My gratitude to Kim Schrag for her generous loan of several of her graphite drawings to accompany this essay.
You can see more of these extraordinary drawings, and the rest of her work here.
There is something about our cosmic presence that, to judge by our propensity to ignore or deny it, we humans find intolerable. All the different cultural forms that shape our psyches and determine the unfolding of their narratives in mental and chronological time are, in themselves, particular, and more often than not antagonistic versions of the same tendency to avoid the raw facts of an unfathomable common existence. Thus, what the nearly eight billion human beings inhabiting the Earth today share in common is, paradoxically, the highly injurious lack of a natural place of profound encounter, a common ground. We are, and have always been organized in countless separate groups and tightly identified with their distinct secular and religious ideologies and our psychological idiosyncrasies. Altogether, the deeply ingrained and highly dynamic identification of billions of people with different cultural and personal records of experience constitutes the general mental alienation of humanity from our common source in life. Seen the other way around, our shared existence 一the fact that we all emerge from the same stream of being, ephemerally navigate its rapids, and then sink back into it一 is quietly or stridently negated by the ideas, behaviors, and desires that our culturally sponsored and regulated thinking process magically turns into the illusory claim of separate personal existence. Made to believe, from the crib on, in the independent existence of the psych-somatic reality of the organism, we grow insensitive to the fact that we are, before anything else, ordinary organisms, standard-issue manifestations of a mysterious cosmic phenomenon. One that a natural sensory and intellectual endowment debased by tribalism and self-centeredness cannot ever fully detect and, more importantly, cannot ever possess by reducing it to its categories and submitting it to the dogged manipulative intent of its many contradictory doctrines and methodologies. If we fear life and detest the democratic death through which life timelessly renews itself, it is because neither shows any interest in the overwrought distinctions with which we define and project ourselves onto a largely imaginary future born of fear and reckless ambition.
This shared mental alienation from our source and sustaining force has been, for many thousands of years now, responsible for the conflict, violence, and sorrow that inevitably results from cultural division and psychological isolation, and if this immense cognitive error and its harrowing consequences remain, it is simply because harsh consequences await any attempt to repeal it. Any individual who seriously questions her cultural brainwashing and attendant claim to unique existence is immediately confronted, externally, with a withdrawal of social support, and internally afflicted by the rapid weakening of the made-up self whose arduous progression from the past, through the present, and onto the future embodies and sustains the fantasy of separation.
After fifty-thousand years of human planetary presence on the planet, only five thousand of which we have any historical record, the general physical and psychological insecurity generated by many different and conflicting forms of the same alienation, have yielded significant negative outcomes. Among the worse, the reckless destabilizing of the ecological equilibrium on which all forms of life depend, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. These existential threats of our own making leave us with two only options. We can certainly go on protecting and attempting to expand our “exceptional” tribal forts and vain personal bunkers, thereby worsening the general insecurity and aggressive insensitivity that is destroying the very base of our shared being. Alternatively, we can, through the very realization of our contribution to the severe danger posed by our sustained and destructive separation from one another, lose ourselves in the totality of life so that we may live in harmony with it, and in peace with each other.
This dissolution of overly strong tribal associations and other forms of egoic identification on behalf of the wellbeing and sheer survival of our species is, to put it differently, the end of thought and desire-based escapism. It is irrational to continue seeking private security through a general identification with different and mostly opposed versions of the same claim to a separate tribal and personal existence; first, because this claim is false and, second, because collective suicide is the ultimate, and perhaps the not too distant consequence of this collective insanity. The ground of our existence is not, fundamentally, in our respective cultures, accumulated memories, and wishful, idealized future projections, but in life itself, which is almost entirely unrelated to our contradictory interpretations and fraudulent appropriations of it.
An increasing number of individuals are becoming aware of the multiple and interrelated threats posed by global ecological disruption, sustained economic inequality, opposed secular and religious ideologies and the multiplication and proliferation of thermonuclear weapons. However, a common and pernicious consequence of this incipient awareness is an overwhelming sense of fear and sadness that can make the awakening individual feel as though she is becoming psychologically undone (which, in a way, she is). These debilitating feelings are often made even worse when the sensitive individual is criticized or outright ostracized by loved ones and supporting institutional structures. In their uncritical dedication to the preservation of shared cultural values and practices, family members, friends, and social groups routinely punish anyone who shows a keen interest in the wellbeing of people identified with other groups and ideologies and the fate of the human species as a whole.
