The Ascent of Humanity and The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible
My new year’s gift to you…is my understanding of two more books by Charles Eisenstein (you already have my notes on his Sacred Economics in Resources). Charles is my new hero, because he sees the full extent of our current situation, yet remains undaunted and hopeful. It’s all based on his understanding of how the world works and what our place in it is.
In the introduction to The Ascent of Humanity, published in 2007 and revised in 2013, Charles says, “A possibility beckons of a world more beautiful and a life more magnificent than what we know today. Though we may rationalize it, it isn’t rational – we become aware of it in brief gaps in the rush and press of modern life: in nature, with a baby, or making love, and it leaves us wondering whether a simpler, easier, more joyous life might be possible all the time, for all of us. We also become aware of this possibility when we find ourselves cooperating naturally and effortlessly with a purpose greater than ourselves that makes us more as individuals. It seems right in front of us, closer than close, then slips away, so that we relegate it to an afterlife and call it Heaven, or to the future and call it Utopia, denying its practicality and reality in the here and now. Whatever makes us give up our dream also leaves us feeling helpless to resist the ugliness, pollution, injustice, and downright horror that have engulfed the planet in the last few centuries.”
Though we humans created the “civilization” that’s “carved vast swaths of ruin,” Charles believes it expresses “human nature denied” rather than who we really are. “This denial of human nature rests on an illusion, a misconception of self and world: our definition of ourselves as discrete subjects separate from each other and from the world around us. Saints and mystics have tried for thousands of years to uncover this delusion, telling us that we’re not skin-encapsulated egos and that pursuing that false self’s agenda only causes suffering. Now, as planetary crisis invades each of our lives, neither the personal nor the collective misconception of who we are will remain tenable.”
Charles believes capitalism, our current economic system, to be “more a symptom than a cause of separation.” Similarly, technology, which “takes the physical world as an object of manipulation and control, is based on conceptual separation from the environment.” In fact, Charles says, the whole supposed ascent of humanity – culture and technology – is based on our illusory self-conception as discrete and separate beings. It’s caused an Age of Separation and horrific suffering, but Charles believes that an Age of Reunion will – or can – return us to “the harmony and wholeness of the hunter-gatherer at a higher level of organization and a higher level of consciousness.”
Charles writes that the culmination of the “fundamental myth of our culture would be the total understanding and control of nature.” Not only are steps toward that goal seen as “progress,” it’s also believed that there’s a technological fix for all our problems. “The myth of technological Utopia is like the religious doctrine of Heaven: thanks to the god Technology, we’ll eventually be able to overcome our mortality, entering a realm without toil or suffering…
Technology, the way we control the world, arises from science, the means by which we understand and explain it…The 1960s were in many ways the summit of our civilization. We had beaten polio, smallpox, and plague, and surely cancer would succumb in due course. We had beaten the Nazis, and the Communists would be next to go. Everything pointed to unlimited growth and continued triumph: atomic power, robots, space, and artificial intelligence. Then the progress started to slow down. The medical establishment is having more and more trouble hiding the fact that, with the sole exception of emergency medicine, the last forty years of ‘advances’ have had little impact on human health and mortality. Organ transplants were a real breakthrough, but their effect is limited to a few thousand patients annually. Premature babies have much higher rates of survival, but more babies are born prematurely. Most of the new pharmaceuticals merely control symptoms, often with severe side effects. No new diseases have been conquered, and a host of formerly uncommon conditions have grown into epidemics: diabetes, autism, allergies, multiple sclerosis, lupus, obesity, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, and many others. New diseases like AIDS have appeared, and old ones like antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis, are coming back. Life expectancy, having risen 21 years between 1900 and 1950, has risen only nine years since then, mostly due to lower infant mortality and emergency life-saving procedures.
Advances in agriculture have also slowed or stopped. Nor has technology lived up to its promise of ushering in an Age of Leisure – leisure time in the US has decreased since 1973, as we spend more time working, commuting, and running errands. The computer, touted as the technology that would do for mental labor what machines had (supposedly) done for physical labor, has brought about more time spent in offices, at desks, and at keyboards.
Technology has similarly failed to bring about a world of plenty. While the food supply has grown enough to feed a doubled world population, hunger and famine are no less prevalent, for the same old political and environmental reasons: war, repression, drought, and economic inequality. Vast areas of land that were once agriculturally productive have turned to desert, most of the world’s fisheries have collapsed, and the gap between rich and poor has widened, both globally and within countries.
The rhetoric of progress is wearing thin. The long-promised marvels have failed to materialize, and new and unforeseen problems multiply faster than we can solve them. Technology usually has unintended consequences, often including an eventual worsening of the problem it was supposed to solve.” This, Charles says, is “built in to the attempt at control itself. Our dependency on technology, in fact, has much in common with drug addiction. Take the example of agriculture. Now that we’ve killed the natural predators, lost the topsoil, and depleted the minerals, we can’t grow crops at all without repeated applications of more and more technology.
Anthropologist Joseph Tainter explores the principle of such diminishing technological returns in The Collapse of Complex Societies, saying that a society’s investments in complexity bring fewer and fewer benefits, until its maintenance alone consumes all resources. Eventually, the society ‘collapses’ to a state of much diminished complexity (the Mayans are a good example of this).
While hints of the built-in failure of the Technological Program have been nagging civilization for thousands of years, it’s only in the present era that they’re becoming undeniable and inescapable. In the past, the effects of ecological destruction were localized; the rich and the lucky could always move somewhere else. Now ecosystem collapse is global, and there is nowhere else to go, though some technological fixers advocate space migration.
As in AA, the first step is an admission of the failure of the Technological Program, and the second is a statement of surrender to and trust in that which is beyond ourselves. From surrender comes an opening to new beliefs, a new conception of self and the world. At the root of the technological addiction is our self-conception as discrete and separate beings that goads us toward the attempt to control. Underneath all addictions is an authentic need. What we’re seeking through our technological addiction is nothing less than our lost wholeness, and its recovery is what lies on the other side of the imminent collapse of the regime of separation.”
