I’ve struggled to make sense of what is going on. My suspicious mind wandered around restlessly, examining all theories and possible explanations, yet I must admit: I don’t know what is happening. I do know this is a crucial moment of choice for humanity. In this essay, I will not suggest or discuss “what is going on.” I rather want to invite you into a realm transcending the dichotomy of “objective reality” vs “subjective thoughts/feelings,” which underlies most theories, predictions and calls to action in this crisis. Coming from a spiritually-informed holistic worldview, I entertain the possibility that we as humanity – or some deeper part of ourselves, whether conscious or not – have dreamed this moment into existence as a catalyst for our collective evolution. If that were true, how might we engage and respond? Covid-19 could actually present an unlikely possibility for collective awakening and far-reaching system change.
Neither real nor unreal, but dreamlike
This place is a dream. Only a sleeper considers it real. Then death comes like dawn, and you wake up laughing at what you thought was your grief.
For over a hundred years, physicists and philosophers have tried to wrap their heads around the manifold wonders of quantum physics. Subatomic entities, such as electrons, they saw, behave in awe-striking and magical ways. They do not simply exist “as such,” as fixed and finished entities; they can appear as a wave in one instant or as a particle in another, depending on whether or not they are observed. This is true. Our perception of the world isn’t just passive, it is creative – it literally in-forms its very being and reality. Quantum physics invites us into a view of reality in which the seeming “objective” reality out there and the “subjective” experience “in here” become inseparably intertwined. Just as the characters and events in dreams aren’t separate from the dreamer, the world, according to the great psychoanalyst Carl Jung, is but a living symbol, the embodiment of deeper parts of ourselves, which we collectively dream into existence.
Embracing reality in this way, how would we make sense of Covid-19?
Through spiritual experiences and studies, I’ve learned that diseases rarely appear for no reason. They often carry deeper messages. For example, conflicts, longings, and vital drives our minds suppress may resurface in bodily symptoms. Healing often occurs in the moment we realize what we have suppressed. Such insights have the possibility to make us more whole and may, in fact, change our lives. In this way, we can say the healing antidote – or, in this case, the anti-virus – lies hidden within the disease as the treasure of transformative realization. If we exclusively fight the symptoms without exploring the deeper root, we might survive the disease but other symptoms are still likely to materialize.
What is true for an individual disease may also be true for epidemic or pandemic outbreaks. In his provocative book, Selbstzerstörung aus Verlassenheit [Self-Destruction due to Abandonment], the psychotherapist Franz Renggli ascribes the outbreak of the Great Plague in Christian Europe in the 14th century, which killed 30%–60% of the continent’s population, to an “eruption of mass psychosis.” He writes,
My psycho- or rather socio-somatic model is psycho-neuro-immunology: neither a bacterium nor a virus is the core problem, but rather the people within a society who have been shaken by a crisis. If this crisis lasts too long, is too severe or too traumatic, the immune system of the population is slowly weakened and finally collapses. The people become vulnerable to illnesses and finally to death. This model is valid for any epidemic and can serve as a key for a new understanding of history.
In the century preceding the Black Death, he argues, the Catholic Church began advising mothers to separate from their babies during day and night. Children growing up in the 13th and 14th centuries thus suffered a collective trauma of primal abandonment. Renggli shows that regions in which mothers continued to practice close physical contact with their children were spared from the plague. Might we be experiencing something similar right now?
How has the specter of Covid-19 been able to haunt 7.5 billion people and bring the world to a standstill in no time at all? Because the narrative massively resonates with something latent that is both teeming and deeply suppressed in people’s subconscious.
The “mental” coronavirus spread earlier, faster and much more powerfully than its biological counterpart. Covid-19 began to make headlines and people suddenly found an “objective” justification for the fear and despair which had been gathering unconsciously within them for a long time. The feedback loop between the hourly onslaught of fear-inducing headlines in the media and the growing anxious expectations in people’s minds trapped humanity in a vicious neurotic cycle. Every new “case” in our neighborhood or region, every cough in the subway, every stranger coming too close doubled-down on an eerie sense of ubiquitous danger. The more we think about illness, the more afraid we are. The more fear we experience, the weaker our immune system gets. The weaker our immune system, the more likely we’ll develop symptoms. Try not to think of a pink elephant.
