Making the Desert Bloom

Making the Desert Bloom
Photo by Leah Berman / Unsplash

During a trip in Morocco, a question came to me that radically changed my perspective on life. I started to ask myself how life could be brought to the desert. This question, which started as an innocent daydream on a drive through an arid mountain chain, evolved in a larger quest for understanding. (This blog post has been written in April 2021)

Driving for hours through the Moroccan landscapes, I started to think how deserts are not restricted to nature alone. Processes of degradation and erosion can be found in humanity as well. In our psyche, in our economic and political systems, in the social fabric of our society, etc. It became obvious to me that the laws of nature are applicable to the human realm of reality as well. Our lives are organized organically, through endless chains of complex living systems. Humankind is deeply part of, and integrated with, nature.

Taking this perspective, it doesn’t require too much observation to realize that the systems we have in place today don’t fully acknowledge this reality. The ecological challenges that we are facing are an obvious example of that. So obvious that we are bombarded with alarmist warnings about it every day.

And to be honest, I’m not sure if this gloomy rhetoric is the most constructive inspiration for a better future. To me it indicates that we find it hard to imagine a different future. We seem to be stuck in old ways of thinking. Just like the Enlightenment inspired people in the West to pursuit liberty and progress, we are again in need of a completely new paradigm; one that provides a renewed sense of meaning and a perspective of a thriving and prosperous future.

I decided to explore the topic and came to discover that over the past decades, such alternative way of thinking has slowly started to emerge in the form of the regenerative paradigm. This philosophy strives to integrate the needs of humanity with the integrity of our ecosystems. It is based on whole system thinking and embraces the deeply relational and complex nature of our reality.

If desertification is caused by the degeneration of vital relationships in an ecosystem, regeneration does the opposite. It enlivens systems by cultivating healthy, reciprocal relationships. This immediately summarizes the difference between today’s dominant paradigm and the regenerative one. Examples can be found in our current economic system where many activities are based on extractive and linear relationships that cause harm to the environment. The regenerative paradigm takes a holistic, organic view. It doesn’t see reality as inanimate machine-like processes but as an intricate web of complex, living systems.

I find this an exciting perspective and believe that it can provide the alternative narrative that we are in need off. Some already envision a new age of modernity which they cleverly coin The Enlivenment. A name that embodies the key attribute of regeneration: aliveness. Aliveness can be found far beyond the realm of plants and animals. Our cities are alive and so are our communities, companies, etc.
Aliveness implies that something is unique, that something has an essence and that its potential and meaning are built within. The thriving of something alive is qualitative in nature. It is the full expression of its essence, like a flower coming to its full bloom. Something that can mostly be experienced, not measured. This way, perceiving aliveness in all its forms makes a radical difference in our perception of meaning and potential.

It stands in such a contrast with today’s focus on productivity and efficiency. Nowadays, success is mostly measured quantitively. The concept of economic growth for example has attained almost religious properties. Observing our behaviour, it seems that production and consumption has become our main source of meaning and in many cases, it defines who we are and what we aspire for the future. But does it truly fulfil us?

Maybe the answer to this question brings us to the core of our true challenge; an unbearable lack of meaning in contemporary culture. For centuries, our quest for freedom and prosperity was a legitimate source of fulfilment. Today, one could argue that our individualism and materialism have reached nihilist proportions.

A nihilism that I, frankly speaking, have experienced myself. Striving for more and more without truly understanding why. Unconsciously the assumption was that chasing money and ‘success’ would unlock the doors to freedom and happiness but of course it didn’t. Whether we embrace these beliefs consciously or not, it is the dominant narrative in today’s culture, expressed through advertisements and pop culture. It is this mindset of optimisation and quantitative wealth that eventually trigger feelings of lack and alienation. Like a dog chasing its tail, I was trapped in a mindset of ‘never-enough’, perpetually trying but failing to fulfil myself. In hindsight I have come to realise that it is the quality of our experiences and relationships that matter, not the quantity.

Applying that insight to this topic, the true value of the regenerative paradigm isn’t in its ability to organise ourselves in a smarter and more sustainable way, its true value lies in the deep meaning that it can enrich our lives with. Nature is rife with meaning and purpose and so are the living systems we are part of. Through an infinite process of symbiosis, life continuously expresses its potential. Isn’t this what meaning looks like for us as well? Contributing to something larger than ourselves, by being our most truthful expression?

It requires us to consider the type of relationships we nurture with the systems that we are part of. Are we parasitic in our behaviour or do we reciprocate? Are we a source of degeneration or of regeneration? Life is not a means to an end. It is not something to be achieved. It has meaning in itself! What a beautiful thing!

Regeneration is about nurturing this meaning. It informs us to live in service of the larger whole. Not for moral or dogmatic reasons but in service of our own interest. Ultimately, deeper relationships with our environment, with the things we consume or with other people, are more nourishing, meaningful and contributive to our wellbeing. These relationships nurture compassion, love and beauty. Qualities that can only be experienced and thus are beyond rationality.

This is important to note because it is illustrative of the experiential nature of aliveness. Which immediately reveals the spiritual dimension of this topic; being part of something larger than ourselves, experientially.

To experience something means to perceive differently in comparison to thinking about something. This perspective has come to me a few years ago when I did my first Vipassana course. This Buddhist 10-day silent meditation program aims to teach you to ‘see reality as it is’. The Vipassana technique, which I have practiced ever since, provided me with a fundamentally different perspective. It taught me that true knowing is experiential.

Any concept that comes to our mind, is always an abstraction of reality. A pointer to the moon as Buddhists would say. This experiential nature also reveals a major challenge that can be experienced while describing this topic. In a culture that puts so much emphasis on science and reason, it is difficult to put subjective experience at the core of our thinking. Yet this is what I think we need to do. Before we can truly relate to the world around us, we need to connect with ourselves first.

This is not to say that science and reason need to be diametrically opposed in favour of our subjective experience. It is the opposite; we need to unite them! When we fail to look beyond the rational abstractions of our thinking, our reality itself becomes abstract and lifeless. We create deserts of our own making. To understand what is meant by that we only need to think of the lifeless monocultures in agriculture, the soulless cubicles of a corporate office or of the functional ugliness of some modernist architecture.

Our rational mind should be put in service of life, not the other way around. Tuning in with our experience means tuning in with our intuition and creativity. As such the regenerative perspective guides us towards a more meaningful and thriving future. Our subjective experience of life informs us what to do and why, after which our mind, with all its might, can tell us how to do it.

Regenerative thinking makes me optimistic that we can enliven the existing deserts in our lives. Not by fighting our current reality but through outgrowing it with something better. I have spent many hours studying and reflecting on this topic over the past year. This first post on my blog was meant as a foundational introduction to my thought process so far. I realise that the story is quite dense and potentially hard to digest but I felt it was important to share a comprehensive overview of my key insights before sharing anything else. As you might have noticed, the encounter with regenerative thinking fuelled my life with purpose and meaning.

Through my blog, I invite you to join this journey as well; to inspire a regenerative future together and to make our deserts bloom.

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