Tuesday, June 09, 2009

A response to The Invisible Path

I found The Invisible Path by Charles Eisenstein while perusing a friend's facebook page and was so touched by it that I had to write a response.

I'm going to pick out the pieces of his essay that speak to me and respond to them, but I want to encourage you to go and read it in its entirety here.

Here is the introduction to start:

As the age turns, millions of people are pioneering a transition from the old world to the new. It is a journey fraught with peril and hardship and breathtaking discovery, a journey irreducibly unique for each of us. Because we are stepping out into the new, it is also profoundly uncertain and at times lonely. I cannot map out the details of anyone's individual path, but I can fortify you as you walk it and illuminate some of its universal features. My purpose is to give voice to what you have always known (without knowing it) and always believed (without believing it), so that you may breathe a sigh of relief and say, "Ah, I was right all along."

In a sense I am not describing a path at all, since there isn't one in the new territory of the pioneer. Indeed, what I am describing is a departure from a path, the ready-made paths laid out before us, and the creation of a new one. You know the ready-made path I'm talking about. Typified by that odious board game "Life," it begins with school, traverses the territory of marriage, kids, and career, and, if all goes well, ends in a long and comfortable retirement. This program has been crumbling for decades now, as high rates of divorce and radical career change demonstrate. I, for one, am not planning for retirement; the very concept feels alien to me, as does the notion that my Golden Years are to be any time other than right now.

I will describe seven stages of the discovery and walking of this invisible path from the old world to the new. I present them in a linear narrative, but usually their progression is not strictly linear. It is, rather, fractal: each stage interpenetrates the rest, and we may skip around a lot, revisit old territory, jump ahead to new, pass through some stages in minutes and others in years. Nonetheless, I think you will recognize some of the major landmarks in your own journey.

Stage 1: Something is Wrong / Idealism
Idealism is a belief that a more beautiful world is possible; that the world as we know it is deficient, unworthy of our full participation. When idealism is not expressed as action, it turns into cynicism...
The idealism of youth is a seed of what is to come. The teenager looks out upon some aspect of the world and is outraged. "No force in the universe will make me accept a world in which this happens! I will not be complicit in it! I will not sell out!" Usually this attitude is unconscious, manifesting either as cynicism or as rage, an uncontrollable anger directed at whatever surrogate target is available. Those teenagers with the strongest idealism are often the angriest; we think there is something wrong with them and their anger problem, but really there is something right. Their protest is misdirected, but fundamentally valid...

...In a carrot-and-stick strategy, on the one hand we entice youth into complicity with the adult world, while on the other abashing it with patronizing dismissals and intimidating it with severe punishments for lashing out. And so, bought and cowed, we earn the badge of "maturity" and enter the adult world.

Bought and cowed, yes, but never broken. That knowledge of a more beautiful world lies latent within us, waiting for an event to reactivate it.

Eisenstein is right to connect this first stage with adolescence, which for many people is the time when we realize that there is a man behind the curtain, and he's more malicious than we could think or dream him to be. But for me I think I went through this stage much later in life. As a teen and even going into college (I was only 17 when I started my freshman year at UCLA) I was too focused on superflous things like boys, track, drinking and my new-found liberty to be concerned with anything greater than myself. I think there are kids who, frustrated with the state of the world, feel this way in high school. But I think a lot of those kids wore black lipstick or listened to Rage Against the Machine.

But I also think that this is something people never grow out of. I think the world is filled with beauty but the people who populate and control it are full of shit. Moving on.

Stage 2: Refusal or Withdrawal
On some level, Stage 2 is always concurrent with Stage 1, but I will describe it separately because so many people are very nearly successful in suppressing the feeling of wrongness, suppressing the intuition of a more beautiful world that is possible, and relegating it to an inconsequential realm: their weekends, their choice of music, or most insidiously, their opinions. People have very strong opinions about what is wrong with the world and what "we" should do about it, and how life "should" be lived, but don't meaningfully act upon those opinions. They like to read about what is wrong with the world and voice their concurrence. It is as if their opinions provided a vent for the indignant anger that would otherwise power real transformation...
Isn't this so true? I feel like the internet has been built on this principle. The powers that be produce content in hopes that it will draw users and produce this type of reaction. They want individuals to be outraged, compelled to comment and voice their opinion--however meaningful or redundant--to the rest of the community. But who reads and takes stock in these comments? Is anyone ever affected by other people's opinions or are they selfishly vomiting up their own thoughts without considering the ideas and possibilities that someone else's unique perspective might bring to the table?

The suppression of the desire to transcend the old world is never entirely successful. The unexpressed energy comes out in the form of anxiety, which is none other than the feeling, "Something is wrong around here and I don't know what it is." It can also fuel addiction or escapism, substitutes for the longed-for more beautiful world. Eventually, if all goes well, these props to life-as-usual fail, initiating a withdrawal from the lives we have known.
I most definitely fuels "addiction, escapism, substitutes for the longed-for more beautiful world." I read this and think. This is why I smoke. This is why I drink. This is why I read crappy young-adult vampire romance novels. To get away from the hell of everyday struggle. Withdrawal from the lives we have known you say? See here. And here. And here. And here.
This withdrawal can take many forms. In my previous essay I discussed depression and chronic fatigue, which are unconscious or semi-conscious refusals to participate in the world. In my own life, for many years the refusal took the form of a half-hearted participation, in which I would go along with some, but not all, of the conventions of compliance. Whether in school or in work, I did just enough to get by, unwilling to fully devote myself to a world I unconsciously knew was wrong, yet not aware enough or brave enough to repudiate it fully either. If you perceive in yourself or another such "flaws" as laziness or procrastination, you may actually be seeing the signs of a valid, noble, yet unconscious refusal.

