♦ Preface ♦
I’ve been trying to figure life out since I was at least 10 years old and my posts on Centertao.org over the years attest to my continuing efforts at this quest. Obviously, I never truly trusted any cultural offering as the truth. That has forced me to go through life reinventing the wheel, so to speak. I personally test the veracity of life ‘truths’ I come across. Coincidentally, Buddha advised his followers not to accept his observations on faith; instead, verify them through personal experience.
Reinventing the wheel sounds inefficient. However, how can we trust anything we have not found to be true through our own experience? Usually people rely on the recommendations of others, but how do these ‘others’ truly know? It all rests on blind faith at some point. Interestingly, the Tao Te Ching cautions us, Of ancients adept in the way, none ever use it to enlighten people, They will use it in order to fool them. Perhaps it is wise to be wary.
Finally, I have reinvented the wheel enough to suit my needs. Briefly, when I ponder the nature of Nature, I always return to the idea of balance. Nature, in the end, appears to be a process of dynamic balance. In an odd and paradoxical way, imbalance counterbalances balance. Of course, this doesn’t actually help deal with real life, does it? How we deal with life in as balanced a way as possible is the real concern. This essay summarizes my effort to address this issue as succinctly as I am able. I leave it to you to decide whether the result holds any water.
Please note: The need to make this essay as concise as possible has also made it a dense read. It will require your most patient contemplation along the way to plumb full comprehension.
- Print out a PDF of The Tradeoff to read and review the old fashion way.
What ‘karma’ brought humanity to where it is today? Comprehending how our species got here can flush out the puzzling aspects of human culture. Deeply knowing why circumstances are the way they are now helps demystify life and put modern times in context.
The ‘karma’ that concerns us here is human history, or more precisely, genus Homo prehistory. We need to reach back into prehistory to make sense of history. Without that context, anyone “adept in the way” can easily fool us, as the Tao Te Ching hints. Before reading on, examine the graphics in this essay. It is important to appreciate fully the time scale these graphics show.
A key to comprehending ‘why’ lies in realizing just how recent the ‘ancient history’ of the last 12,000 years truly is! Importantly, what we think of as ‘ancient’ practices arose a mere 6,000 years ago, at most. What drove humanity, after several hundred thousand years as ‘modern’ humans just like us, to start suddenly down a path of such exponential cultural innovation? Why science, literacy, history, politics, religion…?
Humanity’s Evolutionary Tradeoff
The cultural shift from the ancestral ways of the hunter-gatherer to agrarian ways was the most important change since the domestication of fire some million years earlier. It entailed profound tradeoffs that humanity didn’t choose. A better understanding of this shift can help us manage the tradeoffs more effectively.
The Initial Tradeoff
At the outset, it is important to consider the era leading up to the prehistoric transition from hunting and gathering to settled agriculture. The discoveries of paleo-art of the Lower Paleolithic era (about 2,500,000 to 200,000 years ago) hint at the cognitive characteristics of this era’s Homo species. What inspired the artistic creativity in this group of modern humans (Homo sapiens) and our now extinct human ancestors?
From a symptoms point of view,(1), the most straightforward hypothesis may be that this creative drive was symptomatic of these hominins’ concurrent cognitive evolution. Language, and specifically the dialectic nature of human language, splits reality into polar extremes: good vs. bad, beauty vs. ugly, right vs. wrong, life vs. death, etc. This dialectic characteristic, with its polarizing characteristic, pervades human cognition causing us to feel a visceral sense of disconnection from Nature, i.e., Nature is not reducible to polar opposites! The resulting disconnect with Nature we feel drives us to find ways to connect and feel Oneness again — enter the art, music, and spirituality of prehistoric peoples.
The Tao Te Ching hints at how language supplants primal intuition with cognition in its ‘disclaimer’ in chapter 1: The way possible to think, runs counter to the constant way. The name possible to express runs counter to the constant name. Even so, archeology, along with research of ‘unspoiled’ hunter-gatherer people in the last century, provides abundant evidence that our hunter-gatherer ancestors coped rather well with this cognitive dissonance through their profoundly egalitarian social structure and shared forms of self-expression. For more on hunter-gatherers, see the Who are you? series (2).
