By Sally Gillespie
Staying engaged with the realities of global warming is one of the hardest things I have done in my life. Not physically hard, although there are times when I read reports and feel overwhelmed with weariness and a need to lie down, but hard emotionally and mentally, as I face into the enormity of the phenomenon and the limits of my ability to respond to its many challenges. Often I recognise how I want to minimise, or distance myself from, the problem, and the ways that I do this. However once consciousness is expanded to include the reality of escalating global warming, it cannot be readily put aside. So along with admitting this truth comes the need to develop compassionate and resilient ways of sustaining my engagement.
Seven years ago after doing some writing and speaking on a panel about climate change and depth psychology I did try to ‘move on’ to other concerns. However I was stopped in my tracks by a dream that seemed more like a vision; an experience so intense that not only did it halt my back peddling from further climate change work, it left me with a resolve to commit the rest of my life to actively engaging with it. In my dream I had an apocalyptic vision of the end of the world through climate change. I saw whole continents sinking beneath the sea as water levels rose while millions of people were attempting to cling to land and their lives. I clung to a rope swinging above the Earth as land masses shifted around beneath me until I let go and dropped into this catastrophic world, becoming one of many grasping for the heaving shores. Then in the midst of this overwhelming horror crept some tenderness, when a desperate poodle swam into my arms and I cared for him as best I could, even while feeling the fruitlessness of everyone's struggle to survive.
I awoke from this nightmare with my heart thumping and questions pressing in on me: “How do I respond to this? How can I respond to this?” The experience of dropping into this world in upheaval was shocking and awesome. Any possibility of distancing myself from climate change reports collapsed through this night vision which awakened intense feelings of vulnerability for myself and all beings on Earth, propelling my personal consciousness towards collective realities. I did not believe my dream was precognitive or prophetic, but I did feel that it cracked my psychological foundations, rupturing myths about the primacy of personal autonomy and independence. The dream crashed through my justifications and denials, insisting that I live fully in the knowledge of the seriousness of climate change, recognising and accepting that all my known parameters were being reshaped by the chaotic upheaval of our planet’s climatic patterns.
The nightmare proved to be the start of a series of ‘rising water’ dreams in which I had close contact with animals. I dreamt of seals and dolphins leaping into my arms, stretching out to touch me or to gaze into my eyes, repeated scenarios which brought me into communion with animals already feeling the effects of changing climates, rising sea temperatures and acidifying oceans. Within these dreams my initial feelings of horror and despair about ecological destructions gave way to feelings of guilt about my own and other’s destructive and neglectful behaviours, grief and confusion. For some time neither my dreaming nor my waking self was sure of how to respond other than to value the dreams and to accept the invitation of the animals to connect and care in whatever way possible. I found that what grew in the presence of these dreams was an acceptance of my own and others’ flawed humanity: frightened and vulnerable, neglectful and nurturing, disconnected and connected. This acceptance continues to foster a humility, grounding and focus which buoys me as I learn to swim in the currents of the ethical dilemmas thrown up by our current global ecological crisis and to negotiate sustainable personal and political action.
A year after my apocalyptic dream I made the decision to undertake doctoral research on psychological responses to climate change engagement, triggering major upheavals in myself and my life. Through my doctoral research I met many inspiring people engaged with climate change issues and who, through reflective discussions, were able to identify the challenges and the gifts of developing consciousness around global warming and other ecological destructions. While for me, significant companionship and guidance continues to come from working with dreams, I also find, along with many others, that conversations, time in nature, meditative practices and creative expression are equally vital ways to develop feelings of connection that nurture rewarding ways of being with and working in our disrupted world. These days when I recognise my urge to disconnect I try to recognise that within this urge also lies an invitation to navigate the sea of feelings I am trying to distance myself from, and to find there a tender acceptance for the dilemmas and the possibilities of ourselves and our times. What I am constantly learning is that staying conscious and engaged has to be more than just an act of will and conviction, it also has to grow through soulful means that nourish and nurture heart and mind, leading us into richer and truer experiences of ourselves and our world.
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