Dark Universe, Brightening

Socrates had it right long ago when he acknowledged that to the extent that he was wise, it was because he knew how much he did not know.

During my lifetime, the trend has been for homage to be paid to all the cocky, smart human beings who think they know everything.

The slicker and more self-confident the guy (and this is mostly about guys), the more rewards and adulation he gets.

Collectively, especially in the United States, arrogance has been the name of the game.  I think this collective hubris may have reached its apex with the splitting of the atom and the knowledge that he who controls atomic energy controls the world.

Or so we thought.

Climate change is ushering in a whole new, and much more humble era.

imageIt turns out that just because we can bulldoze forests and mountaintops, change the course of rivers, drill beneath the sea and through solid rock, and completely saturate the earth with satellite, drone and in-home surveillance devices, we are still just as vulnerable as we ever were to the simple, earthbound necessities of food and shelter.

As the big, climate-change-induced storms continue to roll in from the ocean, so frequently that they all begin to blur into an anguished nonstop disaster montage, a slow but steady sea-change in collective human consciousness is beginning to occur.

Aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, Philippines, 2013

Aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, Philippines, 2013

We are beginning to recognize how much we still don’t know, and how dangerous our ignorance, combined with arrogance, is becoming.

There is no doubt now that we who are alive today, along with our children and grandchildren, are going to be living through a remarkable transition time as the planet we have destabilized and plundered during the past few hundred years of industrialization seeks to return to equilibrium.

We must acknowledge that human over-population has played a major role in this process of destabilization.  Our very success as a species is what is driving the current unfolding disaster.  By reducing our numbers through disease, drought, flooding and the competition for shrinking natural resources that leads to war, the planet is doing what it must to return to a steady state where the ecosystem as a whole can flourish.

It is sobering to live with this knowledge.

Perhaps it is my sadness at knowing that I am going to be living through (and dying in) a veritable Holocaust of earthly creatures, that has me searching outside the box of science and common knowledge for signs of hope.

IMG_4150 copyI was not raised with religion, but I have always been an instinctive spiritual animist, seeing the divine in the beauty of the natural world, and in my unbounded love for all the elements of our Earth—rock, water, air and all the myriad living beings that inhabit every strata of our planet.

I have also been open, since I was a child, to the possibility that there is more to our experience than meets the eye.  I have always been fascinated by the occult, shamanism, and science fiction involving time travel to other dimensions of space/time.

I don’t know if it is just because I am paying more attention, but lately I have been perceiving a definite uptick in collective awareness that the key to fixing what ails us in the physical world may lie not in better “hard science,” but in a deeper connection to knowledge that can only be accessed through a different kind of perception.

The doors to this under-tapped realm of wisdom are accessible to us through what has poetically been called “our mind’s eye.”

There have always been humans who have been explorers in this realm—Socrates was one, the Biblical sages and prophets were others, and modern esoteric explorers like Rudolf Steiner, Terrence McKenna, Mary Daly, Martin Prechtel, Starhawk and many more.

Terrence McKenna

Terrence McKenna

In the 1960s psychedelic drugs opened the doors for many people who were not at all prepared for the “trips” they encountered.

Now we seem to be coming around again to a period where, as conditions in the physical world deteriorate, more of us are seeking understanding and reassurance in the non-physical.

The more we know of how bad things are here in the physical realm, the more we want to know that “another world is possible.”  And the more we look, the more we find that indeed, there is much more to the universe than meets the eye.

Even scientists are beginning to align with the spiritists they previously disdained. In our age of quantum physics, the whole idea of a “spiritual dimension,” accessible through human consciousness, is becoming much less far-fetched to rational hard science types.

The new Hayden Planetarium show, “Dark Universe,” ends with a graphic that could be right out of “Twilight Zone,” showing that roughly three-quarters of the universe is composed of “dark energy,” a term invented to represent in language something we know enough to know we do not understand at all.

It could be that waking, embodied life is to human consciousness what the physical, hard-matter universe is to the cosmos as a whole.  Just a tiny fragment of a much larger, and potentially much more interesting, whole.

What if the reason every living thing on this planet sleeps (whether in the daytime or the nighttime) is in order to reconnect with the non-physical realm that spiritually sustains us?  We know that if we are deprived of sleep for any length of time, we go crazy and die.

What if “the dreams that come,” whether in sleep or in death, are just as valid a form of experience as the waking hours of our day, and our lives?

