Justine Huxley writes about how we can balance the need to engage, witness and be present to what is happening, with staying inwardly stable, joyful and nourished. She shares three practices for inner peace-making that help keep us rooted in what is real and true.
How much news can you bear? Many people these days have an ambivalent relationship with current affairs. The need to be informed battles with the need for relief from overwhelm, to pretend it’s all going to be OK. Perhaps you suffer a recurring inner tension: to use the free hours at the end of the day to stay up to speed with the next chapter of our collective unravelling….or to taste a little forgetfulness for the sake of one’s sanity. For me this often shows up as a late night ‘podcast dilemma’. Should I continue to educate myself on cyber warfare and the likely impact of AI? Or (as I confess I have done on occasion) shall I check out with a delightful 1970s episode of Champion the Wonder Horse?
Staying informed is often a recipe for a sleepless night. Five years ago, if you’d asked me what I believed to be the biggest threat to humanity, my answer would have been unequivocal: climate breakdown and biodiversity collapse. That danger has been overtaken on my personal global risk register. Our hardening political and cultural fault lines, the risks to democracy from both left and right, and the pernicious ways in which our shared reality is being systematically dismantled via a range of hidden weapons – these reflect a world where we are likely already too divided to tackle the threat of mass human loss of life. What haunts my nights, is the possibility that we lose our freedom, our values and our humanity long before we arrive at extinction. Losing our humanity could be a bigger deal than losing our lives, as this has lasting implications not just for the body but for the soul. Knowing in my heart the depth of my desire to return to my maker ‘with clean hands and straight eyes’, I would rather die with my values intact, than sacrifice my humanity to survive for a few more years.
As the world retreats into the old paradigm, and tribal forces gather power beneath the surface, like ancient dragons stirring with enmity in the belly of a mountain – this potential for the loss of morality could be the new worst case scenario overtaking that of an uninhabitable earth.
To face such a crossroads with integrity, means to be fully awake to these threats, to examine them closely, to educate ourselves, to look to the horizons and be honest with ourselves about what could be coming down the line. We must ask how we can strengthen our social fabric and grow our capacity for courage to meet the moral dilemmas that are coming with dignity rather than violence. But as anyone tuning in to this growing darkness knows, even to gaze at this landscape brings the risk of being drawn into a force field of dynamics which are inwardly destabilising and crazy-making.
How can we balance this need to engage, witness and be present to what is happening – with the need to stay inwardly stable, joyful and nourished?
One solution is to nourish oneself, not with escapism, but with practices that feed the soul and make a contribution to a more peaceful world in less obvious ways. This means not having to choose between staying aware so we can better be of service, and unplugging ourselves for the sake of our sanity. Crucially, it also offers the means to stand rooted in a place of unshakeability – to be able to navigate by the light of our conscience rather than be pulled into the drama and distortions of a dying civilisation. Three practices that fall into this category for me, include: Jungian shadow work; creating rhythms and ritual; and entering into the experience Thomas Berry called, the ‘Great Conversation’. They each have personal restorative power, but also make a meaningful contribution to peace in the world. Like stroking two cats with one hand.
Jungian psychology has never been quite as present in the world of peace-making as it perhaps could be, and yet it holds an important key to the human propensity for ‘othering’, as well as a democratised pathway to our own healing. Jung’s shadow work teaches us how the mind (at least thus far into our evolution) instinctively organises through opposites (strong/vulnerable, aggressive/peaceful, progressive/conservative) and our family and cultural conditioning defines which side of each duality we favour and which we suppress in ourselves. What we deny then becomes invisible to us and projected onto others – individual or societal. If our conditioning suppressed our authentic voice, we may project that hurt into a righteous passion for free speech. If our conditioning marginalised us, we may be in a perpetual fight to rescue the underdog from every oppressor. Shadow work gives a means to make visible and own those projections, and free us from the warping influence of old wounds. We may still stand for those wholly essential causes, but can do it from a more effective place of integration and freedom.
