A very wise midwife once told me, “you cannot vibrate in love and fear at the same time.”* I pondered this for a long time, believing it made sense, but not embodying it. Until one evening years later, when I had a profound experience in my first garden. I had been practicing a form of mindfulness while watering my veggie starts. As I sprinkled each baby plant, I would look closely at it, feel my exhale through my heart and imagine sending it love with my breath. I was having the most wonderful time, falling in love with each plant I tended, until I accidentally pulled the hose over a tiny lettuce. New to the world of the garden, I didn’t know that by morning my lettuce would show no signs of the assault. In that moment it looked squished beyond repair. I dutifully went on with my watering meditation. But when it was that little lettuce’s turn to receive, I tried to send it love and found myself stuck in guilt instead.
My mentor’s words came flooding back to me, along with the realization: “You can’t vibrate in love and guilt at the same time either!” This is not to say one cannot feel both things at once. Humans are capable of experiencing a wide range of seemingly contradictory emotions at the same time. It is, I believe, in their expression that we falter.
It is easy for me to see such things in my meditations with plants. They are so straightforward in their capacity to give and receive with us. We breathe out and give to them; we breathe in and receive their gift. It is a small step to envision the energetic exchange that is also occurring. When that exercise was blocked by guilt, the effect was obvious. Years later, it remains one of my favorite activities to exchange love with plants as I breathe. But I have learned that it is not just fear and guilt that will prevent me from expressing my genuine love. Currently, both of those emotions are mingled with a heavy dose of grief.
Back in April, when spring flowers were blossoming everywhere I went, I practiced this exchange almost constantly, soaking it up for the long months ahead. Although to my consternation, no one in the news or government seemed to be mentioning the word drought, the unfathomably extreme lack of winter rain was obvious to anyone who paid attention. I knew it would soon become painful to look at the plants near my home. And sure enough, May looked brown and dry as a typical July, and August looks… well, the word graveyard frequently comes to mind.
It is hard to look at the plants I love this summer. In my own yard, in the local parks and along the roadways. Bay trees, usually evergreen, are speckled with brown leaves. Landscaped plants like ivies and lilies are withering along the ground. Maple leaves curl in upon themselves. Guava blossoms drop desiccated, unable to flourish into fruit. And I have been staying away from the redwood forests all together, preferring physical avoidance of my favorite place in all the world, over bearing witness to its suffering.
Physical avoidance is a very conscious choice. But there are so many ways we all are avoiding, denying, and dissociating from the feelings that inevitably well up within us as we face the annual extreme weather events that are the early harbingers of climate change. Yet we cannot eliminate these uncomfortable emotions. They are there, beneath the surface of our love, infiltrating it and changing how it is expressed.
Adults are masters of emotional avoidance, and of fooling ourselves into thinking that this effort is successful. But there is a part of us that always knows. The words intuition, or gut feeling, are easily dismissed in our overly logic-focused culture, and describing emotions as having an energy that can be exchanged may seem quite foreign to many. Fortunately, neuroscience explains these experiences in a language to which we do assign value.
The emotional exchange between two humans is far more complex that my meditation with plants. But when someone who loves us dearly approaches us primarily from a place of guilt or fear, for example, we know it in our lower brains. Our brainstems and limbic systems are designed to recognize all the nonverbal cuing (tone, facial expression, posture and movement) hidden beneath another’s words. Guilt and fear, especially if unspoken and denied, interfere with the giving and receiving of genuine love. Naming the feelings, being real about their presence, eases the disconnect.
