Adventures in Holistic Adult and Child Psychiatry

"One only sees what one looks for, one only looks for what one knows." - Goethe

"I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better." - Maya Angelou

Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance

Koyaanisisqatsi is a Hopi Indian word that is translated as “life of moral corruption and turmoil” or ” a state of life that calls for another way of living”.

It is the title of a cult movie directed by Godfrey Reggio from the early 80’s, that made a big impression on me when I was still young. It’s a film without words using time lapse photography, which juxtaposes images of the Southwest desert and New York City, set to an evocative and haunting soundtrack by Phillip Glass. The theme of the movie is humanity’s increasing disconnection from the natural world.

The word Koyaanisqatsi springs to my mind frequently these days when I think about the frightening impact of global warming on the planet, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima in 2011, and most recently when I heard about the proliferation of the Burmese python from Southeast Asia in the Florida Everglades, which is decimating the mammalian population.

I first heard about the python invasion on NPR’s On Point. I was fascinated and horrified by this ecological nightmare. Giant Burmese pythons, an invasive species, set loose by owners in the Florida Everglades when they grew too large to be safely kept as house pets, in addition to those that were accidentally released into the wild during hurricanes, have multiplied like wildfire. Many mammals and birds are totally disappearing; Raccoon populations down 99 percent. Opossum, 98 percent. Deer, 94 percent, Bobcat  87%, fox and alligator, all devoured by the Burmese python, which cannot be suppressed, let alone eradicated. Giant snakes such as these can survive eating only once a year.

Based on fossil evidence, it has been 15-16 million years since there were giant snakes native to the Florida Everglades, which were large enough to eat a small mammal. Now within 20 years, due to human impact on the environment, these snakes which can grown up to 17 feet and weigh up to 150 pounds, number in the hundreds of thousands. They have become the apex predator, able to eat even an alligator. There is real concern that they will spread north to significant portions of the South, which also has a suitable habitat for them. Scientists have been shocked to discover that they are good swimmers, able to tolerate salt water and are threatening the Florida Keys.

We are so clueless about the destructive impact that our thoughtless actions have upon the environment. It’s Koyaanisqatsi. I am actually surprised that I do not hear more about these worrisome events from my patients. I believe this is because these phenomena are so overwhelming and so anxiety provoking, that they are held at arms length, and the focus is on more manageable topics like conflicts around love, work and diet.

The brilliant quantum physicist, David Bohm (1917-1992), wrote about the insensitivity to “incoherence”, which is I think another word for Koyaanisqatsi, that is fostered in us in order to stabilize society. He wrote in 1989:

“I think our whole society tries to stabilize itself by starting out to destroy sensitivity to incoherence starting with very young children. If people could see the vast incoherence that is going on in society they would be disturbed and they would feel the need to do something. If you’re not sensitive to it you don’t feel disturned and you don’t feel you need to do anything.
I remember an instance, a daughter was telling her mother, “this school is terrible, the teacher is terrible, very inconsistent, doing all sorts of crazy things,” and so on. Finally the mother was saying, “You’d better stop this–in this house the teacher is always right.” Now she understood that the teacher was wrong obviously, but the message was, it was no use. Even the message may have been right in some sense, but still it illustrates that the predicament is that in order to avoid this sort of trouble, starting with very young children, we are trained to become insensitive to incoherence. If there is incoherence in our own behavior, we thereby also become insensitive to it.”

Here is a video of an fight between a Giant Burmese Python and an alligator in the Florida Everglades, made only possible by Koyaanisqatsi:

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  1. mem, 4 years ago Reply

    Sleeping in the Forest

    I thought the earth
    remembered me, she
    took me back so tenderly, arranging
    her dark skirts, her pockets
    full of lichens and seeds. I slept
    as never before, a stone
    on the riverbed, nothing
    between me and the white fire of the stars
    but my thoughts, and they floated
    light as moths among the branches
    of the perfect trees. All night
    I heard the small kingdoms breathing around me,
    the insects and the birds
    who do their work in the darkness. All night
    I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling
    with a luminous doom. By morning
    I had vanished at least a dozen times
    into something better.
    – Mary Oliver

  2. mem, 4 years ago Reply

    I think you and your readers might appreciate this TED talk. It is about the toxic environment – both the internal toxic environment within us and the toxic environment we commonly speak of which is all around us, but outside of our bodies.

    Most people, I think, still do not understand how very dire our circumstances are and that all of these issues are deeply intertwined.

    • judytsafrirmd, 4 years ago Reply

      MEM, These are such important thoughtful comments, I cannot thank you enough for taking the time to write them. Truly.

      The TED talk is so important. This is a total crisis. The phrase World Out of Balance is an enormous understatement. The more I learn, like about the details of the consequences of the organic compounds on the human endocrine system detailed in this TED talk, the more I feel like I am living in one of the science fiction/fantasy novels that describes a twisted and perverse world I used to read as a teenager.

      I loved what you wrote about listening to the stories. That is a big part of what I do in my office. Also helping people listen to their own story. Many people have a hard time listening to themselves and taking their own story to heart.

