A friend recently asked me, “If it is true that we live at a unique juncture in the planet’s history, when all great beings have gathered for the crucial moment of humanity’s birthing, then why do we not see the great avatars and miracle-workers of yesteryear?” My answer was that they are here, but they are working behind the scenes. One of them might be a nurse, a garbage man, a kindergarten teacher. They don’t do anything big or public, nothing that, through our eyes, looks like it is generating the miracles necessary to save our world. Our eyes deceive us. These people are holding the fabric of the world together. They are holding the space for the rest of us to step into. To do the big, public things is important, requiring all our gifts of courage and genius, but it requires not nearly the faith and solidity in the ground of interbeing as the invisible, humble actions of people like those kindergarten teachers.
So whatever your reasons for choosing to do great things or small, do not let them be the urgent, fearful belief that only the big, public things have any chance of influencing the masses and saving the world.
A year or two ago a young man confronted me at a talk in Florida. I’d been describing my view that the paradigm of urgency, heroic efforts, and struggle may itself be part of the problem; that it comes from the same place of scarcity and domination as the conquest of nature; that coming from that place, we might blindly create more of the same. Instead, I suggested, we might try slowing down, perhaps even doing nothing sometimes. Instead of holding ourselves to a high standard of revolutionary asceticism, we might approach life in a spirit of ease and play. Perhaps from this place our creative energies can bring about something truly new for civilization.
In most places, the political system is frozen into increasingly irrelevant debates, in which real solutions aren’t even on the table. In the U.S., amid the wrangling over troop levels, withdrawal timetables, and so on, where is the call to withdraw from all military bases worldwide and dismantle the standing army entirely? It is not part of the conversation. Of course, for it to enter the conversation would require the rejection of deeply help myths about the way the world works, the causes of war and terrorism, the real goals of American foreign policy, and so on, all the way down to our notions of good and evil. If one has not questioned these myths, then a call to disband the military would seem laughably naive.
Similarly, where in the universe of political dialogue on agricultural policy is the idea of a large-scale transition to permaculture, involving big gardens where lawns are today, a repopulation of rural land, humanure composting, and the therapeutic benefits of reconnecting to the soil?
The belief that goodness comes through sacrifice and struggle goes back thousands of years — but only thousands of years.
We might apply the same ideas to our relations with other people as we strive to invite them into the new story. Salesmen understand the power of invoking an unmet need and associating it with some product that appears to meet it. How much more powerful it would be to see the unmet needs, and offer people something that actually met them. We can practice perceiving the unmet needs and unexpressed gifts in other people. Then we can meet those needs or create opportunities for them to be met. Herein lies half of what leadership is in a less hierarchical world: a leader is someone who creates opportunities for others to give their gifts.
Another way to look at meeting the needs of others is that we are serving their pleasure, joy, and happiness. As our understanding of what these are deepens, the needs we seek to meet evolve. Usually, of course, our ability to see those needs depends on having met them within ourselves — as one would expect, in a world of interbeing.
Decades of research, going back to the Milgram experiments of the 1960s, belie our sanctimonious belief that if I were that CEO, that politician, that brother-in-law, that ex-spouse, that teacher, that addict, that inexcusable person, then I wouldn’t have done what she did. Ask yourself, what kind of person would deliver painful, even life-threatening, electrical shocks to an innocent subject as part of a psychological experiment? Surely only a very bad person would do that. Surely you wouldn’t do that! Well actually, as it turns out, “you” would. Or at least nearly everyone did in Stanly Milgram’s lab when the right conditions were present and the right excuses, the right story, was available. “Surely it can’t be wrong if a Yale scientist with a white coat is in charge.” “The subject did volunteer for this.” “I’m not the one responsible, I’m just following instructions.” More broadly, the thought that anything monstrous could be happening in a laboratory, decked out with the regalia of science, at a prestigious university, was so dissonant with the prevailing Story of the World, with society’s consensus about legitimacy and propriety, that one volunteer after another turned the knob up to max and pulled the lever.
… [ Nazis ] …
I am not suggesting, here, that we close our eyes to what looks like evil. I am suggesting we open our eyes even wider to the situation — which is the story that immerses us — that generates evil to begin with.
With equal fervor, though perhaps less finesse, pundits on the right do the same thing Alexander Cockburn did. Underneath the slurry of opinions, the same mindform prevails. Although we recognize ad hominem attacks as unfair or irrelevant, we are helpless to resist launching them, because of the dispositionism that permeates our beliefs. So-and-so disagrees with me because she is a bad person. For “bad” we may substitute all manner of adjectives, but the judgmentality is palpable.
Soon everyone will want to be even more right — more right than certain others in the group, which will degenerate into infighting and flame wars.
Maybe you want to be even more right still. Well then, go engage in some civil disobedience, get yourself arrested, get yourself beat up by the police. Demonstrate through your suffering how monstrous are the powers-that-be. Look what they did to me!