Charles believes that “because humans are naturally technological and cultural animals, the Age of Separation had to happen,” perhaps beginning with language, which “has always borne a destructive as well as a creative power. The destructive potential of language is contained within the very nature of representation. Words, which deny the uniqueness of each moment and each experience, give us the power to manipulate the things they refer to at the price of immediacy. The label affects our perception of reality and the way we interact with it.
Hunter-gatherers, closer to a time before generic labels, were animists who believed in the unique and sacred spirit of each animal, plant, and process.” This is why tribal people communicate in prayer or ritual with a plant or animal before picking or killing it. With people, making another a mere member of a generic category dehumanizes or “others” her in such a way that we can more easily exploit, injure or kill her.
“This is not to advocate the abolition of words,” Charles says, “only a caution to be mindful of their relative unreality…
When we knew everyone we encountered intimately, there was no need to generalize; our ancestors experienced a richness of intimacy that we can hardly imagine today, living as we do among strangers. Speech may have been unnecessary, at least at first, as it often is between lovers or mother and baby. Perhaps language became necessary when other forms of separation had deadened intuitive connections and demanded a more complex coordination of human activity. Division of labor, incipient if not already under way in the late Stone Age, necessitates a relatively complex control of group action.
Language became even more abstract with the development of writing. Written words foster the illusion, fostered by dictionaries, that they have objective meanings – definitions – not contingent on the state of speaker and listener. Similarly, books concretize the belief that knowledge is to be found outside the individual.
Printing and electronic media take the divorce between meaning and speaker to an even further extreme, for if handwritten words lack voice, they at least have ‘hand.’ In addition, ‘official’ language is standardized, bland, and lacking in individual voice (the use of the first person is considered bad form in academic writing).
When we finally let go of the enormous effort to hold ourselves separate from the world and other people, words will become less necessary. The purpose of language in a healed world will be to tell world-creating new stories.
Using numbers (counting) also denies the particularity of each being in the universe, and, unsurprisingly, numerous hunter-gatherer societies have been discovered in remote areas who only have words for ‘one,’ ‘two,’ and ‘many.’ It’s likely that the concept of number only arose when the other forces described in this chapter – technology, language, division of labor, and most importantly agriculture – had turned the world into an object of manipulation. Number and commodity are highly interdependent concepts that contributed to the replacement of sharing with exchange, commerce, and money.
The ultimate and perhaps most significant conversion of reality into numbers is the measurement of time. Clocks do to time – life itself – what name and number do to the material world: reduce it, make it finite. By measuring time we rob it of infinitude and uniqueness; time measurement turns a succession of unique moments into just so many seconds, minutes, and hours, denying the particularity of each person’s subjective experience of them.
The keeping of time began in Neolithic times with the calendar, used to manage the planting of crops. At first this measurement, based on the movements of the sun and moon and the seasons, was cyclical; then with the rise of long-distance commerce and hierarchical government in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, and central America, people began to number the years, introducing linearity to time and divorcing it from natural cycles.
Crude division of the day into hours was sufficient for the demands of the Iron Age, but industry requires a far more precise coordination of human activity. The development of mechanical clocks in the late Middle Ages prepared the way for the Industrial Revolution. The more finely we divided time into hours, minutes, and seconds, the less we seemed to have of it. To be punctual is the onus of a slave toward a master or a subject toward a king. Today we are all subject to schedules imposed by the machine requirements of precision, regularity, and standardization.”
Charles doesn’t think “the cruelty of today’s world could exist without the distancing effect of language and measure. Few people can bring themselves to harm a baby, but, distanced by the statistics and data of national policy-making, our leaders do just that, on a mass scale, with hardly a thought.” He says he noticed that when he raised his voice at his young children it was “usually because of time pressure,” sometimes originating in “a nonspecific feeling of time being short, of needing to move on to the next thing. Time scarcity becomes a habit of thought, a way of being.”
Charles believes that “language arose as a form of imaginative play, a game of associating sounds with objects and actions. Primitive cultures recognized the relative unreality and unimportance of words as compared with sounds, song, and silence,” while at the same time sensing their “generative power (while words are merely symbols that point to things, they call forth their reality and power).
If language, technology, and other elements of separation originated in play, how did they become something else? In a sense they never did. We are still at play, but immersed neck-deep in a game gone wrong from which we are unable to extricate ourselves. After all, separation from nature, spirit, self, and other isn’t real – it’s a play, a dance of energy and information. Our present loss of the characteristics of play – spontaneity, fearlessness, spirit of exploration, creativity, willingness to test limits, and non-attachment to results – is itself part of the larger game of individuation. In the current age, as the dance of separation becomes increasingly intolerable, as crises mount throughout the world, we’re beginning to realize that the time has come to stop playing the game and begin a new one.”
Separation from nature and the Technological Program to control the world didn’t originate with agriculture, Charles says. Agriculture, rather, marked “an epochal acceleration of a pre-established trend. The agricultural future was built into who we were in the late Upper Paleolithic. It was the cumulative consequence of a series of incremental developments that marked a gradual shift in human attitudes toward nature, a gradual transition from hunter-gatherer ways. At first, perhaps, nomadic hunter-gatherers merely followed the herds of the ancestors of modern cattle, sheep, and so on. Over many generations, these nascent herders began to provide food and protection at key moments, upon which the animals came to depend. Crop planting may have started as a wider scattering of seed or removal of competing plants to give favorite foods a head start. Eventually, these plants also came to depend on the assistance of the planters. Once domestication began, the much larger population density it permitted meant there was no going back. Agriculture, the archetype of human control over nature, induces dependency and the need for ever-increasing control – over land, people, plants, and animals – as the population continues to grow.
Scarcity and the threat of scarcity is implicit in the attempted mastery of nature,” which Charles contrasts with the natural abundance of the hunter-gatherer’s world. Removed from nature’s gift economy, we have to work all the time for less nourishing food, worrying about whether nature will cooperate with us, “competing with each other for scarce resources, and seeing the land not as sacred but as a resource.