      Mary Oliver is my favorite poet. Thank you for adding beauty by including her. Its very moving and so alive.

      I loved what you wrote about entering the place of no time. Freud described the unconscious in this way, as timeless. Its interesting to think about that in psychotherapy, the amount of time of the patient visit is so rigidly circumscribed. Often it paradoxically allows an individual access to the unconscious, because the boundaries are there. The patient can go there, but will not have to stay. It can be helpful when accessing painful places.

  3. Andy, 4 years ago Reply

    I think it is important to resist the urge to return our culture to an earlier time, since this is impossible. Even if we suffer a massive human die off from contagion, pollution, or nuclear winter, we will never return to tribal living as it was in the Paleolithic period. Technology is here to stay, and the accelerating pace of scientific discovery and technological development is truly astounding.

    For sure, our technological prowess has outstripped our wisdom. I’m surprised you didn’t mention GMO crops, Judy. These wind-borne invaders seem even more out of control than the pythons to me. And the legal system which allows Monsanto to sue farmers for patent infringement when their fields are contaminated by the wind is perhaps the most frightening of all. In the spirit of memes, I now view governments and corporations as separate species, locked in a battle to the death with humanity. I would feel better about our chances if more people would wake up to this political reality. There is also Artificial Intelligence to worry about. It is coming, so lets hope it’s human-friendly. Perhaps Agent Smith’s view of humanity as a plague upon the Earth is the right view, and climate change is merely the first rumblings of her immune system. In light of these concerns, a few predator species crossing the oceans seems like small potatoes.

    Whatever lies in our future is just that–our future. Progress will create solutions to all these problems; this is a truism. How painful these solutions become is up to us to decide. I think most of the real obstacles between us and a healthy planet and species are political now. The Internet, already with instant translation from any language, has connected many millions of scientific, engineering, philosophical, activist, and spiritual minds in a completely unprecedented experiment that evolves at an increasing rate. What will come of this collaboration? Now that computers can beat the best humans at chess, Jeopardy, and medical diagnosis, will anything be left for us to do? I eagerly look forward to finding out where technology and human collaboration will take us, in this post-Darwinian phase Earth’s history.

    • judytsafrirmd, 4 years ago Reply

      Thanks for writing, Andy. Good point about the GMO crops.

  4. mem, 4 years ago Reply

    I love this blog-piece, Judy. This is something I think about alot and have an ongoing, sometimes even too intense awareness of. It’s hard.

    I think the following might be meaningful to you. It is from a blog-piece that has much in it worth pondering, while I am not in full agreement with it. The quote, pretty much, says it all:

    “The real problem of humanity is the following;

    We have Paleolithic emotions;

    Medieval institutions;

    and god-like technology.”
    E.O. Wilson cited in 2009 conversation.

    And here’s another paragraph that speaks to me:

    Beyond Paleo: An Emergent New Humanistic Naturalism

    Paleo increasing digs itself into a solidifying ‘caveman’ icon. That’s going to backfire since it often glorifies a fictionalized ancestral past in seeking solutions to complex problems my recourse to simplistic image, while — more importantly — it disregards 100,000 years of continuing, sustained human evolution. I’m more concerned with moving well beyond commercialized Paleo, reconnecting with original scientific roots, and incorporating other disciplines filling still more blanks showing us what our genomic potential amounts to, and how we can consciously & beneficially evolve. It seems to me reclaiming our humanism is key, and doing so in a far reaching, multidisciplinary yet integrative manner.

    I appreciate your attunement and ongoing communications about the “more” that ancestral living needs to strive for beyond eating, moving , sleeping and baseline stress reduction.

    As Aaron mentioned, Emily Dean’s most recent blog-piece was a nice beginning look at the process of change. The great secret in the stages of change and motivational interviewing for anyone who uses them in any discipline, is that the great change will take place IN THE PROVIDER. To loosely paraphrase a quote of Jung’s, he once said that the great importance in working with every patient (person) was getting to THEIR STORY – hearing THEIR STORY . This takes a different kind of encounter. It takes the ability to really engage with the client and listen actively. It takes a desire to really hear and to continue listening without constantly being focused on what the provider wants the client to do, think, feel or change. And this isn’t just true between providers and patients/clients. It is a “lost art” in our relationships in general, in my opinion.

    One of the most important experiences I have had as both a professional and as a person, happened when I began to work with and visit the homes of Inupiaq Elders. When you enter the home of an Elder, in the old culture, which still persists in these Eldesr, you enter the “place of no time.” Unlike in modern, western culture, the visit has no demarcated beginning and end.

    And all Inupiaq Elder communication is heavily laden with stories. If you cannot truly listen and hear these stories, and what an Elder is communicating to you, you cannot connect with them.

    We need to learn to listen to stories again and to know that every person we encounter has one that applies to the problem or situation at hand.

    Emily’s post is about a process that can help, but only if I am committed to the change it demands of *me* first. I must commit to perceiving, thinking, and hearing differently. I must value the story I am given to hear and understand its gravity.

    I must be fully present, in that moment, with another person.

