Image by Jonny Lindner
On a country hilltop one fall day, an herbalist challenged me to recall where I'd gotten the belief that I am bad. On a deep emotional level I had, like many of us, long been convinced of my inherent unworthiness. "Who first told you you were bad?" she asked.
I couldn't answer her truthfully. If there was a time when I was "first told", or when I first accepted that awful proposition, I cannot remember it. I suppose I could try to pin the blame on mom or dad or teacher, but the fact is that their use of shame, conditional praise, guilt, and so forth was the near-helpless channeling of ambient cultural forces. The message "you are bad" saturates our entire civilization. Relentlessly pounded into us from early childhood, it is bound to our most fundamental beliefs about self and world.
In science, this belief manifests as the selfish gene, the biological discrete and separate self that succeeds by outcompeting the rest of nature. In religion it is the "total depravity of man" or any doctrine that originates in the separation of body and soul, spirit and matter. In economics it is the "economic man", the rational actor motivated to maximize his or her financial "interest". The result is the World Under Control, seeking to rein in the behavior (which we mistake for human nature) that arises from these beliefs. And the apparatus of the World Under Control, the willpower and the coercion and the rules and the incentives, instills and reinforces the message, You are bad.
The Message Is Everywhere
"No littering—$300 fine." The assumption is that a threat to our self-interest best reins in our natural selfish carelessness.
A teacher: "Without grades, how would we make the students learn?" Unless coerced, they are naturally lazy and content with ignorance.
A parent: "I'm going to make you stay here until you say you are sorry!" People have to be made to feel sorry.
A state law: "Parents must provide a written excuse signed by a doctor for absences due to illness exceeding seven days."
"Johnny how could you!"
You have to. You cannot afford to. You must. You should. Nature, and human nature, is hostile, uncaring, neither sacred nor innately purposeful, and it is up to us to rise above it, to master it, to control it. Over nature, we exercise the physical control of technology to make it safer, more comfortable, more bounteous. Over human nature, we exercise a psychological technology of control to make it kinder, less selfish, less brutish and bestial. These are the two aspects of control on which our civilization is based.
In this book I have described the inevitable collapse of the program of control, inevitable because it is founded ultimately on falsehoods, and in Chapter Seven I described the world that might arise after the Convergence of Crises has ended it. In this chapter, I will describe an alternative to trying harder to be good (i.e. less selfish, more ethical, less greedy, etc.) based on a faith in nature and human nature.
To inspire and sustain such faith in the face of the immense suffering that Separation has brought, I will also describe the dynamics of separation and reunion, so that we may see the cosmic necessity and purpose of our long journey of separation, both as individuals and collectively, and not resist the next stage of our development.
If our ruinous civilization is built on a struggle of good versus evil, then its healing demands the opposite: self-acceptance, self-love, and self-trust. Contrary to our best intentions, we will never end the evil and violence of our civilization by trying harder to overcome, regulate, and control a human nature we deem evil, for the war on human nature, no less than the war on nature, generates only more separation, more violence, more hatred. "You can kill the haters," said Martin Luther King, "but you cannot kill the hate."
The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. The same applies internally. You can go to war against parts of yourself you think are bad, but even if you win, like the Bolsheviks and the Maoists, the victors become the new villains. The separation from self that the campaign of willpower entails cannot but be projected, eventually, in some form, onto the outside world.
Self-Acceptance... A Cliché?
Yeah, sure, self-acceptance. . . the concept is pretty much a cliché these days. In its full expression though, the path to Reunion of self-acceptance, self-love, and self-trust is utterly radical, challenging cherished doctrines of how to be a good person. Let me state it as purely as I can: the path to salvation for us as individuals and as a society lies in being more selfish, not less.
How could this be? Isn't it precisely selfishness and greed that has gotten us into this mess?
No. What we see as selfishness arises from a false view of the self. Our cultural assumptions about who we are have defrauded us of our birthright, yoking us to the aggrandizement of an illusion. As a new understanding of self arises, selfishness will come to mean something quite different.
Already the illusion wears thin. Already we see the bankruptcy of the program of security and success that defines the winners in our society. Already we see, for example, how financial independence has cut us off from human community, and how technological insulation from nature has isolated us from the community of life.
