by Jean Stimmell
Today, we navigate through our lives, autonomous contestants in a national gameshow called free-market capitalism, where winners live in mansions and losers on the street. Community, ethics, and our non-human neighbors don’t matter much. How do we break out of this amusement park before it is too late? Let’s try by thinking outside the box. What if our thoughts and imagination don’t arise in us as individuals.
What if thoughts are socially constructed. Rather than our thoughts arising out of our brain, what if we are receiving them from outside: From the web of all our acquaintances, books we have read, and websites we click on. Wise gurus have always said this is true: Jung called our common connection the collective unconsciousness; Emile Durkheim called it social consciousness; neurologists call it mirror cells; Buddhists call it Indra’s Net. Now ecologists are telling us that our thoughts come not just from other humans but the Earth itself!
We need to wake up. At this perilous time, our thoughts, foolishly misunderstood to be our own, are being manipulated by an insidious enemy, the demon of fear. This demon is being used to great advantage by demagogues to pit us one against another. They are successful because we have no overarching cause to rally around. We have nothing bigger than ourselves to believe in.
David Abram, ecologist and philosopher, tells us that imagination isn’t a separate mental faculty within us but an ability our senses have to cast themselves out to bind with “other lives that surround it, the way the earth couples itself to our thoughts and our dreams.”1 We have this magical ability because we coevolved with the Earth: “The human eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with the oceans and the air, formed and informed by the shifting patterns of the visible world. Our ears are now tuned, by their very structure, to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese.”2 Becca Tarnas, scholar and artist, writes about how our imagination extends beyond our daily concerns…allowing us to see our human role in an enchanted cosmos by connecting us to our past and future.3
We do this through myth.
Imagination operates through myth to connect us to something bigger than us: the more-than-human world and the Earth itself. Myths are not tall tales and make-believe. As Charlotte Du Cann, author and Director of the Dark Mountain Project tells us, “They exist as a reminder of our place and meaning on the Earth; a reminder of what we have to undergo to become truly human, with a culture where art is the same as knowledge. Old mythologies contain not only stories about our place on the Earth, but have the Earth speaking through them. In other words, as we turn ideas around in our head, we’re not just thinking, but we are getting thought.4
“Whatever we are facing now we need to have a root system embedded in weather patterns, the presences of animals, our dreams, and the ones who came before us. Myth is insistent that when there is a crisis, genius lives on the margins not the centre. If we are constantly using the language of politics to combat the language of politics at some point the soul grows weary… We’re not listening to the thoughts of the world. We’re only listening to our own neurosis and our own anxiety.”5
J.R.R. Tolkien, the English writer and poet, understood all of this. He is best known for writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Far from believing that the imagination dealt with make-believe, he considered it a direct connection to the divine. What we call myth, he named “Faërie,” a world he believed humans never left: “Faërie contains many things besides… dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.”6
Inspired by what I had learned about this strange, new world, I re-watched Fellowship of the Ring, keeping in mind what the visionaries quoted here reveal about myth representing a higher truth. Part way through the movie I shivered in recognition about the magnitude of the task we face today as the wizard Gandalf spoke about confronting a similar existential crisis:
“Middle-earth stands upon the brink of destruction. None can escape it; you will unite or you will fall. Each race is bound to this fate, this one doom. No one wishes for times like these. All we can do is decide what to do with the time that’s given to us.”7
1 The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram, page 262