It is a blessing to be happy in our humanity.
Have you ever awoke thinking of yourself as a scientist? Not like a mad scientist out of a B-movie (at least not on a good morning!). No, not awakening with that kind of scientific spirit but one of burning curiosity and gratitude that one can learn. This scientific spirit is more Goethe than Newton. To mix references a bit, this view always senses there is a large ocean of the real far beyond that which we capture with our knowledge, confined as it is to the human shore. And that ocean beckons us to come play.
In the morning we are greeted with a fresh opportunity to gather experience and ponder it. Core questions of worth and meaning stand steady in this inner sanctum of our waking awareness once we have firmly set our intention, our will. What has life taught us so far about being wise and compassionate? What can we share with others that will make us happy and be of benefit to them as well? How can I be of service to the earth? To find the answers we can don the helmet of a humble scientist, one who touches nature gently and with respect.
We of the collapsing age get to learn aspects of the ecologically traumatized soul with a precise knowledge unprecedented in previous generations. Our minds encounter globalized suffering ecosystems tracked by satellite. Scientists of the psyche, contemplating ecology humbles us before both the immensity of cultural evolution and the guiding wisdom that has, so far, kept our species alive yet now seems threatened on every side. Those of us called to contemplative practice have an opportunity to aid the extroverted Western culture with our introversions but more than that, I believe, with our deep dive directly into the wound in the psyche that creates such blindness. I believe it just might be that in our practice we change the probabilities of what kind of future our species is going to experience.
For the scientist the future is open ended. There is no pre-determined conclusions to the countless life-stories in play throughout all sentient beings, all beings with psyche. Nor is the final fate of the non-sentient intelligences in our rocks and rivers, planets and galaxies understood well enough to be anything more than a start of a sketch of a possibility. But oh how we want to know the future! Do you know that some of the oldest writing we have discovered are the questions and answers of fortune telling recorded by ancient Chinese ancestors on turtle shell? ‘Will the king’s son live?’, ‘Will we win the war with our neighbors?’
One day the human being wakes up in the midst of all of this fully interconnected emergent phenomenon, this universe. We didn’t ask for it, it is just there. We soon learn the one thing we can know for certain about this being human in this universe is that one day we will die and go to sleep within it again. Between those two days of intimacy with silence and emptiness every sentient being’s life unfolds. Personality arises around an awareness of self and world that just IS, that is just a given. Every night personality submerges again into what is, for itself, the welcoming rest of silence and emptiness. Every morning personality awakes again to its awareness of self and world, always self and world, never just self, never just world. That awareness that manifests itself to us each moment is sustained atop chemical complexities we can scarcely imagine, heirs as we are to the evolutionary mysteries in the kingdom of the flesh. That awareness grows over the course of a lifetime as naturally as the limbs of the body do. The awareness grows by learning more and more about the self and the world. With experience a light of understanding arises, we see it shaping sentient being’s actions and reactions to the events of their autobiographies. Awareness drives us to make hypothesis and test them against the real world. We need to do this, we are compelled to do this because our hearts drive us to know what is real and discard the delusional. If love is real, how else could we find it? If others are real, how else could we find them? Our lives consist of our unique character in dynamic relationships with others and the elements around us, questing for wisdom. Our lives are the laboratory in which psyche and flesh consummate their union.
Seeing through these eyes we know we can never have all the answers but are perfectly happy trusting that which is giving what answers we have. Not that we really have a choice, there is no magic path to human omniscience. However, if we choose to believe that love is real then the fact that such delight can exist sets the heart at ease. There is a peace that comes when you figure out it is rational to trust that which exceeds your understanding, that ocean of the real beyond our human shore. Call it faith, a belief in the unseen, but it is not blind faith since it comes from your consideration of your own experience and what it directly teaches you to believe to be most probable. It is not a castle in the sky faith but something solid, there to greet you each morning. It brings a peace that is not threatened by the huge unknown and unknowable which beset us on all sides every moment of our lives. “I trust this is not all a meaningless nightmare but I sure do not know what it is all about.”
