E19 The meaning of crisis // With wandering host Ingrid M. Rieser

The time has come to bring the second season of the Forest of Thought to a close, and like at the end of season 1, I wanted to end by sharing some personal reflections. A topic that came up several times in the second season was crisis; both social and ecological crises like the pandemic and climate change in the episodes with Andy Stirling, Mike Hulme and Dougald Hine; but also the personal ones, in the episodes with Gunilla Hamne and Felix Marquardt. I was thinking about how the power of crisis is that it reveals things to us – it uncovers what previously lay hidden and it also brings things to a head, forcing us to make decisions. However, the power of crisis may also be twisted and misused, so we need to take great care if we’re going to learn what crises – be they personal, political or spiritual – have to teach us. 

So I dug out some old notes about a time in my life where I was very confused, in a crisis of my own, and continued to reflect on what a crisis really is, and what it does. I hope you’ll find something of value to you as you listen. 

[What follows is a transcript of the episode. Find links and shownotes at the very end].   

crisis |ˈkrʌɪsɪs|

noun (plural crises |ˈkrʌɪsiːz| )

1. a time of intense difficulty or danger.

It was two in the morning on an overnight ferry between Sweden and Finland. I was in a stuffy and windowless four-bunk cabin, tossing and turning in the stale air, unable to sleep. Most of my companions – members of the 16-piece soul-disco-pop band I periodically played in – were crammed into a cabin nearby, playing a cross-over between drinking game and Jeopardy. We had already hung around the ship’s karaoke bar until it closed, listening to Finnish hits from the 90s sung off-key in voices lubricated by beer and vodka. Now my younger friends were still drinking, while I had clambered into my bunk to catch some much-needed sleep. 

But sleep wouldn’t come. After a couple of hours, I switched on the light and got out the essay I had brought as travel reading, a piece on technology and its discontents by writer Paul Kingsnorth. It was not the ideal piece to be reading on an overnight party-boat on the Baltic Sea in the middle of a never-ending, sleepless night. In fact, it was rather unwise. Floating on the dark waves, I followed Kingsnorth down murky paths that laid bare the paradoxical traps of progress that we’ve sprung for ourselves; the technologization we mistake for freedom; the hopeless failure of modernity to grant us satisfying lives while it simultaneously undermines the conditions for life on the planet; the technosphere growing so obscenely large that it blocks out everything else from sight; the relentless churning of the machine. 

So I lay in the stuffy dark listening to drunken shouts down the corridor, its burgundy carpet stained brown with beer from a thousand Baltic Sea crossings. And In me there was a deep sense of unease. It was a familiar feeling and it said, this just isn’t right. Not specifically this cabin, or this ship, or this night – this worldjust isn’t right. I knew that but couldn’t understand it. It’s the kind of unspecific dread I’ve felt many times, now heightened by fatigue. Dawn was slowly breaking, but the only window in our cabin was printed on wallpaper. 

I reread the lines of poet R.S. Thomas that Kingsnorth quotes towards the end of the essay

“… the machine appeared

In the distance, singing to itself

Of money. Its song was the web

They were caught in, men and women

Together. The villages were as flies

To be sucked empty. 

God secreted

A tear. Enough, enough, 

He commanded, but the machine 

Looked at him and went on singing.

It was to be the first of many sleepless nights for me. I returned from Finland exhausted, expecting to sleep a solid twelve hours. Instead I gazed at the ceiling the whole night. I’d had difficulty sleeping before, but this was different. This wasn’t the usual mind-racing, nervous-before-a-presentation sleeplessness. This was that sleep didn’t come even when my body was relaxed and my mind was blank. Of course it didn’t stay blank for long, because I quickly I filled it with worries about whether this would be another sleepless night. 

I did all the things they tell you to do. I cut out coffee, which gave me headaches but not much else; I did relaxing stretches before bed, meditation, no looking at screens after 6pm. Still sleep was a fleeting and reluctant companion and worries of being without it haunted me throughout the day. Insomnia must be one of the most effective ways to cripple a person. Incapable of sleeping, I was soon incapable of working, and went on sick leave. I stumbled around in a stupor, wondering if this was burnout, and blamed myself for ending up in this situation. 