What would it mean to be able to think beyond the brief timelines of our individual lives, or even the eons of evolutionary cycles on the planet, and know that we are all part of a much grander cosmic dream?

dark-universe-red-shift-interior

Photo source: American Museum of Natural History, Rose Space Center, Hayden Planetarium, “Dark Universe”

Thinking this way does not give me license to let go of my focus on making a difference here on earth, now in my lifetime.

In some ways this imperative becomes even stronger, as it was for Socrates, Steiner and so many other visionaries who were also powerful initiators and guides during their lifetimes.

During this winter solstice season of introspection and questioning, I have been reading and re-reading the writings of one such contemporary guide, the Sufi mystic and spiritual ecologist Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee.  I leave you with a passage to ponder:

In the book of life we can see the energy patterns of creation, the rivers of light that flow between the worlds.  We can see how the individual relates to the whole and learn the secret ways to bring light into the world; we can understand the deeper purpose of the darkness and suffering in the world, of its seeming chaos.  And the attentive reader can glimpse another reality behind all of the moving images of life, a reality that is alive with another meaning in which our individual planet has a part to play in the magic of the galaxy.  Just as there are inner worlds, each deeper and more enduring, there are also different outer dimensions whose purposes are interrelated and yet different.  The inner and outer mirror each other in complex and beautiful ways, and in this mirroring there are also levels of meaning.  As we awaken from our sleep of separation, we can come alive in a multifaceted, multidimensional universe that expresses the infinite nature of the Beloved.

–Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Spiritual Power: How It Works

Let it be so.

Sunset on Cherry Hill Beach, Nova Scotia.  Photo by Eric  B. Hernandez

Sunset on Cherry Hill Beach, Nova Scotia. Photo by Eric B. Hernandez

Honoring the wisdom of Native Americans on Thanksgiving

Before I understood the real history behind the American tradition of Thanksgiving, I used to just innocently enjoy the chance to gather with family and friends to share a delicious meal.

I believed the story taught to me in grade school, about how the Pilgrims and their Native hosts sat down to a feast together, and lived happily ever after.

Such innocence, once lost, is impossible to recapture.

Now I know that the same Pilgrims who gave thanks for their delivery from starvation by the generous Native people of the region that would come to be known as New England would be the ones to turn on their benefactors and do their utmost to exterminate them.

My own ancestors were still fighting their own battles back in Europe at this time, but as an American, this is a shameful legacy that I need to confront and acknowledge.

As I wrote in my Thanksgiving post last year, the holiday of Thanksgiving should really be more of a day of atonement than a celebration of abundance, especially as we begin to realize that the abundance of food and natural resources that Americans have enjoyed over the past 500 years is not endless.

As we hit up against the limits to growth predicted years ago by Donella Meadows and others, we must recognize that the Native peoples who were so unceremoniously shoved aside during the Conquest of the Americas had so much more to offer Europeans than corn, squash, beans and turkey.

Indigenous worldviews, the world over, privilege balance over growth and accumulation, and this is the wisdom we need to pay attention to now.

Some argue that such a conservative position would not support the kind of technological innovation in which Europeans have excelled.

But I would ask whether our technological innovations have succeeded in making us happy as a culture, or as individuals within our culture?

Isn’t it true that the vast majority of our technological inventions have been used to foment and practice ever-more violent warfare?

Even our vaunted advances in medicine are primarily used, these days, to try to heal us from the sicknesses and imbalances our own technological inventions have afflicted upon us, by the poisoning of our food, air, water and earth with toxic chemicals and the byproducts of burning fossil fuels.

This image, from the PBS series “American Experience,” depicts members of the Wampanoag tribe meeting a white settler.

Before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts and started their inexorable push west, the indigenous people living here were happy, healthy, strong and long-lived.  They enjoyed the abundant food stocks of the ocean, rivers and forests, and lived in harmony with the land.

Yes, there were territorial skirmishes, but there were also strong intertribal councils and confederations, in many cases led by matriarchs who valued peace and did not want to lose their sons and grandsons to needless warfare.

This Thanksgiving, I give thanks that the Native peoples of this continent are still with us, despite all the brutality visited upon them by the European conquerors.

This Thanksgiving, I pray that all Americans begin to honor indigenous people as they deserve to be honored, by giving credence to the Native value of harmony with the Earth, and actually trying to live it.

