Authentic Living #5

Authentic living begins with recognition of the illusions that dominate our thinking. We have all been programmed.

The more solid, affluent, and stable your upbringing, the more effective your programming likely was. All those rewards and punishments… all those sweet succorings… piles and piles of bullshit heaped on your head so that your thinking now stinks with the profound and deep corruption and degradation of it all.

And the name of all that programming is simple: separation.

As I outlined in the previous essay, we are taught, nay, conditioned, to believe that ours is a realm of ultimate dualities: mind and body, matter and spirit, good and bad; the idea that we as humans and as individuals are separate from nature, from each other, from God, even from the very universe itself. Separate in some kind of very special way that allows us to be as nasty as we like to each other, to the Earth, to other species – with impunity.

This cultural programming leaves us incapable of compassion and locked into some notion of spirituality as obeisance to a being outside of the natural order, subservience to some wholly ‘other’ deity who lives in a realm beyond matter. Outside this spirituality, we are left with meaningless lives in a meaningless universe of blind accident and rigid causation. This duality has driven us insane.

It drives the shallow, fearful, materialistic lives we lead, it engenders our selfish justifications of our poor treatment of others, it fosters endless violence, war, and genocide, and most recently it has produced the conditions that are the continuing ruination of the biosphere.

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Our survival as a species, and likely the survival of the biosphere itself, depends on transcending this conditioning, this hammered-in notion of our dualistic nature in a dualistic universe.

Charles Eisenstein, author of several books on the insanities of modern civilization – most recently The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible – articulates the need for deep change as eloquently as anyone I’ve read. Eisenstein identifies a number of fallacies in the ideology of control, which is our dominant cultural feature and derives from the belief in our separate, discrete existence.

Speaking of ecological problems as one example, he says we tend to think we can fix things by identifying the ‘cause.’ “Fine,” he continues, “but what if the cause is everything? Economy, politics, emissions, agriculture, medicine  …   all the way to religion, psychology, our basic stories through which we apprehend the world? We face then the futility of control and the necessity for transformation.”

And how is this transformation to be realized? Eisenstein says:

We need to rediscover the mind of nature, to return to our original animism and the ensouled universe it perceived. We need to understand nature, the planet, the sun, the soil, the water, the mountains, the rocks, the trees, and the air as sentient beings whose destiny is not separate from our own.

In language reminiscent of Matthew 25:40 – And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me – Eisenstein says this transformation must reach deep. “We and Earth are one. As above, so below: what we do to each other, even to the smallest animal or plant, we do to all creation.” Including ourselves. This is transformation that goes deeper than most of what passes for ‘alternative’ or ‘radical’ strategies; it is a transformation of our deepest knowing.

Eisenstein also invokes the concept of “interbeing”, which I first encountered in the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen monk whose Buddhism is strongly influenced by the Theravada tradition that dominates in southeast Asia.

Interbeing – as the neologism suggests – is the idea that everything that exists is intricately and intimately interconnected at the level of its very existence.

This idea is drawn from ancient Buddhist teachings about impermanence and emptiness. Buddha described existence in terms of paticca samuppada – a Sanskrit term which in simplest translation means “the dependent co-arising of phenomena.” In other words, everything has come into being in ways that are dependent on everything else. Nothing exists separately, independently, discretely. The deeper implication is that we don’t live in a universe in which things can be divided up into sacred and profane, holy and worldly, spiritual and material, but rather, everything is sacred, and we are all spirit.

Writer Joanna Macy says that paticca samuppada is what the Buddha awoke to; it is the content of his enlightenment.

This notion is also inherent in Christian teachings, though it has for the most part been lost. A primary Christian doctrinal proposition is that Christ was (is) “wholly human, wholly divine.” And Christ said, “I and the Father are One.”

This concept appears in the later, more philosophical Buddhist teachings as the idea of ‘emptiness’ – which means, as I presented in the original post on this blog, that “everything in existence, including you and me, is void or ‘empty’ of an inherent self-nature because everything is so intricately and inextricably linked with everything else that there is really only one thing and this is it, you are it, God is it, I am it, your toenail clipping on the floor under the bed from last week is it, and so… absolutely anything and everything that exists or happens or appears was, is, and will always be infinitely and completely wonderful, exquisite and delightful.”

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Clearly this is not a concept that one can arrive at very easily through our normal logical processes, and certainly not when one is as strongly conditioned as most of us have been to see the world in a dualistic way. In order to have a strong, clear understanding of interbeing, it seems that some kind of deep transformational experiences are required, the kinds of experiences that come from long, deep meditation and other intense spiritual practices.

But the experience of this notion in a direct, undeniable way will transform your thinking and your very mode of being in the world.

It is this transformation, not some bland experience of calm peacefulness, which is the point of the kind of meditation the Buddha describes and what has been taught in the few Buddhist traditions that have preserved Buddha’s original intent.

It is this transformation that is required to truly live authentically in the world as it exists today.

A spiritual connection

In his new book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, Charles Eisenstein makes a wonderful case for what the Engaged Buddhists have been saying for a while – activism that doesn’t begin at a spiritual level has little chance of real, long term success.

This passage lays it out pretty clearly:

Let us ask, “What kind of human being is politically passive, votes from fear and hate, pursues endless material acquisition, and is afraid to contemplate change?” We have all those behaviors written into our dominant worldview and, therefore, into the institutions arising from it. Cut off from nature, cut off from community, financially insecure, alienated from our own bodies, immersed in scarcity, trapped in a tiny, separate self that hungers constantly for its lost beingness, we can do no other than to perpetuate the behavior and systems that cause climate change. Our response to the problem must touch on this fundamental level that we might call spirituality.

It is here where the root of our collective illness lies, of which global warming is but a symptomatic fever. Let us be wary of measures that address only the most proximate cause of that symptom and leave the deeper causes untouched….

He cautions against making any one cause the primary, all-important cause, because it leads to the very control-based thinking – the same ‘war mindset’ – that is part of all our society’s problems. He says that such thinking

…subordinates all the small, local things we need to do to create a more beautiful world to a single cause for which all else must be sacrificed. This is the mentality of war, in which an all-important end trumps any compunctions about the means and justifies any sacrifice. We as a society are addicted to this mindset; thus the War on Terror replaced the Cold War, and if climate change loses popularity as a casus belli, we will surely find something else to replace it— …

[Eisenstein, Charles (2013-11-05). The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible (Sacred Activism) (p. 47). North Atlantic Books. Kindle Edition.]

He describes this dominant worldview as the Story of Separation, the idea that the universe is comprised of a multitude of separate, independently existing entities – that we as humans are separate from each other, separate from all other phenomena, and that we can effect change in any given realm without affecting anything else. As long as we are working within this mindset, within this narrative, everything we do just continues to support things as they are and really will never bring about significant change.

Drawing primarily on the wisdom of ancient cultures allied with the work of modern science – quantum mechanics specifically – Eisenstein comes to the same conclusions as we Buddhists – that we are all and everything intimately and inextricably connected. That nothing we do on any level is without consequence on every level.

On the positive side, this means that everything we are doing to help bring about understanding of the truth of our interconnectedness with all that exists is helping to deal with even the most daunting and dangerous problems in our world. Bringing up our children to understand – truly and deeply understand – that we are all one is helping to end war, poverty and environmental destruction.

Demonstrating that truth in our everyday lives, by being a good neighbor, a kind person, a responsible parent, a fearless defender of truth is true spirituality and our true calling, our true activism.