Most of us are familiar with the biblical story of the fall, when Adam and Eve were thrown out of paradise after an incident with a serpent and a piece of fruit. I remember it from Sunday School at the local Methodist Chapel. Why did our ancestors place so much emphasis on this story? It comes in Genesis 2, in verse 8, just after the creation of heaven and earth.
And the Lord God had planted a paradise of pleasure from the beginning: wherein he placed man…
God creates Adam and then Eve and by the end of Chapter 4 (verse 23), because Eve partook of the fruit of a forbidden tree (it was clearly the woman’s fault):
…the Lord God sent him out of the paradise of pleasure, to till the earth…
This was obviously highly significant to the men (well they probably were of that gender) who set down the Old Testament. Why? Well, Steve Taylor’s book The Fall has an answer to this question, not only for the scribes of that era, but also for ourselves and future human beings.
It’s taken me a while to get around to reading this book – first published in 2005 and highly recommended by many reviewers. I guess I sort of thought I knew the story, but it was not with the wonderful vision encompassed by this book. Steve is a psychologist, so his story is imbued with a deep understanding of human psychology, but he has also clearly researched and understood many disciplines to produce a work of this scope. This is a history of the fall and a vision of our potential return to paradise.
Sustainability – in the sense of the continuation and preservation of what is – is not a realistic long-term option…
Thomas Lombardo in Future Consciousness
It’s a bit of a shock to realise that Lombardo is probably right.
Psychologically, evolution is the key to understanding this. We seek not to go back to some previous situation, but to evolve and grow to a new, transformed level, where we have learned from the past to address the challenges of the present new situation.
Evolution does not demand that we abandon technology and go back to feudal times, that we abandon large scale farming for rotation farming of small plots, that we stop travelling around the world, that we become Luddites and reject all new technologies, and retreat into our localities. Life does not, cannot, go backwards.
Evolution does demand that we, and the system of which we are a part, evolve and grow. We must transcend and overcome the problems that have emerged from previous stages of our development, from the over-development of the little ego, from the corresponding misapprehension of the role of the egoistic ‘sovereign’ nation state, from the lack of recognition that the economy is part of the ecology rather than a competing and overwhelming competitor, from the lack of real empathy with others and the natural world. This is what climate breakdown, pollution of land, sea and air, species extinctions, gross economic inequality and associated problems are teaching us.
The longer we take to respond, the more extreme the provocations caused by ourselves become. We have so-called ‘leaders’ acting like spoilt children, trying to inspire populations with supposed earlier glories and visions of becoming ‘great again’, trying to win some great power game against each other. This is all illusion and regression.
It is time for humanity to grow up and flourish through addressing these problems, rather than retreating to supposed former glories while they overwhelm us.
This is the evolutionary meaning of sustainability.
Crisis is the mechanism used by evolution to evolve an organism to a higher level. If there is no crisis, nothing changes.
So maybe we should not be too pessimistic about the many crises that currently beset us, already listed in many other posts. They represent the opportunity for growth and change.
“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger — but recognize the opportunity.”
John F. Kennedy
Kennedy was apparently wrong linguistically, but his theme has been accepted by many as representing a fundamental insight about life.
So what are the opportunities presented, through which the crises can be successfully surpassed? As a species we must rise above the causes that lie behind our many crises. To my mind it is not difficult to see what some of these are:
the personal, religious and national egos that want to have it all, for themselves, regardless of the effect on other persons/religions/nations, that do not recognise the need to look after the old, the weak, the poor, the other…
the perception that the outer, material world is all that there is, with a consequent relative lack of self understanding and/or cultivation of the inner psyche/spiritual life.
the related denial that we humans are part of nature, need to be in empathy with it, and are now responsible for maintaining its wondrous diversity.
the related worship of power, money, jobs and technology, at the expense of nature, the achievement of potential, and the pursuit of the good, the beautiful and the true.
“When faced with a radical crisis, when the old way of being in the world, of interacting with each other and with the realm of nature doesn’t work anymore, when survival is threatened by seemingly insurmountable problems, an individual life-form — or a species — will either die or become extinct or rise above the limitations of its condition through an evolutionary leap.”
It’s not that difficult to see what’s wrong. It’s clear that the evolutionary leap is required at all levels – personal, society/culture, political. We just need to all get with the programme, make a start, and persevere. It’s just possible that, if enough of us change, the ‘hundredth monkey’ effect will come into play, and everything will have changed.