In such a severe psychological and social situation, the alert individual is hard pressed not to revert to the protection of familiar or relatively unknown forms of cultural and psychological escapism. Other secular and religious ideologies and, in some societies, an ever-growing variety of therapeutic and entertainment modalities are eager to lure new adherents to their parochial folds. A direct and independent perception of difficult facts (and the just mentioned intrapsychic and social consequences of this perception) generally forces an insufficiently alert and resilient individual to put her head back into the proverbial hole in the ground of indifference and uncaring, thus aborting the action that chronic human suffering and our present dire circumstances demand. Then, the unthinkable insertion of an individual in the current of life goes back to being just the sense of certainty and security, however false and unfair, that comes with a given measure of cultural compliance, social acceptance, and personal delusion.
Our predetermined and highly functional fear of mental discomfort is, all too often, far more potent than the interrelated mental, socio-cultural, and ecological variables that are increasingly harming human beings, and putting the entire species at high risk. A thorough understanding of the source and nature of this paradoxical, not to say irrational, preference for self-protection even when the fate of humanity is a stake, points to the absolute necessity of an unprecedented change, one that will radically challenge the tribalism and personalism still predominant in the human mind. Again, one option is to remain socially divided and psychologically isolated by our traditional attachment to provincial traditions and other, more personal forms of recorded and projected experience, and thus continue to support with our thoughts, emotions, and actions the forces fragmenting and conflicting the species and destroying its natural habitat. The other option is to withstand the severe social and intrapsychic reaction that a confrontation with things as they are is likely to induce, for only such endurance may be able to catalyze the revolution in consciousness baring which the mess we have made of our miraculous cosmic presence will go on undeterred, until it lethally cancels itself out.
Many of us would very much like to see the challenging situation in which we find ourselves today resolved, but without much affecting ourselves, our lifestyles, or the particular manifestation to which we subscribe of the millennary mindset that has brought about this social and ecological chaos. This is how we go on being and doing what we have always been and done. At our very best, participating in new initiatives designed by and within the same old cultural fragments, and implemented to the presumed benefit of the same memory and desire-based minds. Unsurprisingly, we are often dismayed when these reform projects with which we attempt to fix the disastrous results of previous reforms do not definitively solve institutional, national, regional, and global problems and, most of all, fail to stem the rising tide of our individual insecurity and suffering. Constant frustration with the results of half and quarter-reform measures, or inadequate and counterproductive ones, then contributes to ill-conceived rebellions or, more likely, to the steady generalized indifference to dangerous mental, social, and global problems that seems characteristic of the mind conditioned and propelled by exclusive experience. Worst of all, recurrent frustration and disenchantment help sustain the conviction that we each embody a separate existence that must be at all times defended, improved, and extended in time according to the values and rules set by the particular secular and religious orthodoxies that generate and enforce this falsehood. For it is by granting each of its members the false existential distinction of a presumably unique and valuable identity, a predetermined code of behavior, and a specific but variable measure of social prestige, that every group and institution ensures its continuity and preserves the authority of its leadership. Thus, no matter how noble and well-thought-out our collective and personal initiatives might be, they turn out to be, for the most part, futile. For they do little or nothing to achieve the cultural and economic integration of the species, let alone the liberation of the mind from the conditioned self-centered provincialism that is at the root of all our psychological, social, and ecological afflictions.
There are self-sustaining social and psychological traits that, no matter what we do or refrain from doing, can never get better. The thought and behavior that springs from rabid ethnocentrism or nationalism; religious or political sectarianism; racism; sexism; ageism; classism; extreme professional, occupational, or recreational specialization; militarism or scientism can never alter fundamentally the outcomes they produce. Nothing truly new or good can ever come from slight modifications made to the self-encapsulating mental and behavioral ruts typical of a mind that mechanically runs on the inherently limited and biased tracks set by particular cultural traditions and its own necessarily small previous and projected experience. We have been going around and around the same vicious and sorrowful mental and behavioral cycle for millennia now, and yet we still dare not openly question its absurdity and confront head-on the terrible dangers it poses. We do not think that beyond what we know and desire, there is any life worth living. However obscurely, we feel that something akin to madness or death must be waiting to ambush anyone intending to see beyond the mental accumulation on which just about everyone depends to be the respectable and “reasonably” contented or mildly rebellious entities we generally think we are, or must keep endeavoring to become.