The psycho-spiritual dimension has been proven to have a very concrete effect on the material realm. The astonishingly far-reaching physical impacts of the placebo effect are well documented, and likewise, many studies show how emotional stress, chronic fear and loneliness can dangerously weaken our immune system and corrode our health.
Please bear with me. I’m not suggesting Covid-19 is just a hoax, nor am I trying to downplay or deny the tragedy so many people are experiencing.
I’m suggesting we look at it from a different angle: What if Covid-19 weren’t a danger independent from our minds and souls but, in fact, a quantum phenomenon – a shared dream character we’ve collectively summoned into existence? An embodiment of something buried deeply in the realms of the collective subconscious that we haven’t, so far, been able to comprehend? A living symbol of a much deeper infection?
Mind viruses and the magic of fear
Reaching back to the oral traditions of several First Nations, Native American scholar Jack D. Forbes writes in Columbus and Other Cannibals, “For several thousands of years human beings have suffered from a plague, a disease worse than leprosy, a sickness worse than malaria, a malady much more terrible than smallpox.” The Algonquin and other Indigenous First Nations identified the mental illness of the white man, upon his arrival to their native homelands in the 15th and 16th centuries, as “Wetiko,” literally translating as cannibalism: “the consuming of another’s life for [one’s] own private purpose or profit.” Forbes concludes by saying, “This disease is the greatest epidemic sickness known to man.”
Wetiko – often referred to as a mind virus – propagates the deep-seated illusion of seeing oneself desperately confined to the cage of a separated ego. From this perspective of isolation, others appear either as competitors or as prey. In a worldview in which fear is the basic condition, fight and exploitation seem rational, empathy ridiculous and sentimental.
After 5000 years of patriarchy, 500 years of capitalism and 50 years of neoliberalism, Wetiko has come to define nearly every area of our (Western) world and lives. The reason we can accept an economic system celebrating the biggest-possible devastation of the natural world as “success” is due to our own infection with the virus. Wetiko has numbed our hearts, blurring our ability to perceive both the sacredness and the pain of life, both outside and inside ourselves. Innumerable beings are perishing due to this chronic inability to feel empathy.
From the compulsive fixation on maximizing artificial values in the economy all the way down to the pandemic of broken and abusive love relationships, the Wetiko sickness has become so normalized it’s no longer even recognized as such. A miserable cult of self-obsession has eroded the social tissue of humanity and desecrated the Earth. As a result, fear is everywhere – fear of abandonment, fear of death, fear of life, fear of sexuality, fear of punishment, fear of the coming collapse… The benign front of bourgeois decency conceals a psychological basement in which the children of fear roam freely: permanent anger, general mistrust, addiction, depression, boredom, perversion, compulsive consumption and control and the secret or open fascination with violence.
The Covid-19 narrative has been able to infect humanity at such record speed because fear is so deep-seated and unconscious in humanity that we’re no longer aware of what is happening within us.
The tragedy is that the virus operates in the shadows of our consciousness. We infect ourselves and others unknowingly. As Forbes writes, we’re conditioned by the disease through “authoritarian family structures,” “male dominance,” “subjugating women” and “extremely negative attitudes towards sex” – and on an ideological level, through “notions of racial and cultural superiority.”
Once stuck in this box, we mindlessly perpetuate the disease in our day-to-day interactions, by feeding off and into each other’s blind spots and pain points. As we project what we fear internally onto others or external events, we validate our fear while suppressing where it comes from. We believe danger to be outside of us, so we try to protect ourselves from it and, thereby, often act in ways that perpetuate the very danger we try to protect ourselves from. Jung describes this mechanism as “shadow projection.”