Divide and Conquer
The first agricultural revolution (circa 10,000 BC) added to this cognitive schism between Nature and ourselves by displacing the uniting egalitarian ways of our hunter-gatherer ancestors with the hierarchical social system we know as civilization. This new ‘civilizing’ social model exploited hierarchical instincts at the expense of egalitarian ones to help effectively manage the larger population and labor force that agriculture entailed.
Essentially civilization, with its emphasis on specialization, literacy, knowledge, and social ranking, ‘divides and conquers’ the egalitarian hunter-gatherer in each of us. The more specialized the activities of a culture, the more multi-layered and hierarchical its society. Indeed, niche specialization is the hallmark of advanced and sophisticated civilizations (3).
Dividing and conquering humanity’s ancestral way through specialization is socially disconnecting, and yet absolutely essential for organizing labor and managing large settled populations. The more specialized and sophisticated a civilization becomes, the more hierarchical, and that engenders further social disconnection. This is an excellent and ironic example of how solutions cause their own problems! In other words, everything has a price.
The increasing sophistication of civilization over the millennia also aggravated the cognitive dissonance that arose during the Lower Paleolithic period. The socio-economic changes caused by the Iron Age helped bring this dialectic ‘knowledge’ problem to a head. Interestingly, both the Bible’s Genesis and the Tao Te Ching speak to this ‘knowledge’ problem. Genesis 2:17, But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. Similarly, the Tao Te Ching chapter 71 says, Realizing I don’t know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease. It appears that what the Tao Te Ching calls disease is the same as what Western religions call original sin.
Also interesting are the different ways each scripture deals with the problem. The Bible goes on to suggest we have free will to choose between good and evil. In contrast, the Tao Te Ching chapter 2 says, All realizing goodness as goodness, no goodness already, which hints why chapter 71 advises, Realizing I don’t’ know is better. Chapter 38 also challenges the idea of free will: Superior virtue never acts and never believes. The tipoff: this divorces action and belief from virtue, and by inference, any action influenced by a belief in free will. Without a belief in free will, we can’t honestly credit anyone for ‘selfless acts of virtue’, or by inference, blame anyone for ‘selfish acts of evil’. Naturally, this seriously threatens the hierarchical dynamic upon which civilizations depend. See Free Will: Fact or Wishful Thinking? (4)
Cognitive Dissonance + Social Disconnection
There are two fundamental and interrelated factors to keep in mind: (A) the social disconnection caused by civilization and (B) the cognitive dissonance caused by the dialectic nature of language. Each exasperates the other. Humanity traded the social security of the old way for the material security of agriculture and the hierarchical social system required to support it.
This hierarchical social model counteracts the egalitarian social self-security engendered by the old way of ancestral humanity. That lessening of social connection, along with a previous cognitive dissonance in relation to Nature, fostered a subtle, albeit persistent, sense of separate self that left people feeling insecure and isolated.
Self-preservation instincts then drove this increasing sense of separate self to find a secure niche in the hierarchy. This meant specializing in a meaningful role in order to belong to society. The resulting niches of specialization divide and rank a population from ‘high’ to ‘low’, usually in this order: gods, kings, priests, teachers, warriors, artisans, traders, farmers, slaves, or their modern equivalents.
In addition, the settled existence accompanying civilization allows individuals to hold on to things to develop and safeguard their niche — to ‘keep up with the Jones’, so to speak. The holding on to things increases the sense of separate self — ‘the illusion of self’ that Buddha pointed out in his second truth, i.e., “the illusion of self originates and manifests itself in a cleaving to things” — “things” include both the material and spiritual, the physical and mental. Such attachment augments the original sense of a separate self, which leaves one feeling more isolated and insecure.
To top this off, the hierarchical ranking of ‘good, better, and best’ combines with Buddha’s “a cleaving to things” to create another illusion — the illusion of perfect. This deepens our split from Nature. To paraphrase chapter 2, All realizing perfect as perfect, no perfect already. Perfect and Nature are utterly incongruous. Consider the Chinese word for nature: zì rán (自然). Zì (自) = self; certainly. Rán (然) = correct; so. Accordingly, Nature = self-correct, self-so, certainly-so. Now, it’s okay if self-correct gives the impression of ‘perfect’. As nothing exists outside of Nature, this suggests everything is ‘perfect’, which can only mean no perfect already, or in plain English, a hint that ‘nothing’ is perfect. Simply put, reality is not duality! The duality we perceive is a symptom of the disconnection from Nature we feel, and vice versa.