Thus, the farmer’s new relationship with nature engendered a new conception of the divine. As agriculture and other technology removed humans from nature, the gods became supernatural rather than natural beings, celestial and separate rather than immanent. Matter and spirit separated. The new gods had to be kept happy through the offering of sacrifices, a practice found in most ancient farming and herding cultures. In the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions, we also see a concept of sinning against God entirely different from the hunter-gatherer’s concern with staying in harmony with nature’s ways. Now there’s good and evil: the corn, bees, and sheep are good; the weeds, locusts, and wolves are bad. The self also has good and bad parts, the latter of which we overcome with the cultural technologies.
Dualism between human and divine is less developed in Eastern religions. Taoism emphasizes the identity of the spiritual way and the way of nature, and Buddhism teaches that everyone has Buddha-nature. Perhaps it is no accident that modern technology arose in the West.
Just as the Age of Separation was inevitable even before the inception of agriculture,” Charles says, “its ending is equally inevitable as its unsustainability makes the price of separateness increasingly intolerable. The good news is that this will happen as inexorably as a baby is born when gestation is complete. The bad news is that we have the power to delay our birthing indefinitely, to the point where mother and child perish. We are exerting tremendous effort to create an inferior version of a freely available original, similar to our fevered attempt to recreate the original affluence. A different mode of technology, based on a new story, could recover and harmonize with nature’s pattern.”
Charles describes how the Scientific Revolution of the 16th century dramatically accelerated our “ascent” to a separate human realm. “We believe in the validity of science because of the power it’s given us through technology to manipulate the material environment. We also believe that science ensures objectivity, leading us to the truth. But science dismisses truths that don’t fit into our cultural presuppositions, and discoveries in quantum mechanics have undermined its supposedly objective methods, revealing that observer and ‘reality’ are codependent.
The scientific method and the faculty of reason on which it’s based are both valid within their proper spheres,” Charles says. “The problem comes when they exceed their proper bounds and seek to bring the whole of reality under their sway. According to anthroposophical physician Tom Cowan, the heart is for knowing, the head for reflection. When the head function invades the rest of the body, its stillness manifests as concrescences and sclerosis: stones in the organs, plaques in the heart and arteries, and tumors all over. The head is a means to consider, to explore, but it’s the heart that’s meant to know and choose.
Having mastered the linear domain, science has attempted to expand its domain to cover the universe. Most real-world systems, however, including living organisms, are nonlinear, better understood as self-organizing wholes rather than as analyzable parts. Things that exist only in relationship, that are properties of wholes and not of parts, include consciousness, spirit, sacredness, life, beauty, selfhood, divinity, love, truth, emotion, purpose, transcendence, will, and all that makes us human. The respiriting of science’s desacralized world lies not in bringing extra-terrestrial spirit into matter, but in understanding that matter possesses all the properties attributed to spirit. The world is spirit.
Similarly,” Charles says, “the competition that we see as the driving force of life and evolution is a projection of our current cultural beliefs. Competition is an important part of nature, but, as recent discoveries in biology demonstrate, it isn’t the prime mover; cooperation and symbiosis are.
Moving on to “money and property,” the subject of his later book, Sacred Economics,” Charles writes: “Just as a Cartesian objectivity divides the world into self and other, property divides it into mine and yours, and just as scientific materialism insists that only the measurable is real, economics denominates all value in money units.
Greed isn’t an unfortunate part of human nature to be conquered or controlled – it arises from a hunger for the richness of relationship, the security of community. Money is the instrument – not the cause, the instrument – by which our separation from nature, spirit, love, beauty, justice, peace, and community approaches its maximum. What many of us don’t realize is that dependable security comes from controlling less not more – opening up to life, loosening the rigid boundaries of self, letting other people in, and becoming tied – more dependent not less – to a community of people and the community of nature.”
Charles describes how money, an abstract value dependent on mutual agreement, gradually replaced exchanged physical objects like camels, bags of grain, and jugs of oil. The abandonment of the gold standard in the 20th century was the final step in this process.
“Because of the way the economy is organized,” he says, “we’re largely self-sufficient in relation to the people we know but dependent as never before on strangers thousands of miles away. We try to ‘build community,’ not realizing that separation is built into the very social and physical infrastructure of our society.”
The opposite of this is the gift economy. Giving a gift creates or affirms a social relationship, connecting giver and receiver. Gifts also imply future gifts, either between the original two or somewhere else down the line. In gift-based societies, the ties created by the gift involve the whole tribe or village. As Bernard Lietauer says, a community is “a group of people who honor each other’s gifts and trust that their gifts will be reciprocated.” In the realm of the gift, accumulation is senseless.
All this changed with the transition to agriculture, in which sustenance is taken from manipulated land and accumulated and stored. Money is a manifestation of this shift, not its deepest cause.
“The assumption of scarcity is at the very root of economics, in which exchange happens when one person has a ‘need’ or ‘want’ that another person can fulfill more easily. Hunter-gatherers had virtually no such needs, and subsistence farmers have very few. We can see economic growth, then, as reflecting an escalation of neediness, an intensification of the state of being in want. Since to be constantly in want is the definition of poverty, ours is perhaps the poorest society the world has ever known.”
The breakdown of community under the assault of the money economy is well documented wherever money has taken the place of traditional reciprocity. The community’s networks of reciprocity are disrupted by introducing consumer items from the outside, and its mythologies, native language, and the transmission of local knowledge, are supplanted by missionary work and education. Cheap food imports make local agriculture uneconomic.
We are nearing the culmination of a vast historical process: the conversion into financial capital of a variety of other forms of wealth, formerly held in common, that were never before the subject of purchase, sale, and ownership. These other forms of wealth are sometimes referred to as social capital. Charles says he’s “found it illuminating to distinguish them further into social capital, cultural capital, spiritual capital, and natural capital…Social capital is the totality of human relationships that sustain life and make it rich…Cultural capital refers to the cumulative products of the human mind, including language, art, stories, music, and ideas…Natural capital refers to the earth itself – its minerals, land, soil, oceans, freshwater, genomes, and biota; everything that was not created by human beings…Spiritual capital is the wild within ourselves: our imagination, creativity, playfulness, and spontaneity (see more below).”