Increasingly, the program of control fails even to benefit the limited discrete and separate self of our illusions, as health, economy, polity, and environment deteriorate. Ironic indeed, given the ostensible goals of selfishness: security, pleasure, and wealth. That is why the road to the golden future that is possible for us, collectively and as individuals, is not a path of sacrifice and effort, but simply of awakening to what was true all along. In The Yoga of Eating, applying this idea to food, I wrote,
When we deeply examine what we ordinarily think of as selfishness, we find a sad delusion. I imagine a vast orchard, the trees laden with ripe fruit, and myself sitting in the middle of it, warily guarding a small pile of gnarled apples. True selfishness would not be to guard an even bigger pile even more carefully; it would be to stop worrying about the pile and open up to the abundance around me. Without such examination we remain in Hell forever, thinking that our new five-thousand-square-foot house didn't make us happy because what we really needed was ten thousand square feet. On the other hand, very often one must acquire a thing first in order to discover that it doesn't bring happiness after all. That is why even deluded selfishness is potentially a path to liberation, and why I urge you to be selfish as best as you are able. Believe it or not, to be genuinely selfish requires courage. When the investment in something is large enough, we dare not ask ourselves if it has made us happy for fear of the answer. After staying in studying throughout high school and college, missing all those fun times, then all those years of med school, and all those sleepless nights as an intern . . . after all those sacrifices, dare you admit that you hate being a doctor? To be selfish is no easy thing. How many of us, in our heart of hearts, are really good to ourselves?
The realm of food is a way to practice being good to yourself. Think of the greedy eater, eating more than his share, stuffing himself. That's an example of deluded self-interest, of not being good to oneself. The glutton really is getting more food. More more more! But he is hurting himself. If he were more selfish, if he made being good to himself his number one priority, maybe he wouldn't eat so much. It is an irony and a miracle. When you really decide to be good to yourself with food, the end result is a healthier diet, not a less healthy diet, even if the path to that diet might start out with an extra-large helping of ice cream!
When I speak before audiences about radical self-trust, I observe a range of reactions from grateful affirmation ("I've been waiting forever for this—I knew it all along but hardly dared believe it") to outraged protest ("This would wreck civilization as we know it"). Both responses are correct.
What would happen to civilization, for instance, if everyone trusted their innate repugnance for any job involving the degradation of themselves and others? I suspect that many people entertain both reactions—gratitude and protest—simultaneously. The conditioned self fears the very freedom it so desperately desires. As on the collective level, to live in self-trust on the personal level is to accept the end of life-as-we-know-it. Anything can happen and everything can change: job, environment, relationships, and more. In exchange for freedom, we must give up predictability and control.
The ideology of control imbues every segment of political and religious belief. Just as religious conservatives believe we must clamp down on our sinful nature, environmentalists tell us to rein in our greed and selfishness, to stop polluting the world and hogging more than our share of resources. And practically everybody believes in "work before play," not permitting ourselves to do as we really want until we have finished what we must—the mentality of agriculture. Anger and blame infuse the writing of crusaders left and right, ideologues as opposite as Derrick Jensen and Ann Coulter, John Robbins and Michael Shermer. Variations on a theme, that is all.
Both sides express the guiding ideology of our civilization, just in a slightly different way. That is why, when one side wins over the other, nothing much changes. Even Communism did not end the domination and exploitation of man by man (let alone woman by man or nature by man). This book proclaims a revolution of a wholly different sort. It is a revolution in our very sense of self and, as a consequence, in our relationship to the world and each other. It will not and cannot arrive through a violent overthrow of the present regime, but only through its obsolescence and transcendence.
Anyone who tells us we must try harder to be good is operating from the same set of faulty assumptions about human nature. Self-trust only makes sense if we are fundamentally good. Looking at human violence and our own failings, we conclude we are not. It appears that the source of violence and evil is ungoverned human nature, but that is a delusion. The source is the opposite: human nature denied. The source is our separation from who we really are.
Does self-trust actually lead to a downward spiral of indolence and greed? It sometimes appears that if we relaxed self-control, we would yell at our children, pig out on junk food, sleep in every day, blow off our schoolwork, have promiscuous sex, quit the bother of recycling, indulge the nearest whim and maximize the easiest pleasure without regard to the consequences for others. But in fact, all of these behaviors are symptoms of disconnection from our true selves, and not our true selves unleashed.
We lose patience with children because of our own slavery to measured time—deadlines and schedules—that conflicts with the rhythms of childhood (and with all human rhythms). We pig out on junk food as a substitute for the genuine nourishment so lacking in industrially processed foods and anonymous lives. We want to stay up late and sleep in because we do not want to face the day or live the life scheduled for us; or maybe we are tired from the nervous stress of the constant barrage of a life based on anxiety. We identify with professional athletes whose victories substitute for our own unrealized greatness. We covet financial wealth to replace the lost affluence of connection to community and nature. Perhaps all of our violence and sin is merely a flailing attempt to return to who we are.