Given these increasing pressures to land a secure niche, to connect, it is not surprising that notions of free will, success, and perfection hold more water. A belief in free will helps give individuals a sense of control over their life with the power to fill their niche in the social hierarchy. The free will ideal offers one hope that they can find their own way through life. There is a chance one can gain fame, fortune, prestige, rank, friends and admirers. The enhanced notions of self and free will help support and even drive hierarchical forces, and counteract the egalitarian ones. The illusion of perfection offers a way to establish hierarchical rank — a social measuring rod with, for example, ‘dullard’ on one end, and ‘genius’ on the other (5).
Enter Religion and Practices like Yoga
Another notable feature of the transition from the old way to civilization was a major shift in spirituality. Social institutions arose for disconnected souls seeking re-connection — religion (from ligo “bind, connect”, i.e. re- (again) + ligare or “to reconnect,”). Similarly, yoga comes from the Sanskrit root “yuj,” (pron. “yug”) meaning “to join”, “to unite”. All in all, yoga ≅ ligare, wouldn’t you say? Religious gatherings offer the promise of egalitarian reconnection. Actually, any gathering, be it musical, political, or a yoga class, offers much the same.
Deity oriented religions from Christianity to Hinduism generally draw on the simple hierarchical structure of a family or a tribe, where a father or a tribal alpha-male (a.k.a. God) guides his flock. In addition, deity religions — especially Western religions — generally encourage the illusions of self, free will, and free choice. Finally, they depend on their followers’ belief in the verity and legitimacy of words. The Bible offers many examples, e.g., “For the word of God is living and active…” Hebrews 4:12; “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” John 17:17. (Google “Bible Verses Word of Truth” for more.)
Interestingly, the core Buddhist and Taoist paths, and yoga to an extent, approach religion (re+ligare) a little differently. As evidenced by Buddha’s Four Truths and the Tao Te Ching, they appear to draw more on egalitarian instincts to push back on ‘the illusion of self’ and ‘the illusion of free will’. This is not to say deity-oriented religions don’t also tap into egalitarian instincts, but rather that they draw so extensively on hierarchical authority.
Still, the core of yoga, as expressed in the Bhagavad Gita, is more prescriptive and hierarchical. For example, “For if a man thinks of the Spirit Supreme with a mind that wanders not, because it has been trained in yoga, he goes to that Spirit of Light.” It is easy to interpret this as validating free will and perfection, which sets the bar unnaturally high.
Nevertheless, the promise of controlling one’s life and finding connection in a secure niche — in a “Spirit of Light” or whatever — is what we often yearn to hear. On the other hand, we have the ancient yogic sentiment, Tat Tvam Asi, “Thou art that”. This all-connecting yogic ideal is a joining together, linking “I” and “that”. It doesn’t get more egalitarian than this!
Tat Tvam Asi is Profound Sameness
The problem we Homo sapiens (Latin: “wise man”) must deal with is our illusion of distinction born of language and the naming that supports it. We think we make “wise” distinctions. Tat Tvam Asi challenges our cognitive perception of difference. This “wise man” trait likely has its origins in what Buddha called the illusion of self. Naturally, some sense of self is essential for survival of any living thing! However, we humans have way too much of this good thing, an imbalance going back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Civilization’s hierarchical social dynamics only exasperate cognitive distinction and the ensuing sense of disconnection.
Tat Tvam Asi corresponds to the Taoist idea of profound sameness. As chapter 56 puts it…
Knowing doesn’t speak; speaking doesn’t know.
Subdue its sharpness, untie its tangles,
Soften its brightness, be the same as dust,
This is called profound sameness.
This view of non-distinction reveals a subtler aspect of balance (6). When ‘thou art that’ there is no ‘otherness’. Without ‘otherness’, life can ride the wave of dynamic balance without dissonance. We can go with the flow, as they say. All this goes to point out how the egalitarian social settings of our illiterate unsophisticated hunter- gatherer ancestors helped imbue individuals with an innate sense of pycho-emotional balance. That sense of balance is the harmonious quality missing from civilized hierarchical society.
