Second tenet: Emotional sensibility instead of environmental morality - motivating resistance

As well as a lot which does need doing, it is equally important to desist from doing certain things. Yet from where do we draw the necessary kind of readiness? Readiness to stop throwing things away while living in a throwaway society; to reduce driving in an automobile society; to use less water and cleaning materials in a society which suffers from delusional addiction to cleanliness; to insulate our roofs and windows while oil is still plentiful. Why choose cross-country skiing when down-hill skiing is affordable for almost everybody? Why always bring your own shopping bag when plastic bags are so convenient? We find renunciation difficult because it demands that we give up so much hard-won freedom, so much only recently achieved pleasure -and also: renunciation costs time, planning and care which in turn increase stress. And to crown it all there is the persistent sense that a single person cannot do much about these problems anyway.

An unfathomable chasm seems to exist between one’s own actions and the impending world-wide catastrophe. We are morally over-taxed.

In order to incarnate the new imperatives of the ecological Mega-Super-ego, we need the emergence of moral mutants, paranoid people of the third order who can say: “I am one with Terra, and the ozone hole hurts me personally”

(Sloterdijk, 1990:722)

There is indeed no lack of exhortation. By now it is publicly and legally sanctioned that fingers are raised about the environmental catastrophe in the media, and philosophers have begun to talk about an ethics of responsibility. Everybody demands a new environmental morality.

Now we have to remember that it was one of Peris & Goodman’s most important insights that the Super-ego is not a necessary psychic element of the mature personality, but a conglomeration of unassimilated introjects. Introjected rules of behaviour are perennially violated, because they restrict and interfere with needs which cannot be suppressed. However strong the “top dog”, its efforts are always going to be sabotaged by the “underdog”. Unassimilated behavioural norms do nothing but guide our creative energies towards developing innovative strategies for reaching the forbidden fruit. Gestalt therapy has taught that there is another way: morality is a question of awareness, and within this realm we need to particularly focus on the issue of emotional sensitivity. From the sociology of the relationship between friend and foe we are familiar with the phenomenon that enmity between people presupposes a significant degree of ignorance of one another. The more we know about the other, experience the other, the more we discover interesting things about each other, enmity lessens; in order to maintain enmity, we must keep each other at a distance. And how salutary that the wonderful experience we create in therapeutic work reveals many loveable aspects in clients who seem to be nothing but boring or even repellent at first. Such experience is created when people come close to each other in therapy and self-help groups.

It could be like that in our relations with our environment. People who eat with awareness taste more and need less. People who really love trees have a sense that a part of their own soul burns when a forest is burned down. And who is beyond reach of that kind of love who ever took the time to look closely at a tree, smell it, touch it, climb into its branches, rest in its shade, experience its seasonal changes? 1 realize this does not help re-settlers and landless farmers who are pushing ahead with their slash-and-burn practice in tropical forests, since for them the law of Berthold Brecht's Mackie Messer rules: “First, we must eat; morality comes after!” A hungry person cannot yet practice these levels of awareness. There are also environmental problems about which Gestalt therapy has nothing useful to say at this stage.

It isn’t hungry people whose emotions are blunted to the wider implications of their survival actions who can make a difference: those who are sated have the real power to affect environmental issues. Therefore, we need to continue to develop new techniques of emotional sensitization and Sensory Awareness and spread it beyond the narrow therapeutic context. Of course, in no way are techniques of Sensory Awareness sufficient for what we seek - just as exercises in meditation are not yet the meditative position -but both are helpful. Unnecessary destruction and wasting of things towards which we have opened ourselves in meditative stillness is as impossible as doing harm to somebody we perceive in their actuality. And we are able to guide people towards such experiences; we can create such opportunities. We do not have to thank Aldous Huxley just for the horror vision of Brave New World but also for the most beautiful positive utopia of modern literature known to me. In his novel Island (Huxley, 1962), he describes a society where Sensory Awareness and emotional attentiveness have become standard in schools and the wider society. Here, it is important to note that such an attitude is not limited to reserves of quiet contemplation of nature in one's backyard. In fact, the point is that we must show the same kind of sensibility when we are in active relationship with nature, when we work on it, when we build on it, when we travel in it. And then we have yet to discover the Buddha of machines, an attitude towards the technical world marked by loving care rather than by wastefulness and resistance, which Albert Pirsig described in his novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Pirsig, 1974).