I like the idea that I was a poor student because I was unwilling to fully devote myself to a world I unconsciously knew was wrong. And that my laziness are the signs of a valid, noble, yet unconscious refusal. But I really think it was because I was lazy.

A final and very telling symptom of this stage is the experience of struggle. Because you are still trying to participate and to withdraw at the same time, life becomes exhausting. You have to expend tremendous efforts to accomplish anything. You wonder why your career is stalled, why your luck is bad, why your car keeps breaking down, why nothing seems to click, when other people's careers proceed smoothly. The reason is that unconsciously, you are expelling yourself from the world you've inhabited so you can search for another one.

Stage 3: The Search
In this stage, you are searching for something, but you don't know what it is. You begin to explore new worlds, read books you would never have been interested in before. You dabble in spirituality, in self-help books and seminars; you try different religions and different politics. You are attracted to this cause and that cause, but although they are exciting, you probably don't commit very deeply to any of them (though for a time you may convert very loudly)...You know there is another world, another life, bigger and more beautiful than the one you were acculturated to. You just don't know what it is, and you have never experienced it. It is therefore a theoretical knowledge.

The search is in vain. Sometimes you give up for a while and attempt to recommit fully to the life you have withdrawn from. You join back in, but not for long. The self-evident wrongness of that world becomes more acute, and the relapse into depression, fatigue, self-sabotage, or addiction is quick and intense. You have no choice but to continue searching.

Stage 4: Doubt and Despair
At this point, your idealism, your refusal, your search might seem like an enormous, self-indulgent error. Yet at the same time your perception of the wrongness of the world intensifies...Your situation is like that of a fetus at the onset of labor. The cervix has not yet opened: there is no light, no exit, no direction to escape the titanic forces bearing down upon you. Every promise of escape, every door you explored in your search phase, is proven to be a lie, a dead end.

At its most extreme, this is an unbearable condition that must nonetheless be borne. Subjectively it feels eternal. It is from such a state that we derive our descriptions of Hell: unbearable and eternal.

I honestly don't think I'll ever be out of this stage in my life. It feels like there is a part of the world that will always be corrupt and filled disparaging pain. It's only when you're doing what you're meant to do (what Eisenstein calls walking the Invisible Path) that you escape the doubt and despair. But for me its more like walking a tightrope over a volcano. Perilously balancing over the inevitable.

Stage 5: A Glimpse
...You have caught a glimpse of your destination, the thing you'd been searching for. You might observe that the effort of your search fell a million times short of the power that has finally brought you here. Your quest was impossible -- yet here you are! Perhaps it comes in the form of an intense experience of your true power and gifts, of joy and healing, of unity and simplicity, of the omnipresent providence of the universe, of the presence of the divine...You will be left in a state of profound gratitude and awe.
...Because it is a real knowing, sooner or later (and usually sooner) it manifests as action in the world, creative action. You begin the next stage: a walk toward the destination you have been shown.

Stage 6: The Invisible Path
You have glimpsed your destination and felt its promise, but how do you get there? Now begins a real adventure, a journey without a path. Well-marked paths exist to becoming a lawyer, a professor, a doctor, or any other position in the old world, but there is no path toward the next unfolding of your true self. To be sure, you may still embark on a training program or something as part of a radical career change, but you realize that these structures are merely something you recruit into your own pathmaking, and not a path to your destination.

In this stage, real changes happen in your life. You may experience the end of a relationship, bankruptcy, career change, moving to a different part of the country, changes in your body, an entirely different social life and different kind of intimate relationship. You may continue to undergo various crises, but they don't have the apocalyptic, desperate feeling of the earlier stages, but are rather like birth contractions, and indeed your situation is much like that of a fetus in the birth canal, being propelled toward the light. As this phase progresses, you might even have the feeling of having been reborn in the same body (or different body). While some vestiges of your old life will remain, there is no doubt that you are in new territory. You often experience a sense of newness, freshness, vulnerability, and discovery.

The walk toward the state you now know exists is fraught with pitfalls, dead ends, thickets and swamps. You have no markers, no external indicators of the right way. I said there is no path in this new territory, but that is not strictly true. There is a path, but it is an invisible path, a path you work out yourself. Your guides are your own intuition and self-trust. You learn to ignore the voices that say a given choice is foolish, irresponsible, or selfish. Your self-trust is your only guide, because the voices of your old world do not know this territory. They have never been there. It is new for you. You find your own way, groping along, taking wrong turns sometimes and doubling back, only to realize that the wrong turn was not wrong after all, but the only way you could have learned the right path.

I wanted to write more of a response to this essay, but after having started this last Thursday and the crazy weekend I had I don't have the energy. Please read the whole thing and leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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