To the extent we’re unconsciously driven by fear, we become susceptible to manipulation. When millions of people project their unconscious shadows onto others, they conjure up the very danger everyone is trying to escape from. Wilhelm Reich made these dynamics explicit during the rise of Hitler (see his 1933 book, The Mass Psychology of Fascism) and they’re the premise of all totalitarian regimes to this day.
After 9/11, we were told that our enemy was the Muslim world; now the “enemy” is invisible and might await us at every door handle, or creep into us as we kiss, hug or even breathe. The more extravagant the neurotic cinema that’s playing in our minds, the easier it is for external powers to control and use us for their interests.
The great unveiling
Much more than just a difficult trial for humanity, the Covid-19 outbreak also holds the possibility for collective healing from the predatory mass infection of Wetiko. We can make sense of it as a global somatization – or symbolic simulation – of the underlying Wetiko disease. As with every outbreak of severe disease, the deeper patterns are now coming unstuck in plain sight at the global level.
We’re now witnessing a simultaneous unveiling, breakdown and intense exaggeration of Wetiko:
- On an ecological level, Covid-19 originated as a direct result of our civilization’s insatiable greed for exponential growth. Probably wild animals transmitted the virus to people after the natural ecosystems which were home to them were destroyed by the ecocidal steamroller of civilizational “progress.” And now we’re equally astonished to see how quickly the air can clear in China, the speed at which wildlife returns to urban areas, and how suddenly old ecocidal endeavors collapse before our eyes (e.g. the U.S. fracking industry).
- On an economic level, Covid-19 has been the straw that’s broken the camel’s back, setting off the chain reaction of a long overdue financial collapse. The lockdown has sent our globalized economy into a full-blown, rapid “evaporation,” with entire industries halting, millions of workers being laid off from one day to the next and stock markets crashing. The fossil fuel industry faces its “gravest challenge in its 100-year history,” from which it may never recover. The Federal Reserves are currently lending big banks an additional $1 trillion a day, which is to say, we’re now barely keeping the economic system on life support.
- On the social and psychological levels, we see both a collective frenzy of extreme Wetiko behaviors and also many people breaking free. On one hand, social atomization, the desire for control and egoistic panic are reaching surreal pinnacles. We are seeing a massive surge in domestic abuse and the rapid conversion of liberal societies into police states; even leftists are praising the strengthening of top-down government and restrictions on civil liberties. On the other hand, thousands of local grassroots initiatives practicing mutual aid have popped up from one day to the next. Millions are entering a rare moment of reflection and of asking “what’s essential?” While locked down in quarantine, we’re confronted with ourselves, our longings and our lives. And many recognize how deeply we’ve been “socially distanced” all along – divided up by the competitive ideals of a precarious labor market and our own inability to engage in authentic interpersonal connection.
A parting of ways
What will happen next is uncertain, but we can predict that the chain reaction of economic devastation may be inevitable. The global emergency may have come to stay. In other words, we may not go back to normal anytime soon, or perhaps ever again.
What will happen in the next few weeks and months will likely shape the world for many years to come. Rather than resisting the forces of entropy and indulging in faint hopes of a return to normality, the future will be on the side of those who are able to embrace chaos and disruption as an opportunity to propose a different vision for global society.
Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine, says: “If there is one thing history teaches us, it’s that moments of shock are profoundly volatile. We either lose a whole lot of ground, get fleeced by elites, and pay the price for decades, or we win progressive victories that seemed impossible just a few weeks earlier. This is no time to lose our nerve.”