Functionally, property is merely a social agreement that an individual or corporation has certain exclusive rights to use a thing in a certain way. Land ownership, for example, confers the right to prohibit trespassers; while trademarks make exclusive the right to use a word or certain words for commercial purposes. The original intent of copyrights and patents was to “promote the progress of science and useful arts,” as the US Constitution says, by giving artists and inventors highly circumscribed rights to profit from their ideas. The subsequent expansion of those rights has stymied innovation, however, since, as Charles says, art, music, and technology “build upon themselves. In the realm of biomedical science, for example, the traditional free exchange of information, strains of organisms, and so forth is crumbling because genetically engineered microorganisms can now be patented. A new era of secrecy has dawned in the sciences.
Significantly, it is force that backs up the social agreement regarding property. Property encodes power relationships among human beings. As P.J. Proudhon proclaimed in 1840, ‘Property is theft.’ Property is what has been stolen from humanity and from nature. Changing our concept of ownership and abandoning the conversion of the universe into property involves a fundamentally different conception of ourselves in relation to the world. It involves a letting go, a relaxing of boundaries, a trusting in what was once quaintly known as ‘Providence.’
Our civilization is constitutionally incapable of reversing the annihilation of natural capital, or even slowing it down. That destruction flows inevitably from the money system and the sense of self that underlies it. Rather than blaming businesspeople and ‘the rich’ for all of this, let’s remember that greed, too, is a result – not the cause – of our economic system.”
In regard to spiritual capital, Charles says that “the kind of adult that results from a childhood bereft of the opportunity for spontaneous self-directed world-making is someone who will always be vulnerable to stories created by others. The play worlds of children are practice for the creative work of the empowered adult fashioning a good life and contributing to a beautiful world. Unfortunately, childhood has become a process of breaking the human spirit so that we’ll accept the lives offered us by the modern economy, or at least not be able to imagine anything else or trust in our ability to create it.
We may be bored detaching from the artificial stimulation of toys that play for us, but that’s the beginning of the mind’s healing process: a hunger for authentic experience.” Charles is talking here of such childhood phenomena as preplanned craft projects, programmed field trips, and organized sports, all of which deny children the freedom to experience each other and the world on their own. “Here play has lost its essential creative nature and been replaced by conditioning to look to authority for instruction.”
School, Charles says, is even worse, playing “a crucial role on the loss of all forms of capital: social, cultural, and spiritual. Here again, children progress through a more or less preset sequence of steps, their natural desire to explore and create confined to specified times, places, and subjects. Knowledge comes from the absorption of information, facts, and data provided by authorities. We don’t develop confidence in our ability to learn for ourselves through firsthand observation.”
Charles believes that the restrictions we place on children arise out of our need to control. Eliminating all possibility of mess or danger takes away the possibility for real experience. “The spontaneity, creativity, and playfulness of children is the wild we seek to conquer, to domesticate, to turn into money. Such potential can be suppressed, but its spark can never go out, and once you know it there, you’ll have the desire to rekindle it. That’s the desire that will change the world.”
Charles writes that “there are two central characteristics of present-day money that drive the conversion of social, cultural, spiritual, and natural capital into financial capital: scarcity and interest, both products of the way money is lent into existence by banks. When a bank extends a loan, the borrower must pay it back with interest, which he competes with everyone else to procure from a limited amount of still-to-be-created money. Money, in other words, doesn’t exist without debt, debt doesn’t exist without interest, and interest drives us to earn more and more money by creating new goods and services. Either as entrepreneurs or employees, lenders or borrowers, we participate in the conversion of social and natural capital into financial capital.
It’s no accident that many societies prohibited usury among themselves but allowed it in transactions with outsiders. This was the position of the Catholic Church throughout the Middle Ages, and is still the rule in Islam today. However, starting with the merger of church and state and accelerating with the rise of mercantilism in the late Middle Ages, pressure mounted to resolve the fundamental tension between Christian teaching and the requirements of commerce. The solution, provided by Martin Luther and John Calvin, was to separate moral and civil law, maintaining that the ways of Christ are not the ways of the world.”
Interest violates two features of gift networks: that the gift flow freely, increasing in value, and that it go to the person who needs it most. As Lewis Hyde writes in The Gift, “Our generosity may leave us empty, but our emptiness then pulls gently at the whole until the thing in motion returns to replenish us.” Interest, on the other hand, directs the flow away from the one with the greatest need and toward the one with the greatest wealth already.
“Under the present system of money and property, it is generally to the individual producer’s advantage to produce as much as possible to take advantage of economies of scale. Yet when every producer does this the result is overproduction and hence falling profits, falling wages, bankruptcies, concentration of ownership, unemployment, and falling demand. Marx foresaw this process culminating in a revolution. Faced with this possibility, capitalist society must either limit production by raising interest rates or through a command economy, incinerate overproduction via warfare, or find new markets through technology or imperialism.” Marx criticized the bourgeois revolutions of America and France for merely replacing one set of owners with another. Yet, Charles sees the type of revolution he advocated as “similarly shallow, leaving untouched the concept of property, the duality of labor and leisure, the ideology of growth, and the assumption of human domination of nature…
When at last the futility of controlling reality becomes apparent, the burden of maintaining an artificial self separate from nature becomes too heavy, and we realize that our ‘wealth’ has bankrupted us of life, a million tiny revolutions will converge into a vast planetary shift into a new mode of being.” Despite “the momentous rise in spiritual, humanitarian, and ecological awareness,” however, “the course of separation has not yet reached its finale…The addict will keep on using until life becomes completely unmanageable. Ecological awareness, localism, green design, herbalism, community currencies, and ecology-based economics are like the drunk’s moments of clarity on the way down. They will not so much save us as serve as the seeds for a new way of living and being that we will adopt after the collapse…if there’s anything left…”
Charles believes that “like the wild that eventually, through roots, rot, and weather, brings down the strongest house, the soul engineers situations to bypass our best efforts at control. When internalized coercive mechanisms and external addictions overpower it in its struggle to break free, the soul can still play its one remaining trump card,” allowing itself to die. Our civilization – our species – may make a similar unconscious choice, Charles says. “That is what will happen if we hold on too long…
The crumbling of certainty can be incredibly liberating, however. Truth, like being, ceases to be an independent quality separate from ourselves, since both make sense only in relationship. Divorced from logical certainty, divorced from proof, what can truth mean? The only satisfactory answer that I’ve found is that truth is a state of integrity. When faced with two different interpretations of an experience, instead of gathering more and more evidence to decide which is true, simply choose one or the other, depending on which fits with greater integrity into all you are and strive to be. Since we create who we are through the truths we choose, we can ask, ‘Is that the universe I choose to live in, the reality I wish to create?’ Our choice of the truths we live by has world-creating power.