Fundamentalists are used to feeling like they have all the answers. Often illiterate or dogmatically one-sided in their studies, they confront the world’s history of ideas as foolishness compared to their own special brand of spiritual wisdom. This is not to disparage the very real wisdom that comes to anyone open to learning from life, regardless of whether or not they ever read a book. We, however, live in a literate culture. To bypass the study time required to become acquainted with our inheritance and then claim superiority because of it is due to what is basically an act of spiritual magic. They claim to know everything they need to know because they have special knowledge, a gnosis denied the unwashed masses: I said just the right words in converting to my personal lord and savior and now I’m always right in arguments about social values; I publically state, just right, ‘I know this church is true’ and now can do no wrong so lie for god whenever asked, I’ve said aloud ‘there is no god but Allah’ and now can destroy the infidels who refuse to repeat the same magic words etc. after sorry etc. All this is just intellectual dishonesty. To point this out is not to be an intellectual snob. I refuse to admit to any part of that double bind framework the fundamentalists try to force such conversations into. (Claim to be a fool and I’ll agree, claim to be wise and I’ll call you a fool in the ways of god. It really helps to learn to recognize these noxious things whenever they rear their ugly heads.)
It is better to wake up each morning clearly recognizing you do not know all the answers but knowing you do have a few. It is also good recognizing that it is in the nature of our partnership with the unknown that today you will discover more answers as your understanding grows. The point of any mind training is to increase the skill by which our ego allows the growth to occur without undue interference so that it benefits from the process. To increase any skill the craftsman learns to cherish their tools. In the search for truth our tool is the mind. Scientists recognize the mind plays tricks on us, easily persuading us to believe what we want to believe and to refuse to believe things we fear. We must remain watchful, ever on the lookout for confirmation biases and all sorts of other categories of cognitive dishonesties. These are the costs associated with thinking’s benefits, costs built into our fundamental cognitive techniques. The mind uses heuristics as short cuts by chunking information about what has been learned in the past that might apply to the present. Fine. Heuristics is one thing, running around the cage of cognitive dissonance and double binds is something else entirely. So science: it is a method of collecting evidence and pondering over what it means using the thinking apparatus we have as it actually is with all its strengths and weaknesses. In this way the scientist seeks to assign various bits of data their proper weight in the grand scheme of things. Contemplatives are scientists of the psyche in this sense. Nothing more but also nothing less. This humble science is the fruit of Faust Part 2, born having learned the hubris science of Mephistopheles in Part 1 did not deliver the goods.
Being a scientist is how we are a student of the universe. Adults have completed their education and don their lab coats. The laboratory consists of this earth life, just as it is. In this life each of us will be challenged to find work so that our flesh may eat. The work will chafe our souls even as it refines them. It is foolish to deny the path of work for spirituality, as if they were not interdependently complimentary. In this life each of us will be challenged to find relationships with other human beings that are both trusting and intimate so that our souls may quench their thirst. In this quest too our souls will be refined, guided, tormented, and ultimately healed by the love we find in the ground of being. Healed? How? The wisdom of our ancestors is teaching us that there is a surprise hiding in the core of our DNA. We touch it when we open our hearts by respecting the best hopes and dreams of our ancestors, seeing how our own falling in love, maturing in love, being heart-broke by love, how all of it is the same and that for all it is equally beautiful. This timeless AHA! that has so inspired the psyche of humankind that it’s religious instinct became its deepest, what is it? I think it is simply a reconciliation. It is how peace is brought to the war of the elements: the war of the sexes, the war of flesh and fang, the war of the cold-hearted reptile and the warm-hearted mammal, and in the psyche this reconciliation manifests itself as faith, an end of the war of the mortal against the immortals. We need not be jealous of the gods like the Titans nor bewail our fate as do the Hungry Ghosts blinded by greed to the feast that is set out before them. It is a blessing to be happy in our humanity.
While we are watching the acceleration of the great clash of monotheisms in the Middle East it is a good time to be strengthening our triage skills. These can be worked with during times of lesser crisis to prepare us for what’s ahead. This is similar to the mind training that the eastern traditions teach. It is a way of practicing with our minds today so that when the day comes that things get difficult (classically in the east this is the day of one’s death) we do not find ourselves without any reserves to call on. Mindful Ecology involves mind trainings that are designed to strengthen a person when lesser deaths occur. These might involve the collapse of the economy, an ecological system, good will among citizens, integrity in government, authenticity among religious leaders, or any number of endings that cause an increase in suffering, anomie, confusion and loss.
No one’s life is spared the rough spots. It is not the case that the wealthy and powerful, or the poor and simple, live a life without serious challenges to keeping sane let alone keeping an open heart. It is not just because of our ecological knowledge that the skills we are talking about have relevance. These are skills that can aid us in any number of life’s arenas. The thoughts in the mind are the earliest seeds of what will become emotions and eventually actions. The actions we perform or refuse to perform are where we find our character reflected back to us from the world soul. Countless decisions over years are expressing something that can be expressed no other way, something about how we are in our innermost.