Burdened by astronomical debt and commanded by the imperative for exponential growth, the globalized capitalist system has come to an irreversible breaking point. The powers that be will either have to make way for system change or will stubbornly continue to prop up the old order with ever-more brutal force. While there may be many possible futures in front of us, I want to highlight the stark contrast of the historic choice we’re facing, in two contrasting future scenarios:
Scenario #1: Surveillance capitalism
After many months of lockdown, people have accepted the new era of quarantined existence. Governments have dismantled civil liberties, human rights and environmental protections and, under the pretext of health and safety, deployed unprecedented levels of surveillance technology. Mobile apps are used not only to track people’s physical movements but also their biochemical reactions. As Gideon Lichfield writes, “intrusive surveillance [is] considered a small price to pay for the basic freedom to be with other people.” In the background of a daily onslaught of fear-invoking messages, governments further redistribute wealth from the bottom 99% to the elites. Banks, fossil fuel and airline industries are bailed out with taxpayer’s money, while social security and public health systems are further dismantled. Austerity measures and the abolition of cash further marginalize working people, the poor and the homeless. General apathy and numbness have reached a dimension where the daily shooting of migrants at the borders and other atrocities no longer provoke any moral outcry. Locked into their flats, afraid of infection, monitored by digital body sensors, the powers that be have almost entirely crippled people’s ability to organize themselves and resist. Should protests or strikes still occur, the mass media can report on new dangerous infections spreading so that governments can swiftly impose new curfews to “keep our communities safe.” At some point, with climate breakdown, water crises and food shortages worsening, the system is no longer able to disguise its collapse. Chaos and violence can no longer be contained. The rich retreat to their gated compounds in remote areas, while masses of people find themselves trapped in disintegrating urban centers.
Scenario #2: Ecological and social emancipation
In the months of uncertainty and economic disintegration, millions of people begin to organize themselves at the local grassroots levels to cover their basic needs. In this time of hardship, they rediscover the power of community, solidarity and localism. As people help each other through sickness and challenge, a spirit of empathy and interdependence spreads. After many months of unemployment, public chaos and food shortages, hopes for strong government and a return to normality have finally faded. Many realize that either we live out collapse alone or we get through this together. The emergency initiatives of neighborhood aid now turn into more long-term initiatives of social, economic and ecological re-organization. People start collective gardens and food cooperatives to supply themselves with local organic crops and open solar energy task forces to decentralize and democratize their energy supply. More and more people leave the cities to found communities in the countryside, where they engage in restoring ecosystems and radical social experimentation for a more trust-based and loving way of living. People work together with progressive governments on large-scale ecological rehabilitation in response to the climate crisis, while governments support citizens’ agency through introducing Universal Basic Income. In the background of this astonishing social and ecological movement, a profound cultural and spiritual transformation takes place – a shift of consciousness from the Wetiko drive for domination to cooperation with all living beings, from atomizing mass societies to communities of trust, from the patriarchal condemnation of Eros and the feminine to a culture that celebrates sensual love in its freedom and dignity, from subduing the Earth to honoring her inherent sacredness, from fearing death to acknowledging our eternal existence.
System change: the time is now
The dangers of totalitarianism are dire and real and are becoming concretized in many countries already. But we mustn’t forget that those measures are the last resort in prolonging the death of a system that’s already on its way out. At this point, globalized capitalism is only being kept alive by our fearful projections and our inability to imagine something new, which is to say, if people can leave fear behind and unify around a shared vision of the future they want, nothing can stop the inevitable transition.
I see the keys to system change lying in three essential realms of our lives:
- The spiritual sphere
- The social sphere
- The political and economic sphere
Having exaggerated Wetiko to unthinkably surreal heights, Covid-19 strangely invites us into a dimensional shift of being. As Paul Levy, the author of Dispelling Wetiko, maintains, the anti-virus hidden with the Wetiko disease is the awakening to its dream-like nature – a realization which has the potential to radically change our world.
If we continue to react to the embodiments of Wetiko outside of us (e.g. viruses, external enemies or the dangers of totalitarianism…) as if they were separate from us, we will continue to act in ways that feed the very dynamic we’re afraid of. But if we begin to see Wetiko playing out within ourselves, it loses its grip on us. Compassion opens our eyes to understanding that which we previously could only fear, judge or hate. Trust reconciles us with the world and our fellow beings. Compassion and trust are the ultimate anti-viruses of Wetiko.
