“Today, with the development of scientific civilization, the human spirit, which should be making use of material things, has steadily weakened, while the power of material things… has daily grown stronger, conquering that weakened spirit and bringing it under its domination; humans therefore cannot help but be enslaved by the material.
– Sotaeson (founder, Won Buddhism, 1924)
There is no question about it. Humanity is at a crisis point. Our relationship with this planet Earth, our home and sustenance, is strained to the breaking point. Our ability to continue into the long future with any true quality of life is seriously threatened and we are looking in the not-too-distant future to catastrophic dislocation of populations in environmentally threatened areas while social conditions very likely will deteriorate to dystopian levels UNLESS we find a way to address this crisis and alter our course. Yet this is not happening because it has to be this way. It is happening because humanity has lost its essential sense of what is valuable and what is secondary. In our enamorment with technology and its capacity to master the material world, we have forgotten that the purpose of our original technology was to protect us from the dangers and difficulty of living WITHIN Nature, what would seem to be a good thing and it was. Yet it carried with it a progression that took humanity from protecting itself within its relationship with Nature into separating itself into an antagonistic and exploitive relationship with Nature, and this brought the consequence of separating humans from our sense of BEING Nature. And this comes with a terrible cost in psychological destabilization for individuals and in human social misery.
Even before humanity stumbled into the limits of its rapacious relationship with the planet’s capacities as it entered into the 21st century, there was a growing sense that something appallingly wrong was happening within the human sphere. As the industrial revolution and increasing mechanization and urbanization of populations occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries, entirely new kinds of enquiry emerged in philosophy and medicine. In philosophy, existentialism sought to address the consequences of this alienation which brought with it an explosion of mental illness requiring medicine to develop a new specialty called psychiatry. The horror of world wars, civil, ethnic and religious conflicts escalated with modern weaponry became frightening realities. The middle 20th century saw the threat of global nuclear destruction become a real possibility. The loss of community and individual expression in craftsmanship which gave way to assembly-line mass production and assembly-line life and then into high-tech virtual-realities and international economies lived in concentrated transplanted urban and suburban lifestyles forged a growing sense of disconnection and dis-ease. Extended families living together in communities for generations working the land on small farms and at craft and small shop manufacturing in small towns increasingly disappeared into a mobile, transferrable, out-sourceable work force, and alienation became a word that found increasing expression. And now, environmental destabilization caused by human technological metastasization threatens to collapse our civilization. Yet we seem to be whistling our way through this graveyard.
Aboriginal cultures, which were rich civilizations, had, of course, basic technologies, yet they also lived with a powerful sense that the soul of what it is to be human lies in connection with Nature and in tribal kinship, and so the limitations of their technological development had a profound wisdom to it. Remember that while humans have occupied all corners of the planet for thousands of years, it was only in the “high” civilization areas, that is, the most technologically developed, that the levels of human misery originating out of human-created catastrophe far outweighed the dangers of living within Nature. Religious and national wars of vast devastation, pollution, exploitation of fellow humans, the creating of vast differences in wealth and power between individuals, and nearly universal problems with mental health only exist in the materially advanced cultures. And it is important to note that I write of aboriginal cultures in the past tense, for the flowering of these cultures is all in the past, murdered by the encroachment of cultures based in invention and not Nature, their unquenchable thirst to acquire and dominate caused by the loss of knowing what is essential. Violence far exceeding the dangers of Nature seems to have been a consequence of humans spreading “civilization.”
Why is this so? It would seem in good part to be caused by investing value in the material rather than in the essential, the human, the natural, and the spiritual, in the experience of connection, the feeling of oneness with Creation as well as with our fellow human kin. In contrast, egoism and materialism brings the experience of separateness requiring the acquisition of possessions, wealth, power, and prestige to prop up the shaky sense of inadequacy that comes with lacking the sense of spiritual connection. And as I address this crisis as spiritual, it would seem that religions ought to be a counterweight to this egoism and materialism, yet have been unable to be such.
