitive way. For a way to practice and experience these teachings directly, Cohen’s former student Craig Hamilton has a series of free guided meditations on his website that are very lucid and helpful.