The Ascent of Humanity
Chapter 8: Self and Cosmos
At Play Beside The Tower
In the reduction of reality to number and name, in the program of owning and controlling the world, we have wrought a Tower of Babel, seeking with our finite tools to take the infinite by storm. To do this we have so specialized and separated, and so reduced and exhausted the world, that the coherency of the vast megamachine that makes possible our ascent to the heavens is threatened. Our tools of control are insufficient to manage the chaos we have unleashed. Our ascent, even the illusion of our ascent, slows to a standstill as the effort merely to hold everything together grows to consume all resources. Now, as the Tower totters under its own weight, now as each attempt to shore up its crumbling sections adds to the instability of the whole edifice, perhaps we can see more clearly, from amid the ruins of our civilization, what the collective purpose that we have yearned for might be.
The supreme irony in our Babelian quest of attaining the infinite through finite means is that we are actually enacting precisely the opposite. We are liquidating all that is infinite, sacred, and unique, converting it into the finite, the controlled, the generic, standard, and measurable. Think of the redwood forests reduced to furniture, possessions, and ultimately to money: numbers in a computer. We are cashing in the earth, selling off our lives, reducing reality to data. Soon there will be nothing left to convert, as all social, cultural, natural, and spiritual capital is exhausted.
The Tower totters and sways. Once proudly leading the vanguard in a glorious conquest of nature, science and technology—and the whole regime of management and control—are now consumed in an ever more-desperate attempt to simply hold things together. Having cut ourselves off from nature, from wholeness, and therefore from health, we try frantically to manage the consequences with one technological fix after another. Like an addict trying to hold his life together, we shift debts, create rationalizations, and generate long-term consequences to solve short-term problems, pretending all the while that everything is under control. “Science will find the solution,” we think, as we manage problems by putting them off until a future day of reckoning.
Like the addict’s increasingly unmanageable life, such an effort is destined eventually to collapse completely, bringing us face to face with the realization that we can only recover, only heal, by relinquishing the entire mindset of control implicit in existing systems of technology, science, medicine, money, property, and education. At that point we will be open to the healing power of nature, the wild, the inherent purposefulness of the universe, the beneficence and fecundity of something beyond rational understanding and control. Something greater than our selves as we have conceived them.
On one level, this means modeling our industrial, social, educational, and economic processes after those of nature, replacing the metaphor of the machine or computer with that of the ecosystem, where there is no such thing as waste that is not also food, no place that is external, where there is no centralized organization, where each part is dependent on all the others, where the most successful are those who best fulfill their function in meeting the needs of the whole.
More than that, nature can also bestow upon us a model of creativity that does not entail the reduction of life and world. I have long felt that the disappointments of the environmental movement stem from its failure to articulate anything more positive than “sustainability”. The creative gifts of humanity, culture and technology, having enabled us to destroy so much, are understandably seen as an arrant scourge that must be reined in. “Can the gift be separated from the curse?” I asked in the Introduction. Does the salvation of humanity lie in the denial of the very essence of our species? My heart says no, but for a long time I could see no other option. Now, finally, I can envision a more-than-sustainable future that accommodates the exuberant expression of the gifts that make us human. Like the indigenous artist who understood his work to be the revealing of the form already contained within the carving block, we can see ourselves collectively as an agent of nature’s continuing self-revelation. We will no longer impose, but discover and reveal. To get back to nature doesn’t mean passivity, to desist in the effort of creativity. We are creative beings, made “in the image”, it is said, of the Creator, part of Nature which is nothing less than Creativity itself. No longer need we see nature as the passive and inert substrate of an external creator’s art, nor as the empty, arbitrary result of random interactions of forces. Reflecting upon nature as it really is—endlessly creative of new forms and systems of beauty—we will understand that our highest purpose is to actualize unmanifest realms of beauty too. Indeed we have been doing this for millennia already. In addition to ruin, technology has afforded us new modes of creative expression that would have been unimaginable just a few centuries ago. The difference is that soon it will become our conscious collective purpose. The forces that today pressure us to “sell out” will disappear along with the illusion of separateness that gives them rise. In their place, new forces of the civilization of Reunion will arise which will reward wholeness, beauty, sustainability, discovery, and art. Freed from the anxiety inherent in the manage-and-control mentality, we will also be free to create beauty rather than to sacrifice it to the apparent necessity of survival.
The human gifts that have empowered us to bring the planet to the brink of catastrophe are not intrinsically evil, demonic powers to be spurned, but are, in the end, sacred means to take the creation of beauty to a new level. The problem is that we have not respected them as sacred. We have prostituted our gifts. We have been stuck in the delusion that their purpose is to gain us comfort, security, and pleasure, which follows from the idea that there is no real purpose to life but to survive, which follows from our deeply held Newtonian ontology, which itself is just the culminating articulation of separation.