Jungian psychology is also a tried and tested map that can lead us from the limiting world of dualism into the dynamism of interbeing. Ecological science recognises that every element in a natural system has it’s true place and purpose. It shows us the folly of exterminating wolves, spiders, buffalo, or any of the creatures humans have vilified or undervalued, that we now know are essential to keep an ecosystem in balance. Ecology gives us practical tools that honour the whole web of life (like permaculture, agroforestry, rewilding) and have immense regenerative power. Similarly, a Jungian lens is much-needed systems thinking for our psyche. In an unravelling world, we need leaders and role models who can stand in that place of integration, not projecting our wounds, not othering those on either side of our cultural fault lines, recognising the validity of different perspectives and societal roles. Enriching in and of itself, this practice is also a powerful defence against being drawn into tribalised judgement and hate. There is real value in developing safe containers for ourselves – both individual and groups – which enable us to relate our inner and outer worlds. Shadow integration provides a deep understanding and inner experience of the reconciliation of opposites that is needed more than ever in this time of escalating polarisation,
Rhythms of resilience
Ritual offers another deep well of meaning and resilience, connecting us with something beyond the personal. Whether attuning to the rhythm of the seasons, honouring transitions or family traditions, partaking in religious rites, or creating conscious practices to re-sacralise our home life – ritual has tremendous grounding power. With creativity and imagination, we can build a container of shared rituals and simple private practices that can hold us in relationship with the sacred. This in turn means we are less battered by collective anxieties and instability.
Being a crafter of rituals can turn housework into the creation of sacred space, can draw solace from the hint of spring at the dark turning point of the year called imbolc. It can reignite the meaning in festivals contaminated by consumerism, and bind families together through shared stories and remembrance. One elderly woman recently became famous for sharing her six o’clock lockdown ritual of lighting a candle, pouring herself a gin and tonic, and contemplating the things she is grateful for.
This is something our international partners, the Centre for Spiritual Imagination in New York, and many young people know well. Revd Adam Bucko’s new monastic community reinvents the discipline of a religious contemplative life for a modern, spiritually diverse world, creating the conditions for a rich inner life, as well as a holding structure that can be an immense source of strength and protect us from being swept away by so many collective dramas. Intentional habits can transform the lockdown experience of ‘groundhog day’ into a rhythm that feeds the deepest parts of ourselves and those around us, and is an act of giving to life itself.
The Great Conversation
Lastly, a quality of presence – attention to the moment, to the breath, to the beauty of nature can keep us woven in to the wider web of life – a more-than-human world where these fake dichotomies and social media power plays don’t exist. We have abandoned the ‘great conversation’, but are not excluded from it except through our own hectic thought patterns. As the wise conservationist and mystic Eleanor O’Hanlon taught me, all it requires is a slowing down, a sensitivity and a listening, to notice how every element of a woodland or a garden is in dialogue with every other element, whispering in many languages and in silence. When we still our minds and rediscover humility, in time a doorway opens and we are welcomed into a place of wonder and belonging.
This is where I return to, after a day of strategising, planning and staring into that abyss we call the future. To walk with my feet on the ground and the cold air on my face, to see the light change slowly from day to dusk to night, to watch the moon rise, and listen to the robin’s evening song. To breathe with the Earth. In breath. Out breath. Emptying. Sensing the rhythm of a Being infinitely more ancient and wise than us humans, a Being who will doubtless outlive us all.
“Sit and be still
until in the time
of no rain you hear
beneath the dry wind’s
commotion in the trees
the sound of flowing
water among the rocks,
a stream unheard before,
and you are where
breathing is prayer.”
– Wendell Berry
These five books are a good place to start if you want to learn more about these practices:
1. Robert A Johnson, Inner work: Using dreams and active imagination for personal growth
2. Casper ter Kuile, The Power of Ritual: Turning everyday activities into soulful practices
3. Adam Bucko and Rory McEntee, The New Monasticism
4. Eleanor O’Hanlon, Eyes of the Wild
5. Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Ten Spiritual Ecology Practices.
With thanks to Timothy Meinberg for the banner image