One of the two very vivid dreams I recall from my early childhood in the 70s was a warning about the current times. I think of it sometimes, as it informs me about how to steady myself for the extinction event that is currently escalating on our planetary home.
Although very young when I dreamt this, I am a bearded man in the dream, standing on a granite pavement, with my two children standing innocently next to me. It feels very Atlantean; we are part of an advanced civilization, proud of our place in the world. I had been in some kind of committee meeting, inside a marble hall, and had come out for some fresh air and to see my children. Suddenly, without warning, the ground began to rumble beneath our feet. In no time at all, the pavement was crumbling away, and I begin to lose my footing, which seemed so secure just moments before. I instinctively reached down, grabbed both of my children in my arms, and pulled them up to my chest. It felt good to have them so close, even as the world collapsed into an abyss beneath our feet.
And that’s it. Like so many dreams, it simply ends, having appeared to my young mind from … from where? Nothing in my early childhood offers a reliable compass for this vision. It is a spontaneous irruption from the collective unconscious, a pattern of longing, shock and adaptation, an archetype of life and death arising out of the storehouse of human myth and symbol.
But the imagery says so much – and its visionary power goes a long way to explaining why I have always known that the world as we know it would end in my lifetime. Now that we are seeing evidence of this everywhere, it is time to draw upon the endlessly fascinating world of myth to try and navigate the tumultuous seas that are crashing down upon us, as runaway climate disaster is matched by unstoppable ecosystem breakdown, all in feedback loops of their own.
So, what can the great stories from the collective annals of culture tell us about where we’re at now and what we can do about it? What wisdom can be imparted by studying the ancient ways, as well as waking up to the limitless miracle of the moment (which is really where myth points, endlessly).
The end of this world has been a consistent image in world mythologies, from Biblical revelations to Mayan calendars, from nuclear threats to Kali Yuga. There is little point in running over the false starts and fake prophets that have predicted that The End is Nigh! So, just as my MA tracked the way that our dreams link us to the mysterious worlds of myth, let’s return to its life changing power and see what can be further divined from it.
I mention that my dream felt Atlantean, knowing that the original inspiration behind the myth of a lost but highly advanced civilisation can be found in Plato’s dialogues Timaeus and Critias. In the latter, Plato tells of the fast and furious fall of the legendary Atlantis, when “there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune … the island disappeared in the depths of the sea.”
An entire civilisation disappearing in 24 hours is a classic ‘warp’ of mythic time, which is often elastic enough to stretch out towards the infinite (which we can experience when we practice timelessness) and back in towards the intimate (which is how we experience time in an embodied sense). Plato’s 24 hours can remind us of the riddle Oedipus answers to destroy the Sphinx at the gates of Thebes, unwittingly ensuring his own downfall: what creature has four legs in the morning, two during the day, and three at night? A human, whose life passes so quickly from the face of the earth that it may as well be one day – from crawling infant, to free standing adult, to the elder holding themselves up with a crutch – our entire lives pass as quickly as a mote in time.
This also makes sense in another way: the entirety of large-scale human civilisation – urban settlements built on the profits of agriculture and colonisation, magnified a hundred-fold with the industrial revolution – has risen and will fall in the blink of a geological eye. Our moment in the sun has been brilliant and short-lived. Like Atlantis – both the one Plato claimed was already an ancient myth in his day and the imaginative one that has been dreamt up many times since – we are now crumbling into the sea. And as in my dream, it is now happening very, very quickly. Technological development and ecosystem destruction have been increasingly rapid in postmodern industrial culture. But as I never tire of pointing out, the exponential pace of this machine was set in motion during the agricultural revolution, thousands of years ago, when we changed from treating the life around us as kin and instead started to think about it as a set of resources for our use.
And now, we are visiting panic time. Mental health issues are skyrocketing – a pandemic is highlighting and magnifying this, because we mammals don’t flourish when we are socially isolated – but we can expect this to continuously escalate, as the true horror of what faces us next becomes increasingly apparent. We don’t need old time prophetic predictions anymore – a hot house earth is now a matter of scientific certainty and will spell the end of the world as we know it (certainly for the beer and skittles reality we in the affluent west have enjoyed over recent decades).
The only thing left to do is to prepare for the best possible end we can, to draw near those or that which we love, resist the urge to become frantic, let go of our sense of entitlement, practice meditation and breath work and become proficient in dealing with grief. (I’ll keep practising environmental activism, btw, but the days are gone when we might have dreamt we were going to make any real difference to the near future of the planet.)
It’s time to spend the rest of our lives building relationship with the sliver of our consciousness that remains connected to the eternal spark of life. Paradoxically, the practice of seeking to awaken to the timeless can deepen our awareness of the moment, as we experience life in the body, in the here and now, this unrepeatable but soon to pass opportunity to be exactly who we are. Breathing in connection with all that is connects us to the spirit of life that emerges out of the universe and falls back into the ultimate matrix upon its death. Like everything else, we are the flourish of a brush stroke, the coming into being of a certain kind of energy, the passing of a firefly in the night.
My childhood dream is like a lifetime’s memento mori, a reminder that death awaits us all. My guiding metaphor for the awakening I seek out of it is the life cycle of the butterfly. We have been crawling along as caterpillars, but now it is time to create a cocoon, withdraw into it, and dissolve into goop. These old selves must die. This applies on multiple layers and across differing contexts of our lives; I recently emerged from a 5-year apprenticeship to nature spirit, guided again by my dreams, this time to leave the city and live a coastal life far away from my academic and other urban pursuits. This whole period of life, including work and parenting and being in the world in my way, was like a cocoon compared to my previous existence. But I also feel like every night is another cocoon, out of which we emerge renewed; as is every meditation sit, every relationship breakdown, every opportunity for change.
No matter what the context, we can see in nature that there is a basis for trusting that the goop of our dissolved self will re-crystallise, that a new being will grow and build strength, that eventually, after a long, dark night of the soul, we will break out of one cocoon and fly free to another dimension of ourselves. This is the cycle of energy that gives rise to religions: all that lives must die and out of death comes new life. Quantum physics tells us the same thing – life is energy and it is never completely snuffed out, just transformed. To believe that this is what happens to us, to our bodies and consciousness, when we die makes just as much sense as any other faith, like the one that states that consciousness arises out of physical matter and life is ultimately meaningless. As the world crumbles away around us, which myth will you choose? To hold onto the last vestiges of your sense of entitlement; to party as much as possible; to forgive and expand; to prepare for another dimension?
Every traditional culture teaches that part of us passes over to another realm. With an ear out for that wisdom, we can live for the moment and experience the vibration of a living, intelligent cosmos. If we do so while practicing compassion for the suffering of all beings, we may even realise some small measure of liberation from the confines of the self along the way. The possibility of spiritual liberation in itself should be enough to inspire us to reconnect with the ocean of eternity, beyond the iron cage of reason and the isolation of the individual.
I’ll still reach for my kids as the world crumbles beneath our feet. And I’ll still be thankful to feel their breath on my chest as we fall into the abyss below. That’s because the shadow of death does not seem a threat to me, but a promise. This is the ecomythic in action – inspiring compassion for all creatures, celebrating a living cosmos and an animate earth, within which we all dance, for that limited time we have allotted.
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Photo of man with kids by Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash; Collapsed street photo by Colin Lloyd on Unsplash; Sliver of light photo by Dyu – Ha on Unsplash; Butterfly photo by Meritt Thomas on Unsplash