[The Signal Blanket: Danger! By Paul Goble, The Coming of the Iron Horse]
How can we live authentically, fully human, fully divine, following a path of right living, in this world of seemingly insurmountable problems – violence, hatred, degradation, destruction?
The problems in our world today all begin with our mistaken idea that we humans are special, and special in a very special way, special because we are separate from the rest of the natural world, separate from each other. We even divide mind from body within ourselves.
This notion of the discrete, separate, independently existing self is deeply embedded in our culture, including our language, and thus embedded in all our ways of thinking – so much so that it’s difficult to talk about it clearly. It’s even more difficult to get people to think about it clearly.
Just the words “nature” and “environment” seem to imply that this separation is normal, that this is “just the way it is”. We don’t see that these words encode a dualistic world-view, a basic assumption that has grown stronger and stronger as our societies took step after step away from the connections with our intimate nature, beginning with language and symbolic culture and expanding with quantification, agriculture, science, and industry.
I have addressed the issue of separation and connection in an earlier blog post, but this is such a difficult issue to discuss that I think it’s worth a second, mostly new, approach.
Why is the idea of separation important and how is it related to our discussion of living authentically?
First, because we believe ourselves to be discrete, separate, independently existing entities, we see “nature” – all other beings and processes – as “resources” – things for our human use, to be controlled and subjugated for our purposes, and having no essential worth or meaning otherwise. Thus, as this idea has grown in strength and influence over human culture, our impact on the earth has been more and more harmful. Today we callously and arrogantly threaten the very biosphere that supports our life.
Second, because of this idea of separate-ness, we think we can behave in pretty much any way we like towards other humans and not really suffer any consequences. Competition – the whole “every man for himself” ethos – arose out this notion, as did the ideas of possession and property. Which leads pretty quickly to murder, war, torture, genocide, and all the other forms of violence that are endemic today. (Only because we are threatened by some outside power if we don’t do “right” is there reason to do otherwise, so when that belief in an outside power wanes, all kinds of horrors arise.)
Third, this conception of self causes us to misinterpret most of what has come down to us in the spiritual realm. We set ‘God’ outside of matter, outside the very universe, in some realm of ‘other’; earlier humans clearly saw God as in matter, in everything. We misunderstand the idea of animism as meaning that things have a spirit when it really means everything is spirit. We think, or believe, that we have a soul, and this soul is what’s important so we disregard the body. Or else we don’t believe that we have a soul, and thus we live only for the body. Either way, we’re equally lost, because we don’t understand that we are soul, we are spirit. This separation of the sacred from the everyday world again leads us to feel free to exploit that world of matter, that world of “other” to our own ends without regard for our impact; it allows us to set up one version of morality in the spiritual realm and another one for the material.
Fourth, we are unable to have true compassion for others within this dualistic conception of self/other. What passes for compassion in most of our religious or secular conceptions today is a weak notion of what we “should” do – either out of fear of punishment or desire for rewards – in this life or the next – or out of a wish to elevate ourselves in our own eyes and the eyes of our brothers and sisters.
All of these various ideas blend and intertwine in our ways of thinking and in our actions individually and collectively, creating a human culture that wreaks untold havoc on itself, on all the other living beings on the planet, and on the very underpinnings of life itself, ruining and despoiling not only the world but each other and ultimately ourselves.
To live authentically in this world, in this human culture, we must find a way to transcend its influence, to slough off the conditioning that tells us we must claw our way to the top of the pile, gathering more and more of the world unto ourselves, insulating ourselves from others and from the world out there with yet more and more comfort, security, pleasure and excess.
The first, essential, step is to see through the illusion.