Now I am not saying that protest and direct action are always, or even usually, coming from self-righteousness. They are also powerful ways of disrupting the story that allows injustice to flourish. They can expose the ugliness beneath the facade of normal. No doubt, most hard-core activists have mixed motives of genuine service and self-righteous both. To the extent that the latter motive is present, the results will reflect it. You will achieve your goal — to look good and be right and make your opponents look evil. And you will increase the amount of hate in the world. Your sympathizers will hate and rage against the evildoers. I suppose the unstated hope is that if this rage builds up enough, we will all rise up and topple the elites. But what will we create in their stead, suffused as we are with self-righteousness and the ideology of war?
Militancy has the further disadvantage of alienating the uncommitted, who sense the goal of being righteous underneath the professed goal of changing society. When people are hostile to the angry feminist, the rabid vegan, the militant environmentalist, they are not merely defending their Story of the World and the complacency it allows; they are defending themselves against an implicit attack. If your activism, whether for social change or for your family to adopt a healthier diet, provokes hostility, that might be a mirror of inner discord.
Even if the response to militancy isn’t hostile, the militant is easy to write off: his commitment isn’t really to the cause, it is to militancy.
The best victory, says Sun Tzu, is the one in which the losers don’t realize they have lost. In the old story, we overcome evil and leave our enemies in the dust, wailing and gnashing their teeth. No more. Everyone is coming along for this ride. In the new story, we understand that everyone left behind impoverishes the destination. We see each human being as the possessor of a unique lens upon the world. We wonder, “What truth has this man been able to see from his perspective, that is invisible from mine?” We know that there must be something; that indeed, each of us occupies a different place in the matrix of all being precisely in order to contribute a unique experience to our evolving totality.
I do not know if Pancho’s encounter with the policeman directly changed that man’s life. I do know that each experience of love, along with each experience of hate, is written into our inner situation. Each experience of love nudges us toward the Story of Interbeing, because it only fits into that story and defies the logic of Separation.
A saying goes, “The greatest tool of the Devil is the belief that there is no Devil.” Perhaps the opposite is true: “The greatest tool of Evil is the idea there is such a thing as Evil.”
Take a while to appreciate the subtlety of that paradox. It does not say, “Evil does not exist.” It is essentially saying that evil is a story. Does that mean it isn’t real? No. Evil is as real as a poacher stripping the tusks from an elephant, Monsanto marketing GMO seeds to Indian peasants, the government ordering drone strikes on funeral processions. These are the tip of the iceberg, tiny tremors amid the convulsions wracking our planet.
Evil is real — no less real than any other story. What are some other stories? America is a story, money is a story, even the self is a story. What could be more real than your self? Yet even the self can be realized as an illusory construct when, through grace or practice, we are freed from its story. The point is not that we should treat evil as unreal. It is that we must address it on the level of story rather than accept its own invisible premises and logic. If we do the latter, we become its creature. If we address it on the level of story, and deconstruct through words and actions the mythology it lives in, then we win without defeating. The next chapters address working on the level of story — disrupting the old and telling the new — in more detail.
The Shuar are not a peaceful people, and they have evicted prospecting crews and machinery under threat of force. They are not, however, at war, in the sense that they are not striving to defeat an enemy. In contrast, much of our popular culture and the mentality of war see victory in terms of overcoming, by force, the perpetrator of evil.
Traditional populist strategies such as strikes, protests, direct action, civil disobedience, and so forth have an important role to play in disrupting the prevailing story. They are, however, both perilous and insufficient on their own to the task at hand. They are perilous because even if they come from a place of compassion and nonjudgment, they very easily trigger old habits of hatred. Their nature is to create a perception that there are two sides, one of which will win and one of which will lose, one of which is the good guys and one the bad guys. They are also insufficient, because they disrupt the prevailing story on only one level. … But we need to work on other levels as well. So, let us look at some other ways, other kinds of ways, to disrupt the Story of Separation.
One example is “culture jamming,” ranging from pranks like fake advertisements to campaigns such as “national buy-nothing day” and into this category, as might incursions of clowns into office buildings or business conferences. The Yes Men, who impersonate corporate and government officials on television interviews, are also culture jammers. All of these expose the inauthenticity, the insanity, or the inhumanity of dominant narratives.
Rather than ascending a linear evolutionary axis of consciousness toward a destination called enlightenment, as most New Age metaphysics seems to teach, perhaps what is happening is more subtle. It is not for nothing that the idea of an evolution of consciousness is so compelling. From crude schemata like “transitioning from the third to the fifth dimension” to sophisticated psychosocial cartographies like Spiral Dynamics, various maps of the evolution of consciousness illuminate a real phenomenon. We are evolving. It just isn’t a linear evolution. We are entering a vast new territory, each one of us exploring a different part of it.
Another way to see it is that in the 1960s, the Age of Separation had not yet reached its culmination. There were still further extremes of alienation, separation, fragmentation for humanity to explore. The ’60s were like an addict’s moment of clarity on the way down. Only when the world falls apart do we hit our collective bottom and begin living the way that was shown to us.
If any of my readers are part of the hippie generation that I so love, please let me remind you of what you know: what you saw and experienced was real. It was no fantasy; it was nothing less than a glimpse of the future. Your valiant, doomed attempt to live it was not in vain, because it helped to summon and strengthen the morphogenetic field of that future possibility. Put more prosaically, it initiated a cultural learning process that a new generation is beginning to fulfill.