Our children know this. Infants in particular are emotional sponges. The brainstem is fully developed in infancy, while the rest of the brain is not. Babies are primed to read nonverbal cues, and developmentally incapable of deciphering the words we layer on top. Our young children are still immersed in this way of thinking, even as their language capacity grows. Robbin Wall Kimmerer describes beautifully how she attempted to shield her young daughter from the fear she felt as they fled a fire caused by a pipeline explosion near her home:
The older children get, the more enculturated they become, and they learn to value verbal communication above all else. If they are not taught to appreciate, recognize and name their felt experiences, they inevitably mimic us in the opposite. They come to master the unconscious habit of exchanging words that contradict the underlying nonverbal messaging. But to in order to believe those words, children have to deny the information supplied by their lower brains. With enough practice, they learn to ignore their embodied messaging, their intuition. Loss of connection to internal knowing is a casualty of maturation in the modern world. It can seem self protective; it keeps us from having to experience the depth of loss around us. But we are fooling ourselves each time, and the price we pay is astronomical. We block ourselves from accessing the heart, and acting from a place of wholeness.
Of the many forms of disconnect from emotional experience, dissociation is perhaps the most profound. Severe dissociation is a trauma response otherwise known as “freeze” or “surrender”. If we are faced with a threat that we feel incapable of surviving by fight or flight, we will freeze instead. Dr. Bruce Perry describes dissociation as a mental mechanism by which one withdraws attention from the outside world, while the body prepares to be injured by slowing the heart rate and releasing opioid neurochemicals into the bloodstream. Young children are the most likely to dissociate during a traumatic event, because they are too small to fight or flee. Instead, they escape inside their minds.
I think we are all escaping inside our minds more and more these days. Our elaborate attempts to avoid attuning to the climate crisis are a form of collective dissociation. There is undoubtedly an innate, embodied trauma response in all of us as we begin to live the extreme weather events that foretell the great unraveling. Faced with a threat so overwhelmingly existential, so hopelessly out of our individual control, we react with the helplessness of a young child. With each passing day that we go about business as usual, we disconnect further from our deep internal knowing. Collectively, we have turned to every possible addictive behavior to maintain this escapist state – overconsumption of all types soothes our distress in the moment, while contributing to the problem we seek to escape. This expanding positive feedback loop throws us ever more out of balance in relationship to ourselves and the world.
To restore balance we must give ourselves room for intentional, functional dissociation. We all need to tune out sometimes, and a good book or a funny TV show is the kind of disconnect that helps restore our strength to be present again. And then, once regulated, we must allow for the presence of all of our feelings. Guilt and fear can block us from looking the climate crisis square in the face, and from taking appropriate action. But feeling them, along with our grief, is a necessary first step back towards our embodied knowing. As Joanna Macy says, guilt is an appropriate expression of our pain for the world in the face of the irreparable damage our species is enacting upon all complex life, “the uncomfortable awareness that our actions are out of step with our values.” (Active Hope p146) Yet a lifetime of practice in avoidance is hard to overcome. And yesterday, as I finally consented to explore my local redwood grove, my tears would not come.
My daughter wanted to go, and how could I deny her wish? Our little local grove, second growth on the very edge of the redwood bioregion, has never looked all that healthy relative to the lush old growth forests further north. But as I expected, it now looks downright ill. Dust covered branches droop in the late afternoon sunlight, sacrificing their outermost fronds even as they force forth new growth. All around, small trees have browned beyond saving, and the ground cover has shriveled and crisped. Once there, I commanded myself to look closely. The least I could do was give these glorious and much loved beings the honor they deserved by seeing them, not turning away from their suffering. But the exercise felt forced. I could not bring myself to try my favorite pastime of exchanging loving breaths with them. And my tears would not come. My body would not obey, and the entirety of the experience felt disconnected and surreal.
That was all we said on the matter yesterday, but I know the reality of what she has seen will percolate in her mind. She has not yet learned to turn away. Will I be able to help her hold that balance, to disconnect when she needs to so she can continue to connect, fully and genuinely, when the opportunity arises? Can I continue to hold that balance myself, as the drought worsens? Will I be able to show up with authentic love, for her and for the redwoods we are witnessing together? Will my guilt and fear and my unfelt grief interfere with what I communicate to her? And to them? Can I speak genuinely to her with and through those emotions, while still helping her to love and trust in this world she has just begun to inhabit? Can I help her learn to hold her love and her grief for this world all at once, when I scarcely know how myself?
*In gratitude and memorium to Jan Perrone