A last word concerning the issue of emotional sensitivity towards the environment: here we are not just concerned with liking but also with disliking. In view of the damage we cause with our lifestyle to the ecology of our planet part of the process of cultivating emotions is that we must also cultivate the inhibiting emotions, of shame and disgust. As 1 am writing this a new word is establishing itself in the German language: “Flugscham”, meaning shame of flying, i.e. using airplanes for vacations and such pleasures. At first it was used ironically to mock the moral sensitivities of the prosperous part of the middle classes but now it has gained a serious moral undertone in the debates on climate change. Disgust would be a more serious reaction. Humans naturally experience two kinds of this extreme feeling of adversity: disgust for their own excrement and disgust for decay, especially rotting meat. This strong feeling has an obvious evolutionary function. Beyond that, disgust is culturally specific: some people are disgusted by the idea of eating dog meat, others by pork, and others again by any kind of meat. We need to work towards a culture where we find our refuse just as disgusting as our excrement, and where we are as embarrassed to be discovered with the one as with the other. Increasing levels of shame and embarrassment are at the heart of our civilizing process. But so far, they only relate to our bodies and our affects. Perhaps we actually do have to verbally express and hence to direct our attention to where the next levels of embarrassment should be focused - for example on our violence, or on how we pollute our world. But in the end our embarrassment and disgust must become our second nature to function automatically as civilizatory restraints. They must become a function of our senses, part of our awareness, not new external norms of moral behaviour.

Third tenet: A principle of assertive non-violence should be the rule for any form of resistance, since that is the only trustworthy expression of our concerns

Niklas Luhmann, founder of the systems theory school in sociology, offers a formulation which says that from the perspective of society both nature and human beings are environment (Luhmann, 1989). A lot can be learned from examining this perspective for a moment. First what we must clarify is that in recent times society has solved the environmental problem of “nature” through the market mechanism; it decides what and how much is taken from nature; what we work on and change, and how we deal with the residue -with slag and cinders - and with our rubbish. There is no other kind of mechanism of similar power and influence in sight - religious or aesthetic ones for example. And other market-limiting norms to contain it through alternative controls - for example, the demand to permit only reversible interventions in nature and only biodegradable products - offer important standards for the political discussion of threshold values but are not powerful enough to tame capitalism’s self-serving inventiveness. Perhaps it is necessary to understand society as nature’s environmental problem rather than the other way round!

And the other side of Luhmann’s paradigm - people as an environmental problem of society? Here we can sense a hint of the merciless untouchability of system-theoretical abstractions, which does not mean they are wrong. And yet, it matters what we declare as our core interest, and what in consequence becomes peripheral - “environment”. No sociological or psychological theory, however formal, is politically innocent. There is an increasing number of suggestions and experiments focused on adjusting human beings to climate change and not the other way round, aiming to revoke those climate changes which do not truly serve us and which we ourselves have brought about. In this instance, the formality of sociological systems theory unintentionally aids and abets crude capitalist interests.

Gestalt therapy is marked by its emphasis on the “I-Thou” relationship which originated with Martin Buber. In this perspective the other is no longer the object of desire and planning; of domination and management or, for that matter, psychotherapy, but a subject in its own right, a human being in its uniqueness, which may create surprising inspiration, whose advice and help 1 may need at some point in my life. I encounter a human being, to whose compassion I owe the halving of my burdens, and with whom 1 can share and thus increase my joy. We need this “Thou”, this other, this companion on the road through anxiety to fear and through courage to action. Only through this detour via the other can we be sure of ourselves; this is why the principles of non-violence must be observed under all circumstances. After all, we pay for each oppression of others with selfoppression; each hurt inflicted on others becomes self-mutilation; each insincerity and deception of others we pay for with increased blindness about ourselves - the other is me in a different garment. It is important to mention this, not because the discrepancy between this insight and its realization in everyday life is so great, but rather because such an attitude is actually being realized from time to time - and the fact is that Gestalt therapy is a useful practice ground for this development. The core method of Gestalt therapy is doing experiments in self-awareness supported by empathy and accompanied by compassion, and its focus is on working through issues as they arise, in the dialogue between “I” and “Thou”.

This method has proved its worth in therapy and can show its usefulness in other kinds of situations - as long as it specifically allows the other room for self-realization in valiant contention for the common cause, and as long as it is not misinterpreted as a suffocating exhortation to be nice to each other. In Buber’s language, the “I—It” relationship must as often as possible become an “1-Thou” relationship.1 We should remember that materially we are the main perpetrators of our environmental catastrophe, while the millions of poor people in the developing world - and at home - are the principal sufferers. Even with the best will in the world we cannot change this fact. And in this case too. morality does not help but rather damages; externally, it often leads to misguided aid programs, doing nothing but increasing dependency in the poor; internally it leads to (repressed) guilt feelings. Instead, we need the courage to enter into an exploration of what awareness of those others in their misery and in their otherness does to us. After all, how much can we bear? The answer depends on our political and psychological capacity to act, because only action relieves our sense of impotence. But beware that the emotions raised by populist rallies are not only under-distanced but provide an illusionary feeling of power if and when we delegate the real power of action to the leader they are cheering.

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