A deep depression is only the first, rather predictable reaction of a fully pre-formated mind when struck by the realization of the insurmountable impotence, not just of its own knowledge, thought and action, but of that of the entire human collective chronically and uniformly conditioned and splintered by particular experience and self-serving whim. However, barring a return to old, familiar psychological digs, staying with this seemingly unbearable holistic perception of our personal and collective situation and our built-in incapacity to do anything significant about it, inevitably poses an essential and vivifying question. Are the uncertainty and sorrow that unavoidably come with this insight merely harbingers of a serious mental crisis, or are they the narrow passage that the mind must go through if it is to be ever free from its toxic tribal and personal content and, perhaps, merge back into its source in the unthinkable movement of cosmic life? Paradoxical as it may seem, at first sight, the ending of the ancient ethno and egocentric regime that has for so long predetermined and narrowed-down human thought and behavior is the only way to see adequately, and then fully attend to our ancient sorrow and present desperate circumstances. Anything else is just further indulgence on the same willful myopia and the same halfhearted, or plain wrong-headed and cruel cultural and personal routines responsible for our increasingly challenging problems and the almost unimaginable possibility of a collapse of the biosphere.
The suggestion that, given the nature of our disarray, a radical clearing of the mind is the only reasonable option is routinely and summarily dismissed by those who see it as overly dramatic (“Things are not really that bad!) or too weird and esoteric to be practical. However, it is none of those things. A thorough investigation of history, the current global situation, and one’s own psyche that is not mediated by pre-established ideological claptrap or wishful thinking, simply makes evident two enormous facts. First, that the human species is afflicted by a dysfunctional mindset arduously defended by a complex system of tribal and personal pride that has, to this day, managed to keep itself largely intact. Second, and consequently, that the radical revolution in consciousness that this condition makes necessary will never come from established groups and institutions that exist mostly to preserve themselves and expand their ideological influence, which they do by preordaining and policing the thought and behavior of the individuals who depend on them for their very sense of separate being and becoming.
The possibility of something akin to a mutation in consciousness resides then only in regular individuals, like you and I. Entities whose thought and action may be still significantly determined by limited and divisive social traditions and the record of personal experience/desire, BUT who are increasingly aware of the toxicity of mental conditioning and the fact that traditional means of social reform and personal development will never undo this determination. The root problem of humanity cannot be correctly approached by new or, more likely, by newly rehashed descriptions of and prescriptions for the highly developed social institutions and individuals most likely to produce a better future. This, simply because such premasticated diagnoses and imaginary projections must necessarily come from previous experience and preordained desire, and therefore merely constitute a slightly remodeled instance of the same stale and myopic thought process that is the problem in the first place. The change that is necessary must be immediate and negative. That is one with a perception of a hopelessly conditioned and divided humanity that is unprecedented because it is complete, direct, and independent (not the product of previous knowledge and projected whim), and thus incisive enough to dissolve in a particular brain the cumulative and toxic content that has forever limited and sickened the human brain/mind as a whole.
Ridiculous as this may sound, humanity's only chance of decency and survival lies in ordinary folks like you and I, somehow no longer being the insensitive, provincial, prejudiced, gullible but cunning, loving, but also unjust and hateful, and otherwise foolish entities we have been brainwashed into being. A sane, caring, and therefore intelligent human culture could only begin to emerge when a critical number of human beings stop identifying themselves with contradictory secular and religious ideologies and their own limited, confused, conflicted, and crazily self-sustaining personal experience.
Only a human organism free of unnecessary and outright harmful cultural and personal conditioning, and hence nothing much in itself, could be fully aware of the chronic division, conflict, and suffering of humanity and, therefore, capable of the action the world so desperately needs. We have to stop fooling ourselves. The future of humanity depends strictly on a mind that is no longer chauvinistic, racist, sexist, sectarian, classist, ambitious, manipulative, cruel, addictive, and therefore no longer bent on gaining the power, money, and prestige that will presumably make it immune to the poverty, ignorance, cruelty, and sorrow that “other” people suffer and would want to inflict on him or her. Few among those who are fully alert to the actual plight of humanity can resist the natural inclination to find out, not theoretically but actually, if a mind no longer degraded by any form of desensitizing corruption and divisive dogmatism is the natural expression of truth, freedom, intelligence, love, and beauty.
Yes, there is profound sorrow in coming to see the separate self ㅡoneselfㅡ as cause and effect of a general system of mental conditioning that fragments and conflicts society by reducing every individual to the dictates of the self-projective record of particular cultural and personal experience. And, yes, this sorrow is inescapable in the sense that the mind programmed and encapsulated by what it knows, thinks, and covets is utterly incapable of freeing itself. However, if passively endured and fully understood the shock of this realization ends the recalcitrant fantasy of a separate and autonomous existence, thus returning the mind to its source in the plenitude of life.