Featured image adapted from one by Vector conversion by Mononomic, via Wikimedia Commons
Here’s another poem by Steve Taylor – his take on the famous poem by Rudyard Kipling, ‘If.’ According to Steve, it’s a reflection on the meaning of success. It’s also a profound meditation on the meaning of life and where true contentment lies.
If you can find out who you really are
beneath the habits and opinions that you’ve absorbed
and the instructions that you unthinkingly follow –
If you can distinguish the deep impulses of your soul
from the shallow desires of your ego
and let streams of thought pass through your mind
without latching on or listening –
If you can sense the sun of your true self
behind layers of cloudy concepts and constructs
and keep your mind open and clear
so that soul-force shines through every action of your life –
then that’s all you ever need to achieve.
There’s no need to search for answers
if you’re expressing the truth that’s inside you.
There’s no need to look for meaning
if you’ve found the path you were meant to follow.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re applauded or ridiculed
whether you make a mark on the world
or live and die in obscurity.
If you can do what you’re supposed to do
and be exactly who you’re meant to be –
The occasional irritation is a cross I still bear, echoes of bouts of sometimes incandescent anger in earlier years. Because anger is habit forming, and certainly not commensurate with participating rationally in the world, nor with inner wellbeing. It takes long years of effort to step back and move beyond this reinforced negative response.
In the Agni Yoga teachings there is the concept of imperil – “the poison resulting from irritability”, actually deposited in the nervous system. Imperil manifests as ‘spiritual wasting’, reinforcing the ego and blocking higher energies of soul/spirit. So the ego is irritable, and not amenable to its own higher faculties. And the thought forms created have a poisonous quality.
This useful concept seems quite consistent with my own experience. Imperil is one of the great blockages to our own development and to our own mindfulness.
In this age of apparent domination by ego in the media and politics, it would seem that mass imperil is actually putting our societies in peril, which is actually the meaning of the word.
I am indebted to John Rasmussen’s article “I don’t want to separate anyone from anyone” in The Beacon magazine, April-June 2018 for reminding me of this concept of imperil.
Featured image is of the painting Lotus by Nicholas Roerich, with Helena Roerich transmitter of the agni yoga teachings.
The low winter sun lights up one of these chair legs in our kitchen. Just for a few minutes. Time for a quick shot, then gone.
Two identical chair legs look so different, depending on the light.
Just as we see others, particularly those we do not agree with, ‘in a different light’. Republican vs Democrat, Conservative vs Labour, Christian vs Moslem, Brexit vs Remain, White vs Black, ourself vs someone who wronged us…
At heart, we’re all the same, and the psychological task of life is the same, to first cultivate, then grow beyond, ego… Living in community. Seeing the positive in others, as well as their ignorance. The light and the dark.
These sex and money scandals – it’s all about the misuse of power, with money as its ally and enabler.
The power and will of the undeveloped ego does not move beyond selfish impulses, empathise with others or reflect upon the consequences or morality of his/her actions. Some such persons become capable of sexual aggression or rape; others take their own wealth to be of supreme importance at the expense of others, some consolidating their position by dictatorial politics or gangster rackets.
Money is the enabler that pays the lawyers and accountants to ensure that their actions are legitimised or not penalised. How often have you heard the words ‘I haven’t done anything illegal’?
It is interesting that the worst corporate offenders in terms of avoiding their obligations to the wider society seem to be the young (and still rapidly growing) IT companies – Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon etc. – entities still essentially in their adolescence, when a sense of balance and fairness is often not yet achieved by the ego.
The developed ego strives to continue to grow and move beyond these primitive influences, leading ultimately to ego transcendence and spiritual being. For these people, power and money give responsibility for their wise use, in the situation in which one finds oneself. Exploitation of others and personal aggrandisement are no longer part of the game.
Our challenge today is to raise the level of everyone’s game (ego). The bringing to light, to public awareness, of what was previously hidden, is an encouraging part of that process of change. I salute all involved in this cleaning of the inner stables, particularly those with the amazing courage to speak out the unspeakable things done to them and those journalists whose efforts shine that light.
I read Erich Fromm’s book To Have or To Be (1978) many years ago, and remember being impressed by the ideas put forward. So I recently sought out the copy with yellowing pages from the shelf of books that have survived regular culls over the years. I discovered that Fromm’s ideas are just as relevant today, and the problems he identified have arguably got worse.
His basic idea is simple. Having and being are two fundamental modes of experience, the relative strengths of which are key determinants of character. Modern capitalist society emphasises having things, property, money, goods and so on – so these are major determinants of character, and the society is essentially competitive. Other more co-operative societies have been more concerned with being in the world and how we relate to it.Read More »
I happened to be reading Yuval Noah Harari’s book Homo Deus and around the same time watching Satish Kumar’s interviews Being an Earth Pilgrim. Harari was speaking of the obsession of certain Silicon Valley magnates with the achievement of immortality, whereas Kumar was describing how both his mother and the activist poet Vinoba Banave recognised when their life was coming to a natural end and accelerated this process by self starvation.