We may suddenly wake up and realize how all systems of domination have never been “real” as such, their “reality” has always only existed through our consent. Money, authority, society, pandemics – we can now see the dreamlike nature of what we believed to be rock-solid and unchangeable.
To awaken from the fearful web of Wetiko is to simultaneously awaken to the interdependent web of Life. This is such a profound shift from where we come from in the Western world that it’s hard to even find words for it. The fear-stricken mind always asks for immediate conclusions, solutions, fixes. But maybe there is no such “fix” right now. Maybe, what this moment calls for is for us to let go of all our notions of self-importance, superiority and domination and to surrender to a greater-than-human intelligence and guidance, to inquire for orientation from the Earth and the Indigenous wisdom of cultures centered around the Earth. In this experience of communion lies a truth that is unambiguous, absolute and deeply healing: all life is sacred. This isn’t only a private experience, but an insight into the inherent matrix of Life. In alignment with this matrix we stand outside the vicious cycles of fear, infection and violence.
As Wetiko plays out relationally, its dissolution is a collective endeavor; a historic project of developing ways of living together in which we can heal our broken relationship to the Earth and each other, and develop deep trust among ourselves.
To build trust, we need conditions which no longer force us to lie, disguise or protect ourselves. We need ways of living, loving, working and relating in which we can truly recognize each other and dare to show what we actually think and feel, love and desire. “Trust” is a word often used, but what does it mean in the delicate realms of our souls, such as love, sexuality and spirituality, where our vulnerabilities tend to be the greatest? This entails nothing short of a social revolution. Dieter Duhm, a mentor and teacher of mine, and author of The Sacred Matrix, writes, “Trust is not only classified as psychological; it is above all a political term – the most revolutionary of all – for we need to renew the entire societal structure to bring about sustainable, systemic trust.”
This revolution may not occur in mass movements immediately, but it can begin in small groups – wells of coherence – and extend across society from there, by virtue of raising a new field of consciousness. Based on 40 years of radical experimentation, the “Healing Biotopes Plan” offers a respective vision for such comprehensive transformation.
Freedom in the long-term requires our capacity to resist any restriction to civil and human rights in the short-term. In this time of social distancing, let us stand in solidarity together, especially with all those who are marginalized, rejecting any narrative of “us versus them.”
As the globalized system crumbles, localization will be the key to the future. Now is the moment to decentralize supply systems for water, food and energy, to invest in regenerative agriculture and practices of ecosystem restoration, to create seed banks and exchange, and to establish networks and economic mechanisms of mutual aid, resource sharing and reciprocal gifting. Localization not only offers food sovereignty but also a path to political autonomy – as we take charge of our own basic needs, we can come together to make collaborative decisions from the bottom up. From various ecosystem restoration practices to the permaculture, seed saving and ecovillage movements, all the way to large-scale social movements like Extinction Rebellion and experiments of radical grassroots democracy like Rojava and the Zapatistas, the world offers a thousand examples showing that this path is viable.
Because the spiritual, social, and economic-political spheres are so inseparably intertwined, successful system change will rely on profound structural transformations in these three realms in parallel. It doesn’t mean we must all do everything at once, it means we must support each other. May we each listen deeply for what we’re now called to do and be, while remaining aware of each other. As much as narratives of isolation and social distancing threaten to keep us afraid and separate, our ability to go through this crisis relies on our ability to organize and build alliances, remembering that we are community.
Whatever we may do, may we remember that this is a moment of unique historic possibility. As Julian Assange told Yanis Varoufakis from his prison cell by phone, “Anything goes… Everything is now possible.” And if there’s one thing that Covid-19 has taught us, it is that dramatic shifts of collective behavior can actually occur overnight.
Originally published in Kosmos Journal, Spring/Summer Edition 2020 and reprinted here with kind permission.
Photo: light and dark by Levi Midnight on Unsplash