When I say the purpose of technology is to take nature and the creation of beauty to the next level, I do not echo the common view that now that technology has essentially solved the problem of survival, it is time to halt the destructive spiral of materialism and turn our attention to art, music, literature, pure science, and aesthetic enjoyment. In other words, it is time to retire! This view goes back at least to the Age of Coal, when the terrible suffering of industrial laborers was justified on the grounds that it was a temporary sacrifice necessary to usher in the Golden Age of plenty. Now, the thinking goes, it is here, or at least it could be here if only we weren’t so greedy, if only we didn’t spend a trillion dollars on weapons, if only the economic system weren’t so skewed. This view ignores that fact that there never was a “problem of survival”. The Age of Plenty is not the fruit of technology; it is technology that has led us away from plenty to a world of anxiety, scarcity, and alienation. But if the misconception of self and world that has driven our technology were to change, its function as a force for separation would change as well.
The creation of beauty I speak of is not limited to the traditional aesthetic arts, which, isolated in their museums, have become a category largely separate from life. Every industrial process, every social institution, every relationship of our lives is a suitable object of our art. Humanity’s turning to art is not the hobby of a retiree, it is the fusion of life and art, art and work, work and play.
Instead of focusing on survival (“making a living”), our interaction with the world will be our play. After all, our purpose is to understand, appreciate, and participate in nature’s ongoing creation of new realms of beauty, and how do we do that? It is through play. Isn’t that how a child learns to “understand, appreciate, and participate” in the world? In a sense, the entire course of separation has been nothing but a cosmic play; the difference will be that we will no longer be lost in the game, no longer oblivious to the illusory nature of our separation. With this consciousness, our play will become again playful.
The parallel with storyteller consciousness, described in Chapter Seven, is significant, and in fact play and storytelling are deeply connected. Play is an enactment of a story, a provisional reality with its own rules and agreements. As we become conscious creators of our stories, so also we become conscious players in the cosmic game. All the accouterments of the separate human realm—label and number, images and machines, technology and culture—become our playthings and the instruments of our art. No longer unconsciously lost in that separate human realm, we are free to reunite it with the natural. We reunite its linearity with the rest of the cycle from which we tried to separate it. We reunite its symbols and stories with our conscious creative intentions. We reunite its technology with the purposes and processes of nature. Wielding our gifts consciously now, we can create a human realm no longer at odds with the natural.
To reunite with nature, to reconceive self and world, may sound like an unachievable ideal, but actually it is closer than close, as available at any instant as nature is herself. A Chinese proverb goes, “As far away as the horizon, yet right in front of your face.” On the one hand, no matter how far we travel, we can no longer find pristine, perfectly undisturbed “nature” anywhere on this planet. There is no escape from the sounds, the chemicals, the lights, and all the other signatures of technology. All ecosystems are disturbed. Moreover, we take ourselves, our thoughts, and our being with us anywhere we go, and by our very presence as sojourners from civilization adulterate the purity of our destination. Like the horizon in the proverb, pristine nature recedes as we approach it.
On the other hand, nature is also right in front of our face, in us and all around us. It only recedes as we approach it when we conceive it as something separate from ourselves. We could, I suppose, attempt the reunion of the human and natural realms by willfully abandoning technology and returning to the Stone Age, but I suspect that the yearned-for state of purity would recede before us like the horizon in the proverb. The origins of separation go back beyond the Stone Age. Shall we overthrow the dictatorship of the eurkaryotes? Fortunately it is unnecessary. A return to nature, as the proverb implies, is as easy as a shift of perception. I will conclude this book by offering a few thoughts on how to reunite the human and natural realms on the individual level.
Going back to nature can be as simple as crawling on your hands and knees for a few minutes sniffing the dandelions. The healing power of even this tiny action is amazing. No matter how doubtful you are, however reason denies it, sniffing the dandelions just for the experience of it, watching a bug just to see what it does, looking at the clouds for five minutes, will have a noticeable effect. As Tom Brown Jr. put it, “A five-minute walk through a vacant lot or the park will have regenerating qualities about it. They’ll be able to see more and feel more and, therefore, realize their aliveness.” It seems trite, but even the most conventional ways of “reconnecting to nature” can erode the illusion of separateness, which is so much easier to maintain in the boxes of our houses, cars, and computers.
Nature is also in our bodies. The Cartesian mind-body split, which located the self apart from the body, can be healed through various practices that render that split experientially absurd. Yoga, Taichi, martial arts, the Feldenkrais Method, Authentic Movement, Contact Improv, the Continuum, and various hands-on healing modalities can reveal to us that body is an aspect of mind, and mind is an aspect of body.
But is signing up for a yoga class or taking more walks in the park going to heal the planet? Obviously not, except that, imperceptibly at first, such minor changes begin to erode the illusions of separation. The process of Reunion on a personal level often starts with a persistent disquiet before it erupts into a full-blown convergence of crises. It is the sense that something about life and the world is just not right—and this feeling alone can constitute a crisis in the sensitive. One’s job, one’s plans, one’s way of life doesn’t make sense anymore in light of a dawning truth. Eventually, all aspects of life undergo a thorough transformation.