All that solid melts in air: Labor Day reflections on Marx, Darwin and the need for new paradigms

As always around Labor Day, I am getting ready to talk with young people about some old, dead people: Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, all of whom loom large in the curriculum of the General Education seminar required of sophomores at my college.

Rereading Darwin and Marx, who we’ll be discussing this week, it’s not hard at all to find ways to make these old thinkers, whose ideas are more than 100 years old now, relevant for our times.

Darwin

Darwin believed that life is a constant battle for limited resources, with the “struggle for existence” being entirely material, rather than spiritual.  When a dominant species overruns a weaker species, it is always for the best:

“It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up that which is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life.”

He believed that humans are the highest, most important species, and that within the species men are higher than women, and white-skinned, “civilized” people are better than dark-skinned “savages.”  And implicit in his theory of natural selection is the ideology of Manifest Destiny: that strong, rich people got that way because they were “better” than poor, weak people.

It’s the logic that paved the way for the ruthless capitalist paradigm that presided over the industrial revolution of the late 19th and 20th centuries, along with the relentless search for new markets and new sources of raw materials: colonialism, imperialism, globalization.

Marx

Writing back in the mid-19th century, Marx was incredibly prescient.  His description, in “The Communist Manifesto,” of the process of colonial globalization could have been written last week:

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country…. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.

This actually doesn’t sound like much of a critique—Marx describes the positive side of capitalist globalization first.  But then he shows, with remarkable foresight, how the capitalists are unable to control the economic system they have created:

Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells….It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on its trial, each time more threateningly. In these crises, a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. In these crises, there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity — the epidemic of over-production. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilization, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce. The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.

We have just lived through one of these episodic crises that Marx is talking about here—the bursting of the housing bubble, and the broad financial crisis that was generated by an over-reliance on debt.

The “enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces” is a nice way of saying “war”; and indeed, our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have kept the military-industrial complex humming, along with companies like Halliburton that snapped up all the rebuilding contracts.

Marx believed that the capitalist system would fail because it is structurally unable to support the needs of the masses.  It is built on inequality—on the Darwinian framework of the “struggle for existence” where might makes right, the strong survive and the weak perish, and the spoils of industry are concentrated tightly in the hands of a small dominant class, the bourgeoisie.

The modern laborer… instead of rising with the process of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth. And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an over-riding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society.

Marx thought it inevitable that the middle class would sink into the proletariat as wealth became more and more concentrated in the hands of the few capitalists controlling government and industry.  And the proletariat, having nothing left to lose, would eventually rise up and seize power, overthrowing the capitalist system and instituting a new economic system, more truly “by the people, for the people.”

However, Marx was still a prisoner of his time as regards his understanding of humans’ relation to our natural environment.  He was not able to foresee that industrial growth, whether under the leadership of the bourgeoisie or the proletariat, would bump up against the carrying capacity of the planet, providing a natural (in Darwin’s terms) limit to growth.

Darwin would look out at what’s happening to our planet today, in the age of climate change, and see it quite dispassionately, as part of the process of natural selection. People in low-lying areas will have to migrate or die. We will figure out ways to adapt to our new climate reality, or we will be swept away.  The strong will survive, the weak will perish.

Marx, on the other hand, would be ranting about how the bourgeoisie have, in his own words, “dug their own graves,” and taken everyone along with them.  He would be calling for the international proletariat to rise up and fight for a better social system, in which labor is rewarded with well-being and the profits circulate among the many, rather than being concentrated in the hands of the few at the top.

We know with the power of hindsight that no Communist system has ever actually been successful at making people happy.

This is because the old hierarchical structures that have pervaded human civilizations for thousands of years still tend to creep back, no matter what name we give our socio-economic structure.

The challenge of our time is to envision a social structure that is horizontal, circular and interdependent, rather than vertical, linear and unidirectional.

A social structure in a harmonious give and take with the natural world, rather than one that only takes and takes to feed the maw of human industry.

Darwin may be right that the strong will survive and the weak will perish, but our concept of strength needs to change to meet our new reality.

Strength is not about domination and the ability to force others to bend, it is about cooperation and the ability to bring people and the natural world into productive harmony.

Black Elk

What we need now is a renaissance of indigenous tribal social systems, based on reverence for the natural world, and respect for one another.

Those people Darwin dismissed as “savages” may turn out to be the only ones who are able to survive in our new planetary epoch, as “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

 

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