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To Feel or Not to Feel, That Is the Question

Updated: May 10

“We are capable of suffering with our world, and that is the true meaning of compassion. It enables us to recognize our profound interconnectedness with all beings. Don't ever apologize for crying for the trees burning in the Amazon or over the waters polluted from mines in the Rockies. Don't apologize for the sorrow, grief, and rage you feel. It is a measure of your humanity and your maturity. It is a measure of your open heart, and as your heart breaks open there will be room for the world to heal. That is what is happening as we see people honestly confronting the sorrows of our time.”

Joanna Macy, author of ‘World as Lover, World as Self'

This essay takes about fifteen minutes to read. You can also listen to the audio version, read by myself.

To feel or not to feel, that is the question.

A story about the pain of feeling, and how good it is in the end to feel that pain.

A few days ago, I cried.

And not even a little.

I was crying my eyes out, I cried and banged my fists on the table out of frustration and sadness.

Suddenly it all came in, in a new way.

What did I say again in my introductory video on the A Biosphere Project website, "It is not enough to let in information on a purely mental level, we have to start feeling much more what is happening."

Well, a few days ago that moment arrived big time. Not for the first time for me, but still on a ‘next level’. I suddenly started to feel a lot more what is happening to our world.

For three years now, I've been getting about ten newsletters every day in my mailbox about what is going wrong in our biosphere, and about the unfathomable suffering that the beings we share this planet with are undergoing, largely because of us.

I can usually withstand that stream of harrowing news rather well, which is to say that I also keep a certain distance from those facts that enter my consciousness day in and day out. Like everyone else, I try to protect myself from too much pain and sorrow because of all that is going on in the world.

But a few days ago something broke.

The immediate trigger (but it could just as well have been something else) was two articles I came across in the British newspaper The Guardian. One article brought the news that Iceland is going to resume commercial whalehunting, and the other article was about the thousands of whales that die every year after collisions with ships, something I also talked about in my recent post on Facebook about my close encounter with a humpback whale.

The photo above from The Guardian newspaper shows a humpback whale named Moon, who was no stranger to the researchers who discovered her in the North Pacific on drone footage. Hence, she had a name; the researchers had tracked her before. But the researchers immediately saw that Moon was in a terrible condition: she was swimming without using her tail. That told the researchers that her back was broken, almost certainly as a result of a collision by a ship. Moon thus swam nearly five thousand kilometers with her broken back, from the coast of British Columbia, Canada, all the way to Hawaii. She has not been seen since. The researchers who followed her actually hope she has died by now and been put out of her misery. When whales do not die immediately after colliding with a ship, that is usually how things go: a slow and no doubt terribly painful end.

You can read this article here in The Guardian.

The other article, about the resumption of commercial whaling in Iceland, highlighted how whaling is anything but compassionate. A whale that has been hit by a harpoon often does her utmost to escape, sometimes taking the whalers in tow for hours in a desperate attempt to escape, whereupon the whalers often shoot a second or third harpoon into her great majestic body as well. And we should not think that besides undoubtedly experiencing terrible pain, these whales do not experience any emotions in the process. It is now clear that they are highly intelligent and sensitive and lead complex social lives. This gruesome hunt must be pure horror in the experience of these animals.

You can read this article here in The Guardian.

These two news articles that came in almost simultaneously really made something snap inside me this time.

I didn't see it coming, but suddenly I was completely IN with all my feelings. All dissociation was gone for a moment, and all this came in like a punch in my stomach. I cried like a baby, and I cried and pounded the table with my fists.

And from there it expanded. It wasn't just about the whale with two or three harpoons in her back trying to escape her attackers for hours. It wasn't just about the whale named Moon who swam five thousand kilometers without using her tail because her back was broken by a ship.

It expanded to all the suffering of so many animals, small and large. To the hundred million sharks killed each year (that's eleven thousand an hour) in industrial fishing.

To the monstrous plan of the Spanish company Nueva Pescanova to breed octopuses, which are extremely intelligent, curious and sensitive, by the tens of thousands in tanks where they will live a hellish existence crammed together before being killed by immersion in ice water. The company wants to ‘harvest’ one million octopuses a year this way.

