Stories take us by the hand and lead us through our lives. They determine our individual and collective destiny more than we know. At the present moment the story of humanity and its dynamics of conquest and control are in direct conflict with the story of the Earth and its patterns of biodiversity—a conflict that is destroying the biosphere, endangering our shared survival, as well as censoring any collective sense of what is true.
And yet there is another older story that is all around us, the story that we feel with every breath we take, of how we are a part of the natural world, its rhythms and patterns. We belong to a world of trees and clouds and rivers and winds. We respond to the dawn and the sunset, to Winter and Spring. And yet in our minds we have lost touch with this older story, and instead have created a machine that is destroying the very ecosystem that is supporting us, that gives us life and breath.
The most pressing concern at the present moment is how to find our way back to this primal story, and how to make a story for the present time and a living future. Yes, we need to reduce carbon emissions, cut fossil fuels, restore wetlands and stop clear-cutting old growth forests. But these are just the symptoms of a civilization that has lost its way, that has become pathologically self-destructive. The deeper question is how can we return to a story that supports life—not just human existence, but the more-than-human world that surrounds us.
We need to remember the power of stories. The story that has created our present global civilization is one of constant economic growth and consumerism. It is the foundation of the American Dream and the idea that each generation will be better off than its parent’s generation, with the understanding that “more is better.” This story has lifted millions out of poverty and yet at the same time has little concern for our actual well-being, and its dark side is its ecological impact. It is a belief system now creating increasing inequality and ecocide, as well as stealing the future from coming generations.
Stories are what should hold us together, sustain us, and give us a sense of belonging. But we have no living story to support us in this present landscape, only a deep anxiety at what is being lost. Our politicians either project denial or, in some ways more dangerously, tell us that we can “green the economy,” continue with the fantasy of endless economic growth. Or they retreat into the bunkers of authoritarianism and nationalism, seeking both power and refuge in old stories that no longer speak to our present predicament.
We cannot just stop the juggernaut of our industrial civilization and economic growth. Our governments are too invested in its ideology and do not recognize any alternative, even though, as Deputy U.N. Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed remarked, the world is entering “a spiral of self-destruction.”
Our children and grandchildren will watch our present world fall apart, as it is simply unsustainable. They will watch carbon emissions and temperatures rise, fires and floods increase. They will see refugees increasing, trying to escape famine and war. And they will see the cracks in the fabric of our civilization widen. This is already beginning to happen, for example in the culture wars: those seeking to return to some nostalgic past being fed by fake news and conspiracy theories. Or in the tragic dehumanizing war in Ukraine, where brutality and senseless destruction is driven by a failed ideology, a dream of a lost empire. These are symptoms of a way of life that is over, and a darkness that masquerades as nationalism.
We all need to participate in ways to let go of the old world, to simplify, to live more sustainably, to try to repair the tears in our biosphere. However most present environmental solutions simply perpetuate the same economic myth in a new form. For example, transitioning from gas to electric cars is not going to solve our present environmental crisis, but rather create another environmental and humanitarian disaster, as is already happening in cobalt mines in the Congo. We need a more radical response, a new story. It is this existential shift that I am drawn to explore, however idealistic it may appear.
In order to step into a new story it is imperative that we remove the blinkers of rationalism and the doctrine that the physical world is unfeeling matter. Our ancestors knew that the physical world was alive both physically and spiritually, trees were spirits not just timber, and there is a vital energy, one spirit, that flowsthrough all of creation. They lived in a fully animate world that we can hardly imagine—it has been so long since we held this awareness in our consciousness. But we can no longer afford to imprison matter, to treat it as an object to exploit. We have to recognize that we are a part of a living community, a web of life, interconnected and interdependent. And it is awake in a multitude of senses as well as a depth of soul.
David Abram, the philosopher and ecologist, describes this primordial quality of awareness, how “for the Inuit, as for numerous other peoples, humans and animals all originally spoke the same language.” He quotes an Inuit woman:
In the very earliest time
when peoples and animals lived on earth…
All spoke the same language.
That was the time when words were like magic…
Those who are recognized as shamans or medicine persons “most fully remember the primordial language, and are thus able to slip, at will, out of the purely human discourses in order to converse directly with other powers.”
We need such a fluidity of consciousness if we are to walk through the debris of the coming years, survive its self-destructive death spiral. We need to embrace a quality of awareness that is holistic rather than linear, and which includes the many voices of our world, both human and more-than-human. And we need to reconnect with the magical dimension of creation, which is not just superstition but the living presence of its divine nature.
As I have said, these stories I am sharing are both simple and radical. Simple because they describe what is already around us, the rain in the trees, the egrets in the wetlands, the fragrance of the jasmine. Radical because they point beyond the limitations of our present collective consciousness to a fundamentally different mode of perception, which belongs to both our distant past and our possible future. We cannot avoid having to walk through the ruins of our present civilization. We have waited too long, ignored the signs and the basic facts of climate change and environmental destruction. But we can walk together to a living future, where our well-being and the well-being of the Earth are not in conflict, but part of a shared journey. We can remember the Original Instructions, our primordial covenant with creation and return to a place of belonging. This we can do.
The first in this series of stories, When the Source Ran Free, is a seminal piece written during the early months of the pandemic, and it is also a deeply personal journey that reconnects me to a primal awareness of a world awakening with wonder—an awareness that we need as a seed for the future to come fully alive. It describes the moment outside of time when everything is new, and is lived for the very first time. Recently my four-year old granddaughter came to stay, and in her laughter and play, and seeing her watch the family of chipmunks scurrying between the rocks in our garden, I was again back in this magical world and my heart was happy.
When the Source Ran Free will be released next week, and afterwards a new story every further two weeks. If you find a certain repetition of themes and even phrases, this is intentional – they are like refrains. These stories are not logical or linear, but more circular. Nature is always repeating Herself, even if each moment is new, each leaf unique.
© 2022 The Golden Sufi Center, www.goldensufi.org