Our naming of things freezes the reality of the moment in memory, which we then do our best to impose upon nature’s ‘wave of dynamic balance’. Our fondly held illusions of difference produce and/or magnify a sense of psycho-emotional imbalance. Civilization’s incessant pigeonholing of reality increases hierarchical distinctions and we end up with a deepening sense of imbalance even as we find our ‘secure’ niche. We feel varying degrees of imbalance and scurry about throughout life striving to regain balance — to reconnect with the whole, so to speak. Again, as the Tao Te Ching mentions, Realizing I don’t know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease. If all this isn’t the disease, I don’t know what is.
The Old Way
In contrast to the circumstances of civilization I’ve outlined earlier, our hunter-gatherer ancestors had little opportunity to succumb to the problem of a separate self as Buddha pointed out, i.e., “the illusion of self originates and manifests itself in a cleaving to things”. Our ancestors, following the old way, were frequently on the move. “The illusion of self” could not develop as it does in the settled conditions of civilized society. Only when you settle down in one place for generations, you can accumulate enough things to augment “the illusion of self”!
Moreover, hunter-gatherer survival was best accomplished by group egalitarian instincts, with hierarchical instincts playing a minor social role. Any over expression of hierarchical instinct would threaten group cohesion and cooperation that was crucial for survival. In these circumstances, there would be little need for an ideal touting personal salvation in God, a “Spirit of Light”, or whatever. The visceral ‘social security’ felt by belonging to one’s group was ample salvation.
In this way, we have evolved over millions of years, transiting through various Homo types — H. habilis, H. rudolfensis, H. ergaster, H. erectus, H. neanderthalensis — to the current H. sapiens. To assume we could quickly shift from that balanced egalitarian old way to the opposite hierarchical social system that constitutes civilization is wishful thinking born out of ignorance. The irony is that we assume we can fix the problems of civilization by means of civilized solutions. This easily turns into fighting fire with fire as history shows.
A New Old Way
The hitch with civilization is the destabilizing price we pay for our material comfort and security. Indeed, I imagine this tradeoff accounts for most of the societal ills humanity faces. Yet, we would not go back to the ancestral old way even if we could. Even so, there is hope if we can begin to comprehend the profound role civilization has had in creating the problems we find so serious. Knowing true causes always improves one’s probability for effective management! Conversely, ignorance often ends up playing “Whack-a-Mole”.
“Right Comprehension”, the first step on Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, can help alleviate the consequences of hierarchical civilization and much of the ignorance that follows in its wake, at least on the personal level. No doubt, an honest public understanding of the underlying causes of civilization’s problems could help society manage this current phase of our evolution better as well.
However, any effort to ‘enlighten’ the whole population reminds me of the maxim, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink”. People ‘drink in’ whatever tends to support their beliefs and biases. At best, we’d just end back up at the Taoist view, Of ancients adept in the way, none ever use it to enlighten people, They will use it in order to fool them. Yet, I see a natural way around this.
Onward to 12,000 A.D.
Civilization reflects the median aspects of its population’s inclinations. A population’s median age plays a major role in these aspects, i.e., our inclinations mature as we age, and thus so should a civilization’s. In other words, the longer each of us attends the school of life, the more wisdom deepens as we experience humbling losses and failures, and face our own mortality and ultimate ignorance.
The median age of the world’s population was estimated to be 23 years in 1950. The world’s median age is estimated to rise to 37 by 2050. With the exponential advances in modern medicine, how much will it rise by the year 2100, 2200, 2300… 12,000? Put another way, a population whose median age is under thirty results in an overly ‘active’ and ‘teenagely’ impulsive civilization, as history shows. That would not be the case for a population with a median age of eighty or one hundred and eighty — I’m certain (7)!
