Sustainability and the human death drive

Sustainability and the human death drive

In Business and Environment, Environment, Ethical and Eco Agriculture, The Arts and Expression by Andrey TamarchenkoLeave a Comment

Could our global crisis have something to do with our personal inability to balance and effectively manage our own creative and destructive impulses?

Article and images by Andrey Tamarchenko.

Sustainability means the ability to maintain at a certain level – a delicate balance between creation, maintenance, and destruction. Nature is forever renewing herself. When I take a walk in the woods I witness everything around me in a constant flux between growth, maturity, and decay.

The less-revered, in-between moments

This ephemeral quality of life has often been celebrated in the arts. The wabi-sabi system of aesthetics in Japanese philosophy esteems the transitory state as the most auspicious subject matter for a poignant work of art. Its focus is on a flower about to open or about to wilt, rather than painting something in full bloom.

Impressionists changed the course of art history by choosing the fleeting moment as the cornerstone of their quest. Contemporary artist Andy Goldsworthy, created ice sculptures at dawn so that he could witness them melt in the rising sun.

Create and destroy

Creative and destructive impulses in the human psyche are deeply intertwined. Balancing them in a way that affirms the continuity of environment and of humankind is the goal of sustainability. Balancing them in our own selves is an important step towards harmony and inner peace.

Freud singled out creative drive and death drive as the two main motivating engines of human behaviour. Death drive has been a monumental theme in Freud’s work. It is a contested proposition that suggests that the will for power, as well as human destructive and dominative instincts, are the drive’s external manifestations.

We are destroying our world

A century later Freud’s theories are being empirically corroborated on a global scale. Our current sustainability crisis pits the wellbeing of the planet against the insatiable appetites of the ever-growing human population. Be it the pursuit of happiness or greed, the so-called ‘masters of the universe’ are systematically destroying the only habitat they have ever known.

It is a ticking time bomb threatening the extinction of the human species, along with our ‘lesser’ brothers and sisters of the animal and plant kingdoms, who are disappearing at an alarming rate. This is notwithstanding the possibility of killing ourselves off with the evermore ingenious weapons of mass destruction that are proliferating rapidly across the globe. Freud may have been right; our desire to rule the world hides our death drive in its shadow.

Lost in thought, oil on canvas, 25 x 30, 2018 by Andrey Tamarchenko

‘Lost in thought’, oil on canvas, 25 x 30, 2018 by Andrey Tamarchenko

Life imitates art far more than art imitates life” [Oscar Wilde]

Art is a great metaphor for life, a small and safe battlefield where we can train our awareness to act in accordance with our highest purpose and vision. It is also the cauldron where our vision can undergo alchemical transformation and refinement, as it becomes the gold of hard-earned wisdom.

As an artist, I engage with the creative process every day. After a few initial energetic and spontaneous strokes, the painting begins to appear before my eyes – along with a desire to control the outcome. As I add more paint and define more details, and as the space gains greater order and clarity, the initial vitality begins to wane and the artwork petrifies and loses its life.

From the bitter experience of many ruined paintings, I’ve discovered the necessity of holding in check my desire for order and control, and instead allowing the episodic hurricanes and tempests to sweep the canvas in a purge of dead weight.

How can we release our desire to control and dominate and let the fresh life-affirming chaotic breeze of uncertainty fill our sails?

Many people who have had a serious sickness or a brush with death also experience a profound change of heart. A lot of the things that seemed important no longer hold much meaning. Instead, minute occasions that before went unnoticed take on profound significance. What would it take to experience this change of heart without being in mortal danger?

The role of myth

Religion and myths offer us stories of resurrection and reincarnation – dying in order to be reborn. The phoenix is a powerful archetype that proposes the self-immolating flame as the means of rebirth. Symbolic death reenactment is common in many rite of passage ceremonies in indigenous cultures across the globe. One door has to close in order for another to open, and something inside us has to go in order to make space for the new.

Myth is a potent carrier of knowledge and transformation, but unfortunately we pay little attention to it in our age of rationality and materialism. It appears to me that on a deep psychological level, religious sacrifice in ancient cultures had something to do with propitiating and honouring the death drive within. In Hinduism, Brahmins to this day practice Yagnas – sacrificial fire rituals dedicated to the world, accompanied by the recital of the Vedas.

Living for the future

What are we willing to sacrifice in order to be born anew? What do we need to sacrifice in order to become a sustainable species once again? More often than not we seem to live for the future, chasing goals that are always just out of reach.

We say things like…”I can’t wait…”

“to grow up.”

“until I finally finish uni.”

“to get married.”

“to get that promotion.”

“for the moment when I finally get home and have my beer.”

“for the weekend.”

“till I finally retire.”

“for the pain to subside.”

“for enlightenment to dawn.”

We rush toward the grave, driven by our ambition and desire, missing the present moment in this pursuit. We borrow time from the here and now in order to chase a dream, keeping the gamble going until our time runs out.

Perpetually in debt

Our modern economy is built on debt: credit cards, mortgages, and loans. With money, we do the opposite: we keep borrowing against the future in order to create the present that we want. We are plagued by borrower’s mentality and often over-leverage our relationships by taking on and distributing guilt. We lament the love that we failed to give and the love that was owed to us, but failed to materialise. Meanwhile death is lurking in the shadows – an elephant in the room, a final score, a clean slate, and a release from all the outstanding debts once and for all.

Artists are notorious for their self-destructive behaviour. Unleashing strong creative energies leads to the activation of the death drive. If one is unprepared to deal effectively and respectfully with its stirrings, great inner turmoil or an untimely death may result, as we have witnessed over and over again.

So what can we do to address this death drive imbalance? How can we take it out of the shadow space of denial where our disregard for myth has imprisoned it? Spiritual wisdom and common sense provide the answers that may be easy to comprehend, but are much harder to implement.

Let go of ‘stuff’

Don’t be a hoarder. Clean up your life. Say goodbye to material things, attitudes, relationships, and old habits that you have outgrown and are no longer in need of. Choose wisely what you want to maintain. Do it consciously and honour your sacrifices. Make this ‘bonfire of vanities’ a reoccurring occasion, as you keep moving through your life.

Lake sunset, oil on canvas, 24" x 30", 2018 by Andrey Tamarchenko

‘Lake sunset’, oil on canvas, 24″ x 30″, 2018 by Andrey Tamarchenko

Honour nature and yourself

Remember death. Every moment becomes more precious when one remembers the inevitability of one’s own annihilation. Stop for a moment and just breathe. Meditate. Anchor yourself in the present moment and hold on to it – this is where life is.

Create with abandon and become a channel for nature’s creative power. After all, we are not separate from Her. Allow this power to move freely through you, keeping your ego in check and your inner critic on a leash. We all have a unique gift to share with the world – what is truly and authentically yours?

Take a walk in the woods. Nothing like nature to take us out of our heads and deliver us into a present moment. Do it to save yourself and to honour Her as well. She is very resilient. Nature’s power to regenerate may yet prove to be stronger than the human mismanaged death drive.

About the author

Andrey Tamarchenko

Andrey Tamarchenko is the founder of JoyArt, NY. An internationally recognised artist & educator, Andrey has participated in 50+ solo & group shows in Europe & USA. His paintings are in private collections in USA, Italy, Spain, France, UK, Poland, Russia, Japan & Australia. Andrey’s caring, committed & open-hearted approach to teaching reflects 20+ years of serving as a guide & facilitator, allowing hundreds of people of all ages to experience the magical power of their own creativity.

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