Updated: Sep 22, 2020
Igniting Shifts in Our Inner and Outer Climates
Fire -- particularly the extremely catastrophic wildfires that have been ravaging millions of acres of land in California and the entire US West Coast over the past month or so -- can often feel like a harbinger of death and destruction to modern human life as we know it, and to the habitats of so many other forms of life (i.e., the Australian bushfires earlier this year that almost rendered koala bears functionally extinct). And yet, it’s also important to remember that fire serves an important function in the natural cycle of renewal -- part of the ongoing cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Consider these perspectives:
As Lakshmi Supriya wrote in Science Magazine in 2017, “wildfires are a natural part of many environments. They are nature’s way of clearing out the dead litter on forest floors. This allows important nutrients to return to the soil, enabling a new healthy beginning for plants and animals. Fires also play an important role in the reproduction of some plants. For example, seeds in some pinecones are sealed with a resin that melts in fires, releasing them and allowing new growth.”
And as Bill Tripp wrote in The Guardian just earlier this week, "Fire itself is sacred. It renews life. It shades rivers and cools the water’s temperature. It clears brush and makes for sufficient food for large animals. It changes the molecular structure of traditional food and fiber resources making them nutrient dense and more pliable. Fire does so much more than western science currently understands."
Even in the human body, the “heat” of fevers or other types of inflammation can be considered fearsome as a sign that “something’s wrong." Yet, it’s important to remember that these are also very useful functions, signaling the activation of the immune system to help fight toxic pathogens and rehabilitate injuries, helping the body reset and restore its own homeostatic balance.
So how might we hold with gravity the very real and present danger that these literal and figurative fires pose to the continued way of life of humans, and to so many other planetary beings? How do we hold open the possibility of adapting and reinventing our way of life towards a new, more resilient future of new growth?
As we look about for examples, I draw inspiration and even hope from a personal source: my twelve year journey with Lyme Disease and Multiple Sclerosis, two chronic illnesses that can often manifest just like fire, ignited by lightning storms in the nervous system, and that rage unpredictably throughout the body on an ongoing basis.
[Image credits: August 2020 Bay Area dry lightning storms from SFGate/Craig Mole Photography and nerves firing from MyelinLab.com]
When I first began my dance with these complex chronic conditions, I was anxiously focused on all the doors that had suddenly closed, all the functions and possibilities that had seemingly disappeared overnight, like the homes and habitats destroyed by fire. Over several years, I cycled in and out of the hospital, in and out of a wheelchair, amassed a collection of mobility aids, lost and regained my ability to walk, talk, eat, and care for myself, among other adventures. The symptoms and dysfunctions -- much like wildfires -- could be overwhelming and volatile, requiring constant monitoring and vigilance. As the two illnesses began to shape and reshape my interior landscape, they threatened to become all-consuming. Yes, these limitations had become a new reality, but disproportionately just one part of it.
As time passed though, with more episodes of “raging wildfires” under my belt (plus many years of physical therapy, neuro-rehabilitation, and mindfulness practice later), I gained experience and shifts in perspective -- particularly, to new possibilities of relating to my condition, and learning to operate in more balanced, skillful ways.
Shifts in Perspective:
Rediscovering my innate creativity and resourcefulness to adapt to my shifting realities, finding different ways to meet my needs, or shifting those needs along the way.
More opportunities to slow down and bring a beginner’s mind, when re-teaching myself to walk, talk, eat, read and write -- so many things I had previously taken for granted, when healthy, but mostly operating on autopilot. In attempting to rehabilitate these functions this time around, I have been able to bask in the wonder and awe of what it means to be human, the sheer magic that happens to allow us to move, do, and be in our “normal” ways.
A greater sense of mindfulness, intention and gratitude about each step and bite I am able to take, what I choose to ingest physically, mentally, emotionally, and how I choose to interact with the world in ways that are much more sustainable for this “new normal” version of me, and more rooted in my authentic being than ever before.
An increased awareness of how much I had relied on outside stimuli to distract myself from boredom or stress. Gaining sensory processing disorders due to MS, I lost the ability to easily process audio or video, and many other common sensory stimuli such as light, movement, taste and smell. Now, spending more time in noble silence has helped me realize the abundance of free entertainment and wisdom within and to take advantage of my own rich internal landscape of sensory and emotional experiences.
More engaged and active listening. Intermittently losing my audible voice encourages me to be more patient and engaged when listening to the voices of others, and also much more intentional about when and how I choose to communicate outwardly. I now aim to employ the helpful Mindful Communication acronym, “THINK” before I speak: (Is what I'm about to say True / Timely? Helpful? Inspiring / Intentional? Necessary? and Kind?)
[Image credit: @Tiny Buddha on Twitter]
Now, with significantly less energy, I realize how much I had in my younger, pre-illness days, assumed that my body’s energy and abilities were infinite resources to be extracted and exploited to maximize my productivity and the ever-expanding ambition of my mind. I’ve since come to appreciate that we should take nothing for granted anymore -- our time, energy, condition and circumstances here are all finite and precious, and must be treated as such. Realizing this, I now fiercely prioritize my energy budgeting and expenditure on the most critical things that need to be done, and balance that with the things and people in my life that also serve to replenish me in some way. To paraphrase Alan Watts, I now aim to “Stop measuring my days by the degree of my productivity and instead experience them by the degree of my presence.” Shifting from quantity of energy to quality of energy inflows and outflows has been key to me shifting from an “extractive” relationship with my body to a mutually beneficial, “regenerative” one.
