Change is on the horizon
(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)
My attention this week has turned to a subject much spoken about but seldom considered thoughtfully: change. The Internet has been ablaze with discussions about consciousness shift, 2012, the Mayan calendar, climate change, the end of the world, and what not. The video clip above is just an example. How seriously can we take all this? Yet, when I say change, I do mean much more than the ordinary oscillations of the world 'out there.' I mean fundamental change of a nature and magnitude not witnessed for generations; a change in the nature of life and of our very way of looking upon reality. The most obvious harbingers of change are straight-forward extrapolations of current social and environmental patterns: the monumental increases in consumption, waste, and resource extraction; climatic impact, including global warming; population growth; increasing signs of vulnerability in our economic system; etc. It is unthinkable that our current way of life, and associated values, can be maintained for another 50 years; perhaps even a lot less. Other signs of change are of a more intuitive nature, difficult to pin down, yet obvious to the person who intuits them. They have to do with a subtle but palpable and intense shift in the way people seem to look upon, and relate with, the world. In this article, I'd like to discuss these issues a little more. Unlike more recent articles, I will not seek to substantiate my argument with references or strict logic. Instead, you should look upon this article as a more subjective essay; a sharing of impressions, if you will.
At any given historical juncture, the way we humans relate to reality is based on a coherent set of subjective values, beliefs, and assumptions about what can be real and valid, and what cannot. In science, this is called a scientific paradigm. Yet, we can use the word 'paradigm' more generically here. One can speak, for instance, of the various religious paradigms that have been used throughout history to give people a handle on how to relate to life. A pagan paradigm, for instance, would entail a form of animism that allowed people to relate to the elements of nature as living, conscious entities. This way, nature would be respected as a living organism, not as a depot to be plundered. A Christian paradigm allows us to relate to nature as the Creation of a higher Being, to Whom we owe respect and allegiance, and on Whose judgement we ultimately depend for salvation. This pretty much guides and calibrates our way of relating to one another and to nature. Moving on to philosophy, the materialist paradigm enables us to eliminate guilt and see nature as a resource. Since it equates our consciousness and personal identity with limited and temporary arrangements of matter (that is, the body and the brain), materialism entails the notion that our time is limited. Naturally, at any historical moment, multiple paradigms co-exist, often even in the same geographical location.
Truly fundamental change happens when the most pervasive paradigm of a civilization or historical setting is suddenly transformed. This is much more powerful than a change in external circumstances, like an economic collapse or sudden climate change. Indeed, a change of paradigm changes the entire way we see and relate to reality. Therefore, it's fair to say that a change of paradigm changes everything. Today, with globalization, for the first time in known history there is a large degree of paradigm uniformity across geographical boundaries. Human civilization is currently driven, even in the continuing presence of religion, by a tight alignment between the materialist paradigm and our economic system.
As readers of this blog, or of my books, know, I believe there are plenty of reasons to be at least highly suspicious of materialism as a valid paradigm. Not in that I subscribe to the notion of super-natural forces, but in that materialism is too limited, given the evidence, insofar as the forces it recognizes as natural. In a way, materialism survives partly because of inertia (developments that contradict materialism take very long to trickle down to society at large, because of their abstract complexity) but mainly because of its symbiotic relationship with our economic systems. By linking consciousness and personal identity to limited and temporary arrangements of matter, materialism inculcates the following subjective values: Life is short and you've only got one to live. The only source of meaning lies in matter (after all, nothing else exists), so the game is to accumulate as many things as possible. We should consume as fast as possible, even at the expense of others or the planet. We have nothing to lose by doing so, because we're all going to die soon and then it's all over anyway. It's easy to see how such value-system is conducive to runaway consumerism and reinforces current economic structures. Indeed, in a significant way, our economy depends on this value system. So, in turn, our airwaves are swamped with advertisements that aim at reinforcing materialism. Even governments stimulate it. And while pointing this out, it's hard for me to be outright against such reinforcement policy, since our jobs depend directly on it. Here is a catch-22, if there ever was one.
If you give this some thought, it may become clear to you what the true power of the materialist paradigm really is. Its main strength is not necessarily how well it explains the available data from a scientific perspective; after all, there are more than enough anomalies in science today to question materialism in its classic formulation. Neither are the philosophical foundations of materialism very strong, as I sought to point out before. The strength of materialism is its symbiotic relationship with the economic system upon which we have all come to depend. This creates a self-reinforcing loop from which it's very hard to escape. The combination of materialism and our current economic system forms a point of stable equilibrium from which one can only escape by temporarily making things worse. In technical terms, to escape it one needs to kick the system out of a local minimum. How to pull this trick off is the most urgent question to ever face our civilization, because all trends indicate that the current state of affairs is unsustainable.
Now, if the underlying paradigm of our civilization does shift, that would be the most profound, intense, and otherwise extraordinary change in generations. What on Earth could cause such paradigm shift? What reasons do we have to believe that we won't keep on with the same mad game of optimizing for short-term, egocentric goals until catastrophe and oblivion strike? Well, I believe there are strong forces building up in the collective unconscious of humanity that may just pull that trick off.