We might see the quest for truth not as an encompassing of more and more facts, not as a search for certainty about the world, but rather as a path of self-understanding and conscious creativity.” Charles says that sometimes he does this “playfully…Usually, though, the progression from one belief-state to another is unconscious, subject to a logic and a process beyond my understanding. A truth that has served me well in one stage of existence becomes obsolete as I move on to another.” He relates this process to the “order without design” in nature, saying that “the metaphorical and practical implications of self-organization are staggering…I am suggesting not a Creator or Intelligent Designer, but Creativity itself – not outside the universe, but an inseparable part of it.”
Rather than being designed, solutions should be “allowed to grow…When we fully digest the futility of control arising from the nonlinearity of our universe, we will begin to adopt a wholly different approach to technology, one that doesn’t attempt nature’s reduction but seeks rather its fulfillment…Technological development will come from a place of humility…
In the absence of certainty, reason will lose its primacy as the royal road to truth and resume its rightful place as one of several modes of knowledge, each suited to its proper domain. It is the function of the head to reflect, of the heart to know, and of the viscera to transform. The first is cool, the second warm, and the third hot. Analysis and reason can explore, break apart, and reflect, but it isn’t theirs to know or choose. They can’t apprehend spirit, beauty, life, consciousness, meaning, purpose, love. Another way of putting it is that science and reason are blind, and without the heart’s guidance are equally capable of good and evil. Reason cannot evaluate truth,” and by itself will try to control. Reason knows nothing of non-material values, but “can be put into their service…Perhaps humanity’s destiny is conscious participation in a cosmic evolutionary process whose grandeur we can now only begin to imagine.”
There is, in other words, in Charles’s view, a purpose to all things and all beings. Genes and our selves “exist to contribute gifts to the larger wholes of which we are part. It’s not about facilitating self-interest at all…The environment defines self just as much as the self molds environment, blurring the distinction between the two…Evolution, whether of the soul or of the species, unfolds in coordination with the evolution of all…Cooperation just as much as competition defines relationships among living beings, symbiosis and merger across fluid genetic boundaries drive evolution, and purpose arises from both within and without the organism.” It’s not just about survival.
“While life on earth can sustain the loss of some species, each species depends on the whole. We may thus consider the only viable unit of life to be the entirety of all life, along with inorganic processes like the water and carbon cycles.” Gaia.
“My optimism,” Charles says, “comes from a new sense of what’s possible, born from a surrender of the attempt to control life…When the crises converge, when we experience acutely and undeniably that the situation is out of control, when the failure of the old regime is utterly transparent, solutions that appear hopelessly radical today will become matters of common sense…Eventually we’ll abandon our bunker mentality and understand that security comes only through giving, opening, and being at the center of a flux of relationships…The survivors will not be those who try to insulate themselves in a fortress, but those who are able to give, to help, and to contribute to a community. They will form the basis of a new kind of civilization…
All the technical solutions for living sustainably and harmoniously exist already, and have always existed. What is required is a change in consciousness, a reconception of ourselves as individuals and as a species that will reverse the widening separation and deepening misery of the past millennia, but that, paradoxically, will only come as their result.”
Technological regression is not required, Charles says. “Once the change in consciousness happens, though – and it is already beginning to happen – vast technological consequences being pioneered by visionary people today will ensue…The ’60s hippies were not mistaken. Indeed, for some the end of the old civilization manifested subjectively in their own lifetimes as they dropped out of the matrix. Some are still living today in the interstitial spaces of our society, and neither money nor laws, nor war is part of their experience. They are akin to the Taoist Immortals of Chinese legend who fade away from normal society into remote mountains, invisible to anyone wearing the usual cultural blinders, and interceding but rarely in human affairs…What they saw was true: only their temporal interpretation of the vision was off…
Mystics throughout the ages have recognized that Heaven is not some distant, separate realm located at the end of life and time, but rather is available always, interpenetrating ordinary existence…What is special about our age is that the fulfillment of the processes of separation on the collective level is causing a convergence of crises, and a subsequent awakening to a new sense of self to happen to many people at once.”
Starting a section called “The Currency of Cooperation” with a quote by Tom Brown, Jr.: “Prosperity is relating, not acquiring,” Charles points out that there are money systems that encourage sharing rather than competition, conservation rather than consumption, and community rather than anonymity. “Pilot versions of such systems have been around for at least 100 years, but because they are inimical to the larger patterns of our culture, they have been marginalized or actively suppressed. The alternative money systems described below will localize economies, revitalize communities, and contribute to the elimination of ‘externalities’ that put economic growth at odds with human happiness and planetary health.”
The first thing that needs to be done economically, Charles says, is to get rid of interest – even to introduce negative interest or demurrage. In a demurrage currency, a stamp costing a tiny fraction of each unit’s value must be affixed to it on a regular basis. Instead of generating interest and growing, accumulation of wealth becomes a burden, much as possessions are a burden to the nomadic hunter-gatherer. People therefore spend their income quickly, generating intense economic activity.
“Demurrage frees material goods, which are subject to natural cyclic processes of renewal and decay, from linkage with money that grows exponentially over time. In other words, money as a medium of exchange is decoupled from money as a store of value. When money is no longer preferred to goods, we’ll lose the habit of thinking in terms of how much something is ‘worth.’ Demurrage also encourages long-term planning and the distribution of wealth, while an interest economy does the opposite. Both interest and demurrage represent a fee for the use of money, but in the former system the fee accrues to those who have money, while in the latter it’s levied upon them. In an interest-based system, security comes from accumulating money; in a demurrage system it comes from having productive channels through which to direct it” (wealth, the gift, flows rather than stagnates in accumulation).