Along the path of expression from thought to action there is an element of choice. The will uses this element of freedom to express itself. Though circumstances typically constrain our ability to make this expression one that is fully in accord with our desire, there is never so little choice left to a human being that some sense of character cannot be made to dwell within the manner by which their actions are undertaken. I believe the prisoner on their way to their execution still retains some degree of freedom in how they will meet the event. How much more so than do each of us, who are not under such immediate threats, have an opportunity to make real in the world that which is part of our innermost. This expression of true will is always a question of degrees and that is where our training comes in. It is inescapable that each person actually will express their uniqueness, there is no way not to. It is, to put on the science hat, an expression of your parental DNA inheritance and as such a unique biological event. Add the uniqueness of each environment you have inhabited from childhood on and the one of a kind nature of your personality becomes even more obvious. It is important we learn to thoroughly grasp this, see the truth of it, and really hear what is being said. To the best of our human understanding it is a fact that throughout all of deep time and across all of deep space it is astronomically unlikely that the many contingent relationships between your DNA expression and the environment by which it was shaped will ever happen in just the way you have it happening right here and right now. This is it. You have a part to play in dreaming the dream forward, as Carl Jung used to say.
In our time of mass man, mass media, mass armies, and mass movements it has never been more important to understand the role of the other social polarity, namely that of the individual. It is not true for my heart that you could just replace my most beloved friends and family with anyone else. Though another person could play the role of my mother or father, son, daughter, or spouse, there is not the slightest chance I would find my body and mind responding to the newcomer in the same way that it has learned to understand the people that are in my life today. This is true for all of us. Keeping this truth in mind paves the way towards an ability to see the uniqueness of the world around us; to see a tree in the forest and not just so many board feet of lumber.
This is the skill that is lacking in our societies, this ability to appreciate the miracle of the life forms in front of us. We have been trained to fawn before the rich and powerful, presenting them with praises and constant reassurances about how great and awesome they are. Fearing social ostracism otherwise, often with real financial repercussions, it is certainly an understandable habit given the reality of our corporate dominated societies. Still, those are rather false expressions of an appreciation for another person because they are motivated by fear of what they can do to you if you earn their disfavor and the hope that by your flattery and attention they will come to gift you with some of their money and influence. This is very different than looking deeply into another sentient being just for the sake of witnessing their unique expression of the mystery of will. Too often, it seems to me, we cannot even do this among human beings. The way we treat those in our ghettos speaks volumes. It should come as no surprise that we are blind to the faces of the eagles, octopus, wolves, whales, and blue footed boobies. We have an interest in the ocean because it can provide us with food and those who fish it with money and power. If tomorrow a chemist invented fish in a factory, do you think we would do much to save the oceans for their own sake? What real value do we place on the lives of those who dwell in the depths? Just how much lower do we rank them then those many tortured lives in the world’s ghettos?
These are statements in the realm of values, not of facts. The facts are that the uniqueness of DNA expression is undeniable. Facts pass over into values when we recognize that the human mind is born with the potential to know compassion as the highest value but it takes education, real training, to realize that potential. This is another fact we have learned over long millennia in the school of hard knocks. Through our mythology and traditions we do our best to teach the value of compassion to each new generation as it comes along. Though the value of compassion runs counter to the hubris of our egos, it is the sweetest liberty the heart can know: to love others as one loves one’s self, and to love one’s self as one loves others. It makes life meaningful.
Pounding the living daylights out of someone does not make life meaningful; not in an alley and not on a battlefield. Stealing every last dime from the sick and the old does not make life meaningful; not in a hospital and not from a TV preacher’s stage. Deceiving the innocent and gullible does not make life meaningful; not in the most surreal CGI enhanced advertisement and not in the slickest air-brushed glossy publication. Do you know that most confidence men commit suicide or end up paranoid? Do unto others…
What intelligent, caring human being are confronted with in the neo-liberal value system is nothing less than a legitimacy of greed promoted through self-inflicted blindness to the needs of any and every living thing that might get in the way of profits. It stands to reason then that intelligent and caring human beings should work hard to find the types of things that will work effectively against this tendency to dehumanization inherent in a mass society ruled by neo-liberal values. This is what the mind training in ecological triage skills is all about.