Never before have we been so wealthy and dominating as a species. But have our lives ever been as meaningless as today, from an inner, subjective perspective? Materialism crushed most of the myths that gave meaning to the lives of our ancestors. Today, we are orphans of meaning. As Alan Watts so cogently put it (see video above, starting at 6:53 minutes), we go on chasing one material goal after the other, as if there were a little bag of magic goodies at the end that would retroactively confer meaning to the entire enterprise. This amounts to chasing ghosts; there is no bag of magic goodies at the end. What do we live for? Life has become a mad scramble for the accumulation of things and the status they confer, for the sake of ultimately leaving it all behind at death. There is no permanence, no meaning.
Shockingly, it is illusions that keep our mental balance. We need ghosts to chase, because once we see through the game, and realize what is really going on, we may question the sense of it all and succumb to depression. Zen teacher Adyashanti calls this the "dirty little secret of spirituality." Therefore, instead of surrendering to what our intuitions scream to us in our inner-most minds, we increase the stakes. Not only do we chase ghosts, the ghosts began to chase us. Competition, so we tell ourselves, does not allow us to relax. We have to one-up the others, work even harder and more aggressively, or risk losing the precious illusions we've managed to accumulate thus far, at great cost to ourselves and our families. The more we accumulate, the more we have to lose, so the net effect of 'success' is the opposite of what we would have hoped: We become even more paranoid, even more stressed out. Life quickly turns into an appalling nightmare; a self-created horror show where we play both victim and perpetrator. And since we don't know of any other option, all we can do is create ourselves some new ghosts and then go chase those, till the cycle repeats itself enough times that the illusion no longer works and we are left mentally broken; defeated. Many a celebrity or wealthy person have come to this sad juncture, where addictive drugs or suicide become real options.
You see, the illusion only works for as long as it lies in the potential future, just out of reach. Like the proverbial carrot hanging in font of the horse, the entire allure of wealth, consumption, and status lies largely in not having enough of them. By not having them, space remains open for our minds to fantasize and project numinous meaning onto those things. It is the achievement of success, the catching of the ghosts, that gives away the game by revealing its meaninglessness. Therefore, as things become more and more available to the masses, it actually becomes harder to keep up the illusion. It is the very economic success of materialism that carries within it the seed of its own destruction. When having a television set was a magical, nearly untenable consumer dream, rich in projected meaning, its materialistic appeal was huge. Now, other things have to be invented that can serve as receptacles for all of our numinous projections, from smart phones, to cars, to better sex, to a job promotion, etc. As with any addiction, it gets increasingly harder to achieve the same 'high.' Eventually, when our creativity can no longer keep up as far as creating sufficiently numinous things, the illusion will shatter. Might we be close to this point?
Most of us are very good at keeping up appearances. We hide from even our most intimate friends, and often from ourselves, what is truly going on in our minds. We fear being perceived as different, odd. Social animals that we are, we have an innate need to fit in and belong. Therefore, even if massive numbers of human beings were intuitively beginning to see the ghosts for what they are, illusions, it would still be hard to tell from just watching the news or chatting with colleagues at work. Yet, from personal experience, which is all I can rely on, I dare say that people are indeed beginning to see through the game. I see this phenomenon everywhere, though its manifestations are very subtle and discrete. Something is stirring up in the human collective unconscious. Critical mass is building up and we may be not too far away from what Malcolm Gladwell referred to as the "tipping point.'
Again, the only reason we insist on the old, failed game, inventing new ghosts to chase after catching previous ghosts and discovering they were illusions all along, is that we don't know any better. We were just never told what else to do; not by our parents, not by our school teachers, not by anyone. Thus, we desperately try to avoid depression and other forms of mental pathology by the only means we know: Replacing old projections with new ones; accumulating more things and status. Yet, the only true, sustainable solution lies in seeing the projections for what they are, mere projections, not objective reality. The numinous power of things is only real insofar as we lend things this power. We are the source of what we desperately seek, not the 'outside world;' and it has been so all along. There is no 'external' meaning. But we are woefully equipped, in our society, to pursue a path of self exploration. Long ago have we dispensed with elders, with archaic traditions and myths, and many of the metaphors that could now illuminate our way. We orphaned ourselves from meaning. So we will have to face the inevitable breakdown of the illusion of meaning-in-things, whether it happens shortly or in many years, without much in the way of guidance. This is my concern for myself and the rest of us.
Materialism will be replaced as a paradigm, I believe, well within my lifetime. It has run its course and can no longer nurture the human psyche; we cannot survive in a vacuum of meaning. Thus, it is our own innate need for meaning that will kick the status quo out of the local minimum; out of the current equilibrium point. It is our need for a new way to relate to life that will, at first, make things worse, so we can find a new path for improvement. Our challenge will be to collectively find a way to bump the paradigm strongly enough to dislodge it from its current equilibrium point, but gently enough not to suddenly and completely destroy the economic system upon which we depend. Are we capable of doing it in a smooth way? Honestly, I am sceptical, though I remain open-minded. For the same reasons that I don't believe human beings are capable of organizing huge secret conspiracies, I also find it difficult to imagine that we can organize ourselves enough for a smooth and orderly transition of paradigm. It will be a bumpy road. But the prize on the other side of the storm will, certainly, be handsome.