While there are plenty of religions in the world, and certainly within those religions there are true spiritual teachings and some truly spiritual people, the principle effect of religion on modern society seems to have been to create more divisiveness and the imposition of judgmental morality – all of which is completely counter-spiritual. The materialistic/egoistic impulse to separateness and to competition seems to have corrupted most of the world religions and only contributed to the madness. If we consider the root understanding of “religion” to be that which we most religiously value, for most Americans it would seem that material possessions and identity in ego-driven affiliations are their religion. And for too many who consider themselves particularly “religious,” it would seem that religious freedom represents their right to impose their idea of religion and its coercive morality on others. In response to the loss of tribal/community/familial identity security, we find, emerging in the 19th century and escalating ever since, the finding of a new kind of tribal identity in dogmatic religious, political and national identities that cause fracturing and conflict within the human family, and in as much as religions play a large part in this, they cannot be considered spiritual in this expression.
The Dalai Lama tells us that, “Physical comforts cannot subdue mental suffering, and if we look closely, we can see that those who have many possessions are not necessarily happy. In fact, being wealthy often brings even more anxiety.” And in another instance he shares: “Because of lack of moral principle, human life becomes worthless. Moral principle, truthfulness, is a key factor. If we lose that, then there is no future.” Yet we must believe the future of humanity does not have to descend further into “worthlessness.” There can be a different vision, one in which there is dedication to an American and world-wide human renewal based in the principles of political, economic, environmental and racial justice and fairness, in expanding political and economic democracy, where the destructive addiction to greed, exploitation and prejudicial views are confronted and admitted. There can be a universal admission of how lost we have become, and, like with a chemical addiction recovery program, humanity can do an honest inventory of the harm that has been done and we can collectively engage in making amends. We can alter course and begin to have our political decisions driven by scientific truth in tandem with the spiritual impulse to connection, harmony, balance and compassion.
As an exercise in envisioning, I ask you, what do you honestly see if our society continues on its present trajectory? What do you honestly believe we can expect our society to look like 100 years from now if nothing fundamental changes in our society’s consciousness, if we continue to relate to the Earth and our fellow humans as resources for exploitation primarily for the benefit of a super-rich and powerful minority? What if we continue in denial of this tear between our values and Nature, including human nature? What about in 200 years? Do you not find yourself staring into dystopia?
But imagine what our world CAN look like if we apply the most visionary of science, guided by true spiritual values aimed at a rebirth of our society where there is a commitment to building an environmentally rich and sustainable, far more economically fair society based in interconnectedness and compassion. What if we dedicated to truly being stewards rather than exploiters of this planet and committed to true brother and sisterhood among people and even with all Life, where our “tribe” is all humanity connected with Nature? Envision what this kind of society could look like 100, 200 years from now. We can start imagining the fulfillment of humanity as the flowering of this planet rather than as its destroyer. Instead of dystopia, we can build a utopia, and utopia is not naïve idealism, for there is no other realistic way for humanity to survive with quality of existence into the long future. The terrible karmic cost of egoism and materialism demands it. The great challenge socio/politically/culturally of this century has to be the shift in consciousness away from materialism and domination toward a truly spiritual while scientifically advanced perspective. We are challenged to develop a contemporary spirituality that engages our capacity for technology in its original purpose – for truly protective purposes, not only for humanity but for all of Life, for this spirituality recognizes there is no separating the two. We must look to those who have evolved beyond ego and material identification and into a spiritual consciousness grounded in our link with Nature and with each other to guide us into a non-violent society that heals the rifts caused by millennia of ego-incited conflict, exploitation and domination. There must be a partnership formed between the scientific technological community, the political community, and those who are deeply sensitized to the empathic sciences, attuned to the humanistic, mystical and spiritual perspective, to build a world-wide society in which Nature and humanity can flourish. We must enter a new evolutionary phase for humanity where the original human expression for civilization WITHIN Nature is reawakened but now merged with the second human evolutionary phase of technological development. Only in an enlightened merging of these human capacities can a flourishing humanity advance along with its entire planetary kin into the long, long future. There is no other way.