Last week introduced one classification scheme for statements of fact. The categories lend flexibility to the mind by teaching it to become more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. These uncomfortable cognitive states are more easily allowed a place within our characters when their scope is properly restricted to those categories of thought in which they are inherent. Knowing certain types of statements can never obtain to 100% certainty is a good way to check our own thinking and to protect our sanity from those who use underhanded techniques to try and persuade us that this is not the case.
What this means in practice is captured pointedly in the schools of cognitive therapy. This is not the therapy of the unconscious mind that is explored by the depth psychologists. Pursuing meaning among the symbols of myth and dream is life-long task for students of the deep psyche. These cognitive therapies, in contrast, are designed to help people as quickly as possible. They seek a rapid recovery from depression, lack of self confidence, pain management, or whatever their client’s debilitating emotional issues involve. In my experience these cognitive mental health techniques have a complimentary role to play alongside personal researches into the deep. These cognitive insights are rooted in the philosophy of the stoics who stressed that while we are not free to control the world, we are free to some degree in choosing how we will meet that world. These ancient insights have been refined through therapeutic need into practical advice. These insights can act as a key that unlocks many of the mental manacles we are shackled with as good little consumers.
There are a number of names these types of therapies are known by but all share the same fundamental insight about the way our thoughts lead to our emotional experiences and how together they lead to the actions we take. Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), invented by Dr. Albert Ellis, is the particular one I will use as I like his rather rascally guru approach. Dr. Aaron T. Beck’s material might be more appealing to others. Mr. Ellis is not for the faint of heart, quick to use the F word and call bullshit bullshit; he is a New Yorker through and through. For me that personality was a perfect delivery mechanism for the message, one that could be summed up as ‘get a spine!’ and ‘stop stinking thinking in its tracks.’ Interested readers should take a look at his over the top How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything, Yes, Anything. It delivers the goods.
What these cognitive therapists have found is that when we suffer emotional problems they have a corresponding mental vehicle. The emotions are considered problems because they are proving too extreme for the client to continue living a productive life. Without life events expressing one’s will a person rightly becomes depressed since depression is a signal that what you are doing is not working. You can throw a pity party and bemoan fate till the cows come home but happiness is never found that way, however far down that path you might want to travel. Happiness comes from our sense of competency. We do not need to be genius but we do need to be able to accomplish whatever it is that we consider necessary for our own self respect. What that is remains an on going journey of discovery. It is a lifelong journey of discovery that should, for the most part, keep us enthused to be alive and grateful for each day we get. All too often that enthusiasm is lost in the worries and cares which are rightly born from the tragedies in our lives. What cognitive health entails, then, is not a disregard for bouts of depression when those are needed but a leaning into the wind, setting our rudder by the joy of being alive that is our birthright. We need to learn how to discern between a true need for tears and an unhealthy indulgence in sadness. Cognitive therapy skills can teach us to be childlike, not childish.
What these cognitive sciences have discovered is that we have a set of irrational beliefs as the source of our emotional disturbances. It is not at all hard for those of us who have studied ecology to recognize our societies are currently chock full of irrational beliefs and that they cause us to make decisions as a society that are just down right crazy. Well, that same mechanism plays out in our individual lives as well. When we are disturbed there is some internal dialog that reflects or sustains the extremes under which we are suffering. We gain power over these things to the degree that we recognize how the issues unduly disturbing us are accompanied by thoughts characterized by exaggerations, statements couched in absolutes, or other cognitive errors. We learn to take our skepticism inside and ask our own thoughts, ‘oh really?’
Things are bad. They really are. Things are going to get worse. They really are. It is not the end of the world. It really is not. Our descendants will live in that world. They really will. What we do today matters. It really does.
We will talk about these cognitive skills in coming posts. In this introduction I want to stress how important this particular set of skills can be for those who are willing to contemplate ecological reality. I sit and consider the end of our existing harvesting of ocean stocks in the next few decades, a simple extrapolation from today’s trends in global overfishing. I allow myself to feel the implications and feel that it is a bad thing we are currently engaged in making come to pass. It is critical that I do not exaggerate if I am to remain bound to the truth of what I am contemplating. It is not likely to be the end of the future stocks centuries hence, or the end of all the different species, nor even the first and worst die off earth’s precious ocean has ever experienced or will yet again. Now I have provided a safe container for my contemplations. Now I have a good chance of grounding myself in my own knowledge, refusing to pretend I do not understand what I do about the world and our activities in it, yet at the same time refusing to give in to unmitigated despair.