The difference appears to be in the attitude to death. Kumar sees this as the natural culmination of the process of a life; the magnate sees it as an undesirable end to be avoided.
Surely the desire for immortality is a gross illusion of the psychological ego. The process of a life requires a growth of the person to a level at which the ego and it’s selfish concerns are transcended. Here lies the death of the ego that it was so fearful of avoiding, such that it desired immortality. Whether achieving this state or not, the person ultimately dies – Kumar would say this is to be reincarnated and take the process further.
There is no case in nature, out greatest teacher, of a life or process that is without end, or death. Life indeed demonstrates as a set of processes that are born, manifest, grow, flourish and ultimately die.
The search for immortality is a great vanity and illusion of the hubris of the psychological ego.
Of course, this is not to suggest that there is not value in research aiming to increase the typical human lifespan, which may well serve some purpose of which we are not yet even aware.
Consider a man or woman. As individuals our job in the early part of life is to develop the psychological ego, so that we become effective members of society. As this process proceeds, we also begin to become aware of this ego entity we have created, and to transcend this to some degree – to co-operate with friends, family, co-workers and so on. In the limit, we realise that we are all interconnected and our job is to contribute something to the whole – which is what we really came to this earth for. Ultimately we are spiritual entities whose job is to transcend that ego we ourselves created.
Now consider the nation state. Its life process is no different. In the early stages of nationhood we develop a strong identity and go through various processes of self assertion, looking after our people and not worrying too much about others. Of course, wars happen from time to time, we form alliances and these and the wars and the problems get bigger and bigger. In the limit the nation realises that its job is to contribute something to the whole rather than just look after number 1. Thus were created the United Kingdom, the European Union and the United Nations.
None of these bodies is perfect. All have unsatisfactory characteristics that need to change. Just as within the nation state it is people’s job to work to improve it, so within these greater bodies it is the nation state’s job to work to improve the institution to more perfectly accord with what is needed. So it is the UK’s job to stay within the EU and work with our brothers and sisters (for that is really historically what they are) to improve the Union.
To withdraw and attempt to go our own way appears to be a nostalgic attempt by the national ego to revert to an earlier, less co-operative level, a primitive ‘sovereignty’ such as in the days of empire. In a world with mounting problems, particularly related to resource depletion and global warming, this is precisely the wrong way to go. The need is for nation states to transcend their nation-egos to a greater degree in order to satisfactorily address these problems.
The campaign for the UK to leave the EU is essentially appealing to our immature ego to step back from the great progress made so far. Fear and selfishness is its name.
Featured image courtesy of agsandrew and Shutterstock
I am about 4. It has been raining. I am crouched over a puddle between the road and the grass verge, outside our house in Lincoln. I am fascinated by the scudding clouds reflected in the puddle. There is a feeling of wonder at the majesty of the clouds and their reflections in the puddle. I often go back to look in the puddles again.
Perhaps these are early intimations of transcendence. Later, I experience similar looking out over the sea and the incoming waves, watching a sunset, a rainbow, the moon reflected over the sea, vast land vistas, etc. Abraham Maslow coined the term ‘peak experiences’, which seems to aptly describe what is going on.
At such times I am overawed by the beauty and wonder of the natural world, invoking the mystery of life itself, the unanswerable questions.
I always recall singer/comedian Mike Harding recounting just such an experience in Rochdale, when doing a gig in the 1980s:
“I woke up, went to the window and gazed out over a sea of stars.
I got philosophical and thought ‘What is it all about?’.
Then I thought ‘It’s got bugger all to do with me’, and went back to bed.”
The ego always gets back in control as soon as it can!
Featured image courtesy of Nanie and Wikimedia Commons
What is the meaning of getting old? Is it something like this:
“the challenge of growing old is not to conquer aging but to enter a natural, meaningful, and profoundly transforming process”?
If you think it is, then you will probably like John C. Robinson’s book The Three Secrets of Aging.
It is good to think that aging can be a meaningful process that can positively contribute to society, rather than just a desperate hanging on in the face of increasing tribulations and eventual infirmity. Again, Robinson gives a positive vision, akin to playing a part in a New Renaissance:
“…the aging experience described here can eventually become the path to a collective transformation and the discovery of a new world.”