Diary entry, Jan 2nd 2018:

Sensations; it’s been interesting (and of course worrying) to observe the goings on in my body the past weeks. Since the sleep problems went away and were replaced by chest pains… sometimes the chest pain is tight around my heart and the muscles feel very tired and stiff there, as if they’ve been at it forever. Then sometimes, there is a more fleeting, floating pain that moves around, close to the skin. It has something similar to the fluttering butterflies of nervousness except it’s deeper and more unsettling. I feel very ungrounded, up in the air, when this feeling is in my body. […] I guess I always look for explanations, but partly this stuff is so weird and seemingly unrelated that myth makes more sense. Is the body more like a myth than a machine? 

The pain sent me on long walks in the strip of forest between two neighborhoods on the outskirts of town. I walked and methodically focused on not thinking about those things that seemed to intensify the tightness in my chest. 

The routine I settled into was meandering through the graveyard, then entering the forest between the pines and the jutting rock by the campus road, crossing the patchy grass of the football field, and following the path through the trees past the water tower. Once I got to the duck pond, I would ease onto one of the wooden benches and drink my thermos of coffee, chew my sandwiches, watch the ducks. The pond is an old stone quarry filled with water, and the gangly birches drooped over it in their grey November way, shedding the last of their leaves to the glassy surface below. 

I would sit on the bench, following the ducks as they paddled round and round, until my coffee was gone, and my legs were numb from cold. Then I’d slowly circle back towards the gym, where I would get on one of those ludicrous cross-fit machines that I used to scorn

In case you have been blessedly unaware of cross-fit machines, I can inform you that these contraptions have small moving platforms where you place your feet, and handles you grip with your hands, which you then move in synchronized motion. Tapping the screen allowed me to follow virtual routes to the most beautiful places on Earth. Absurdly, this would make me feel better. Between treadmills and grunting, sweaty twenty-somethings, I would run in the air, trying not to think, moving my arms and legs in their assigned motions, entirely focused on the smooth steady-cam movement on the screen that carried me up to lookouts in the Cascades or the rim of the Grand Canyon. I would try to sink into to those pristine landscapes, imagining the smell of sagebrush and hearing the crunch of red gravel beneath my feet in the Canyonlands, the buzz of insects, the dripping of rain in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. I would even get annoyed if the camera captured too many other people on the path, as if I was there in real life. 

It was untethered running, ungrounded. I was burning energy, getting nowhere, except to a state of somewhat alleviated stress.  Then I’d stretch on the mat, silently mocking whoever had made the playlist streaming from the speakers that day. Shower, sauna, walk home.  

crisis |ˈkrʌɪsɪs|

noun (plural crises |ˈkrʌɪsiːz| )

1. a time of intense difficulty or danger.

2. a time when a difficult or important decision must be made.

The problem was that I didn’t really know why I was feeling unwell. I still don’t really know. I look back on it with some confusion, trying to sort through it all. There were the usual suspects; stress regarding money; unreasonable expectations regarding work; worrying about friends who were having a rough time. They are all reasonable explanations – but somehow inadequate, overlooking something crucial.

“Your inbox is full,” is what my psychologist told me. Not my actual inbox, but the metaphorical one in my brain. I might have felt worthy of a more poetic image, but she had a point. There were heaps of unexamined worries and anxieties floating about in my mind; worries of the kind that fester and multiply unless they are sorted through in the sunlight. I think these were mostly questions that any sensible person living in our time will ask themselves: How do we find a way out of the mess we’re in? What can I possibly do to make a difference? Is there a new hope on the other side of despair?

And yet… These were questions I had grappled with most of my adult life. There seemed to be something else moving in the depths. I noticed that all of these superficial causes of stress certainly elicited a bodily reaction in me. Thinking about them would tighten my chest, raise my pulse, make my palms sweaty. But not thinking about them didn’t really make me feel better. Not thinking about them still had me floating untethered, running in air. The things that made me feel better – that offered a way out – seemed to be of a quite different nature. 

I had begun to listen to podcasts during my forest walks. By trial and error I realized there were certain types of programs that made me feel calm and at ease: those about the history of ideas and those about mythology. I would watch the ducks paddle their way around the pond, between fallen leaves, twigs and spruce needles, while the history of conscious thought and the stories we tell ourselves, all washed over me.