There is much more to say about the world-soul introduced last week. In particular the role of animals was not even mentioned yet is a substantial part of earth’s sentience. I hope to circle around to this subject again but today we are going to shift gears a bit. We are on the hunt for some clarification around the relationships between truth, belief, character, fundamentalism, and mental agility. There is a tradition of mind training in Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism. Today I’d like to introduce a bit of a western spin on the same idea.
Any statement made can be classified as belonging to a logical category. Some might belong to more than one category depending on how they are interpreted. I just mention this in passing but it can become a crucial key for proper understanding at times. These logical categories include:
True or False – It is 90 degrees outside right now.
More or Less Likely – It’s very likely the Larson C ice sheet will break off this year.
Meaningless – Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
Indeterminate – The god who made this universe loves war.
The first step in this western mind training is to simply recognize that these different categories exist. It is like having a number of different tools on your cognitive tool belt so that there is a good chance the right one will be at hand when it is needed. Many people are confused, and many messages are deliberately designed to be confusing, about the type of truth claims that are possible. Keeping in mind this full spectrum of possibilities can aid us in our quest to minimize our ignorance.
Without awareness of this whole collection it is not possible to identify that which is the real mystery in our midst, that which many label god. In the typically complimentary way of the psyche, the only way to get a handle on just what the human mind can know is to become real clear about what it cannot. To see the mystery we need to remove the mystification. To that end its worth pointing out the important characteristic of the meaningless statement which is that it was designed by Noam Chomsky to be syntactically correct but semantically meaningless. A whole lot of messages over our airwaves amount to little more than this when analyzed. As a reminder those who need to strengthen their understanding of likelihood are encouraged to peek at the probability material on this site.
It is, however, the last category of indeterminate statements that is the interesting one which we are going to explore in this post. Be prepared for some rather dense psychological material and groping speculation.
People are free to assert any number of things for which the only proper response is “could be.” The rub is that very often the person making said statement believes in it as if it were as real as rocks. Other people doubting its veracity then become construed as threatening to their position. Why? I think the answer deals with a fundamental difference in the position people make towards knowledge. Some people are certain they know the truth. Religious, scientific, psychological, whatever the field, these persons adhere to certainty. Their position is related to extroversion and the Western theological tradition of making positive statements about what god is. God is Love we are taught, God is X is the pattern. Certainly the term God however, if it means anything at all, points to that existential mystery at the heart of existing that far exceeds full human understanding. Granting that, whenever we assert God is X we should immediately add ‘and not X.’ If we say God is fair and just we stay real by adding but not as humans are fair and just. This is related to the apophatic Eastern theological traditions and introversion. This represents a different core psychological position persons can take towards truth. These people are not certain they know the truth but are quite certain about what they believe to be the truth, even while recognizing it is possible that they are mistaken.
Statements that can be true or false conclusively are the domain of deductive logic or direct observation. Inductive logic allows drawing generalized conclusions by reasoning along the lines of the most or least probable. The meaningless statements exist outside the bounds of logic and serve other masters than verbal truth such as deception or aesthetics or simply a poetic frolic with language engaged in for the fun of it. Which leaves us with the final category. There is something about the indeterminate category which causes a rather profound difference between how people approach the world and each other.
My suggestion is that their positions revolve around an individual’s understanding which is where the bits and bytes of knowledge are linked to what we human beings find meaningful. Though the knowledge is collective, the interpretation of it is resolutely individual. What something means to us is what we can only fully encounter by taking account of our dreams about it, how our perspective about it has changed over the long decades of a lifetime, and how this understanding of ours has ultimately affected our behavior. It takes all of this to account for what we find meaningful or not because it takes all of this to provide the details of our own stories which differ from anyone else’s.
Understanding gains this cognitive feature because it is built, at least in part (and often the most important part) by using symbols. Symbols turn their face to us but their backsides proceed into the unplumbed depths. Mind’s interface with will, the source of the bodymind’s movements and desires, includes encounters with non-conceptual energies from the biological processes involved. We know what the flag means, for example, as a stand-in for a country, its people and their history. It is also well known how a country’s flag can move men and nations by emotions both noble and base. This nature of symbolism as the simultaneous cognitive and physiological expression of our individual understanding lends itself to the profound commitments we often see people making to them. In a person’s individual experience as it unfolded in a particular culture numerous events made impressions on their character, laying tracks in the bodymind. This is how our understanding grows using the currency of symbolism.
