Wildfires: a review of 2020
Thank you for being here now. Below I will share some of the best books, podcasts and songs I discovered and enjoyed on repeat in 2020. But first, would you join me for a moment of reflection?
Let’s cast our minds back to January 2020.
Do you remember that photo? Flying from one screen to another, this image gripped our hearts and set the tone for the year. A baby kangaroo burned to death against a barbed-wire fence. Over one billion animals died in those bushfires.
Wildfires spread through California, the Amazon, and even the Arctic, leaving a charred reminder of the fragility of life on Planet Earth. The Wikipedia entry for ‘Wildfires’ reads: “Earth is an intrinsically flammable planet.”
And then May 2020, the footage of George Floyd’s murder emerges, and wildfires rage through people’s hearts. I remember at this time working with a number of clients who were really struggling to process the intense emotions, the rage, the grief they felt. As we reeled from one fire to another, it felt like we were reaching a tipping point, the fire of all fires.
For Carl Jung, the ancient tradition of Alchemy provided the most accurate model for psychological transformation. In this tradition, fire is an energy of purification, and calcinatio is a vital stage of transformation that involves burning impurities down into a white ash. From the ashes, we will find what is true, what is incorruptible in our spirit. It is often the King (or Father Figure) that needs to be burned.
As governments around the world began to respond to Covid-19 with increasing restrictions on our freedom (Kate Orson described the lockdown measures as a ‘house arrest’), we have all been called to look at our own relationship to ‘the King’. This is not about questioning the reality of Covid-19. This is about looking directly into the perfect reflection — the 2020 inner vision — that this year has gifted us. How do you relate to authority? Do you tend to hand over your power and let someone else take the lead? Or do you criticise all authority, and end up feeling powerless, adrift? When I was a teenager, I fought a long and hard battle against authority of all types — my dad, school, the police. But I soon began to feel the pain I was causing the people around me, and the pain I was causing myself, and it did not feel good. Since then, I have — very slowly — been learning to trust my own inner authority.
Fire needs air to burn. And Covid-19 has spread rapidly through the air: not just virus-carrying droplets borne by the air, but also a pandemic accelerated by air-travel and our increasingly interconnected planet. To be born in the 21st-century is to be borne by the air. We spend ever more time in disembodied states, staring at screens, seeking to escape the mundane and often painful reality of this embodied, earthly existence. Much of what we call ‘progress’ is driven by a desire to escape from the suffering inherent in life. We can find some obvious clues in the Silicon Valley elite: Google recently spent almost $50 billion on an immortality project. A desire to escape from suffering can be deeply compassionate. But as the Buddha recognised, a greater suffering is created when we attempt to deny the dukkha innate in a human life.
In the alchemical tradition,sublimatio is the major transformational process based on the air element, a process that releases the spirit hidden in matter. You might recognise in here the word ‘sublimate’, which in psychology refers to the transformation of socially unacceptable impulses into more socially acceptable forms.
In his book Anatomy Of The Psyche, Edward Edinger summarises perfectly the challenges of being too ‘air-borne’: “The higher we go the grander and more comprehensive is our perspective, but also the more remote we become from actual life and the less able we will be to have an effect on what we perceive. We become magnificent but impotent spectators.”
The internet has given us a comprehensive perspective on events in the world. Billions of people are instantly affected by an image of a burned joey — even from the opposite side of the world. But this virtual connection to everything can leave us feeling like impotent spectators.
For 2021, my wish is that we bring balance to this year of fire and air, by remembering the power found in the other two elements — Earth and Water. I particularly feel a calling back to Earth for 2021. In alchemy, the process for transforming air into something solid, into earth, is called coagulatio. When our skin is wounded, the blood flows until coagulation causes the blood to harden into a clot, a necessary step in healing. Coagulation doesn’t work if we keep picking the scab. Sometimes we need to stop interfering with our wounds, and instead find healing by letting Nature work through us. So here is to a new beginning, a return to Earth, a continual letting go of the part of us that wants to pick the scab, and an ever deepening appreciation of all that is good about nature, and all that is good about our precious, earthly human bodies.
Highlight is the song by the Bensons, which I watched one night just before going to bed and felt my whole body vibrating with the joy, the grief, the passion, and the truth coming through this creation. Here is the video.
My top 5 podcasts from 2020:
- I recently discovered Margaret Wheatley’s work. She is a very wise woman, and has beautiful things to say about leadership in these times. FYI, we all need to step into leadership roles in this time, no matter what our age, position or job title.
- Naval Ravikant is not for everyone, and is a bit less left-leaning than most people I listen to, but he also is a deep thinker about business, meditation, self-improvement and anyone I have shared this podcast with so far this year has been bowled over.
- I found this story about Jo Malone randomly on a long drive (she built a world-famous brand selling deluxe candles). It’s such a beautiful story about how a woman with a fierce and creative spirit rose from a humble, challenging start.
- Jimmy Wales is the founder of Wikipedia, and a man I really admire as he has completely bucked the Silicon Valley trend of tech companies greedily taking over the world whilst losing touch with any values. This is a great show about how he experimented to get the values right.
- It wouldn’t be a top 5 without at least one Ram Dass talk. Ram Dass is my favourite spiritual teacher by a long way. He died just over a year ago. In this talk, he talks about the path to awakening and how to work with deep challenges.
My Top 5 books from 2020:
- Rob Burbea — Seeing That Frees. Definitely the book that has had the biggest impact on me this year. Rob is a rare gem of a Buddhist meditation teacher, who died this year. This book contains some perspectives on meditation that you don’t find anywhere else. Highly recommend for anyone who already has a bit of meditation experience under the belt.
- Kamal Ravikant — Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends On It. This is a simple but impactful from the brother of Naval (mentioned above). The title says it all.
- Natalie Goldberg — Writing Down The Bones.I had a period during lockdown number one of reading books about writing, and this one is by far the best. Really enjoyable to read, and it feels like your writing improves by osmosis.
- Mark Silverman — Only 10s. This book contains a really simple methodology for managing overwhelm and prioritising the ever expanding to-do-list. I have experimented with a number of systems over the years. They usually don’t last. This one has stuck.
- John Higgs — The KLF. Such an enjoyable mind-bending story about the iconic rave band who burned a million pounds.