And then the sheer horror of our industrial pig and chicken farms. The ecocide in our oceans where ships with gigantic trawl-nets every day and night are wreaking havoc that has no equal on land (it is even worse than what is happening in the Amazon).

It spread out to the two hundred species of plants, insects and animals that are going extinct every day. Because that's how it is: we're losing an estimated two hundred species a day in our biosphere in the largest (and human-caused) extinction wave of the last quarter of a billion years, and each species occupies a unique place in the fabric of life and is connected to all of that wonderful fabric in endless ways.

I knew that sooner or later I would experience such moments. It's a phenomenon common to marine biologists or other researchers who are confronted day in and day out with the degradation of the natural world. At some point it really comes in, and then you feel so much sadness and pain. It's massive and I didn't see it coming that way. I was really crying out in despair.

And what must it be like for the people who are confronted with human suffering day in and day out. The aid workers from MSF or the World Food Programme, the countless aid workers who see children dying every day from easily preventable diseases or from gunshot wounds or landmines. The people who have to recover the bodies of the hundreds of migrants who drown every year in the Mediterranean on their way to Fortress Europe.

How can any human being endure that? The despair because of the knowledge that it doesn't have to be this way, and that things are this way because of choices that are made, not because of fate or because ‘this is just the way the world works’.

Because, someone might object, why cry over the fate of whales, octopuses, cows or chickens, when the suffering of millions of people is surely even worse (because human suffering is more important than animal suffering? Or is it not?)

Indeed, the pain of tens of millions of people suffering from war or hunger is also infinitely more terrible than we can comprehend (or usually feel), and the people who focus on thàt every day will feel thàt in ways we cannot imagine. Whether we can quantify human suffering as being objectively worse than the suffering of an animal I don't know. From the perspective of the whale with the three harpoons in her back or from the perspective of the octopus submerged in ice water, I do not think so.

But regarding human suffering, I have also known such moments when it came in with such force all of a sudden, the fate of the Syrian or Afghan refugees, of the misery in the refugee camps on the borders of Europe. The fate and suffering of the thousands of people who die every year in their attempt to reach Europe or the US, the fate of the men, women and children who lose their lives in terrible conditions in Ukraine or Yemen...and now the horrific suffering in Libya and Morocco...and in those moments I also realize that I usually keep most of that at a distance also, out of self-protection and fear.

But I happen to be focusing almost daily on what happens in our biosphere, also with the beings with whom we share that biosphere. And the suffering experienced there every day remains far more under the radar than human suffering in the world. It is still received more often with indifference or a shrug of the shoulders. At most, our industrial society becomes somewhat alarmed when the realization dawns that our fate also depends on the health of the natural world. That if the natural world goes down, we too will go down. But even then, that is actually still a mostly self-centered concern.

"Yes, we have to protect nature because otherwise it won't end well for us either." But is this form of concern sufficient? Is it enough to be concerned about industrial cattle farming because of nitrogen and methane and the threat that pollution poses to us? Would cattle farming be okay if nitrogen and methane were not a problem? When are we going to allow ourselves to really feel what we are doing with those hundreds of millions of cows, pigs and chickens? When are we going to feel that they are all sentient, conscious beings, with intelligence and a sense of self, beings who experience qualia (sensations in consciousness like 'pleasant', 'agreeable', but also 'green' or 'warm' ) like us, and with emotions that are probably not so different from ours? When are we going to extend our sense of connection beyond our beloved pets to all sentient and conscious beings? When will the dissociation stop?

Philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) believed that animals are merely robots of flesh and blood, without soul, consciousness or feeling. Consequently, he regularly performed vivisection on living animals in front of a public, once even on a dog that belonged to his wife. Yes indeed, Descartes cut open the dog while it was alive, to show his interested visitors how such a flesh-and-blood robot looks like on the inside. Like we would take apart a lawnmower or a television set. Interesting, let's see how that's put together inside.

And Descartes did not see that there was a problem there, simply because he acted on the belief that such a soulless animal feels nothing, not even pain. He interpreted the poor animal's moaning as ‘automatic reflexes’ of a soulless creature. It only seems as if the animal feels something, but it doesn't really, Descartes argued.

