For peoples in earlier times, the gestalt of inwardness/externality had been a blending of birth, clan, wildness, creatures, stars, and vibrancy. For us, the task of re-connecting the disparate fragments and re-assembling the whole more resembles traipsing through a junkyard littered by disaster, picking up our feet so as to avoid the neon pools of caustic fluid and ragged metal edges.
Plutonium. Packbot. Prostate Cancer. Brain Tumor. Beached Whales. Wasting Elk. The Biggest Shopping Mall in the World. The Tallest Skyscraper. Scrape Save Spend Crave. Credit Card Debit Card. Melting Ice. Spaceport. Airport. So The Animals Die.
I devoured Jerry Mander’s book on television and found myself conceptually clawing my way up between the cracks of the psychic numbing and denial that had paralyzed post-WWII America. Suddenly the hills of San Francisco looked more awe-inspiring to me, the espresso machines in North Beach sounded frothier, the world felt more alive: I could see the formidable place technology’s development had played in human history.
Two public events thrust my nascent aliveness into action. The first was Three Mile Island. The second was U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s break from previous Cold War policies of containment into reckless tirades against the “Evil Empire.” At the same time, an inner event jarred me with its echo of the outer crisis. It was a dream delivering a ritual for containing human emotion in the face of possible annihilation. I described it in an article first published in 1980 in New Age Journal.
That week as the nuclear power station in Pennsylvania teetered on the edge of meltdown I -- residing 2000 miles away in San Francisco -- experienced the intensity of feeling I might were the plant in my backyard. By day I darted from radio to newspaper to television, consuming every word of every report as if my life depended on it. At night I lay half-asleep/half-awake feeling myself hanging from the slenderest of threads, dangling in space with no support, no Mommy, no Daddy, no help.
In those days the topic of the danger of nuclear technology was taboo, and to speak of it -- even as a nuclear power plant neared meltdown -- was denied. I steered my own course, scrupulously acknowledging each feeling that bubbled up inside me. Fear. Anger. Despair. Grief. Surrender. Urgency. As I did, I became aware that just as emotional patterns we manifest in adult life mirror mechanisms developed at an earlier age, so these feelings harkened back to an earlier era. For the first time in almost 20 years, I was experiencing a sense of universally impending danger. This time its catalyst was an industrial accident, but the long repressed material -- laced with memories of grade-school bomb drills, the day the Russians exploded an H-bomb, the Cuban Missile Crisis -- was the threat of nuclear war.
I had a number of epiphanies. First of all, techno-historical forces -- from blatant nuclear technologies to the more insidious environmental contaminators -- have as potent an impact on our human psyches as do families and early education. A second realization was that no matter what political, economic, or social categories divide us, we humans are united in our insecurity before such forces. A third: a crucial aspect of ensuring human continuity is psychological. Not only is our predicament human-invented, but on the other side of the taboo against having thoughts or feelings about it lies the psychic wisdom we might use to mobilize for survival. Fourth: since both insecurity and the task to survive are shared, addressing our unconscious and conscious relationship to them would best proceed, not in the relative isolation of a psychotherapy session, but in the mutually supportive context of a group.
I decided to dedicate myself to the task of providing such a context.
My first opportunity came in June. I was scheduled to give a plenary at a woman’s mental health conference. I wanted to design an experiential presentation that might affect participants on three levels. By raising awareness of our predicament, it could be educational. By crossing the taboo against expressing feelings, it could provide a model of vulnerability in the Nuclear Age. Last, by making conscious our internal relationship to the situation, it could catalyze psychic shifts.
But there was a problem. Despite the fact that I had been giving workshops for years, I was stumped. If, as social scientists and philosophers are saying, the Nuclear Age confronts Western peoples with the necessity for altering the very foundations of how we perceive, the fact that the form of the plenary came to me in a dream could suggest that what lies ahead may well exist at the edge of collective consciousness.
The form was not a conventional group therapy or workshop session: it was a ritual. This development seemed noteworthy because so many rituals provided by modern society have lost their abilities to teach and transform us and because, if we are to forge the kind of reconnection with our psyches, each other, and our planet, we may have to create rituals that speak to us and through us of the peril, pain, and promise of our times.
I called the plenary "Environmental Ritual." It consisted of three concentric circles formed by the participants. The outer circle was to be the Circle of Information, a place for safe witnessing and reporting. The next circle was the Circle of Fear and Rage; the innermost one, the Circle of Sorrow.
