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What does it mean to be compassionate in a complex living system?

The transcript of a YouTube video of Tom Atlee's statement to the Closing Circle of the First Story Field Conference in the big tent at Shambhala Mountain Center high in the Colorado mountains, August 2007. It is a companion piece to Does Compassion Need to Evolve?

One of my big inquiries is "What does it mean to be compassionate in a complex living system?"

I want to invite you to read a book that changed my life many years ago called New World New Mind by Paul Ehrlich (who is famous for The Population Bomb) and Robert Ornstein (who is famous for a book called Psychology of Consciousness). New World New Mind describes how our cognitive capacities were created 10,000 years ago. We haven't changed significantly in our brains and nervous systems and response mechanisms for 10,000 years.

We don't live in the world that we lived in 10,000 years ago. We are not designed for what we are living in. We don't know how to SEE global warming. We don't know how to see the nuclear threat. We don't know how to see 9-11 secrets. We don't know how to see these things. We know how to see individual suffering, immediate danger, you know, the animal coming at us, Mary Jane fell down the well... You look at the newspapers and see what catches people's attention.

I have a nightmare that informs my work and my consciousness. Looking at the crises that are coming down the road towards us and the systems that generate those crises... There's very little that is threatening us right now that was not generated by human systems of one kind or another. And the VAST majority of attention by activists and storytellers goes into handling human suffering, it goes into handling the destruction of this or that ecosystem, goes into the election of candidates, goes into issue-oriented sorts of things... This is us operating the way we were 10,000 years ago.

And my nightmare is of an asymptotal curve -- you know what an asymptotal curve is? it goes zzzzzzt (moves hand in a steep curve upwards), higher and higher -- and that's the suffering and destruction that's caused by these systems. And I sense all the resources, all the creativity, all the caring that goes, that's poured into all the philanthropy, all the political action, that's poured into those things that are not changing the systems, and it (the rising curve of crisis) goes higher and higher until all resources are exhausted and the destruction and suffering go out of control and there's nothing left to handle it.

So I want to invite you into looking at that seriously as we try to decide how we are going to engage with what some of as are beginning to call "extinction level issues," although extinction level issues for me -- the crises -- are a doorway for the transformation of social systems and consciousness.

And that's part of working with Michael Dowd. I've been working with Michael Dowd intensively for two years. And that's why I'm focusing on that rather than my co-intelligence work or the other things that I've been looking at. Because the idea of people who think of themselves as evolution becoming conscious of itself... We ARE evolution. Evolution isn't something that happened back then. Evolution is happening right now. Humans are the dominant influence on the planet. All the things that are changing on the planet are overwhelmingly caused by humans. And all the changes in ourselves are being caused by humans. If we can see the crises not as something to so much prevent, or ameliorate, or deal with the suffering from, but as openings in possibility, openings in consciousness, where we can actually use the energies of that to shift the social systems before we run out of energy, before we run out of... before it's too much even for our caring.

Robert Theobald said what's wrong with our systems is it makes it so difficult to care. What does it mean -- and I run across this all the time -- it's like the person in front of me is suffering, and how much time do I use with them when this is happening (waves his arm to indicate the systems crises)? And, on the other hand, if I pay attention to all that (systems crises) and don't deal with the suffering human in front of me, where does my humanity go?

I have a very personal situation with my partner, my life partner of 21 years (begins crying) who has ovarian cancer, and we found out about that shortly before I came here (to the storyfield conference). And it was like, should I even come? And she knows where I'm at. We had this heart-to-heart discussion: It was mutual generosity that lets me be here. I said, "I won't go to this conference that I've dreamed of for more than a decade and that I've been working on so solidly for so long, to be with you." And I feel that as I'm saying that, that I am betraying the future, future generations (crying again). And she knows that, and we're working, trying to figure out how to handle it. And I cut off a whole pile of other things I was [going to do] after that so I could come to this conference. I'm not going to stick around afterwards. I'm going straight home. And right now she's in conference with the guy who's going to do the chemo...

And I hadn't been able to talk about this in the earlier gatherings that we had. It's just when it surged through me -- I didn't want it to colonize the conference -- but it surged through me and then the time was up. And I wasn't going to even talk about it NOW, because the implications are so big, and so much of the really caring work that people are doing doesn't fit in the model that I'm saying. And I don't know what to do with that. And I definitely don't want to undermine any of the energies that are going on here, and I wasn't going to say anything here. And I was on the phone with Karen, my partner, and she says "I got my friend here from the Bay Area, Anne, and she'll come with me (to the chemo doctor). You go say this thing to the people (he breaks down). So I'm saying it. (Several people crowd around him for support.)

And I want to say that the New Story, for me, is not about the Utopian good world that we're going to live in when it is all over. The New Story, for me, is what we're going to do as the shit hits the fan to use that energy to make the shifts that need to happen so we come out the other side with something really remarkable. And that's the story that needs to be told and it needs to be told in a way that people can walk into it and live it. And there isn't a lot of time.

That's my piece.

(Someone in the circle says: "And that's the initiation. Framing it that way gives it a sacred dimension" -- at which point a hummingbird flew into the tent and people in the circle started pointing up at it. It stayed for more than an hour, only leaving when the final speaker was most of the way through their own piece...)


See also

Conscious Evolution

Conscious Evolutionary Agentry



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