From our perspective, that is horrific, and Descartes should be in court today for animal cruelty. We would consider him a half or total psychopath. But he simply acted from a belief that limited his consciousness and perception, and that made him convinced that the dog had no real existence, feeling nothing and experiencing nothing. Nature as mechanics. And he also helped steer the world and our beliefs in that direction in his philosophical work - albeit along with other scientists and philosophers who adhered to the mechanistic worldview. The world is stupid, soulless and unfeeling, a mechanism with which we can do whatever we want. If you really believe that, then that is what you will perceive. We often see what we believe, not what we see.

And how different is òur worldview really from that of Descartes? How can we tolerate what happens in industrial pig and chicken farming? How do we tolerate the reality of chicken factories where tens of thousands of sentient beings are crammed into their own excrement, how do we tolerate the reality of the trucks, trains and ships in which millions of pigs endure endless suffering every year? Why does our society think this is reasonable and acceptable? How can we so easily dissociate ourselves from all that suffering, like Descartes from the suffering of the animals he cut open alive?

We now feel all too well that dogs are indeed conscious and experience emotions. What Descartes did is now unthinkable. We can also feel intimately connected to our cat or hamster. But to what extent do we already feel that about all other animals? To what extent do we still find it ‘weak’ or ‘sentimental’ when we sympathize with the suffering of cows, pigs or chickens? After all, those animals are only there for consumption, right? When chicks roll down the assembly line in our factories by the thousands, why should we feel anything about that? After all, they are just calories on legs to be fattened as efficiently and quickly as possible?

Yes indeed, I cried big tears a few days ago, over whale Moon swimming five thousand kilometers with a broken back. And there will certainly be a lot of people who find that lame and sentimental. And I can't put into words how intense the pain and despair was that I felt then. It was overwhelming.

Perhaps Moon's suffering came in so hard for me because I had just written about my close encounter at sea with a whale, when I was in a small boat only a few feet away from that majestic presence, and I felt the energy of that wondrous creature so strongly. I was still in that sense of connection with that being, and my sense of what that being can feel. That is undoubtedly why the pain of that whale with a broken back or three harpoons in its body touched me so deeply.

And it is undoubtedly true: whales, just like elephants or pandas, can count on our sympathy more easily than, say, snakes or porcupines or spiders or, yes, cows or chickens or pigs. Greenpeace put environmental protection on the map with their fight to protect the whale. I, too, am more likely to feel sorrow for a whale than for a hornet or a snail. It is also human that we feel empathy more easily with some creatures than others.

Not to mention the plant world. From the latest findings of biology, it is becoming increasingly clear that plants are also conscious and sentient beings that can cooperate and exchange messages and plan and anticipate and make choices. There's quite an upheaval afoot in our worldview there, too.

Ha, responds the skeptical meat-eater, then vegans should just stop eating plants too.

But that is the reversal of reasoning. What is necessary is not so much that no human being will ever again kill an animal to eat it. In any case, I do not believe that it is necessarily wrong to kill an animal. What is necessary is that when we do kill something to eat, whether it is an animal or a plant, we do so from a spirit of reverence for life, gratitude for the gift that constitutes this food, respect for the integrity of the wonderful ecosystem that brings us this food, and an intention to serve this ecosystem and ensure its survival.

From an awareness of the place that the life which we take to feed ourselves occupies in the whole wondrous complex fabric of the biosphere, and from feeling and knowing that when we take something from nature, we must also give something back. That we are helping the whole natural fabric to not just ‘survive’ but to flourish, to thrive.

The indigenous cultures of all times and countries knew this and knew how to exist in balance with their natural biotope. Therefore, it is something entirely different when a group of Inuit hunt a whale, and then use every part of that whale to sustain themselves for months. That is why it is something else entirely when traditional fishermen in Africa or Southeast Asia fish in their small boats more or less the same way their grandparents did.

That's why it's something entirely different when a small-scale regenerative organic farmer keeps cows as part of a holistic practice that employs those large grazers to maintain ecological balance, cows that live a ‘cow-worthy’ life as part of a living ecosystem and not as part of a mechanistic production process.

And in that sense, plant-based food from mechanistic industrial monocultures is as much a problem as meat from industrial livestock production. And science teaches us that we don't need those industrial monocultures that use pesticides and fertilizers at all to feed the world, quite the contrary (you can read more about that in my essay "Our War on Ourselves.'

