Tag Archives: spirituality

Time to Listen

Dying Trees Source The GuardianIt was a little over a year ago when I was on a meditation walk, in a beloved park, that I began to notice trees that once provided me shade and a sense of embrace were now starting to go brown, only it was not Autumn, it was Spring. Since then a sense of sadness and alienation has followed me as I chart my course through the new world of the Anthropocene.

That day I walked as I usually did. My speed started in a measured manner. I took the paths I usually took, walked by familiar sights and listened to familiar sounds. But there was one sound which I could not initially identify, and it was persistent.

At first I did all the things I our society has taught me to do; I invented things in my mind that soothed my conscience and searched my memory for any distracting thought. But the sound was incessant and unyielding. Then, suddenly, it was undeniable. It was the sound of wailing. When I realized what it was I was hearing, my pace quickened. I felt that pain one feels in their heart when brutally confronted with loss and grief, and it overwhelmed me. The trees around me were dying slowly and in obscurity, crying in silence in the deafening din of civilization’s march of progress.

Pines killed by pine beetles in British Columbia, Canada.  Photo by Udo Weitz, Getty Images.We don’t listen to trees in this society. I know this very well. But I’ve got a secret that many of you may share. I have always heard them. Now admitting this in some circles might earn you a one way trip to a psychiatric ward. But I can no longer ignore the lamentations around me. And as time goes on I care less about what others think of me or the consequences of my truth telling. There were others on the path who crossed my way. Parents with strollers, young lovers holding hands, old men strolling the speed of snails. But none of them seemed to notice that the non-human world around them was suffering. Life seemed to go on as it always has.

Our society trains us to avert our senses to what is literally before us, marshaling our attention to narcissistic celebrities or the latest iPhone. Mindless consumption, whether of entertainment or objects, is the national religion; and the high priests of Wall Street and Madison Avenue work over time to ensure that their profits grow exponentially, regardless of the cost to other human beings or to the countless species with whom we share this planet. But the signs surround us all. Climate chaos is nearly upon us, if it isn’t already. And truthfully, we have been given ample warning of the consequences of our way of life. Now the Great Dying, the Sixth Mass Extinction, is in full swing.
work buy consume die Source Truth Theory

The mechanisms of Western civilization are constantly conspiring to prevent us from contemplating all of this. To the powerful, doing nothing is a lazy, if not punishable, offense. It is not a surprise that in such a system loitering is a crime. If we are not consuming, we become suspicious to the established order. When we are not at work we are expected to shop, or eat, or drink, or drive somewhere, or watch something, or text, or check Facebook. This is because all of this requires our attention to the consumption of something. But if we find ourselves still and quiet, without being asleep, we may hear the sorrow we have inflicted on the nature that surrounds us through this rapacious devouring.

shopping cart

If we manage to loosen the grip of consumer culture on our consciousness, for even a short time, marvelous things can happen. I have learned that this is not an easy or one time practice; on the contrary, it is the hardest task we will ever do.  It will not spare us from all of the calamity that lies ahead.  It offers no redemption for humanity’s crimes. But it may carve out a sanctuary in our soul from where we can draw strength when the gales commence and the water rises.
Barkbeetle damage.  Photo from the Colorado State Forest Service.
The ears of society have been deafened to the wails of countless beings on this life drenched earth.  It is high time we started listening again, like our ancient ancestors did, to express our grief, stir our imagination and, most important, enliven our compassion, while there is still time left to hear.

Kenn Orphan 2015

Hospice as an Answer to Ecocide

     When I started working with the terminally ill over 20 years ago I had not yet made the connection between the hospice approach to human suffering at the end of life and that of our embattled and dying ecosystem. I first encountered the idea of viewing the earth and all who inhabit it on hospice after reading The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. I came to see the same patterns of misery, denial, angst, terror, empathy, alienation and actualization that define our own personal response to grief mirrored in our collective condition as a species in a myriad of species facing their end.  And I believe this model is the best response to the catastrophe of climate change, mass species extinction and the self-destructive nature of industrial civilization.

Photographer Adnan Abidi Reuters

     Wikipedia defines hospice as “a type of care and philosophy of care that focuses on the palliation of a chronically ill, terminally ill or seriously ill patient’s pain and symptoms, and attending to their emotional and spiritual needs.” It is a philosophy that stands in stark contrast to the current models addressing (or not) the coming catastrophe.  Sadly, hospice continues to be an alien concept in much of modern western medicine, the goal being instead to save the patient through aggressive measures, and without pause.  Hospice is still largely viewed in a defeatist light.  To many, it is seen as “giving up.”  Many people still refer to someone who has died of cancer as “losing their battle.”  And the myth that a hospice is still simply a place to go die, as in the Medieval age, endures in popular culture. But to most of those who have consciously chosen hospice when they face a limited future, their experience has nothing to do with giving up.  Instead, they have decided that they wish to use what time they have left to pursue the best aspects of what it is to be alive in the first place.

Medieval Hospice Artist Robert Alan Thom

     To the person who has realized that their time ahead may be short, materialism, popularity, money, and power usually fall by the wayside. In their place, the nurturing of relationships, connection with nature, pursuit of one’s deepest dreams, celebration of imagination, and spiritual fulfillment become more urgent. Forgiveness and mercy provide a road to healing, and the life we are fortunate to have left becomes infinitely more meaningful and precious.  Society is a mirror of the individual psyche; and when faced with grave news both will react with the same stages of grief outlined by the pioneering psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.   Like the feedback loops of climate change, none of this is linear. All of these stages, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, are interchangeable and fluid. And each serves an important purpose for protecting the psyche. But the paralysis we are at now as a society in facing our collective future will only create more misery and suffering as the clock ticks on.

Consumerism MK Feeney

In its unending quest to dominate and profit from nature, Western society has divorced itself from the sacred.  It has created a civilization that is dependent upon the liquified remains of a distant past buried deep in the earth’s crust, and on the value of intangible digits that float between banks and corporations.  It relies on avarice and communicates with violence.  And in the wake of this ultimately self-destructive obsession, the nature of which it springs from and which ultimately sustains its existence, is decimated, reduced to rubble and cast aside. The narcissistic impulse of the consumer driven economy cannot view nature, and the myriad of other life forms that inhabit its realm, as anything but soulless objects for exploitation and profit.  Indeed, it is this disconnect that has lead us to the Anthropocene epoch, or age of homo sapiens, the Sixth Mass Extinction, and to the precipice of omnicide we stand at now.

Photo Jo Christian Oterhals

Great Hammerhead in Bimini Bahamas Photo by Laura Rock

     The hospice model provides a framework for grappling with the overwhelming ecocide unfolding before us, and the nightmarish landscape of mindless consumerism.  It speaks the language of kindness, mercy and compassion to a world glaringly bereft of all three.  It generously applies a healing balm to the wounds inflicted by injustice, cruelty and war.   At a time where countless species are being condemned to the halls of extinction each day, and where climate chaos is accelerating, the compassionate realism of hospice, which embraces every dimension of healing, presents humanity with the best hope we have left to cherish and fiercely preserve all that is precious on this life drenched planet.  And it reclaims our ancestral heritage; when we once knew what it was like to look up in awe at the night sky and realize we live adrift in an ocean of stars, and appreciate just how marvelous the improbability of life itself really is.

Photographer Richard Gottardo

Kenn Orphan  2015