Ambiguous, Unusual Couplings

2,127 total words    

9 minutes of reading

Perhaps, like many of us, I spend ample time feeling the heartbreak of our world. We live in an age where practically every institutional structure we depend upon appears precarious, and the future of the Earth, including humans, is ambiguous. There is no guaranteed safe place to be. Every community has real or potential dangers such as fires, floods, drought, lack of clean water, loss of biodiversity, pollution, toxicity, mass shootings, war, state violence, displacement, poverty, homelessness, racism, homophobia, transphobia, dragphobia, misogyny, and political corruption. And then there are the more personal experiences of anxiety, depression, trauma, sickness, a host of addictions (drugs, alcohol, sex, co-dependent relationships, technology, consumerism), disordered eating, domestic abuse, divorce, financial ruin, loneliness—the list goes on.

Pause. Breathe. Reset. If, from reading this, you started to feel that this is too much to take in, you are correct. Our world is in shambles and most of us do not have the capacity to attend to this. And those of us who are paying attention and wish to create change often do not know where to even begin. Building movements for change becomes challenged when trying to point fingers at who to blame for our current host of complex issues—is it the government, the corporations, the banking systems, religious institutions, one political leader, the people over there with the different political views, that neighbor, that family member, that loved one, or perhaps, even, oneself?

Now picture this: You are at a beautiful retreat center, in a stunning setting, surrounded by nature. As you enter the meeting space, there is a circle of twenty-five chairs, and as you sit down in one, the remainder are quickly occupied by remarkable people. Looking around at the circle, you witness a diverse group of visionaries, healers, entrepreneurs, and all sorts of change agents. You feel deep gratitude to be among this unique gathering of amazing people who are about to take on the deep crises of our time.

Okay, wake up, snap out of it, and compost that vision! While many of us have been part of special gatherings to address the chaotic state of our world, the idealism and somewhat elitism contained within them does not mirror the ways we truly need to come together in a changing world. In order to radically change—to address our more than impending ecological and social crises—we need just about everyone.

We live in such strange times. Our issues are so vast, yet instead of stepping up together to meet these challenges, we are a deeply divided people. The fierce individuality encouraged within our Western, and particularly US, identity has turned us away from community orientation, from empathy and service to the whole, toward a series of self-oriented, transactional relationships. Paired with the convenience of tailored social media, news, and other forms of information, we can live in a reality that mirrors the opinions and people we want around us and easily weed out those we do not. People, communities, and genuine issues become disposable.

A narcissist is a person who is incredibly self-centered in a manner that reflects extreme arrogance, an inability to recognize one’s mistakes, a lack of compassion towards people near and far, as well as the need to be more special than others. A less obvious trait of a narcissist is deep seated insecurity that formed in their early childhood years as a result of not having trust in their primary caregivers. A narcissist creates a false reality where they are the center of attention. While narcissism is seen as an individual problem, we live in a society that is collectively narcissistic. We have replaced our intrinsic connection to Earth with an allegiance to a global corporate parent that nurtures us to be shallow consumers, desiring lifestyles that keep us in competition with and separate from one another.[1] This collective narcissism also feeds into a culture of disposability.

In recent years, I have noticed, within the courses I teach, an unwillingness in some of my students to hold compassion for people who do not hold the same values as them. I tend to teach in very liberal institutions on intersecting ecological and social subjects as well as, ironically, mindfulness and compassion. Folks often share stories of shunning conservative and non-woke family members, co-workers, neighbors, and even friends. I come from a background where family is family, and no one is disposable. This principle is extended to my wider orientation, and, in rare exceptions, there are few people in my life that I would shut out. While, of course, it is of utmost importance to halt heinous behaviors, often these behaviors are a reflection of the larger society and not merely about one individual. When we shut out people based on their beliefs, we distance ourselves from potential allies. While it is easier and seemingly safer in the short-term to engage with people who reflect our beliefs, it is of utmost importance to gain the skills of listening, sitting with discomfort and ambiguity, yet still holding spaces for viewpoints we do not agree with. It is a way of leaving a door open, rather than burning bridges, in a world where so many bridges have been burned. Thinking about how we come together in a changing world, while witnessing how many folks within our society simply surround themselves with people who reflect their values and shut out those that do not, is both perplexing and painful. How can we create connections and heal our largest planetary issues if we are unable to open our hearts to difference?

And it is not only differences with people who are distant from our positionalities. Our growing autonomy and infinite access to a vast range of knowledge has allowed each person to author an especially unique persona. Our postmodern identities create a Tower of Babel where almost no one is speaking the same worldview. Recently, I was part of a gathering of spiritually oriented practitioners talking about some of the issues of our time. The array of our spirituality spanned a host of pagan and other Earth-based traditions, many of which I had little knowledge of. I had an inner laugh mixed with a twinge of fear and confusion when I thought about the various gods, ancestors, and other entities that were evoked through our conversations, smiling at the odd pairings which were taking form.