In other words, the evils of human nature are actually products of the denial of human nature. We are the victims (as well as the perpetrators) of a diabolical fraud that says we must guard against nature and human nature, and ascend beyond both. In fact, as the illusion wears thin, magnificent people appear who show us the results of accepting, loving, and trusting ourselves. Whenever I meet one I am reminded of the intensity of my own limitations and insecurity. There are people who maintain a hunter-gatherer mentality of affluence in the midst of modern society; when meeting them, my own uptightness reminds me of the Jesuit explorer Le Jeune:
"I told them that they did not manage well, and that it would be better to reserve these feasts for future days, and in doing this they would not be so pressed with hunger. They laughed at me. 'Tomorrow' (they said) 'we shall make another feast with what we shall capture.'"[The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents. Vol. 6]
People like this are never constrained by "Can I afford to?" They have an open hand and an open heart, and somehow, it seems, they are always provided for. Recently I met a man, a shaman and artist, who does not charge for his services. His whole house is furnished with gifts from students and friends.
Even without waiting for a restorative economy to appear, we can implement it in our own lives simply by opening up to the gift economy—and the gift ecology—that replaces the money economy. To do that, we need only, simply, to give and to receive. To freely give and receive requires faith that it will be okay. I will be okay. The world will provide. And that will happen when we stop seeing the world as a separate and hostile Other. That is the now-crumbling illusion that sets us in anxious opposition to the world.
We also see the magnificent results of self-trust in the geniuses of our society, the people who believed in themselves enough to devote years to the folly of their passions. I imagine Albert Einstein getting lectured by his boss in the Swiss patent office: "Al, you're never going to get anywhere doodling at your desk—you need good work habits like Mueller over there. Come on, focus!" And maybe Einstein thought, "You know, he's right. I won't play around with Relativity tonight, I'll take home a copy of 'Patents Today' magazine and study up. If I work hard I might even get a promotion." But instead he was drawn to his equations, and his magazine was left unopened.
Einstein's creative genius didn't come from disciplining himself to do what was prudent, practical, and secure, but from fearless devotion to his passion. So it is with all of us. Earlier I discussed how it is irrational to do anything better than necessary (for the grade, for the boss, for the market), where "rational" means of economic benefit to the separate self. It is only freed of the compulsion of necessity that we can devote ourselves fully to creating beauty. No one will never create anything magnificent if, compelled by anxiety-based limits on time and energy, we make it only good enough for an economic purpose, or to please an authority figure with power over us. Good enough isn't good enough for our own happiness and fulfillment. To do something for someone else because that person or institution holds power over you—the power of threat to your survival—is a good definition of slavery.
Self-trust does not admit to conditions. We are accustomed to channeling our self-determination into safe, inconsequential, or highly circumscribed areas of life. "I will honor my integrity—unless to do so would get me fired." "I will listen to my body—but only if it doesn't want sugar." "I will follow my heart's true desire—but not if it is to get rich."
I am not advocating we do without the things we want; I am asserting that the things we really want often aren't what we think they are. Unfortunately, sometimes the only way to find that out is to acquire them. How many people, upon finally achieving fame and fortune, learn that wasn't what they really wanted after all? But they would never have known any other way. Deluded self-interest can be a path toward authentic self-interest.
Perhaps the same is true for our entire civilization. Perhaps nothing less than the collapse of our civilization will be sufficient to awaken us to the truth of who we really are. Perhaps we must fulfill its grand ambition in order to realize its emptiness. True, the Technological Program can never be fulfilled in its entirety, but specific problems indeed succumb to the methods of control, the technological fix. Looked at piecemeal, the Technological Program is a great success. We have attained to a realm of magic and miracles. Godlike powers are ours. Yet somehow, the world around us falls apart. Our confidence in technology is slow to fade, however, because its successes are undeniable within their own limited realm. Perhaps the only experience that can reveal the fraudulence of the technological fix is its irrevocable, undeniable failure on the broadest systemic level.
The drug fix is not impotent to solve the immediate problem. The fix works! I feel bored, I feel uncomfortable, I feel depressed, I feel lonely, and the drug indeed removes these feelings (for the time being), contributing to the lie that the pain is fundamentally avoidable even when its source remains untouched. In the case of technology, the lie is that we can avoid the consequences of our disruption of nature, that instead of bringing it back into balance we can move farther and farther out of balance while covering for the damage already done. It is the lie that our debts need not be paid. It is the lie that there is no inherent purpose to the world beyond that of our own making, and therefore no consequences for disrupting it. It is the delusion that nothing is sacred, so that we may wreck with impunity.
Whether drug or technology, it works for a while; hence its allure, so powerful that we imagine that the complications it causes, the further pain it engenders, can likewise be avoided by the same fixes, indefinitely into the future, until the Final Solution.
