A Spiritual Master once said to me that where our thoughts dwell is who we become. Expanding this idea globally (and judging by the symptoms) it is obvious that western collective thought is about progress, moneymaking, consumerism and individualism. Our collective human identity has been buoyed up by the story of economic growth as being the driver of prosperity. And yet what is wealth and what type of growth is sustainable?
“He who knows he has enough is rich.” (Tao Te Ching c. 260 BC)
I attended an innovative workshop in Cape Town recently called “Re.Define” which was called together for the purpose of collective thinking about ‘What does prosperity mean in Cape Town.” It was a chance for thought leaders to dialogue and dream of new solutions for social cohesion in our mother city. A few NGO’s and Institutes collaborated together with the help of the Kaos Pilots and invited various groups in Cape Town to dream up solutions to this inquiry. We all came to love the Kaos Pilots as they lead us through a ‘world café’ dialogue style and offered us intriguing ways to promote thinking and talking.
They are a group of ‘alternative MBA’ Denmark students who travel out to Cape Town once a year for a 3 months ‘outpost’ and dive into local social responsibility and entrepreneurship projects. By offering their skills and time for free they get to experience first hand what working in the field is all about.
I spent the afternoon talking about wealth inequalities and beautiful solutions to bond and bridge the different communities in Cape Town. It motivated some thoughts about what it means to prosper.
Happiness cannot exist while others suffer
Prosperity means different things to different people. To some it’s a 5 star holiday and to others it’s a simple meal. Most often it has been linked to wealth, consumption, ownership, money and possessions. Yet to prosper is to flourish which includes wellbeing and abiding happiness. Most happiness is about self-pleasure and short-term hedonism. The centre for Gross National Happiness and the Prime Minister of Bhutan tells us that abiding happiness “cannot exist while others suffer and that it arises from serving others; living in harmony with nature and realising our own innate wisdom.” This is a far cry from just making money as a means to happiness.
To me Cape Town is the epicentre of contrasts and offers us the deepest mirror to our individual and collective mind-sets. Its landscapes of magnificent beauty harbour raw suffering and unacceptable inequalities. When we partake in its pleasures of plenty it is exhilarating and inspiring, and yet when faced with its needs we can fall into a pit of sadness. Nowhere else in the world is ecology and economy at such odds. We are held up and restored by the natural world, which we love in Cape Town while at the same time overwhelmed by the economic inequalities.
More than anywhere, its beauty reminds us that well-being cannot flourish if growth means the killing of the natural world we love. A vague dis-ease can settle into our way of being as these contrasts assault our emotions, disturb our thoughts until we need to turn away, or simply numb it all out. Do we alienate ourselves by not looking, not reading news, not engaging with the needy because it’s ‘all too much’; and does giving become a word that ‘pulls us all down’. So where do our thoughts go then? Who do we become? Do we fear scarcity and hold on more tightly to what we have?
Expanding hearts hold contradictions
It is the contrasts in Cape Town that offer us an extraordinary opportunity of true growth and expansion, firstly on an individual level and then on a participatory level. The only chance of wholeness starts with our personal ability to hold these contradicting emotions and images within ourselves, allowing our individual identity and our hearts to expand to include differences. We need to make peace with the paradoxes inside our own heads and hearts to enable the collective to become cohesive. There is an opportunity here to move ‘beyond’ towards a collective wholeness and a healthy social conscience.
When you feel with your whole heart and body, you cannot deny what you feel and what you experience. When we turn away from that which is uncomfortable we diminish our humanness, we unhook from our co-intelligence and collective potentials. When we turn away we create lives of separation, which becomes the greater pain.
One day I woke up. I was tired of turning away. The tension required to maintain the bubble of a happy life against obvious disparities was too great. I could no longer ignore the rumbles of dissatisfaction. I had stopped reading the news, I turned from the images of massacred rhino faces, I could not look into the eyes of the child who begged in the cold street when mine slept in comfort and had never known a hungry day. I didn’t understand climate change nor did I understand why big companies spewed toxic waste into rivers and had no conscience. Yet one day I woke up to a call within myself to know & to contribute.
These days, when I really see and feel all that is Cape Town, the human and the non-human, the pain in my heart rises yet at the same time I can no longer silence the urgent calls of my conscience, nor could I silence my voice.
“What can I do to be the change I want to see? What is my relationship to the natural world? Why are we destroying our home, our earth when we are a conscious extension of it? What do I truly value enough so that I will act?”
These days the pain of being separate to others and to nature is the greater pain of dislocation.
A wholesome emergence rising
The essential aspect of all life is the constant flow of transformation and change as well as a dynamic interplay between opposites. When we separate ecology, economy and society in our minds we fail to see that which lies beyond in their dynamic mix. We need to dive into the mix and begin with small local relationships holding values of trust, tolerance, respect combined with ecological wisdom. Then there is an opportunity of a wholesome emergence arising. IF our thoughts and hearts dwell on creating meaningful lives through wholesome connection there is a chance of a collective shift. We need a local action that realizes a collective, cooperative vision that learns from nature.
To me, as an ecopsychologist, the only worthwhile growth is a personal development that can raise the collective consciousness towards connection, compassion, generosity and care. Where prosperity is not money but a richness of relationships and a collective that knows that our well-being is deeply interconnected not only with other humans but also to all living beings. According to Bhutan this is our path to meaningful happiness. When we act from these values we act from the highest potential of human spirit.
We need to grow ourselves beyond our egos towards an ecological self where we can live or be the values we want to see in the world. Where we can differentiate between our wants and our needs. Universal needs are finite but our wants and ways of satisfying them can be infinite. Finding what we truly need can help us define a wholesome set of values.
A dynamic living system welcomes all contradictions and polarities as the oscillations of aliveness. Cooperating can be slower and more irritating than solo pioneering, but we need to move at the pace of the collective in the most tolerant way so we can to help economy come back into its rightful place, within its home, the earth, the ecology.