We’re living in deracinating, doomscrolling times, rife with “polycrisis” and pessimism. The urgent humanitarian crisis in Gaza heads a long list of current reasons to be anxious about the future. Yet despite this, GDP growth is trending up in the US and China, and some are currently bullish on global economic growth. There’s an obvious disconnect between the state of the world and the dominant growth paradigm. There’s a whole discourse on rethinking it and finding new models that measure well-being and sustainability. But this discourse itself could use a new approach.
Part of the problem is a blind spot in our linear conception of growth that limits our ability to imagine a qualitatively different future and take action to usher it in. We tend to forget that growth sometimes unfolds in surprising, non-linear ways that we don’t see coming, like a butterfly breaking out of a chrysalis. That’s often the way of epoch-making, transformative change. We rarely recognize it until it’s in the rear-view mirror.
While we’re living through it, it’s natural to imagine the future as an extension of present growth trends. Today’s trends are dark. Our economic system depends on endless GDP growth, fed by exponential population and consumption growth, driving conflict, ecological overshoot, and climate and extinction crises.
Technological growth points to a similarly dystopian place. Global knowledge doubles every year (soon it will double every twelve hours). Each of us processes about five times more information (and counting) than a generation ago. This leads to overload, chronic stress, anxiety, and depression. Worldwide depression rates rose 50% from 1990 through 2017 (and roughly doubled during the pandemic). And then there’s rising AI anxiety.
These are all compelling arguments for stepping off the growth treadmill. Except for techno-optimists and a few fiscal policy experts, it’s clear to most of us that we can’t just do more of the same thing, in hopes of “growing our way out” of such problems. Yet it’s not as if we can solve them by magically shutting growth off, either. To step outside the dilemma, we need a different mental model.
Metamorphosis might be a less blinkered and more hopeful way to think about growth. Almost all animal species undergo it, transforming their morphology to adapt to ecological pressures. Although humans tend to see metamorphosis as the exception and non-transformative growth as the rule, in nature, it’s really the other way around. Most biological growth contains the seeds of sudden, dramatic transformation into something entirely new.
Humans don’t undergo biological metamorphosis, which may explain our limited notion of growth as becoming a larger or more developed version of the same thing, rather than transforming into something else. Yet human metamorphosis is a deep theme–perhaps the deepest–of mythology, psychology, and wisdom traditions.
In nature, metamorphosis isn’t just physiological, it’s also neurological. It literally rewires a metamorphic animal’s brain by respecifying old neurons and adding new ones. The human brain also has this latent capability, which contemplative practice can unlock.
Neuroscientific research confirms that meditation and other forms of contemplation enhance human neuroplasticity, changing the way neural structures connect and synchronize. At virtually any time of life, contemplative practice can change the brain’s physical structure to enhance cognitive functions like memory and attention, as well as socially active functions like compassion, empathy, relatedness, and resilience.
Keeping this in mind might help us have more hope for the future, because if humans have an innate mental capacity for metamorphosis, human societies and economies, which are based on our mental constructs, could have it too. Positive, transformative changes could be underway right now, even if they aren’t easy to perceive or predict from where we sit.
Metamorphosis is an emergent process which doesn’t just suddenly come out of nowhere. It’s encoded and inchoate in genes and gene expression, part of an ancient and continuous evolutionary dance between changing conditions and strategies for adapting to them. In that sense, it is always preparing and unfolding, covertly, like a caterpillar in a cocoon. Whereas growth is an overt process we can witness and measure, metamorphosis is long in preparation and can be hard to recognize until it bursts forth.
The same could be true of social and environmental change. Indeed, this is how change leaders who are grounded in contemplative practice often talk about our crisis-ridden, panic-inducing times, and how to navigate them.
Joanna Macy wrote in 2009 of “the Great Turning” as “the essential adventure of our time,” where “the ecological and social crises we face…caused by an economic system dependent on accelerating growth” are undergoing a revolutionary transition “to a life-sustaining society.”
While we can’t know how fast this metamorphosis will unfold, or what losses might accrue before it does, “we can know that it is under way and it is gaining momentum,” Macy writes. “To see this as the larger context of our lives clears our vision and summons our courage [and can] save us from succumbing to either panic or paralysis.”
Systems thinking pioneer Peter Senge said in a recent interview, “Urgency by itself puts you in a mode where you just try harder to do what you have been doing all along. You get into a contracted state where you say, ‘my God, we’ve got to make this work.’ But that’s not very conducive to imagination, or building trust, relationships, or mutuality. It has taken humans a long time to dig ourselves into this hole; we aren’t going to dig [ourselves] out quickly. It’s way too urgent to act just out of urgency. We need to relax. That’s the paradoxical situation we’re in.”
Many on the front lines of social and environmental change concur. When things seem most desperate, we need hope the most, and can least afford panic or paralysis. When the stakes are highest and demand for solutions is most urgent, that’s precisely when we need to check in, slow down, and go deep.
Making the deep changes the world needs will require the grounding, relaxation, creativity, compassion, and resilience that contemplative practice cultivates. Contemplation unlocks the protean, metamorphic capacity of minds to change and become something new. Staying grounded in it in the face of conditions that demand new leaps of adaptation could be what triggers metamorphosis in our civilization.
Our current trajectory may seem headed for a dark end, but not everything points in that direction. Out of the ravages of extractive and exploitive linear systems are emerging circular, regenerative models for agriculture, finance, and civilization. Their uptake is growing. So is an emergent social field of changemakers and contemplative practitioners working to envision and help build a positive future.
These seeds and seedlings of a better future are germinating and growing unpredictably in the present. They’re a wildcard that may yet hijack our dystopian growth narrative toward metamorphosis, from a self-destructive civilization into a life-sustaining one.
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