In addition, a falling birth rate also moves a population’s median age upward, and wealthier populations have declining birth rates. Don’t hold your breath waiting for a significant increase in global standards of living and median age. This may take hundreds or thousands of years, but it’s inevitable. Even if this takes another 10,000 years, we’re half way there! In addition, the rate of change looks exponential judging from the Anthropocene chart. Yes, the Anthropocene chart below paints an ominous picture short-term, but remember, ‘the darkest hour is just before the dawn‘. The cup is half full!
Adapting Day to Day, Moment by Moment
Most of what I do in life helps fill the void in me that would never exist were I born 10,000+ years ago in the more balanced egalitarian and physically demanding circumstances of the old way. Now I just ‘hunt and gather’ in other ways. My quest to figure life out has certainly been a major aspect of this adaptation. I hunt and gather connections — observations.
This ‘hunt and gather’ adaptation became serious when my brother died in 1964. A quandary over the nature of life and death consumed me for months until I suddenly realized that life and death were the same thing. This non-sense culminated a few decades later in the Correlation process(8), which settled for me the ‘word issue’ raised in chapter 1’s disclaimer — The name possible to express runs counter to the constant name.
Yet, the most essential ‘hunt and gather’ adaptation for me has been yoga. By yoga, I don’t mean any particular activity! To paraphrase the Taoist disclaimer, ‘The yoga possible to express runs counter to the constant yoga’. Let’s return to the core meaning of the word yoga: “to join”, “to unite”. Any life pursuit that fulfills that duty will work.
This ‘constant yoga’ offers me a way of paying a daily price for the civilized degree of comfort and security that I enjoy. Happily, a degree of life balance returns when I pay this price honestly and watchfully. The Tao Te Ching also cautions, Knowing doesn’t speak; speaking doesn’t know. This reminds me of the maxim: Actions speak louder than words. To this point, Buddha’s Fourth Truth states in part, “There is salvation for him whose self disappears before truth, whose will is bent on what he ought to do, whose sole desire is the performance of his duty.” (9)
Consequently, performing your ‘duty’ — your ‘constant yoga’ — whatever that is in your life, can be your way of filling the void left by civilization and paying for the comfort and security you enjoy (10). A degree of life balance returns when you pay this price as honestly and watchfully as possible. As Buddha’s last words put it, “Strive on diligently”. This is straightforward, yet it is natural for any animal, human included, to do all it can to avoid paying the price. ‘Free’ anything is an enticing natural illusion — a bio-hoodwink(11) I call it. Nevertheless, when all else fails, paying the price is as easy as it is unavoidable (12).
(1) A symptoms point of view is the search for the underlying causes of observable phenomena, and the even deeper causes of those causes… ad infinitum. Here, the question reigns supreme; the answer becomes just a passing effect on the quest for noticing deeper causes. No leaping to the answer of the day here.
(2) The Who are you? series began as just another CenterTao post, “Who are you?” I found it merited more, which led to five more posts. These finally led to my pièce de résistance — this post. Interestingly, since this post, I’ve not felt the need to post more. Of course, I know never to say never. Still, the ‘Who are you’ posts and this one answers enough about the human condition for me. Perhaps I can give it a rest now.
(3) The more sophisticated a civilization, the more diverse its cultural activity. Diversity divides rather than unites and connects. On the other hand, diversity is healthy if there is enough diversity to thwart a tyranny of the majority. You can see the inherent tension civilization must cope with. We want to have our cake and eat it too.
Cultural life divides itself up into narrower and narrower niches. Think of any area of life and compare it to history vis-à-vis specialization and sub-specialization. Advancing technology plays a big part in this, but so too does the bureaucratic infrastructure necessary to support an advancing civilization.
Dividing culture into niches is disconnecting overall, yet for the ‘specialist’ in a niche, it does provide a sense of meaningful connection and life purpose. Overall, however, it works against the deep sense of social unity that our hunter-gatherer ancestors enjoyed.
(4) First see Free Will: Fact or Wishful Thinking? For more, review: Of Free Will, I Am; Is Happiness In Your Choices?; Instinctive Free Will; Free Willer’s Anonymous and finally Is ‘Free Will’ the Only Option?
(5) The hierarchical drive is pervasive, often in subtle and insidious ways that skirt the awareness of those influenced. Fire up your ‘symptoms point of view’ and inspect aspects of society that concern you. Ask, “What role does this play in social hierarchy?” or, “How does this serve ‘hunt and gather’ instincts?” The connection will nearly always be there; you must just dig for it.