One episode was an exploration of the Ancient Egyptian creation myth. Like all creation myths, this one attempts to answer those fundamental cosmic questions: What is this world and where did it come from? Why is it that something exists, rather than nothing? How is it possible for things to come into existence, when they previously did not? If you were passing through Heliopolis in the ancient Egyptian times, you might have heard a story that went something like this… 

In the time before time – in Zeptepi – there was the great primordial ocean, Nun. This vast, watery abyss is the unlimited and the infinite – the source that contains all possibilities in their unactualized form of pure potential. How can anything come to be in this formless abyss? Here’s what philosopher Jeremy Naydler writes about it: 

Within Nun is a creative principle, a seed of creativity that as it germinates, differentiates itself within Nun. As the life-potential of Nun is activated, something solid appears in the midst of the ocean of potentiality, and this is Atum. Atum is not other than Nun, but is rather a phase in the self-revelation of Nun. Why does Atum not rest content in the ocean of potentiality that is Nun? It is because Atum yearns for something on which to place his feet. Atum – the creative seed – yearns to germinate, to bring potentiality into actuality. And so Atum comes into being out of the nonbeing of Nun and , in the very act of Atum’s becoming, a third principles arises: Kheprer, the Becoming one. The completion of this first phase of Nun’s self-manifestation is the unfolding of light within the darkness of the infinite waters, imaged as the appearance of a broad winged “light-bird” settling upon the solid earth that has emerged in the ocean’s midst. The light-bird symbolizes a fourth aspect of Nun’s self-unfoldment: Ra.

Naydler, p 207

And then Ra (or Atum-Ra), the principle of light and also the creative principle, proceeds to create other gods and principles that eventually give rise to the Earth as we know it. These gods have names we may recognize, such as Isis, Horus, Osiris, Anubis, Nut. Although conceived of as separate principles, all of these gods are expressions of the primordial source, brought into actualization through Ra. The creative principle, Ra, “stands at the crossing point between non-being and being” (ibid.), the interface between potentiality and realization. 

It might be helpful to point out that the Ancient Egyptian word for god, neteru, literally means ‘principle’ or ‘force’. So Ra is the principle of the universe that can realize the unmanifest – make the potential into the real –  just as the warmth of the sun germinates the seed hidden in the dark earth, so it may unfurl its inherent leafy potential. 

At home I started discovering hidden gems in our library. Amongst the shelves of inherited or gifted books, I found many on the mysteries of existence. I leafed through the Egyptian Book of the Dead (which actually is more accurately translated as Book of the Coming Forth by Light ), a collection of papyrus scrolls of the kind placed in the sarcophagus of the deceased – maps to help them navigate the lands of the afterlife to pass into another world beyond. I developed a new calming activity which was to methodically copy Egyptian symbols and hieroglyphs into my sketchbook. It worked wonders – much more effective than meditation. Why did these forays into the conceptual worlds of the past make me feel better?

Well, here’s a clue. After one of these podcasts, I felt forcefully struck by a self-evident truth: just as the ancient Egyptian worldview has come and gone, ours too will pass. A new way of thinking and being is not just possible – it is inevitable. All discussion about whether change can happen is pointless – because change is all there is.

You may say, “Well, that’s obvious”. And I would wholeheartedly agree. But isn’t it strange how easily we forget the obvious? Although I previously would have agreed that “change is inevitable”, it would have been entirely in the abstract. By entering into the world of the past, for example the Egyptians, minuscule windows into another way of thinking and being in the world began to open up. Thinking of Ra as the underlying creative principle manifested in the sun, the force behind all that lives and grows, or seeing Nut curved as the sky, cradling the world in a loving embrace help us see the sun and sky in new ways. Perhaps because I was in my raw state of distress, I felt small slivers of these radically different worldviews penetrate my cerebral armor. This made the “change is inevitable” aphorism more experientially real and concrete. 

Of course, although change is inevitable, we still have to consider timeline and direction of change. How do we know change will be for the better? Perhaps it will get worse? A fair point. But I believe that in the long run it is very possible that the spiraling pendulum of history will swing in a more beautiful direction. How long or short the run will be, depends on us. 

This insight on the nature of change gave me much solace, and therefore must reveal something about why I was feeling so bad in the first place. It had something to do with the dread I felt on the Baltic Sea that night – this world just isn’t right. Trying to concretize this vague feeling of unease into a precise explication of the tangled promises and betrayals of modernity is perhaps more than I can muster. I’ve tried all afternoon, but my words arrange themselves into to petty clichés and unsatisfying analyses on the page. 

It seems to have something to do with a profound confusion, a confusion that has gripped us ever more tightly as our intellectual and technological powers have grown. It began when we assumed that human distinctiveness must mean human superiority. We built magnificent structures, castles and cities, with high walls surrounding them to keep things feral and wild at a safe distance. We did not realize that in erecting the fortress walls we had also shut out that part of ourselves that only thrives in the fecundity of deep forests, that swims in dark tarns on late summer evenings. 