Mostly, these shifts in my function and abilities have forced me to slow down, and confront and liberate myself from my self-limiting beliefs and patterns to live a much more embodied, mindful life in the here and now. Not just in spite of these constant shifts in function, but because of them.
Sometimes Depleted, but Never Defeated
[Image credit: QuoteFancy]
To be fair, despite these hard-won shifts in perspective, I do still have my share of challenging days, and I can still feel frustrated, exhausted, and depleted sometimes. More often these days too, with the heavier burden of the world’s parallel pandemics of COVID-19, political upheaval, social unrest and climate disruption weighing even more heavily on my mind and heart, as well. But I do not allow myself to be defeated. I may surrender to the reality that this is my new normal for now, but I will not let it define me, because I know that this too, shall pass and shift. Which is how, even as I look outside my window (and the images online) at this apocalyptic scene of smoky haze and wildfires ablaze, and brace for the unknown, I know from my own experience that despite the current level of pain, suffering and catastrophic loss, that in the grander scheme of things, things are not and will not always be so dire.
Prognosis Grim, but Outlook Cautiously Optimistic
[Image credits: September 2020 West Coast wildfires satellite map from NASA Earth Observatory and MRIs of brain lesions from Multiple Sclerosis News Today]
Yes, I acknowledge that the prognosis on many fronts seems quite grim at the moment. Our current reality is playing out what scientists have long known and shared to galvanize action
-- that climate change is very real and becoming increasingly more dire for all of Earth’s inhabitants. Similarly, the prognosis for autoimmune conditions such as MS is not so rosy, as science’s current understanding of it is that it is a progressive disease with no known cure, yet. And even the prognosis for the future of democracy and global stability feels more imperiled now, with the foundations of our democratic freedoms and civil rights being systematically set ablaze by an administration seemingly more keen on protecting the power of plutocrats over public or planetary wellbeing. The untimely passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg just this past Friday -- a tireless warrior of fairness, equality and justice for all -- seemed to make the situation feel even more uncertain and dire.
And yet, maybe because of the ways in which I’ve learned to adapt to my shifting inner climate, I hold out hope for the possibility of each new day that we can change the old ways we used to relate to all of these environments and scenarios, and develop new ways for mitigating further damage and shifting to more restorative ways of being. We can adapt to our shifting outer climates, just as we can to our internal ones. As my cousin recently reminded me, "you hope for the best, but plan for the worst." All the while remaining in the present moment, taking it one step, one day at a time.
Looking Ahead: Igniting Resilience, Resourcefulness and Regeneration
My studies and work in sustainable business trained me to assess and mitigate risks, while still innovating to adapt for a changing future. My ongoing mindfulness practice has taught me that impermanence is the only constant in life -- so to abide in, accept and respond wisely to the present moment to flexibly adapt to whatever may arise along the way. And doing so while keeping the hope alive for any range of possibilities to pass, taking comfort in knowing that even if they may not be your preferred outcomes, they could still be among your best teachers and catalysts for growth and resilience. My journey with chronic illness (and my time living in and witnessing climate disruption unfold here in California) has been my unexpected bootcamp to merge and put all of these teachings into action. Just as the fabled phoenix aims to rise from the ashes, I've learned to accept the unfolding of these unpredictable and sometimes uncontainable fires (literally and figuratively) and embrace the opportunities for learning, growth and reinvention that they may enable.
I’ve learned that out of disruption and catastrophe, can come the hope of new perspectives and possibility: for these experiences encourage me to be resilient in how I may attempt to rebuild and innovate more mindfully again, with more wise action and intention, and wiser relationship to myself and the world around me. And therein also lies my hope for humanity: that this current state of climate and political disruption and related sense of grief and loss will not be in vain, but rather a very necessary wake-up call and catalyst for resilience and reinvention.
As some people have said about 2020 in general, it’s been a year that has shown us through a lot of catastrophe, grief and loss, our most essential priorities, and how for far too long, we have been living out of alignment with what’s most essential and most sustainable.
[Image credits: @BoOmBOoM316 and @TheUSASingers on Twitter]
Just as I had taken my own body’s energy and capabilities for granted to bend them to suit my mind’s (or society’s) will, Kristina Dahl, a senior climate scientist in San Francisco for the Union of Concerned Scientists asserts in this Sunday’s NYTimes article that “there [has been] sort of this sense that we can bend the world to our will,” said. “But climate change is exposing the vulnerabilities in the systems that we’ve engineered.”
So now, with this awareness, we have the opportunity to seize this long overdue call to action to intentionally revisit our priorities as a society and disrupt our ways of living and being on the planet, that to date have been disproportionately extractive and exploitative of a finite amount of resources, far beyond the earth’s carrying capacity. And instead, shift into a more harmonious, symbiotic relationship that is mindful, intentional, conscientious and regenerative so that we can sustain our collective wellbeing as planetary citizens. That begins with heeding science, leveraging the technologies both new (i.e., as summarized in Project Drawdown) and old (including indigenous traditions of land stewardship) that already exist to work within the natural cycle of things, not against it, and supporting lawmakers, businesses and other organizations and individuals that do the same.
Meanwhile, may we all find ways to maintain faith in the unfolding, and its ability to teach us and guide us into wise action, effort, and relationship within our inner climates, so that it may translate into greater sustainability of our outer climates -- vibrantly, resiliently living in harmony with one another, putting people and planet over party, politics and profits, so that we can all thrive together on this one precious blue and green marble we all call home.
[Image credit: @1Million Women]