“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest–a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” – Albert Einstein
“The next step in human evolution is to transcend thought… It doesn’t mean to not think anymore, but simply not to be completely identified with thought, possessed by thought.” – Eckhart Tolle
“Evolution is an ascent toward consciousness.” – Teilhard de Chardin
As with any species, when its environment can no longer support it in its expression, manner and pattern of life, humanity must evolve, devolve, or face extinction. And for humanity, its future depends on individuals and society evolving beyond, and being liberated from, identification with that limited dimension of the human mind called ego. I say liberated from, because this identification has the characteristics of an addiction that, like a chemical addiction, keeps us functioning destructively, while in denial of the consequences. Humanity is at an evolutionary tipping point. Our social structures, our economics, our religions and our psychologies cannot take us into a quality future unless a fundamental evolutionary step beyond identification with ego is taken.
We must realize that while ego, with its compulsion to competition, invention and domination has been the driving centerpiece of human history, in fact, our proudest characteristic, it is also our blind spot. It is the fatal flaw that separates us from the truths of interconnectedness and wholeness upon which this Universe operates. What many seem blindly unreceptive to is that we must realize and embrace these truths if we are to achieve real sanity, both as individuals and as a species. Many who do see the problem, also say ego orientation, what could be called our “humanness,” with its thought dominance and its materialistic drives have been destructive of our connection to our “Beingness,” what some might call our “soul.” This could also be described as our connectedness to a deeper nature than our modern harried, acquisitive and self-absorbed lifestyles allow for. Before it is too late, we must face the limits and dangers of humanity’s predominantly egoic perspective.
Human resourcefulness will probably save us from extinction, but that leaves the question; are we doomed to devolution in the face of these new environmental realities? Will we descend into a deeply diminished quality of life, into brutish survival-based competitiveness? Or perhaps our evolution will take on a sci-fi freakishness of technology gone amok. These are possibilities. The relevant question is: can we evolve into a consciousness that will reclaim our balanced place within Life? Can we bring our human capacity for technology and social organization, that which has elevated human civilization but been so destructive of Nature, into the service of Nature and of all Life as beautiful, balanced and deserving of dignity and preservation.
Along with ecological devastation, symptomatic of the error of the egoic perspective has been the unique personal emotional suffering humans have experienced and wrought through individual and collective egoic violence throughout its “civilized” expression. Our unique capacity for abstract reasoning takes the information of our senses and tells us that we are separate, alone and insignificant. It creates a psychological construct of that isolation called the ego, built around and propelled by thought, reconstructing its matrix of unreality compulsively moment-to-moment, and replicating itself macro-dimensionally in societies and cultures.
The ego experiences this isolation and responds with anxiety, and from this fear-based emotion, in misguided compensatory pursuits of significance and happiness, we do terrible things to ourselves, others, our fellow non-human creatures, and to the planet in endless compulsive actions and schemes. At every level of human organization, from the individual, through families, communities and societies, this curse has haunted human history.
Religion doesn’t work, psychology doesn’t work, politics doesn’t work. They are all expressions of macro-ego. We have created a competitive, insecure, consumption oriented world-culture that is, of course, consuming the planet, but first, it has consumed our sanity. Compounding the problem is that ego will use denial and rationalization to continue its self-absorbed, self-indulgent and delusional ways, and is very slippery, cunning and determined to continue holding sway.
With that understanding, the evolution beyond egoic orientation, for individuals and for humanity requires, as does any addiction rehabilitation, a willingness to make, as addiction 12-step programs require, a “searching and fearless inventory” and make amends. We must recognize the necessity for evolving beyond this aberration in Nature, and enter into a very dedicated commitment to humanity’s evolution, re-harmonizing humanity with Nature into what ecologist Thomas Berry described as the “Ecocentric era.”
This planetary journey must, of course, begin with individuals, for the evolutionary success of any species begins with adaptations accomplished in individuals. A deeper understanding of the meaning and accomplishment of this shift in identity from the egoic thought structures into “searching and fearless” awareness is necessary. The resulting sanity and consciousness experienced by individuals can then serve as the beginning place for the next phase of planetary evolution.
This will not be easy. To penetrate and overcome the overlay of false identity and egoic values that have been the human path since civilization began, will no doubt, require sincere and conscious commitment. To alter this deeply ingrained orientation, this false belief in and addiction to egoic aggrandizement, will require a fundamental reorientation – a breaking of the worshipful attachment humanity has for ego and its thought structures, for specialness and superiority. It will require a reclaiming of humanity’s roots, its origin in a Nature that is a harmonious whole, and the challenge cannot be underestimated, for we cling tenaciously to this patently destructive orientation to competitive materialism. We turn a blind eye to the unending damage that this false sense of entitlement brings in every arena of life, for as with any addiction, we addicts are in total denial. We believe, against all evidence, that the human egoic mantra of “more for me and mine” can go on endlessly without catastrophic repercussion.
In response, it could be conjectured that Buddhism, with its call to meditative mindfulness, might seem to have been born into the emerging civilized world 2500 years ago in realization of just this dilemma. It is specifically intended to “awaken” individuals out of the sleep of civilization’s egoism. Traditional Japanese Zen masters understood the conundrum of confronting the deeply conditioned pull to socially sanctioned egoic perspective in constructing Zen training as strenuous, rigid and authoritarian in a kind of ju-jitsu of Japanese cultural values. It required the student to demonstrate to the teacher repeatedly the depth of their commitment to the discovery of enlightenment, their “true face” and “original” or “natural mind.” Zen training was designed to create the psychic tension necessary to break free of cultural conditioning to identification with egoism into a “satori,” an awakening into the reality of natural Beingness. It was a strenuous rehab program in kicking the ego habit and becoming a free human being.
While American culture is very different from the cultural tradition that classical Zen training confronted, we must bring the same kind of rigor and dedication to breaking free of the Western cult of materialistic, egocentric personality. In order to do this, the Zen tools of disciplined meditation, mindful action, ethical compassion and koanic challenge remain essential in this journey toward freedom and consciousness. They act as the counterbalance to egoic mind.
We must expand the contours of our awareness. As the great psychologist Fritz Perls used to say, “The contours of our neurosis are the same as the contours of our awareness.” We must, as individuals, and as a species, realizing that, as American Zen Master Charlotte Joko Beck taught, “awareness is who we are,” expand and evolve that awareness to erase all false boundaries between fellow Human Beings, Humans and fellow animal Beings and between Humans and Nature. We must commit to our own evolution, to an “ascent toward consciousness,” or face the inevitability of the Karma we have created.