We had mistaken cleverness for wisdom, automatization for freedom, the sexy for the erotic. We thought difference implied hierarchy, that creativity was meant to be productivity, that what matters must be measured, and that relationships were best thought of as useful exchanges.

We began to feel – and still feel – somehow at a loss, but without knowing why. We look for completion through our relationships, but our affairs can never come into full bloom – for the wild hearts of our lovers have also been exiled. We stride through the gilded, echoing halls of the castles, unable to understand why the splendor fails to bring us the joy we expect. As we walk, we may feel this deep, quiet, lingering dread: this world just isn’t right. The massive structures humans have built are not a good place for those humans to live. 

And yet, the failures of our structures are not at the core of my despair, I think. At the core is the conviction that these structures can never change. Even after we’ve recognized the absurdity of our systems, we seem incapable of transcending the castle walls. Why? 

Well… it is very difficult to clearly perceive the structure’s contours and workings, because many of them are subtle. We walk the castle as fish swim in water, and although we have glimpses of clarity, they are often brief. 

It’s always the world that you find yourself in that is most convincing. That makes it extremely difficult to imagine what a different dwelling might look like, or how we could possibly get there. And don’t forget: the kings and queens and military commanders and high knights of this castle depend on you staying where you are, because it is what grants them power and dominion – although they try to conceal that truth from you, and perhaps even from themselves. They will stop at nothing to distract you – they’ll have you play their games, place ludicrous and arbitrary demands on you, and cast you into the exile of obscurity if you do not comply. 

Considering all this, no wonder we feel that change is unlikely, maybe impossible. How can anything make a dent in this powerful, monolithic structure? And so we despair. This is when we must remember that ancient wisdom: change is all there is, change is inevitable. As surely as the sun rises each day, the walls of the fortress will tumble. 

I pause now in the writing. I realize that the metaphor of the castle that came to me this afternoon (and that spun its yarn much longer than I anticipated) is not really a good metaphor to illustrate the continually changing nature of reality. A river would have been better, surely. But all summaries are doomed to be partial and unsatisfying. I may ask you to stay in this metaphorical castle and look around a little longer. You’ll soon notice that huge chunks of stone have already fallen from its outer walls. In the cracks there are new vistas appearing, tiny glimpses of the lands beyond. You start to notice that actually the castle is in need of constant maintenance. Sustaining its structure requires continuous effort on the part of all the inhabitants. 

But where does newness come into this picture? How are new things brought into existence? We have forgotten that in the infinite source, the primordial ocean Nun, there exists an infinite amount of forms. All possibilities, and infinitely more, are contained in this abyss of potency. Jeremy Naydler writes, it is “the fullness of all existence, but held in potentiality”. Of course, the other knowings and beings – the better worlds – we yearn for are also drifting in those dark waters, in the form of potential. And how is this potential to be actualized?

At the crossing point between non-being and being we find Ra, and we also find ourselves. Each of us carries a part of Ra within us. Each of us are an interface through which potentiality becomes reality, through which ideas are manifested in the world. Each of us carries this divine power, that we must learn to wield in the most beautiful way possible.  

None of these thoughts were in my mind back when I was sick, of course. At the time I was mostly focused on getting to a place of existential and bodily calm (and sometimes copying hieroglyphs would grant me that). 

The worst of my symptoms had abated after a couple of months. Sleep returned almost to normal, and the tightness in my chest was not as tight. I started working and studying again, but whittled down my commitments to the bare necessities. I felt an overwhelming need for solitude, and for several months I hardly saw my friends.

My feeling then was a vague but urgent need to change the things on which I expended my energy. My partner and I had hazy plans of moving to our cabin in the Swedish mountains, and these quickly solidified. The migration had begun to feel less like a possibility and more like a necessity, although I didn’t quite know why. These were small steps in unknown directions. They were clumsy, tentative steps with an awkward gait, but still a movement with some intention. Things did not neatly become resolved, or radically improve by taking them, but a soft resonance from within seemed to confirm that this was the right thing to do. 

crisis |ˈkrʌɪsɪs|

noun (plural crises |ˈkrʌɪsiːz| )

1. a time of intense difficulty or danger.

2. a time when a difficult or important decision must be made.

3. the turning point of a disease when an important change takes place, indicating either recovery or death.