“The Age of Reunion,” Charles says, “is a return to the original psychology of abundance at a higher level of complexity. It isn’t a technological return to the Stone Age, as some primitivists envision after the collapse, but a spiritual return.”
Another type of money that addresses the so-called “scarcity” problem even more directly is the mutual credit system, often going by the acronym LETS (local exchange trading system). In a mutual credit system, money isn’t created by banks; it’s generated by the transaction. Joe agrees to mow Jane’s lawn for ten LETS dollars, and the transaction is recorded on a computer or other ledger. Jane’s account is debited by $10 and Joe’s is credited by $10. In addition to quantifying individuals’ contributions to the community, LETS and other local-currency schemes draw communities closer together by keeping the economy local. They can ameliorate and even reverse the pressures of the global economy.
We can now choose, Charles says, between accepting the illusion of centralized monetary control at higher and higher non-monetary prices and letting go and trusting “the Wild – the spontaneous creativity of human communities…Money in the Age of Reunion will be an agent for the development of social, cultural, spiritual, and natural capital, and not their consumption…a mechanism for the sharing of wealth and not its accumulation…It will encourage joyful, creative,” necessary work rather than “jobs,” and work in tune with nature.
“Machine Age technology is fundamentally unsustainable,” Charles says, but “all technology doesn’t share this trait.” Technologies that don’t objectify and try to control nature exist, “even if we hardly recognize them as such. They’re based not on fire, but on earth, water, light, sound, and the human body…Water, with its cycles and flows, its unruliness and ubiquity could be called the essence of nature.” Eisenstein gives homeopathy as an example. “Perhaps because it’s based on water, it fosters a philosophy of healing very different from the conquest of nature that characterizes fire-based allopathy, which kills microbes, dictates hormone and other levels, and cuts out organs and tumors. Since homeopathic medicine sees nature as the body’s teacher, the homeopath seeks out the natural substance that can teach the body a healthier pattern of being.
Maseru Emoto’s work confirms that water is a universal solvent not only for physical materials but for thoughts, feelings, energy, and information. Emoto suggests that our every thought and intention affects every drop of water on earth, though the intended target of that thought, along with the water within our own bodies, is most strongly affected. In the Age of Water we’ll understand this principle.
An Age of Water will imitate the water cycle in its economics. Fire, the epitome of consumption, has incinerated social and natural capital for millennia, whereas all of the features of the restorative economy I’ve described – resource recycling, zero-waste manufacturing, full-cost accounting, and non-interest currency – justify the appellation ‘water economy.’ Like demurrage currency, like the energy of the gift, water resists confinement, moves from high places to low, and ultimately circles back to its source.
In the Age of Reunion, we’ll be more attuned to the ocean of being in which we are embedded. From that attunement will arise knowledge that now seems intuitive or even supernatural. Corresponding to that knowledge will arise ‘new’ ways of communicating with each other and with plants, animals, disease organisms, and our own organs, tissues, and cells…
In place of certainty, we’ll have self-exploration, an awareness of choice, and a sense of empowered creativity. We’ll choose what we experience rather than impotently struggling against what we’ve unconsciously chosen…Work and art, work and leisure, job and life will become one…When costs are internalized, many industrial practices will give way to more labor-intensive methods.” Mass production will be replaced by craft and repair work. Peer-to-peer networks will share resources and goods will be exchanged on a gift basis. “Instead of working for money, money will become a side-effect of doing work with other goals: beauty, service, fun, or self-expression…
In the area of human health, Charles says, we’re fortunate to have “at least two models of holistic technology: ayurveda [traditional Indian medicine] and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Both of these systems focus not on symptomatic relief, but on systemic patterns of disharmony that manifest as symptoms.” Chiropractic sees that spinal misalignment is often part of the pattern of disease. Foot reflexology, iridology, and homeopathy also work on the principle that changing any part of the body’s pattern can allow a new, healthier pattern to emerge.
Language can also be used to support a new relationship with earth and with ourselves. “The Age of Reunion will not mark the demise of representational language, merely its return to its proper place as conscious play, a device for a marvelous creative game.” Eisenstein mentions Nonviolent Communication, the work of Marshall Rosenberg, in this context. An even better example, which he doesn’t cite, is Miguel Ruiz’s work, which sees us as artists who can use what Eisenstein calls “a language of truth” – or integrity – to “create a more beautiful world.”
Another “possible solution, of course, is to abandon representational language, just as some would have us return to the Stone Age technologically, and use only a lingua adamica that doesn’t distance us from reality and in which it’s impossible to lie. I reject that option for the same reasons I reject the abandonment of technology generally. The gifts of hand and mind that make us human exist for a purpose, no different from the gifts of any other animal. Language can be an instrument for healing…
The Age of Reunion, however, entails more than a shift in stories.” Our storytelling has to become conscious, “because the map is always a distortion of what is mapped…Instead of confusing it with reality, we’ll use language to consciously create reality, becoming acutely aware of the hidden assumptions embedded in our choice of words…We’ll still use words in the Age of Reunion, but will never again lose ourselves in the story. We’ll apply words carefully and consciously, and hold onto their meanings lightly.
Let us call this approach storyteller consciousness. Instead of trying to describe an objective reality, we’ll be aware that we’re creating one…Our mistake has been not in telling stories, cultural or personal, only in thinking they’re real. When we let go of that, we’ll be able to play with them consciously and let them go when they no longer serve us…
In this book I have mentioned three cultural stories that many of us have deeply internalized. The first is the Newtonian world of force and mass, which manifests in our personal lives in feelings of compulsion and powerlessness and words like ‘have to,’ ‘can’t,’ ‘should,’ ‘I’ll try,’ and ‘you made me.’ The second is the Cartesian split of ourselves into body and soul and good and bad, which manifests as a constant struggle of self-denial and sacrifice of the present for the future, battling desire and imposing the conditioned and ‘civilized’ over the natural and wild. The third story is that of separation and scarcity, which manifests in phrases like ‘can’t afford to’ and disbelieves in our connection to the universe and all life, a connection that brings our gifts back to us and make control and domination unnecessary.