For understanding to grow it must change. Often, due to the nature of what we as individual’s find meaningful being anchored in our hearts, in our physiology, such maturing changes are painful and difficult. There is an unrest in the body that accompanies this dis-quite in the mind when a person’s understanding is shifting. Though we can learn through this experience to be more tolerant of ambiguity and the unknown, nothing wholly removes its sting.
We experience all of this internally. The face we show the world, the persona asserting our place, may or may not be affected by the process. Whether or not it will seems to be determined by a number of things, including the size of the shift in understanding taking place. A chemistry student learning about programmed cell death is likely altering the arrangement of her knowledge less than someone suddenly learning her trusted business partner is a crook and murderer. Still, it is not just a matter of how large the changes are. Some people handle torture and others cannot handle no air conditioning, to be a bit flippant. An unknowable element of character, fate, destiny, or karma is also at play.
If the persona is affected the rest of the world will know. Public conversions of Republicans to Democrats or Independents are simple examples. Now our reputations are on the line once the persona is involved. We don’t need our lives shared in TV coverage to feel that pressure as friends and family play the same role regardless. If we change our minds too radically we expose ourselves, revealing our most vulnerable spots. We state we were previously foolish but now, so we are claiming, we have become wise. Only the shameless can easily endure public exposure of their own personal foolishness when the subjects involved are essential to what things mean among us socially. So the persona is tempted to clamp down and this is the process that creates what has been called character armor. This armor is a physiological tenseness that never gets to relax; it is how we always have our guard up. If we allow this process of shifting understanding to go through to completion without clamping down, even though it hurts, we eventually arrive at a place of congruity between our inner understanding as our bodymind experiences it and the expression of such in the world. Such conditions promote flexibility and suppleness as both physiologically and cognitively we are able to tense or relax as needed. Recall the point made earlier about our own culture’s lack of contentment in the post about Emotional Systems.
My hypothesis is that the armoring approach leaves the persona rather high and dry. Full bodied expressions of will are not characteristic of such people. They often seem disconnectedly intellectual, religious, or whatnot: head in the clouds but no feet on the ground. Here is where the distinction between the core psychological positions seem to have their nexus. The weakened persona tries to compensate for its handicap by asserting certainty not in the beliefs it holds but in the object of those beliefs. By this trick the person(a) seems to remove themselves and be involved in no more than objective statements of fact.
The education with the most profound affects on our understanding, mind training if you will, involve dissolving the character armor. It is a liberation from an untenable position we were tensely holding onto in our ignorance. Seeing mistaken certainty is simultaneously seeing the nature of beliefs. Letting go of the certainty is reclaiming your individuality by recognizing the role of your story in the shaping of your understanding. I think this might be related to wisdom. Harry Wilber in Understandable Jung: The Personal Side of Jungian Psychology has a great sentence capturing what this is all about. The context is his coming to the end of the Jungian analysis all Jungian analysts must go through themselves before they are considered ready to help others. This is from the section entitled ‘Sooner or Later, You Will Have To Become Your Own Analyst.’
“The Wise Old Man I had been talking to
had become myself – wise man, old fool.”
Compassion opens the inner eye of conscience that lives in the depths, far beyond the conscience society’s mores and the persona use for guiding behavior. This is our innermost understanding we are talking about here. Through practice we learn to become certain about what we believe yet remain open to revising these beliefs. We recognize and honor that these beliefs are rooted in the deepest understanding we have about what it means to be a self aware mortal human being – due to the way we have experienced it. They embody our story, a story wonderfully and mysteriously unique from beginning to end. We recognize what is real and true about what is real and true for us. In our unknowing we allow all sentient beings the same freedom because we comprehend the inner world characteristics of the bodymind through our own experience of subjectivity and objectivity.
When the gates of the death camps were opened in Germany at the end of WWII, the world reeled in silent shock. As the images slowly penetrated the fog of disbelief, spreading across the various cultures of the globe’s many nations, people everywhere, young and old, rich and poor, were confronted with the horror of industrialized mass murder. I know of no other way to begin to address what happened than to say a change had come over the world-soul. The relationship between the consciousness of human beings and the material, molecular earth was changed, not just the relationship between human beings.
