I tried pointing out in Who are you? (p.504) how civilization plays a major role in educating its citizens as to who they are and who they should be. This contrasts sharply with the natural intuitive way that our ancestors acquired a secure sense of self. Religious stories, central to every civilization, are humanity’s attempt to rectify the trouble this causes. Of these, Buddha’s Noble Truths may offer the most succinct meta-truth to address this.
“Who are you?” (a short recap)
Comprehending life is easier once we appreciate the social void created by the demise of humanity’s ancestral way of living. The agricultural revolution required a new way of doing things, and launched humanity into its civilized approach to life.
The Marshall family lived among, and wrote about, the previously unstudied !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert beginning in 1950. This excerpt from The !Kung of Nyae Nyae succinctly describes humanity’s ancestral way of living.
“The [Ju/wasi] are extremely dependent emotionally on the sense of belonging and companionship. Separation and loneliness are unendurable to them. I believe their wanting to belong and be near is actually visible in the way families cluster together in an encampment and in the way they sit huddled together, often touching someone, shoulder against shoulder, ankle across ankle. Security and comfort for them lie in their belonging to their group free from the threat of rejection and hostility.”
For civilization to function, it needs to compensate for any loss of security and comfort formerly instilled in people by way of humanity’s ancestral ways. There are two aspects to this. One is the sense of comfort and security in one’s identity, and the other is material comfort and security that tool use (technology) provides.
The core purpose of civilization lies in maintaining and advancing security and comfort. To maintain the security of self-identity, civilization teaches us who we are and who we should strive to be. To work well, this requires the population to share a common cultural identity. It does this by drumming its cultural paradigm (story) into us from infancy.
As an arbitrary one-size fits all story, we must spend much of our life striving to find our proper role—our niche in the hierarchical social scheme. How well each of us succeeds surely affects mental health and general well being a great deal. Fortunately, this is not yet as problematic as it could be due to the previous widespread extent of everyday poverty.
Poverty has historically pulled people together socially. As Mother Theresa put it, “Materially poor; rich in spirit”. Wealth on the other hand, often replaces the “rich in spirit” advantage with material riches… physical comfort and security. Maximizing both physical and spiritual aspects can be difficult, if not impossible, at least under civilization’s circumstances. In general, civilization succeeds in material comfort and security at the expense of our emotional comfort and security. Christ’s spoke to this: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God”. As the world’s standard of living rises, this existential tradeoff will undoubtedly increase for everyone.(1)
How bad is it, really?
At best, it is a mixed blessing. We are a very adaptable species and there is the ‘you can’t miss what you’ve never had’ argument. In addition, the nuclear and extended family has certainly been a major substitute for the ancestral tribe following The Neolithic Revolution, or the First Agricultural Revolution, 12,000 BCE. However, that has become increasingly tentative over the millennia. A wealth of opportunity means we don’t have to put up with our relatives. We are free to move and have a life of our own choosing. Indeed, moving out is a rite of passage for children now. Yes, we stay in touch: Social media, email, holiday visits, etc., but these can’t match the lifelong physical and emotional connection experienced by earlier generations… not to mention hunter-gatherers.
Most of us cope well enough, distracting ourselves with the variety of choices, interests, duties, etc. We do adapt, yet do we thrive? Research offers mountains of evidence that we don’t. It is similar to being in an unhappy marriage. Sure, you can manage, but is that living? Furthermore, even having a few percent fail will greatly affects society overall. The failures are the pool from which slumlords, criminals, drug dealers, terrorists, hate crimes, etc., are drawn. Ironically, the failures are also the pool from which society’s successful heroes are drawn. In other words, there were no Einsteins or dumb rednecks, no Hitlers or Buddhas in ancestral hunter-gatherer times. Both of these extremes, the good and evil, are the results of our attempts to cope. As such, they are oddly the same as chapter 2 suggests…
Religion as therapy for religion
Ironically, religion serves as a therapy for its actual inability to instill a natural and truly secure sense of self in people. Religion’s stories, being fabricated and arbitrary at their core, cannot substitute for the natural sense-of-self acquired prehistorically — the old way. Google [The old way: a story of the first people] and [The Harmless People].(2)
Seen from a symptoms point of view, the elitist fervency that religions often stimulate in believers in their attempt to restore human sanity actually belies their intrinsic failure. This is not to say religion isn’t helpful… quite the contrary. Nevertheless, in hunter-gatherer days, humanity didn’t need much fixing, so clearly there was scant need for religion of any sort.