My heart breaks open when I witness unusual couplings. I keep their imprints on my tender heart—a collection of unexpected stories. My all-time favorite one is the tale of a very conservative town in Oregon that elected a transgender mayor in 2008.[2] When he started to dress and appear as a woman, while raising some eyebrows, he was still elected for a third time. When members of the community were queried, many indicated that while they were conservative, they voted for him because he was a person whom they grew up around and knew. He was still family. The teary-eyed, heart-opening peak of the story: Folks from neighboring towns came to protest against the transgender mayor and many conservative folks in the town counter-protested by dressing in drag!

For me, this is what community is about—being able to be in close, respectful relationships with people who differ vastly from ourselves. It is about being able to hold the ambiguity of differing viewpoints but still coming together. In healthy relationships, we experience periods of challenge, dislike, boredom, apathy, and conflict, yet keep choosing to come back to the work of connection. In our current culture, it’s all too easy to end a relationship when things become difficult. We can find new people to spend time with that do not yet know our faults or disagree with our opinions. We can create sexy, creative realities where life feels exciting, and, when it no longer does, we can dispose of the people in our life again. This is a sad phenomenon.

Coming together in our changing world requires letting go of our specific agendas through attending to one another, learning the stories of the people in our communities, and retooling our abilities to hold compassion. We need to develop the skills of not shutting out folks with identities and worldviews that we do not agree with or even dislike. My primary area of teaching is ecopsychology, which looks at the disconnection people within Western civilization have from nature, including other humans. Ecopsychology recognizes that a major result of our disconnection is that we are all traumatized.[3] If we truly recognize this, our compassion for one another uplevels. There are reasons behind why certain worldviews and practices have formed that have nothing to do with some types of people being good or bad. When we are enmeshed in faulty systems, everyone suffers.

Another area that I teach within is transformative learning. This field works with how adults expand and change their worldviews. Our worldview is merely a frame of reference for how we derive meaning and is comprised of two dimensions—a habit of mind and a resulting point of view.[4] The habit of mind is, essentially, assumed beliefs that we have inherited through our cultural conditions such as race, religion, class, political identity, gender—our various positionalities, while our resulting point of view is the way we act these out. Research has shown that in order to expand our worldviews, we need to have experiences that disrupt them—disorienting dilemmas.[5] A disorienting dilemma occurs when we have an experience that does not currently fit into our worldview and provides the opportunity to experience cognitive dissonance and, if mindful, to work with the dilemma and expand our perspectives. In the classroom, I facilitate these often by having students recall when they first became aware of the ecological crisis or witnessed an experience of racism. The key to working with a disorienting dilemma is critically reflecting on our previously held assumptions, feeling the emotions associated with this, and making a commitment to keep working to change these beliefs. When we take the risk of moving beyond our safety zones through engaging in community with people who don’t reflect our belief systems, we may constantly experience disorienting dilemmas. By seeing that we inhabit worldviews that we feel are correct, yet become willing to recognize and understand someone else’s worldview, we begin to reflect on our own beliefs about other people as well as our own assumptions and begin to change. We may not change our actual values, but we transform our abilities to work across different perspectives.

As we enter into unusual couplings and develop the skills to work with and expand our worldviews, we may begin to notice that the truths that we hold so dearly are not so cut and dry. There are reasons why we live inside constructed worldviews and there are reasons why other people do as well. If you recall, a narcissist creates a false reality as a form of safety. In collective narcissism, we create false realities, not in response to needs for safety, but because it is the norm in a world that conditions us to be highly individualistic and self-centered. When we let go of having such tight reins on our constructed reality, we start to experience ambiguity—we realize how much of our belief systems are fluid. We also begin to learn that being in relationship with self and others is more important than static knowledge. This brings us closer to our essence.

Reclaiming our true natures and recognizing those of one another requires slow, dedicated practice. It demands attending to our individual and collective wounds, stepping into unusual couplings with strange others including the more-than-human world, keeping our minds and hearts open, and holding deep ambiguity for what may emerge. Most importantly, this process involves surrendering to grace—a disassembling of our constructed, over-thought worldviews and instinctively knowing that there are higher forms of wisdom available in our collective consciousness including and beyond the human realms. It does not matter what you call grace—it can be a deity, the Buddha, Jesus, Yahweh, Allah, a mysterious force fueling the metaverse, nature, the web of life—it is the recognition that there is a larger, dynamic energy that connects each and every one of us: We are family. When we surrender to grace, the sacred rushes in.


[1] Canty, J.M. (2022). Returning the self to nature: Undoing our collective narcissism and healing our planet. Shambhala Publications.

[2] Scott, A. (2010, August 19). New Stu. RadioLab.

[3] Davis, J. V. & Canty, J.M (2013). Ecopsychology and transpersonal psychology. In Friedman, H. & Hartelius, G. (Eds). The Wiley-Blackwell handbook of transpersonal psychology (pp. 597-611). Wiley Blackwell Press.

[4] Mezirow, J. (2000). (Ed). Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. Jossey-Bass.

[5] Ibid.

Artwork by Mariza Ryce Aparicio-Tovar.

  • Jeanine M. Canty

    Jeanine M. Canty, PhD, is a professor of transformative studies at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). A lover of nature, justice, and contemplative practice, her teaching intersects issues of social and ecological justice, ecopsychology, and the process of worldview expansion and change.
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