I tried to point out in my initial Who are you? post (p.504) how civilization plays a major role in educating its citizens 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 have been central to every civilization’s agenda. Interestingly, Buddha’s Noble Truths offer a meta-truth, so to speak, that addresses this indirectly.
“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 originally and organically instilled in us via humanity’s ancestral ways. There are two aspects to this. One is the sense of comfort and security in one’s identity; the other is material comfort and security that tool use (technology) provides.
The core purpose of civilization, its raison d’être, 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. It needs to have the population on the same page, identity-wise. The cultural story we experience from infancy drums the paradigm into us.
Essentially being an arbitrary, one-size fits all story, we spend the rest of our lives striving to find our proper role — our niche in the hierarchical social scheme. How well each of us succeeds probably affects mental health and general well being a great deal. Ironically, this is not yet as problematic as it could be, due to the historic commonness 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. Having both, physical and spiritual aspect can be difficult, and may even be unnatural, 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, the existential tradeoffs will undoubtedly increase.(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 tribe following the agricultural revolution. 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 out and have a life of our own choosing. Indeed, moving out is a rite of passage for children now. Yes, we stay in touch: Facebook, email, Skype, holiday visits, blogs, etc., but these can’t match the close physical and emotional lifelong contact experienced by hunter-gatherers.
Most of us cope well enough, distracting ourselves with the variety of choices, interests, pass times, duties, writing books. We can adapt, but do we thrive? Statistics offer mountains of evidence that we don’t thrive. It is similar to being in an unhappy marriage; sure, you can manage, but is that living? Furthermore, having just a few percent fail completely affects society greatly. 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 coping. As such, they are oddly the same…
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, all being arbitrary at their core, can’t 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]. You can buy a good used copy of these on Amazon for a few pennies and cost of shipping! (2)
Seen from a symptoms point of view, the fervency that religions bring in trying to fix humanity actually belies their factual failure. In hunter-gatherer days, we didn’t need much fixing, so obviously 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’ and ‘it is what is’ — especially memory 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 is a unique exception once we drop the ‘… ism’ from it. 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 rally tribal agendas around. That impartiality also precludes the social hierarchical structure that expertise requires for 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, even scientific, view of the human condition in a few very succinct observations. The second truth is a disclaimer of sorts. One line 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 through a cultural story, 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 given to model, from childhood onward… or we rebel and opt for another equally arbitrary narrative. 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 substitute 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 makes us feel less secure deep down.
Letting go of that to which we cleave would appear to be the obvious solution. However, letting go would amount to virtual suicide; that probably explains why we can’t truly “just let go”, but rather hang on for dear life. 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 any futile notions of just letting go or holding out for Enlightenment.
My attempt to record my observations on how things stack up is excessively word heavy, and can end up being just more stuff to cleave to. In addition, more words usually obscure the view and misunderstandings follows. It’s a Catch-22, but what can I do? Well, at least I can save the rest for the next time in a final… Who are You (Part III).
Well, to be honest
I must admit, 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 easily becomes problematic, as Buddha pointed out. Well, that’s easy; 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 and raised a hunter-gatherer, the Taoist story can police itself and help me make mountains back into molehills — if I’m self-honest enough.
(1) With less poverty, there is less need for people to pull together socially. You can see this effect even now in the industrial world. The increased existential tradeoffs following a rising standard of living drives individuals to seek a more personalized quest 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 need and 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. Again, you can buy a good used copy of this and the earlier The Harmless People on Amazon for a few pennies and cost of shipping! For the deepest experience, The !Kung of Nyae Nyae and Nyae Nyae !Kung Beliefs and Rites are worth every dollar.