Naming these stories and observing them in operation starts to make them less powerful, but I’ve also found it useful to deliberately undo them through the way I speak to myself and others. For example, Marshall Rosenberg suggests rephrasing every ‘have to’ as ‘I choose [or want] to, because…’ This makes everything clearer,” and you may realize that the reasons you’re doing things you don’t really want to do are untenable or insufficient. You no longer surrender your power. “Another substitution I’ve been making is to replace ‘you should’ with ‘you could,’ and ‘I should’ with ‘I can’ or ‘I want to.’ You can also try replacing ‘I’ll try’ with ‘I will,’” which helps you think more carefully before making a commitment.
Another kind of empowerment that relates to the false good/bad dichotomy is to stop giving yourself and others reasons for everything you do. “Instead, say, ‘I did it because I wanted to.’
Other weakening forms of speech include swearing, gossip, small talk, unconscious lying, and various forms of negativity…
Maybe the Age of Reunion will never come, not in our lifetimes, not in a thousand years. Or perhaps both worlds will continue to coexist, and we’ll each choose which to live in…
All along our innate yearning has been just to experience love. We feel the stirrings of that yearning, but fear to act on them, so enslaved are we to survival anxiety and the logic of separation that instead of seeing every person or object as unique reduces it to a generic example of one or another type to be addressed professionally, dispassionately, and objectively” at best. It’s all about relationship and being in love with the world.
Healing from a civilization built on a struggle of good versus evil demands self-acceptance, self-love, faith in the inherent goodness of others, and trust in the universe and its unpredictability and freedom.
To believe the ‘ascent of humanity’ was a purposeless wrong turn reinforces the very assumptions that gave it rise. “It is to believe ourselves an exception to the rule of nature that no trait evolves accidentally but only in fulfillment of an environmental purpose. Our separation from nature, our war against nature, and our ambition of transcending nature are actually in accord with nature’s purposes, our apparent separation actually an adventure of self-discovery, a step toward wholeness at a higher level of complexity.” In the hunter-gatherer stage (the Garden of Eden or the Golden Age of legend), we were like fetuses in utero: equal, innocent, and with every need effortlessly met. “As a natural consequence of growth, however, the uterus becomes confining,” and we enter the birth canal, struggling in a metaphorical Dark Night of the Soul with no apparent exit or meaning.
“The last century, encompassing two world wars, genocide after genocide, and the accelerating deterioration of the living planet,” has shown us that the womb of control and the Machine has turned poisonous for all of us. “The way out isn’t a technological fix that makes this world habitable just a little while longer,” but an opening of the cervix that reveals the light of a new world at the end of the tunnel, giving us hope that another way of living is possible.
Our Separation has often led to extreme acts of violence, a symptom of a wounded spirit that can only be healed by acknowledging and mourning what we’ve done. The truth is coming to light now.”
Suggestions for individual healing: spend time just being and observing in nature; do yoga, tai chi, or get a massage. “Live a life that makes sense in light of all the truths you’re awakening to…
We are part of the pattern; it’s not distinct from us. By observing nature, we observe ourselves, and the function of ‘I,’ this provisionally self-aware part of the pattern, becomes apparent…
Our quest, our journey to the furthest reaches of separation, is now nearly complete. However hard the birthing pains, a light beckons us, a Reunion with that place of enchantment, understanding, and wholeness. Let that light sustain us through the coming darkness.”
Charles gives us further thoughts in The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, published in 2013 and dedicated “to the humble, whose invisible choices are healing the world.” He says that – like many of us – he perceived the wrongness of our “normal” world at an early age, despite living in a “privileged bubble…On some level, we all know better, a knowledge that seldom finds clear articulation…The narrative of normal is crumbling on a systemic level too; yet we seem helpless to change, to stop participating in industrial civilization’s rush over the cliff.”
Charles says he doesn’t offer his thoughts as an expert who’s “completed the transition,” noting that if he, an ordinary person, “can see it, we must be almost there.”
“Negative” feelings at this time “aren’t obstacles to be overcome (that’s part of the old Story of Control). They’re gateways to fully inhabiting a new story…being in touch with the real: the terror of a child, the grief of a mother, the honesty of not knowing. In such moments our humanity awakens as we come to each other’s aid…
Here are some of the principles of the new story:
- That my being partakes of yours and that of all beings; what we do to another we do to ourselves.
- That each of us has a unique and necessary gift to give the world. Our species has such gifts as well.
- That the purpose of life is to express our gifts.
- That every act is significant and has an effect on the cosmos.
- That purpose, consciousness, and intelligence are innate properties of matter and of the universe.
We don’t need to deny science, because it’s undergoing paradigm shifts. We don’t need to worry about our livelihoods because, trusting in the gift, we’ll find unexpected sources of sustenance. We don’t need to worry about being rejected, because more and more people, each in his or her own way, are living from the new story. And we don’t have to turn away from a world mired in Separation, because from the new story we access new and powerful ways to effect change.” Do what feels right to you without attachment to results as part of your feeling of being part of the whole. “Forms and patterns are contagious. Once something happens somewhere, it induces the same thing to happen elsewhere.”
Be willing to accept periods of rest and latency, “approaching life in a spirit of ease and play…When we know the true cause of a problem and what to do about it, it’s time to act, perhaps urgently. Until then, too much urgency is stoking the fire.” Question the assumption of the scarcity of time, and respond to practical needs, and you’ll show up at the right places and times. The universe will empower your “drop in the bucket,” so have faith; don’t act out of fear or from the calculating mind. “We walk an invisible path with no map and cannot say where any turning may lead.” Only our hearts can guide us.
Charles writes, beautifully: “We are entering unknown territory, in which we’ve glimpsed a beautiful destination but don’t know how to get there. Things have to happen that we don’t know how to make happen. How does something happen if you don’t ‘make’ it happen? As a gift. If we live our lives in humble service, we’ll experience more of these fortuitous events. This is the key to a creative potency far beyond the old conception of causality…The path to achieving the impossible consists of many possible, practical steps in service to the impractical.”