In the case of drugs, often the addiction does not end until the complications it causes overwhelm its power to mask the associated pain. As the pain from a drug-wrecked life mounts, the power of the drug to numb the pain diminishes; every asset, every recourse is exhausted to keep the gathering problems under control; life becomes unmanageable, and all the postponed consequences emerge to be experienced as a convergence of crises. The addict "hits bottom", life falls apart.
The Technological Program, culminating in the complete elimination of suffering that dreamers think might be possible with the power of coal—I mean, electricity—I mean, nuclear power—I mean, the computer—I mean, nanotechnology—is tantamount to imagining that someday, alcohol or cocaine will not only temporarily remove the pain caused in large part by its previous abuse, but will also solve all the problems causing that pain. An absurd delusion indeed.
At each stage of an addiction there is a possibility of seeing through the lie, not just with reason but with the heart, and abandoning the program of control. It is no solution, not a lasting one, to apply the program of control to the addiction itself, to approach it with the attitude of self-denial. Quitting only works with the heartfelt realization that the fix was a lie, that I am denying myself something I don't want, not something I want. Otherwise, eventual relapse is inevitable.
One purpose of this book is to forestall such a relapse. When crises converge and things fall apart, a new sense of personal and collective self will open up. Let us recognize that and build upon it when the time comes!
A Collective Purpose Or Destiny
Another purpose of this book has been to encourage us not to resist the transition. That is why it is important to describe the dynamics of transformation. In Chapter Five I wrote, "Even worse than the disintegration of the orderly, stable, permanent-seeming life 'under control' is for it to smoothly proceed until time and youth are exhausted." The longer we hang on, the greater the accumulated consequences.
Already, the accumulated damage we humans have wrought over the last few thousand years is enough to cause the sixth great extinction in geological history, and the demise of billions of people in the next century due to war, famine, and epidemic. If we continue to deplete our social, spiritual, and natural capital in a desperate gambit to control the consequences of control with yet more control, then the eventual payback will be even worse.
That is why the message, "Be good to yourself as best you know how" must be accompanied by new insight into what it is to be good to yourself. The formula for success in our society is a formula for disaster. Not only on a collective level but individually too, the mortgaging of our life purpose to the demands of security and comfort leads ultimately to bankruptcy, and we are left, lonely and sick, looking back on years wasted in pursuit of a mirage.
Yet those years—and I have wasted many myself—need not be entirely fruitless, not if we learn from them what the surrogate objects of our pursuits were really replacing. All I really wanted was intimacy. All I really wanted was nourishment. All I really wanted was comfort. All I really wanted was to love. All I really wanted was to express my magnificence.
The question, then, is what is the true object that humankind, the technological species, is striving toward? For it appears that the Ascent of Humanity is actually a descent, a reduction of the unmediated richness of reality, an abandonment of the original affluence of foraging.
But perhaps there is more; perhaps we are groping toward something, a collective purpose or a destiny, and have wrought endless ruin instead in pursuit of a substitute, a sham, a delusion. Maybe it was necessary that our quest take us to the very extremes of Separation; perhaps the Reunion that is to follow will be not a return to a pristine past but a reunion on a higher level of consciousness, a spiraling and not a circling.
What is this transformational process, that it requires such an extreme of Separation? Where might it take us? Could there after all be a purpose, a transformational significance to the crescendo of violence that engulfs the planet today?
Excerpted with permission from Chapter 8: Self and Cosmos
book: The Ascent of Humanity. Publisher: North Atlantic Books
Copyright 2013. Reprint edition.
The Ascent of Humanity: Civilization and the Human Sense of Self
by Charles Eisenstein
Charles Eisenstein explores the history and potential future of civilization, tracing the converging crises of our age to the illusion of the separate self. In this landmark book, Eisenstein explains how a disconnection from the natural world and one another is built into the foundations of civilization: into science, religion, money, technology, medicine, and education as we know them. As a result, each of these institutions faces a grave and growing crisis, fueling our near-pathological pursuit of technological fixes even as we push our planet to the brink of collapse. Fortunately, our darkest hour bears the possibility of a more beautiful world—not through the extension of millennia-old methods of management and control but by fundamentally reimagining ourselves and our systems. Breathtaking in its scope and intelligence, The Ascent of Humanity is a remarkable book showing what it truly means to be human.
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About the Author
Charles Eisenstein is a speaker and writer focusing on themes of civilization, consciousness, money, and human cultural evolution. His viral short films and essays online have established him as a genre-defying social philosopher and countercultural intellectual. Charles graduated from Yale University in 1989 with a degree in Mathematics and Philosophy and spent the next ten years as a Chinese–English translator. He is the author of several books, including Sacred Economics and Ascent of Humanity. Visit his website at charleseisenstein.net
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Interview with Charles: Living the Change