The nature of the assault was assisted at every turn by tools: physical, chemical and clerical. The interplay of Homo Habilis and the earth consists of the consciousness of the tool maker and the molecular structures of our materials. Traditionally the soul or psyche of a person was understood as that realm between the body and the spirit. In the same way, the human built environment is the space in-between spirit and matter, between the inspiring thought guiding the tool’s formation and use on the one hand, and the stone, feathers, minerals and whatnot our ingenuity places in our hands on the other. Through this relationship with the rest of the planet we define ourselves as a species, creating our own ecological niche, exploring our extended phenotype. Because this built environment is larger than any individual it is related to what has been called the world-soul. The Eastern concern with the karma of nations is a related conception.
There is a question always present in this world-soul. The actions, the actual deeds of living things, are its answer. This question and answer in the depths of the moment, as the inner secret of time’s expression of will, cannot be captured in words though words can point to it. Life is beautiful but it is also true that its gift is only held in mortal hands. All things are impermanent so there is a degree of in-escapable suffering in the path of every sentient being. How then will you, in the mysterious depths of your own subjectivity, respond to the depths of subjectivity you witness in others?
A thought experiment might best illustrate how the concept of the world-soul is a necessary one. Here is a what-if scenario. What if the depletion rates of fracking are bringing a quick demise to U.S. oil abundance sooner rather than later? Add that Saudi Arabia has fudged its reserve numbers a bit and the peak of Ghawar, the largest oil field on the planet, has come and gone. Russia would have its own vast reserves of oil, the US would not. In this thought experiment the decision is made that it would be necessary to procure the supply in the Middle East. How exactly the necessary military moves are executed are not relevant to the thought experiment. Suffice it to say we are imagining the U.S. takes the oil it absolutely needs to keeps its infrastructure functional and its consumer economy growing. That its commitment to economic growth, suburbia and consumerism remains strong right up to the bitter end of overwhelming ecological blowback and societal collapse. This is one way things might work out. The proposed budget cuts to education and health care recently in the news can provide further clarity to the mental image we are trying to outline. It is telling that they are coupled with increases in the military budget. If, in this what-if, the “we should have kept the oil” becomes the means of making America great again we would want to ask, whose America is this and whose definition of greatness? Might I suggest it is the one where those who believe ‘America’s business is business’ and ‘the American lifestyle (aka corporate consumerism) is non-negotiable’ have made any values other than those enshrined by neo-liberal hyper-capitalism verboten, wholly forbidden.
Is this what shows up as the culminating act of this 240 year old experiment in democracy when push comes to shove over earth’s shrinking resource pie? In this what-if, how many nuclear bombs were used, how many millions of people “removed” as collateral damage? How much more chaos added to that which has already been created in Iraq and Libya? Does the rest of the world succeed in stopping the takeover attempt? Does anyone think China and Russia would just sit back and watch? As WWIII rolls its darkness over humankind’s nobility we can also expect general ruthlessness at all levels of society to increase, exacerbated by population over-crowding and climate change churning out Katrina and Sandy like events all over the planet even as the bombs drop. That is the what-if scenario.
Now the question I want to ask is what would this event do to the world-soul? What might it come to think about itself? In other words I’m not asking what individual opinion might be here and there but what impact it might have on the general attitude of human beings towards what they are and the world they live in. Today our children are exposed to the images of the Holocaust around fifth grade. We can be sure it has a profound effect on how they come to view the previous generations and the world of adults. To what end such knowledge? Will it nudge us towards becoming more kind or more unkind?
While the deluded among us would try to convince the entire world that only deception, competition and survival of the strongest and cruelest is built into the foundations of the natural world – they lie. Yes, life eats life but it also contains cooperation, beauty, compassion, even Schopenhauer’s metaphysical giving of one’s own life for the sake of another. It is a false picture of the natural world that does not include these things too. Not all cultures choose competition as the basic social relationship and winner take all as the basic embodiment of fairness. Many have traditions that strive to build up and encourage one another and share whatever good fortune comes their way. They recognize there is no need to add to the suffering in human life but there is a great need to become more skillful as we confront one another. What this alternative approach towards social relations finds, surprisingly enough, is that learning to feast well is the art through which the noblest features of our potentials are encouraged. By celebrating the bounty of the earth together, instead of in isolated ownership, they find happiness along the way. Not the happiness of the thrill such as consumerism offers during the hit of a purchase but the happiness that grows around a central element of contentment and the satisfactions found in freely sharing or the satisfactions of ownership of that which is well crafted.
A society programmed to be ceaselessly dis-content, who is facing the end of the supply of the single energy resource it requires to function, armed with a super-power arsenal… Well, it’s not hard to see how that restlessness could lead to all sorts of misadventures.