    Quite the challenge in modern life, relationships and helping professions, as we know them in the 21st century.

  5. Aaron Blaisdell, 4 years ago Reply

    We all become comfortable, perhaps complacent is the right word, with how we live. I think our ability to habituate to even discordant environmental signals is, in part, responsible for this. But when one stumbles upon the evolutionary (ecological) discordant hypothesis, it opens the eyes to the possible causes of the general malaise that permeates modern living. Yes, we’ve got all of these conveniences and markers of affluence. But at what cost to the spirit and to our genes? Like Pottenger’s cats, it seems like we’re in one grand experiment to see how far we can unravel health through the accumulation of epigenetic changes that shift the balance towards disease. My big worry is that, even recognizing the discordance, any attempt to do something to reverse ship will take time, as it took a number of generations for Pottenger to restore health to his cats after placing them back on their species-appropriate diet. I feel like this is something modern and modernizing (e.g., China and India) societies will have to face for many generations. All the little koyaanisqatsis add up to one big one that is snowballing out of control.

    In addition to facing this problem head on by creating the AHS, I’m also acting on a very local, personal scale and trying to shift the balance back towards ancestrally appropriate inputs for my family, in the context of continuing to live in the modern world, of course. Of course I’m not interested in paleo reenactment, but I think the technological tools being developed nowadays, as much as they may add discordance, may also be used to provide us with the appropriate microenvironments. Social media is returning some of the connection to tribe and family. Green technology (I bought a Prius this year), installing flux on my laptop, and going to farmers markets once or twice a week, while using my crockpot to keep nourishing bone broth from pastured animal bones, etc., are all ways that I’ve been incorporating modern conveniences to implement a more ancestrally appropriate lifestyle for myself and my family. The more I do this, the more my friends and family, curious onlookers all, are starting to wake up to the message and take the reigns to implement these ideas (theory to practice indeed!) themselves. This may be the conduit that links what Emily Deans discussed in her recent blog post to grow the movement. As Dawkins said, the most successful memes will be those that have the greatest fitness. I think our modern discordant environment is creating quite an ecological landscape where paleo and ancestral health ideas have a great fitness advantage. The meme will, hopefully spread like a beneficial infection and inoculate the world someday.

    Sorry for the long comment, but these ideas continue to coalesce and grow the more I ponder them. I envision AHS as a catalyst in this process and a nexus for this framework and its tribe. It seems to be working!

    • judytsafrirmd, 4 years ago Reply

      What a wonderful comment! Thank you for taking the time to write it. I particularly resonated with the the phrase “All the little koyaanisqatsis add up to one big one that is snowballing out of control”. In my my mind, things are snowballing out of control in a big way. I believe that we are past the point of no return, and unless some unforeseen technology is discovered to reverse the environmental damage, I think we are in for ecological mayhem.
      It nevertheless feels good, right and important to do what we can in terms of cultivating a conscious healthful life style that is aligned with nature, but I am looking through a glass darkly when it comes to the planet’s future, unless as I said, something completely unforeseen manifests. I think the state of the planet is much much more dire than most people acknowledge. Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring in 1962. It was a message that needed to be taken to heart, but it was not, and here we are.

  6. Aaron Blaisdell, 4 years ago Reply

    I loved the film Koyaanisqatsi. I saw Philip Glass perform his music to the move playing on the big screen at Royce Hall during my second year at UCLA. I think about Koyaanisqatsi every time I get up in the morning and rush the kids through the morning routine of potty sitting, getting dressed, scarfing down a morning meal, and out the door to school/day care. This can’t be good, I keep hearing my mind tell me from deep inside my skull. My wife and I find it quite stressful to raise young children in our modern, urban lifestyle. The band is gone, we are the band. We are the caretakers, teachers, modelers, entertainers, and everything else for our two beautiful young girls. But it’s graying our hairs prematurely. To quote Robb Wolf, “This ain’t normal folks!”

    • judytsafrirmd, 4 years ago Reply

      Thank you for taking the time to write this heartfelt comment. I agree, there are so many less dramatic examples of Koyaanisqatsi in our daily lives, in addition to these stunning ecological examples. You are clearly sensitized to the incoherence in our average expectable modern American way of life. I am with you, this can’t be good.
      I wonder sometimes if the global crisis, both ecological and economic, will result in a return to a more tribal way of living. We waste so many resources by each of us living in our individual atomized houses, each of us with our personal washing machine, stove, lawn mower, etc, not to speak of the emotional/psychological cost side of the equation that you describe.
      I remember listening to an NPR story of a marathon winner from Africa, who had won some huge amount of money in a race. He was asked if he had any desire to live in the United States. He said he did not. He was very puzzled by our life style, and focused on the fact that the houses are all so far apart and people lived alone.
      It’s interesting to note that there has been a lot of press lately about a shift in demographics to more and more people choosing to live alone rather than in pairs. It was hypothesized that part of this had to do with technology, which allows for a connectivity that makes living alone more sustainable emotionally. Another part of it is our wealth, which makes this even thinkable. Anyhow, its all a very new experiment, as far as human history goes.

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