Charles goes on to explain that we’ll still use reason and money in the new world: “The new story contains the old; to seek the extirpation of the old is itself a thought form of the old story.” It’s just that money, reason, language, etc. will be used consciously in new ways to achieve new goals.
Synchronicities – miracles – occur when you follow your heart. “We shouldn’t limit our ambitions by what we know how to achieve…
First we receive a vision that feels true, then heal the wounds and doubts that the vision illuminates.” Serving the vision, we enter deeper and deeper levels of clarity, healing, and service. The process of co-creating change starts not with faith, but with honesty: a glimpse of something we recognize as real and the recognition of our delusions…The world mirrors the self; to work on the self it is necessary to work in the world, and vice versa. This convergence of spirituality and activism mirrors the identity of spirit and matter…
People are recognizing the interconnectedness of all our systems and institutions and their complicity in upholding the dominant narratives. No domain of life is irrelevant to the transformation of our world.
We are fortunate on our journey of Separation,” Charles notes, “to have smuggled along with us three seeds of Reunion, three transmissions from the past to the future. The first seed is the wisdom lineages of Sufism, Zen, Taoism, Christianity, Hinduism, and many other traditions that have passed knowledge down. The second is the sacred stories, myths, legends, fairy tales, folklore carrying perennial themes throughout history. Even if we can’t decode their symbolism, we sense the knowledge of our origin and destination that they contain, conveying as they do emotional, poetic, and spiritual truths that contradict linear logic, reductionism, determinism, and objectivity.” Charles says “you can recognize a true story by the way its images linger in your mind. You get the feeling that something invisible has been transmitted along with the plot.” How the Grinch Stole Christmas is such a story, for example, while a Berenstain Bears tale is not.
“The indigenous tribes who at some stage opted out of the journey of separation are the third seed. Their mission was to survive long enough to provide living examples of how to be human. Each tribe carried a different piece or pieces of this knowledge, all of them exemplifying a way of being that we intuitively recognize and long for.” This was my experience as an elementary school child, discovering books about Indians in our town library.
“Releasing the habits of separation is critical to our success as activists, healers, and changemakers,” Charles says. “First they must be made visible. Second, we must attempt to change in a way that’s not itself drawn from a pattern of conquest, judgment, and force. Third, we must deal with an environment that reinforces old habits, many of which fall into one of three categories: habits of scarcity, habits of judgment, and habits of struggle.
Most of the resource scarcity in our world today is artificial. As much as 50% of food is wasted in the developed world, for example, and most material want is due to lack of money. Scarcity conditioning extends far beyond the economic realm, manifesting as envy, jealousy, one-upmanship, social competitiveness, and more.” Scarcity of love, intimacy, and connection; scarcity of time; scarcity of meaning; scarcity of beauty – all these forms of perceived scarcity generate negative actions and qualities like hurrying, doing rather than being, and greed, all emanating from our misconception of ourselves as separate.
“Society does its best to persuade you to resist that withdrawal which, when resisted, is called depression. If fear of poverty doesn’t work, medication will. But doing nothing, non-contrivance, or non-forcing” is just what the “space between the stories” calls for. Act from “non-conflicted energy…You don’t have to do, because you will do. If it feels like work, stop it! Beware of any revolution that doesn’t contain an element of play, celebration, mystery, and humor.
Judgment is separation, saying, ‘You choose differently from me because you’re different from me.’ A substantial body of experimental evidence shows that this statement is false, that in fact if you were in the totality of the other’s circumstances, you’d do exactly as he or she does. Shaming perpetrators only drives them deeper into their story,” and anger and self-righteousness can create nothing positive. Militancy also alienates the uncommitted, “who sense the attack and the goal of being right and righteous underneath the professed goal of changing society…
Because it’s story, not force that ultimately empowers those in charge, it’s on the level of story that we must act in order to change the system…Hate and the Story of Evil are a cover for the wound of Separation.” We need to heal that wound in ourselves in order to avoid creating more of it. Then we need to tell our story “not only with words, but with actions that spring from it…I’m not saying that fighting is never justified, just that if fighting is accompanied by hate or self-pity, it’s probably outside its proper domain.”
Approaching the same problem from another direction, Charles writes, “If the rainforest Shuar succeed in preserving their homeland, it won’t be because their spears overcame civilization’s machine guns. It will be because the story that justifies killing them and taking the minerals wasn’t strong enough to withstand their challenge…because enough people in key positions declined to take up the guns, bombs, and bulldozers…People like the Shuar might succeed where others like them have failed, and their resistance might help dislodge us from the story that enables the pillage. The reason their defiance moves is isn’t that they’re willing to kill for their cause; it’s because they’re willing to die for it, the ultimate form of service to something greater than oneself.
The most direct way to disrupt the Story of Separation at its foundation,” Charles says, “is to give someone an experience of non-separation. An act of generosity, forgiveness, attention, trust, or unconditional acceptance offers a counter-example to the world of separation.” The cheerfulness of the Dalai Lama is also “a kind of invitation that says, ‘It feels good to be here. Wouldn’t you like to come too?’ When one appreciates the order, beauty, mystery, and connectedness of the universe, a deep joy and cheerfulness arises that nothing can shake. These and other miracles are the landmarks of the territory of interbeing…
As long as we’re human, we’ll create and enact stories, forming agreements about what things mean, mediating those agreements with symbols, and embedding those symbols in narratives. The new story allows us room to reconnect with what is prior to story, to draw power from the void prior to meaning.” This is essential, because “story can carry truth, but it is not truth. The Tao that can be spoken is not the real Tao.
We find truth in the body, in the woods, in the water, in the soil. We find it in music, dance, and sometimes in poetry. We find it in a baby’s face, and in the adult’s face behind the mask. We find it in each other’s eyes, if we look. We find it in an embrace. We find it in laughter and sobs, in the voice behind the spoken word. We find it in the tales we tell, and in silence. We find it in pain and loss, in birth and death. In all of these, the truth comes as a humbly accepted gift; it’s finding us; it’s grace; it’s a revelation for which we need to hold space.”
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