Part 1 tells the story of the authors own coming into the aging process and becoming aware that it is not about more ‘business as usual’ with the preoccupations of earlier years, but more about an emptying of consciousness, a spiritual transformation to awareness of who we really are – a sort of modern form of enlightenment, away from the everyday concerns of the ego and its thinking monkey mind.It is the ego and the personal identity that actually keeps us away from our inner core. From this perspective, aging is a process of transformation of consciousness, and the individual is contributing to a collective process of transformation.
Part 2 offers three ‘secrets of aging’. The result of aging is seen as the creation of Elders, wise people who have always been valued by native peoples. The work involves both psychological and spiritual work, transforming loss and change, away from the life we knew with its materialistic concerns, into meaning, wisdom and renewal. Squarely facing our own personal death is a key task of aging, catalysing our initiation. We can finally reach a state of pure consciousness, untroubled by the previous interminable concerns of the ego mind. The author refers to the Cosmic Consciousness promoted by Richard Bucke over 100 years ago.
Eventually, yes, the body will in some way break down, and it will eventually be time to pass on into the Mystery. But that too is all right, a natural part of the process, no longer resisted by the ego.
In part 3 the author offers ‘A Spiritual Blueprint for the Enlightened Elder in the Twenty-First Century’. He highlights the need, in that the effects of our separation from nature are becoming increasingly apparent – the technological ego-maniac period is increasingly running into the buffers.
“Coming to our senses means experiencing the Earth directly as a vast, intelligent, living and divine being everywhere expressed in a marvelous diversity of forms and processes.”
The Master must regain control from His Emissary, in the terms of Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and his Emissary, reviewed elsewhere.
There is much food for thought in this book. For me, John C. Robinson offers an inspiring vision for the process of aging, and its relevance as part of our collective experience.
The bottom line is if you like the overall thesis you are likely to benefit from reading it.
Do we just learn more and more facts until eventually, we know so much that we are inevitably wiser? Look around you, the highly respected academics, advisers and some of their preposterous theories? Clever maybe, but not wise.
Do we just gain more experience of the world, of doing things, of managing people, getting our way? Look around you, the top businessmen and politicians – are they managing the world wisely? Cunning maybe, but not wise – although there are remarkable exceptions with obvious wisdom: Mandela, Havel, King, Gandhi… but the list soon runs out.
Do we become judges, so that we weigh complex matters of law in the balance? The judgement of Solomon? Well actually judges seem so constrained by the laws they administer and their ‘sentencing guidelines’, do they actually have the room to be wise? Whatever happened to natural justice?
Do we just live our lives and relate honestly to other people, making the best contribution we can? Think of the neighbours, friends, the family, people you meet shopping? Well a few maybe a, but not in general.
Do we follow a religion and in so doing become good and wise? History shows a lot of examples of religious people doing the exact opposite of wise, but again there have been highly respected exemplars, such as the occasional pope and saint.
Do we simply wait until we get older and become wiser? Well many older people just become encrusted with habitual behaviours, so no guarantees there.
Look at it psychologically. From childhood we develop the psychological ego, which enables us to function in the world. Along with that we develop facility in language, which enables us to be ‘educated’ and to rationalise everything, but tends to distance us from the reality of experience. This enables us to function in modern societies.
However, I suggest that rationalising and language are not the route to wisdom. Wisdom comes from perceiving a situation in its essential whole and doing what is needed for the whole (ie not for the ego), which may be nothing. Rational analysis may be relevant, but will not provide the answer.
So to be wise we must have moved in some degree beyond that attachment to the rationalising ego. In fact we must be operating from our true inner selves.
Evidence suggests that people following some sort of spiritual path, perhaps involving techniques such as meditation which help to see and then detach from the ego, will eventually get more in touch with that inner self – and that is the route to wisdom. This is usually, but not always, a long process – hence there is some association of wisdom with older age. Indeed the infirmities that beset the body as it ages bring the receptive person right up against the illusions of ego, ‘encouraging’ this process.
So, indeed, as in traditional societies, ‘elders’ can be wise – hence the wisdom of the World Council of Elders initiative.
[Looking at our own UK parliament, the famous unwritten constitution has at its heart the ‘House of Lords’, which performs a valuable service in providing a leavening of (hopefully) wisdom to the more youthful follies of the government of the day and the House of Commons. Shame then, that despite some recent progress, key criteria for Party Leaders topping up the population of ‘Lords’ appear to continue to be political subservience and money donation, rather than wisdom. ]
One could almost say that the purpose of human life itself is to go through this process of ego development and then ego dissolution, to become a truly wise person – to make the best contribution to an increasingly wise society.