To begin, all participants were to stand in the outer circle. Anyone could start by expressing a feeling or thought, personal or shared, about our common plight. "My father was on the clean-up crew in Hiroshima and he’s dying of leukemia." "The fish in Lake Michigan have cancer!" "I feel scared." Then, to provide affirmation of the truth of this statement, everyone in the circle would say: "So It Is." Since it is terrifying to confront the experience of living in an endangered world, we would then invoke a technique used in spiritual practices: to build bridges among ourselves and to that which is bigger than us all, we would chant an agreed-upon phrase. Then a second person would express a thought or feeling, and the ritual would proceed. The only requirement was that each move to the circle that best reflected her current state, be that fear, anger, grief, calmness, or observation.
Concentric circles are archetypal forms, but the concepts driving the ceremony derived from influences in my own experience. One was the work of Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross,[i] with whom I had studied. Called griefwork, her approach to the psychology of death and dying is essentially an emotional passage past denial and through the anger, depression, fear, and sorrow that the prospect of dying elicits. By embarking upon such a process, the dying and their loved ones can arrive at an acceptance of death -- and a new sense of what it means to be alive. Like this process, the ritual provides an arena for participants to move beyond denial of the possibility of collective death.
A difference between facing individual death and this collective one is that in this situation we do not know the outcome. We do not know if more bombs will explode. We do not know how strong are the forces of life to counteract the poisons already spread around the globe from bomb-making, bomb-testing, and un-ecological practices. Another difference is that in this situation all people are facing the prospect of death simultaneously. As we face it together, we lose our sense of isolation, and our hitherto unexpressed experience is invoked, spoken, and acknowledged in community. A final difference is that since the menace is human-made, acceptance is not of the inevitability of nuclear war or ecological disaster, but rather of our shared responsibility to do what we can to stop them.
A second influence derived from China: "speaking bitterness," a practice used by peasants to heal the pain of injustice and inspire participation in social change. A Westernized version of this is feminist consciousness-raising. Both set up a conduit for individuals to deal with psychological problems caused by social realities. Both serve as interventions in the immobilization of individuals.
A last influence in the creation of the Environmental Ritual was my experience with ceremony. Because the rituals I had been performing focused on the relationship of modern industrial people to nature, I had often seen sorrow, anger, fear, and longing -- but it was not until the Environmental Ritual that I linked their expression to harness them towards social change.
That morning in 1979, 150 women gathered in a rustic clearing. I explained the origins, purpose, and procedure of the ritual: I asked participants to speak their minds about what is happening to us because we live in the Nuclear Age.
Hesitancy stilled each woman in the circle. Expressing feelings about nuclear war or ecological disaster was an unheard-of thing to do. Finally, one brave soul stepped forward and announced that she had suffered a miscarriage she believed was caused by environmental pollution. Another called out that she had been having nightmares about fallout shelters. A third told us that her mother had worked on atomic tests in Nevada, had eaten pork from live pigs roasted by a blast, and was now dead. By the end of the two-hour session 150 people were pounding their fists together, sobbing, and holding one another. We felt outraged, afraid and sad, and as we realized how connected we are by the fate that hangs over us, a fourth circle spontaneously formed -- one of kinship and commitment. The ritual completed itself when a woman placed her nine-month-old child in the center of the circle, and we held hands to sing. (1980)[ii]
Hope?! Kinship? Commitment? What a starkly different world we inhabit today. Packbot. Prostate. Twin Towers. I am struggling with how to apply ordinary words to the totality of this high-tech/high-anxiety/high-calamity world we now inhabit. Indeed, the changes that have occurred do top those that ravaged the world through the industrial revolution. Stephanie Mills puts it this way: “The front has lengthened, almost to infinity.”[iii]
This blog is a book. Please feel free to read the next chapter now. Go to the Table of Contents under the introduction on the right side of the page and click on the next chapter.
[i] Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying.
1969; Death: Final Stage of Growth. New York Cliffs NJ:
Prentice-Hall, 1975. Englewood
[ii] Adapted from Chellis Glendinning, “Beyond Private Practice: An Approach to Mental Health in the Nuclear Age,” in Kenneth Porter MD, et al., eds., Heal or Die: Psychotherapists Confront Nuclear Annihilation.
The Psychohistory Press, 1987; first appeared as “A Ritual for Despair,” New Age, Vol. 6 No. 5, November 1980,
pp.52-53. New York
[iii] Stephanie Mills, email communication, Maple City MI to Chimayó NM, February 6, 2008.