To make hash out of body metaphors – deep in the breast is lodged a chip on our shoulder. Each of us have an unexamined surety that basically we-know-what-is-really-going-on. Sure we recognize we are often confused and mistaken but, fundamentally, our default approach to life is that we are uniquely plugged into its meaning. We are sure what god wants, or nature or the universe wants, or perhaps what evolution, history, politics, or economics wants. Pick the flavor that resonates with you.
When put as baldly as that it is not hard to recognize that although each of these options represent adversarial points of view, they none-the-less share certain characteristics. They each offer to their acolytes a degree of certainty about the unknown and the unknowable future. We looked last week at some of the dangers involved in forcing the future into the box of our expectations and today will tease a few more insights from it. It is not surprising we find such systems of thought seductive yet these overly simple views have a tendency to fuel fundamentalisms of one stripe or another. Fundamentalisms in turn tend to fuel violence as the heretics who threaten this surety must burn. This dynamic is well illustrated in the film about Ernest Becker’s work, Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality.
Of course in our more sophisticated moments we are sure evolution, nature and history have no actual direction. We avoid the teleological error in polite company. The problem with this overly simple view is that, as we learned earlier, ecosystems do seek out a type of goal as they evolve toward their climax communities. There are scholars of history who have claimed to find a type of cyclic ebb and flow in the human realm as civilizations rise and fall. They document another type of goal or end to which things are tending even if that end is not a stopping point but just another way station of an ongoing cyclical spiral.
I think we need to proceed carefully in looking for a middle way between these two overly simplifying positions we can take when we are orienting ourselves towards the future. It seems to me the first steps on the path to wisdom will of necessity involve a willingness to shake up our certainties and our uncertainties a bit. How else might we make the space in which something new can bloom?
Let’s not lose sight of what we are trying to do with mindfulness about ecology – waking up. We want to remove the numbness that fails to appreciate the preciousness of every breath of air, every drink of water and every bite of food we and all sentient beings partake of. We want to pierce the veil of our habitual mental abstractions that dulls our perceptions so we can know it is not true that ‘if you’ve seen one Redwood, you’ve seen them all.’ We want to nurture the insight that sees beyond the surface where things clothe themselves in the illusion of being unchanging and independent. We are willing to go through a stage of purgation to arrive at a stage of illumination.
These represent working skillfully with our nervous system by understanding its strengths and weaknesses. The idea is that by working with the nature of our minds and senses just as they are, we increase the degrees of freedom we are able to bring to bear when making the choices that build our future; choices that are always and only made moment by moment. Recognizing the power of choice places our feet firmly on the path that leads towards liberation.
The contemplative traditions can be maddening to those who want to be told what to do. Instead of offering dictates from above they recommend maturing your own wisdom so that you can determine what the best action to pursue is among all that are offered in each circumstance. Recognizing general guidelines can only ever be guidelines respects both the contingency and the patterns that confront us in every event.
Give too much weight to the patterns and it can seem the only way forward is to continue conservatively whatever is working now. Economic growth and resource exploitation is feeding, clothing and housing more people today than at any time in history. Why rock the boat?
Give too much weight to contingency and it can seem the only way forward is to build a new world on the rubble of the old. Every element of business as usual can be shown to be interdependently linked to exploitation of the poor and the theft of limited resources from future generations. Why not rock the boat?
Those of us who care deeply about the precarious situation we see our species in at this time need to wrestle with these questions and issues if we are to have any chance of dealing with what is really real. As tempting as it might be to cocoon ourselves in our own personal dogmatic certainty, the only actions that will effectively relieve suffering are those that are grounded in the reality of the situations we are confronting. Acting from habitual delusions robs us of the potential power we do have. Failing to recognize the full spectrum of freedom in the space of our choices restricts and limits the responses we believe are available to us, just at the time when a great dissensus is most sorely needed.
Consider an example that might be relevant for many readers, if not now than perhaps will be in the not too distant future. Consider a confrontation between a group of desperately hungry individuals and another group with access to food stuffs. Ask yourselves how many options might be viable? Remember this is an exercise about the real world so the TV and movie solutions are unlikely to have much actual value. In other words, while blowing away one of the groups with guns blazing is one possibility it should not exhaust all your options.
Which leads to the other point I wanted to tease out of our examination of our expectations about tomorrow. Real violence is not sexy. It inevitably includes an aspect of pathos, an element of the pathetic. The American culture might be the most removed from actual acts of violence, sickness and death of any people in the long history of peoples on earth, while simultaneously being surrounded by more images of choreographed, fake violence through ‘action’ movies and TV than any other peoples as well. When considering the freedom of choice around realistic actions to be taken in response to the crisis of our times, our being aware of this unprecedented manipulation of our fears is a necessary ingredient. The flip side of this violent hero worship also needs to be critically assessed. The flip side is hero worship of perfect, loving saviors. These are the heroes that set everything right with the world by promising to end all suffering. We encounter them in countless sit-coms and romantic dramas; getting married to the kind, sexy billionaire is one type. Between the heroes with guns blazing and the heroes saving everyone from all suffering, we as a people seeking to wisely nurture compassion need to make a middle way. We need to find a realistic way forward that can be expressed in the day to day choices of our lives.
A few minutes thought should quickly show how those generalizations about absolutes we adore are really not sufficient for dealing with a question like this about the allocation of food. It all depends on the details of the circumstances. What if the hungry party consists of a pregnant woman or two with children in tow? Might the wise move be different than if it were say, a biker gang? Or what if it was a gang but you were fairly certain further gangs could be expected to show up soon?
When I laid out the scenario did your mind immediately go to some sort of Mad Max, post-apocalyptic environment? What I had in mind was actually the United States as it is right now. There are plenty of urban areas that are food deserts (pdf) where people live surrounded by only fast food and liquor dispensers and need to travel many miles to access any truly nutritious food. There are plenty of places where desperate poverty lives side-by-side with such food luxury it is hard for most of us to even imagine, like the $25,000 Frozen Haute Chocolate dessert.
The future we will share is being built by the choices we are each making moment by moment. There are factors that will mold the shape of that future that could be considered predetermined, factors that are the effects of causes already sown. When the conditions for their fruition come about those effects will come about as well. Still, this reality of the most probable does not mean there is no longer any room for choices being made today to alter the conditions. What you and I do today matters.