That said, there is the archeological record of spiritual expression going back 100,000 years or more. I’d guess that yearning arose as human cognition began disconnecting awareness from ‘the here and now’ — especially in memories of a past and imaginations of a future. However, only with the demise of the old way, did tribal spirituality evolve into a tribal religion phenomenon. The persistence of tribal instincts seems both fitting and ironic! Simply put, religion is the attempt to fill the void created by the demise of the old way and the tribal security it provided.
Is Taoism an exception?
Taoism, or rather Taoist thought, is a possible exception. The first lines of the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching could not be a more honest disclaimer to the story it proceeds to lay out. This is why a Taoist worldview never evolved into a major world religion, even in its birthplace China. Frankly, it is too honest and impartial to serve tribal agendas. That impartiality also preempts the hierarchical social structure that gives expertise legitimacy.
This is like saying, “Everything I say is a lie”. This seems paradoxical, but as D.C. Lau put it in chapter 78, Straightforward words seem paradoxical, or as the literal says, Straight and honest words seem inside out. If you truly take the disclaimer seriously, you can’t help but be more humble and open… eventually.
Another possible exception — The Science of Buddha
Buddha’s Four Noble Truths (p.604) are another possible exception. Buddha puts forward a straightforward, somewhat scientific, view of the human condition in a few succinct observations. One line of the second truth is particularly noteworthy …“The illusion of self originates and manifests itself in a cleaving to things…”
This links closely to civilization’s need to instill a secure sense of social unity, a pseudo tribe where the population feels connected via cultural stories, the most powerful of which being religious. However, the extremely hierarchical nature of civilization makes any sense of egalitarian unity tenuous at best. In an existential quest to feel socially secure, we “cleave” to the particular cultural story we are encouraged to conform to from childhood … or we rebel and opt for another equally arbitrary story. Instead of a truly secure sense of self, we acquire an enhanced “illusion of self” (a.k.a. ego) and the baggage that maintaining this illusion entails.
Cleaving to our story and to our stuff
The material things we hold onto also help create and maintain the “illusion of self” that substitutes for the natural sense-of-self acquired prehistorically via the old way. Alas, no illusion can ever replace the organic reality of the old way. The “illusion of self” (ego) only offer us a surface security, still leaving us insecure deeper down.
Letting go of that to which we cleave might appear to be one obvious solution. However, letting go would amount to virtual suicide, which explains why we can’t truly “just let go”. Moreover, any apparent letting go is actually a pseudo letting go, where we simply exchange cleaving to ‘this’ for cleaving to ‘that’.
Being fully aware of how things stack up doesn’t mean we can rest easy, let go, and let the world turn. Biology drives us to resolve even the irresolvable. We—or at least I—need an alternative to the futile notion of just letting go, of Enlightenment, or of other promising fantasies.
To be sure, observing how life plays out is word heavy, and can easily end up being just more stuff to “cleave” to. In addition, more words usually obscure the view, leaving countless misunderstandings to follow. It’s a Catch-22, but what can I do? Well, I’ll save that for the next time in a final… Who are You (Part III).
Well, to be honest
Admittedly, much of what I write is merely my attempt to remember! How is this different from any other story one remembers? After all, remembering is simply a cognitive “cleaving to” that can easily become problematic, as Buddha pointed out. Conversely, remembering is necessary to remember just that. Buddha’s first two steps on the middle path, Right Comprehension and Right Resolution, depend on re-memory.
Not being born nor raised in our ancestral old way, the Taoist story polices itself and helps me turn my cognitive mountains back into molehills… but only if I’m self-honest enough!
(1) With less poverty, there is less need for people to pull together. You can see this effect now in the industrial world. A rising standard of living socially liberates people. This freedom increases our sense of social disconnection. The only path left is a personalized quest into the unknown for spiritual meaning.
As robotics takes over maintaining security and comfort, civilization’s raison d’être can only weaken. There will be much less need to get everyone on the same page, identity wise, to pull together to raise the barn, dig the irrigation canal, fight the barbarian invaders. This can only weaken culture’s ability to answer the question, “Who are you?”, and who we should be for the sake of society. Answering that question will be a pressing task in the future… and much more difficult than raising a barn or digging a well. The emotional challenges of spiritual survival will fill the void left by diminishing survival demands on the material plane.
(2) If you are serious about the Taoist worldview, The old way: a story of the first people is worth serious reading and pondering as is the earlier The Harmless People. For the deepest view, read The !Kung of Nyae Nyae and Nyae Nyae !Kung Beliefs and Rites.