Any more than we need industrial cattle ranching or fishing to feed the world, quite the contrary. If we were to stop industrial cattle ranching, as much as half of all farmland now in use could be returned to nature.

And if the world were to switch entirely to plant-based nutrition, we could easily return three-quarters of all farmland now in use to nature and "re-wild" it. Three-quarters!

It takes a hundred times as much land to produce one kilocalorie of meat versus one kilocalorie of plant-based food. A hundred times!

No, we don't need to use animals like that. And we need to expand our sense even further to include not only all animal life, but also all plant life. And that is quite a task, and it requires a revision of our beliefs as well as a great expansion of our feeling and empathy.

But I do feel that it is possible, that by focusing my attention on what is happening in our biosphere, my capacity for empathy and for compassion is gradually extending to more and more living beings. I feel my love for the natural world increasing exponentially these days. And that, like all love, also brings pain. A lot of pain even at times, as it turns out.

It is probably a never ending exercise as I feel I am only taking first steps. There is undoubtedly so much that I do not yet feel. I do not yet know what I am not yet feeling. There is probably an endless range of feeling between total dissociation and the feeling which in yoga is called 'Samadhi', the feeling of total merging with all-what-is. And I have felt my feeling 'stretching' or expanding for a certain length of time. It probably lasted no more than fifteen minutes. To permanently connect like that and continuously live in Samadhi, that is still beyond my reach and probably not possible for human beings unless you are an extraordinary yogi.

But I feel that a few days ago I was able to take another step toward feeling our world more. And that is something entirely different than thinking about it. We think the world to bits and we feel so little. We fantasize about A.I. and about GMO technology and about colonizing Mars, but meanwhile we do not feel how wrong things are going in our own biosphere.

Perhaps one of the reasons that many people ‘don't want to know’, don't want to be aware of the demise of our natural world, is that they subconsciously fear the pain. It is too threatening, possibly too overwhelming. And many people are already dealing with a lot of other grief and pain in their lives, and have no desire to add to that the pain of the living being that is our biosphere.

But still. We all need to feel more what is happening to the natural world, no matter how painful it is.

A traumatized person may choose dissociation from the pain as a survival strategy, but that cannot work. At most, it can provide temporary respite. For true healing to be possible, the wound and the pain must also be felt again. Otherwise, it is inevitable that the unfelt trauma will continue to manifest itself in other ways, and will continue to invite other forms of compensation and avoidance behavior, such as addictions of all kinds, apathy or depression. And I think it's fair to say that our society shows all the signs of trauma compensation. And we all know it's there, I think, that collective trauma and collective sadness about the state of the world. We just don't want to feel it.

But if we don't allow the pain, we can't allow the love either. Neither the love for living nature, nor the love for ourselves, because that is also in a poor state . And the two are connected. It is almost a truism that you cannot truly love another if you cannot love yourself. It is also true that we cannot truly love the world if we cannot love ourselves. And vice versa. Like Joanna Macy said: "The refusal to feel takes a heavy toll. Not only is there an impoverishment of our emotional and sensory life, flowers are dimmer and less fragrant, our loves less ecstatic, but this psychic numbing also impedes our capacity to process and respond to information. The energy expended in pushing down despair is diverted from more creative uses, depleting the resilience and imagination needed for fresh visions and strategies.”

And I had said it myself on my website: "It is not enough to let in information on a purely mental level, we have to start feeling much more what is happening."

I then got to experience that myself big time a few days ago. But still I am relieved that I could let in this feeling like that. And in the end, we always survive the pain of feeling that which we avoid. It is even necessary to survive, that we should feel it.

As long as we continue to dissociate from that aspect of ourselves that is outside our skin (what we usually call ‘nature’), just as long as we will not be able to change course.

As philosopher Alan Watts put it, "If we came to our senses, we would be aware of ourselves as being not only that which is on the inside of our skin.... But we would be aware that the outside is also 'us.'"

As long as we see the ecological problems in our biosphere not as the suffering of a living being, but as a set of ‘technical’ problems with ‘technical’ solutions addressed purely numerically (and from the standpoint of the need for continued economic growth), so long we will continue on our current path.

Are we going to feel it or not feel it, that is the question.

All the best to you,


My picture of the humpback whale, right after our 'close encounter'. Kaldfjorden, northern Norway, November 2016


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