In hindsight, I can be grateful for the crisis that robbed me of my sleep and set my heart racing. It kicked me up to the mountains where I lived for year. I was lucky enough to have the means of making that relocation and spending a year at our cabin had a more profound impact on me than I could have guessed.

So does this mean I think we should glorify pain and crisis as something to always be grateful for, as a ‘chance to grow’? No, that’s not exactly what I mean. Rather, it seems to me that we’re living in a world that has fallen sick, and it’s a quite natural reaction to fall ill oneself as a consequence. Perhaps it’s even to be expected. The sickness is not valuable in itself, except it points to the dysfunctionality of systems and contexts, and potentially pushes us into a more meaningful direction in our lives.  Crisis tells us things can no longer continue as they have and forces upon us a decisive moment; its power is to re-calibrate, re-evaluate and re-align.

Over the past few years, I’ve wondered about the rise of burnout as a phenomenon in the workplace and among my family and friends. Why is it that people are experiencing breakdown at such high rates? The World Health Organization wrote in 2017 that “depression is the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide”. It’s just one line in a press release, but its import is pretty shocking. 

Our despair is a greater threat than all the diseases, all the cancers, all the malnourishment in the world. Hundreds of thousands of people die at their own hands every year. This seems to be one of the consequences of the sinister structures we have built, and the systematic destruction of beauty – people would rather die than continuing living in this god-forsaken place.

Of course, that’s the thing: This place isn’t actually god forsaken. The divine lingers in every thing, every molecule of air, every drink of water, every slanting ray of sun against the pavement, every blossom, every pebble, every person, although we have a hard time perceiving it. Rather, this is a place that is human-forsaken. We’ve either forgotten, or never really learned, what being fully human is. Our healing seems to depend on recovering what that true humanity entails. 

It’s only natural that the crises of the wider world and those of our inmost selves are intertwined. And at this point  it’s almost a trope to say that we live in an Age of Crisis. The four years since my own breakdown have been filled with what we call crises of the economic, ecological, epidemiological, political and social kind. And this is where we need to be careful. Because the power of crisis is real, and because the outer and inner worlds are deeply meshed, we need to make sure that the crisis does the true revelatory and re-aligning work that is its inherent potential. Swirling along in the narratives of crisis entirely as they are defined by the powers that be will not lead to the climax of the decisive and revelatory moment, the bifurcation point after which healing is possible.  

As the collective the Invisible Committee wrote in 2015: 

“The present crisis, permanent and omnilateral, is no longer the classic crisis, the decisive moment. On the contrary, it’s an endless end, a lasting apocalypse, an indefinite suspension, an effective postponement of the actual collapse and for that reason a permanent state of exception.”

The state of exception is not the same as a crisis, both because it is something imposed by an authority, and because it does not carry with it the decisive moment that leads either to destruction or recovery.  

So how do we honor the power of crisis and allow it to do its real work on us? For me it entailed a kind of surrender. Accepting that I couldn’t force myself to feel better, force my body to sleep, or my heart to beat slower, or my nervous system to relax. Paradoxically, though my body was in a confused state of upheaval, it was also my most reliable compass. It was the only instrument that could indicate what kinds of thoughts, activities and contexts brought with them a restorative depth, underneath the flurries of distress. If the body is more like a myth than a machine, it seems to me that a patient kind of listening is what will reveal the most valuable truths. 

In a time of untethered flailing, a crisis has the potential of bringing us back to the ground, even if it’s by bringing us all the way to our knees. Once I accepted that I could not really control my body, and decided to follow it  instead, things began to fall into place. 

Although still somewhat of a mystery, my own crisis seems to have sprung from a certain sorrow and dread; the feeling that something just isn’t right here in the world. And perhaps, even more crushing, the suspicion that we would never be capable of creating something more beautiful. 

But then in my floundering search I found something hopeful – something that was missing from Kingsnorth’s story that dark and seaborne night of the all-powerful and all-consuming machine; namely the knowledge of the infinite sea of possibilities, alive and teeming just beyond the edge of the visible. And further, the belief that each of us carries a small glowing flame which is a tiny but genuine expression of the power that also burns in the sun high above us – the creative power of Ra. 

There are no guarantees, and the ends of things are always painful. But ends necessarily imply new beginnings. The limitless potential of the primordial ocean is ever present, and we may manifest its beautiful possibilities if we have the intention and courage. 

So what is the true power of crisis? Crisis tells us that now is the time, the time is now: now is the time to decide.


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