Contentment and the end of Empire


Thanksgiving month mobile …

Yesterday I nearly overdosed on internet videos. It all started when I received an e-newsletter with a link to The End of Suburbia[1], a documentary on peak oil that I’d wanted to watch for some time. Falling down the YouTube rabbit hole, I then watched What a Way to Go: Life at the end of Empire[2] and finally an interview with Derrick Jensen about his book Endgame[3]. These are all stories about the end of the myth of Empire, a way of living on Earth that has culminated in the perfect storm of peak oil, climate change, species extinction and population overshoot.

The culture of Empire is characterised by dissatisfaction – a belief that nothing is good enough yet. We are not yet healthy, wealthy, successful or comfortable enough. We certainly don’t have enough stuff yet, and worse still, as soon as we manage to obtain what we think we need, it will be out of date and the neighbours will have the upgrade already. We’ll need to replace what still works perfectly well with a newer, faster, better designed version … in this year’s fashion colours. Dissatisfaction creates a world of continual striving – a voracious culture, monstrously wasteful.

Derrick Jensen’s life has been profoundly influenced by living in the American Pacific North West. He notes how a mere 180 years of ‘civilisation’ has destroyed the forests and the salmon rivers that sustained indigenous people for 12,500 years. In response he works to undo the civilisation that has caused such devastation. He defines civilisation as a way of life characterised by the growth of cities; and in turn defines the city as a collection of people living in numbers large enough to require the importation of resources. So, by definition, the local land base is unable to support the city. The inescapable conclusion is that civilisation as we know it (and remember that more than half of us now live in cities) can never be sustainable. And Derrick asserts that civilisation won’t become sustainable by tinkering with the existing model – our society needs a whole new set of assumptions to live by.

One good night’s sleep after my apocalyptic immersion, I awoke to the realisation that, somewhere in my dreams I had glimpsed an aspect of life beyond the myth of Empire. And it felt possible to begin living that way right now. The feeling into which I awoke this morning was contentment – a state of deep gratitude for what is. This is not just gratitude for what I have – it is contentment with the way in which my life is unfolding, and the knowledge that I am enough … already. This morning I felt a deep sense of relief when I realised that I didn’t need to acquire or achieve anything in order to be content.

I believe that two regular practices are enabling contentment to take root in my life.

At the beginning of November I made a commitment that every day during Thanksgiving month I would record something for which I was grateful. Today I looked back over that list. I realised that the things I recorded are the things I really value … and the practice of having noticed, focused on, and given thanks for each of them was a reason for my contentment.

Most entries in my gratitude journal describe qualities of love and friendship – in particular I recorded experiences of wisdom, courage, optimism, thoughtfulness, kindness, appreciation, recognition, encouragement, inspiration, connection, conversation, and the sharing of values and passions. Whether the friendship was with an intimate partner, old friend, member of a community group, or an e-mail correspondent, savouring these qualities gave me a rich sense of contentment and connection.

Another opportunity to experience contentment this past month was spending time in nature. I love my regular walks with my husband and friends; but it was spending solo time in nature each week that opened my senses and my heart to nature’s wisdom. The forest, streams and ocean have been patiently teaching me how to live according to the way of nature. A recurring lesson this month has been to sink into what is – to fully accept the stage in the life cycle where I find myself, and to know the gifts it offers.

The practice of gratitude, and the close observation of nature, have allowed me to glimpse what it might be like to live in a state of contentment. At the same time these practices have provided an escape from  dissatisfaction and compulsion. They have shown me that what is most precious to me is not stuff or success, but rather being able to savour the qualities of connectedness. And even more importantly, contemplating nature and the qualities of friendship has helped me to see that I am enough – just as I am.

I believe that contentment – the deep knowledge that we are already enough – is one of the keys that will enable us to evolve beyond Empire and its excesses.

[1] http://www.greenmedtv.com/the-end-of-suburbia/

[2] http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=h2em1x2j9-o

[3] http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=o9os1GFuWJ0

2 replies
  1. helen
    helen says:

    thank you Alice. your posts are so beautiful, so provocative, so soulful. they give me a moment to pause and take a deep breath. i sometimes feel like i have had time in nature after the reading.


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