Many books on our environmental and social crisis offer nothing but despair, either in the form of “These problems are too vast for you to do anything about,” or in the form of tepid, palliative suggestions like buying “green” products and recycling your beer cans. In a way, the despair is justified. Everyone knows that even if you reduce your ecological footprint to zero, your individual action is as nothing compared to the colossal forces that are inexorably destroying our planet. A life that makes sense in the full realization of the tragedy of the human condition cannot be achieved by switching brands or buying a Zen meditation kit. Eventually we realize that the transformation must reach the pith of life, core issues of relationship and work. By degrees, spiritual realizations take on a material character. The despair comes from realizing that life as we know it cannot go on. If this realization is unconscious—no matter—the unconscious mind will engineer crises that propel birth into a new state of life.
In this core transformation, we tap into a power that makes the aforementioned despair irrelevant. It comes again from a “return to nature”, but on a much more subtle and profound level than the beginning steps of reconnecting with the body and the outdoors. It parallels a primary theme of this book, which is the transformation rather than the abandonment of the separate human realm, so that it is no longer unnatural. On the individual level, it comes through the power of word, storyteller consciousness, and living in the gift. These are what enable us to realize our full potential as world-creating beings. It is no coincidence that these concepts contain within themselves nearly all of the world’s great spiritual teachings: non-attachment, love, opening to something beyond our separate selves. More than in the outdoors or the body, nature is in these things. Living in the gift: rejoining the gift circle of ecology in which purpose lies in the fulfillment of our role and function in an ever-blossoming, ever-transforming whole. Story-teller consciousness: assuming a conscious role in the universe’s ongoing play of self-creation.
Not only does going back to nature free us from the chains of survival anxiety and teach us our purpose as creators of beauty—that is, artists—it also teaches us how best that beauty might be created. By observing the grand pattern greater than anything the manufactured and artificially separated self could contrive, we become aware of the unique role we have to play in that pattern. This understanding comes from the simple fact that we are part of the pattern. It is not distinct from us. By observing nature, we observe ourselves; by learning about nature we learn about ourselves. The function of “I”, “this provisionally self-aware part of the pattern” becomes apparent.
Sooner or later, whether driven by a crisis from within or without, the normal lives we have known are going to end. The mad scramble of technology and self-improvement seeks to continually find ways to maintain normalcy just a little longer. What is seldom recognized is that normality is at the root of the problems, and contains the seeds of its own demise. It can be maintained only with constant and growing suffering—the very suffering that now consumes our world. Seldom acknowledged as well is that the normality, even if it were sustainable, is not worth sustaining. We have grown accustomed to enormously impoverished lives. Yet a buried memory remains of what life can and should be, a memory sometimes brought to the surface in those lucid moments of joy and connection I described in the Introduction. I speak to this memory and this knowing. I wish to remind myself and everyone that a far more beautiful world and life is possible, and that this possibility demands a revolution in human beingness. The call is urgent. Live a life that makes sense in light of all the truths you are awakening to. The social and planetary crisis, the illusion of separation, the impermanence of your discrete and separate self, the futility of the program of infinite control, the robbery of our spiritual capital, the reduction of the world to money, the selloff of time and life… and for what?
All we can do and all we need do is to live a life that makes sense. The danger is that even after seeing these truths, we continue to pursue an illusion anyway. Old habits are hard to change. A saying goes, “The truth will set you free.” Nothing more is needed; nothing less will suffice. The eons of striving to transcend human nature are over; now we are learning we need only come more fully into who we are. Part of the coming to wholeness that I have described as the Age of Reunion is to no longer hide away parts of the world and parts of ourselves whose existence makes life-as-usual inconvenient. We will not heal our hurting planet, nor will we help any living soul, by denying our selves. Quite the opposite: our true nature denied—separation from who we are—is what has caused our present crisis to begin with. For centuries the message has been to be less: to overcome human nature with self-discipline, just as we overcome the rest of nature with technology. But today, the conception of self and world upon which the ideology of control is founded is obsolete. The war on nature and human nature is over. It is time to step into what we truly are, and so assume our divine purpose in nature’s evolution to its next level of beauty.
Herein lies the self-acceptance and self-trust with which I opened this chapter. These do not lead to the destructive, narrow greed of the discrete and separate self, because this is not really who we are. Ultimately, it is the path of self-love that will necessarily bring us back into love with the world. This path is not without its pain; indeed, it encompasses all the pain that there is. But on the other side of the pain and sadness is understanding, wholeness, and therefore freedom. By integrating the sad truth of what we have made of life and the world, the sad truth of our millennia-long reduction of reality into label and number, money and property, we regain a vision of what we can be, should be, and actually are; we reclaim our birthright as whole, creative beings, in love with life and life in love with us.
The infinity we seek is here already, and it always has been. The collapse of the Tower—the world under control, the quest for certainty in science—is laying bare the fraud that has enslaved us for ten thousand years. Yet we must remember that this fraud too has its purpose. We must remember the playful origins of separation, this exploratory game we have lost ourselves in and from which we are now awakening. Our quest, our journey to the farthest reaches of separation, is now nearly complete. However hard the birthing pains, a light beckons us, a Reunion with that place of enchantment, understanding, and wholeness. Let that light sustain us through the coming darkness.