(6) The only time I feel ultimate balance is when all distinctions vanish. Naturally, that’s a fleeting experience, but it helps at least to realize that the ‘no thing’ of balance is the ‘bottom layer’, the founding principle, the model, the ebb and flow cycle, and the primary pattern of emergent existence. Whew! That’s a mouthful. No matter how I look at life, I always end back to balance as a key principle driving the whole shebang.
Balance is the fulcrum of emergent properties. (See Tao As Emergent Property) Balance is circle around which emergent properties do their work. Balance runs the show. Balance is the least common denominator of existence — and non existence. Balance is nature’s primary model for the emergence of that which is simply ‘self so’ — zì rán (自然). Obviously, I can’t sing the praise of balance enough!
(7) When I discuss this, people often disagree that aging confers wisdom, and so can’t accept ‘my’ solution for the ills of civilization. Oddly, everyone says they are wiser now than before — they just doubt most others are. I understand a younger person’s doubt; they have yet to acquire enough experience to verify this. However, older people’s doubt puzzles me. Is this because solutions that evolve naturally and exceedingly slow are unappealing? (See Don’t trust anyone under 60, And Then There Was Fire, and Counterbalancing I.Q., for more on the impact of a rising median age.)
(8) Chapter 2 observes, Hence existence and nothing give birth to one another. The linear quality of language makes this difficult to understand. The Correlation process is a practical technique that may help you make the necessary cognitive leap.
Speaking of the nothing, the Taoist view placing a premium on nothing. Consider chapter 40…
We instinctively focus on the ‘somethings’ of life, while the ‘nothing’ remains in the shadows. Indeed, “In the opposite direction, of the way moves”!
(9) Naturally, duty here is anything you sincerely feel a need to do ‘right’. This applies to conforming to any activity, physical or intellectual, e.g., ballet, sports, math, cooking, music, raking leaves, being in style, and of course religious practices. Indeed, I can’t think of anything in life that is exempt. (See also Buddha’s Truths Pertain To All Life )
(10) Civilization’s unbridled advancement of comfort and security allows us to take the path of least resistance more than would be possible living in the wild. This imbalance is detrimental to physical, and by extension, mental health. We can restore balance somewhat by pushing back on our desire for optimal comfort and security together with a lifelong practice of Hatha Yoga or the like. In short, we need to compensate for the loss of natural ‘push back’ Mother Nature would provide us in the wild. (See Tao as Emergent Property , The Nutty Things We Do and Hatha Yoga: The Essential Dynamics.)
(11) The bio-hoodwink refers to the underlying biological forces that drive survival. These primal forces of attraction and aversion steer all life’s responses to stimuli. For example, sunshine attracts both human sunbathers and sunflowers. The difference between the two is the human capacity for thought. Attraction stimulates thought, which generates expectations. For a sunbather, perhaps desires for a vacation at the beach. The bio-hoodwink in humans works like this:
Attraction (need) + thought = desire, positive expectations.
Aversion (fear) + thought = worry, anxiety, negative expectations.
Lacking thought, animals and plants don’t desire or worry, nor can they form either positive or negative expectations or regrets. Our ancestors could, but their egalitarian circumstances helped minimize the potential for cognitive dissonance. Having lost the deeper social connection of our ancestors, we compensate by “cleaving to things”, be they physical (goods) or mental (stories, beliefs, ideals). This cleaving offers us a pseudo sense of connection and augments the “illusion of self” that Buddha described. (See also, Fear & Need Born in Nothing.)
(12) Judgments concerning what we or other people should or should not do are symptoms of our own failure to “pay the price honestly and fully”. As a social species, we project, via mirror neurons, whatever is important to us onto others — and vice versa. This occurs in proportion to our own perceived failure to measure up, so to speak. (Correlations hint at what drives all this, i.e., fear ≈ failure ≈ loss ≈ death vs. need ≈ success ≈ gain ≈ life.)
This is not to suggest that you could be “paying the price” any more honestly or fully than you are doing right now. Merely comprehending what spawns your judgments may enhance self-honesty, and with that… Who knows?