If anything like this what-if comes to pass, what will that do to the world-soul?
When things are their darkest, light is born; when things are their brightest, darkness is born. Perhaps we are about to learn a lesson about the true value of compassion in the school of hard knocks? Perhaps on the other side of the existing un-sustainability we will find a more realistic appraisal of ourselves and our position in the grand scheme of things. Or perhaps not.
Contemplating ecology’s deep time and deep space lets us position humankind’s 5,000 years or so of written history squarely within our 200,000 year old physiological frames, placing recorded history in its larger context. If we have another 5,000 years or more of cultural evolution it seems to me the odds are good we will come to relationships with each other and with the earth that are a bit wiser than where we are today. Why? A belief in progress smuggled into some kind of evolutionary inevitability? No, it is because try as we might we cannot escape the truth about compassion’s role in human life. It is inside us. While it is true that we can become monsters and run away from any sense of dignity or worth being inherent in nature (fallen, fallen fallen!), it does not change the facts. Wherever we go, there we are.
The ultimate teaching the image of the world-soul is trying to convey is that each of us contributes to this process by which molecular planet and sentient consciousness together shape history. It is what the Alchemists called our Great Work – the contribution that you and you alone can make to the world-soul. This is what we are in our snowflake-like individuality: buds on the vine of Christ or carriers of the DNA as you will, for in this science and religion agree. None alive is more valuable than another before the inner altar of the human psyche. This is what the uninitiated alpha males deny, this equality. In this they are mistaken and so the seeds of tragedy are sewn.
Through the meandering branches of the biosphere’s ways and byways the tinkering that is forever ratcheting emergent phenomenon applies to cultural evolution as much as it does to the more familiar microbiological kind. The amino acids of cultural evolution are the ideas and images which accompany us along the way. Shifts in insight and understanding are happening all the time. Some of these shifts are small, everyday alterations of a society’s mores. The large ones, however, call into question what had previously been unquestionable. To speak plainly, when the mistake made in history is large enough, such as the firestorms, death camps, and nuclear weapons of WWII, the collective psyche recognizes the excess and seeks a middle way less infected by such extremes. (The model supposes that the species stays sane by the same cybernetic means the individual does.) These war events represent part of the cognitive side of the rupture in humanity’s relationship with the earth which we recognize as the root cause of the ecological crisis. Mindful ecology recognizes interdependence makes it highly unlikely that while we remain at war with one another we will not also remain at war with the other living things on the earth.
Today the choice facing the world is whether or not WWII will prove to have been a foreshadowing. Will we learn from it or fall again into the same traps but this time for real, this time with population culls and naked resource grabs under banners of Holy Wars so nightmarishly horrendous as to bring about centuries of illiteracy and rule by the strong, a reset into a new Dark Age where might makes right and intelligence is suspect. Compassion, you see, is not the effervescent nice-to-have we have been taught it is by those in the corporate boardrooms whose dog-eat-dog philosophy is currently calling all the shots.
I’ve called this sketch of a possible future scenario a thought experiment, a what-if. It is not at all clear to me this is what is going to happen or if it did that the citizens of the United States would accept it once it became clear their democracy had fallen at the hands of oligarchy, following the path well-trod by the ancient democracies of Greece and Rome that was such a concern of the nation’s founding fathers. There are generations of values other than consumerism running in the blood of many families living here and undoubtedly a sincere concern about the future fate of the Republic fires much of the populous uproar of late. Perhaps such sentiments have only been temporarily high-jacked by the billionaire’s agenda. My family and friends, we want to remind our leaders on this week we celebrate the homeland that our soldier’s lives are precious. Full stop. Spend them with care.
Each of us contributes directly to the mind’s relationships with, and experiences of, the world-soul. You cannot escape being aware of the larger issues in the world, nor would you want to if you could, not really. This is what we are; buds on the vine, participants in the stream, carriers of the seed of life from one generation to another. Recognizing this we recognize both the equality and the nobility inherent within everyone. The nobility of sentient beings is inherent in the facts of the molecular world – which is as much psyche as quantum.
This nobility, the value and worth of the individual, is not something a state or a religion can grant to those it chooses and deny to the rest. Your subjectivity matters. It matters a great deal. It is only from within that the images and ideas come which guide us through our history’s wisdom and folly. May you have good dreams, dreams that are of benefit to all sentient beings. May your waking consciousness guide you to a meaningful life. Remembering gratitude, may you find contentment and bring an end to the war of all against all.