A Second Fall –
Notes on a Wounded Culture
The present plight of the planet precisely mirrors our own psycho-spiritual state, in its contaminated, unbalanced and moribund condition.
During the summer of 2010, I was invited to give a talk to the students at Taisho Buddhist University in Tokyo. My talk addressed the problem of Western culture as I understand and experience it, while I was also at the same time of course, speaking to a large extent of contemporary Japanese culture also. This essay is a revised and expanded version of that talk.
In spite of all the extraordinary achievements and attainments of the West in so many areas of life, I believe that our Western cultural mind-set is based on a fundamental flaw, the result of a cultural wound we have been carrying and deepening since our culture’s very foundation, and that has led the planet and its inhabitants to the critical condition that we are now in, both environmentally, as well as socially and spiritually. While accepting the impossibility of our having created a utopia, I do believe that we might have taken a very different direction from the one we have. In what follows, I explain what I understand to be the nature of this cultural wound, and how it impinges on the ways in which we are now trying to heal the social and environmental damage it has wrought. Terrestrial pollution, extinction of species, global warming, damaged ozone layer, over-population, dysfunctional societies etc. etc., these are all symptoms we are trying to treat, while not understanding, and ignoring the real underlying sickness that actually obstructs us in our attempts at any true remedies; and where, I believe, those currently proposed for alleviating our predicament will finally only exacerbate the situation.
This essay is not presented as a scholarly treatise, but merely a point of view composed of thoughts and notes accumulated over a number of years. And while like many before me, where I suggest that the only true way of life on this planet would be a return to understanding life as an holistic continuum, and living symbiotically with the natural environment – an unlikely outcome given the global, cultural challenge that this would present, particularly within the timescale it would need to be accomplished, were it even possible – I am not in any way sentimental or romantic about ‘first world’, holistic or earth cultures where they existed in the past, and where they manage to continue to survive today. I am fully aware of the presence within some of these cultures of features which we might find and think of as often cruel or inhuman, but which, at the same time, should be understood within their own cultural and historical contexts. I am also aware that some of the great holistic spiritual/cultural paradigms, for example Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sufism, are based on very profound, experiential realisations of reality, while others – shamanistic/animistic cultures – are often, but not always, grounded on a more restricted holistic vision. Compared to our own present cultural condition, however, I believe most holistic cultures were, or where they still manage to survive today, are, far more profound and fundamentally superior in very important ways.
I am aware that criticism may be made of my essay for its apparent brief, general, and broad overview of our cultural condition, but I believe that as a longer, more detailed work, it would lose its focused energy. I am also aware that my essay, with its dark assessment or diagnosis of our culture’s malaise, reads more like a rant or a howl, due to its bearing the energies of both anger and grief, which engendered its writing in the first place, but behind my dark pessimism there actually exists a fragile optimism, since occasionally, the unexpected and unconsidered make foolish any futurology.
Finally, my essay will inevitably tread on many toes. However, it is important that we have our toes trodden on from time-to-time, as it brings our attention to exactly where we are standing; how it is we are standing; and just what it is that we are standing on.
“We are the hollow men…headpiece filled with straw.”
Philosophy, Science and Religion:
The Father, Son and Holy Ghost of Western Patriarchal Culture
In the final analysis, in the hallway of the twenty-first century, if we in the West ask ourselves if our patriarchal, dualistic paradigm for the Absolute, and our anthropocentric sciences and technologies, with their accompanying philosophies, politics, and social organisations, have either helped or benefited the planet and its inhabitants, we have to say, only in a limited way, commonly outweighed and often eclipsed by the darkness of their shadow sides. While those who might have been, in so many ways, our teachers of a different path, we cast as ‘inferior’, both within our own culture – where they were denigrated and marginalised, or excluded altogether – and in other so-called ‘primitive’ cultures that we set about, both with and on rare occasions without intention, changing or destroying, and which were often it turns out, far more sophisticated and profound than our own. What we had already deemed ‘inferior’, of course, was that part of our own natures that we had turned away from and ignored, and become ignorant of, resulting in our allowing ourselves to be led by the foolishness of generations of misleaders, instead of the possible wisdom of true Elders – the current term ‘world leaders’ being a desperate misnomer – with the consequent dire problems that now face us at every level of life on this planet, and while I believe we are designing an even darker cul-de-sac for the future. For the most part, the different aspects of this darkness will be too obvious to the reader to need enumerating here, and some of what I have to say might be familiar.
Recognising that there are of course no utopias, could we have gone down a path other than the declining road to the abyss that we seem to have taken? The question obviously remains purely academic and rhetorical.
At a basic level, human consciousness has not altered fundamentally since it genesis, but in one important respect, there has been, I believe, a devastating modification of consciousness in the West, which has resulted in its having become degenerate, or aberrant, in such a way that it has led us to an arrogant, technologised barbarism that we are now intent on firing into space, and speak in carcinogenic terms of colonising other planets, while having failed to learn to live on this. An arrogance that has resulted in a grotesque distortion of the concepts civilisation and progress, both of which have now, ironically, become synonymous with ‘Western culture’, and which in so many ways actually express features that are symptomatic of a very deep, and profound malaise.
I wish to begin by describing what is general knowledge, and then what is acknowledged by many of us today. Ordinary mundane consciousness is by its very nature, of course, reflective and dualistic. That is to say, from the time of our separation from mother, we experience ourselves as living in the world as individual beings increasingly separated from each other and the environment in which we live, all of which is perceived as held within the frame of a linear, historical time/space. A world of a multiplicity of different beings and things, coming into existence and passing out of existence – a mystery for which we have created various stories, myths, philosophies and paradigms, and have certain experiences and insights that become the basis for religious thought and faith. Generally speaking, this is the common, shared experience with which all of humankind evolves into conscious life on this planet, although there is a cultural diversity in interpretations of this, resulting in some peoples experiencing and understanding the situation we have just described, in very different ways from our own.
In our Western culture we have come to accept this existential experience, described above, as concrete reality, and to fail to recognise the true illusory nature of the apparent reality presented to us by our ordinary day-to-day, reflective consciousness, and how the nature of its deception actually functions. Contrary to our accepted experience of a continuity of this dualistic consciousness, it is in reality discontinuous in each moment. That is to say, that each moment something arises to consciousness, the process by which we become fully conscious of it, is composed of a series of neurological events which occur with such speed as to create the illusion of an uninterrupted continuity, the truth of which can only be apprehended in profound meditative states. We fail to understand how these events function between the initial precognitive awareness of an object or event, as we apprehend it via our organs of perception, and the process leading to actual full, conscious cognition of it. And how this process involves the moment-to-moment projection of a succession of culturally and personally conditioned and conditioning narratives and feelings about an object or event, creating a dichotomous experience of how things truly are (whether what arises to consciousness is visual, olfactory, aural, gustatory, tactile, or mental). A shrouding of reality which results in the creation of an illusory sense of a permanent, separate and concrete ego-self having these experiences; a ‘self ’ which is in reality an insubstantial construct of physical and psychological aggregates, or constituents created by our conditioned, dichotomous thought processes. A conditioned, relative ego-self, subject to endless series of dissolution and reconstitution moment-to-moment, perpetuated and maintained through an internal dialogue that binds us to this false sense of a self, in a web of fiction. However, it is a fiction which, as we are not enlightened beings, we must take responsibility for, since our culture, unlike certain other cultures, provides us with no way of seeing through this delusion – no disciplines or practices to allow us to apprehend its underlying true, transcendent, unconditioned and non-dualistic nature, leading to spiritual liberation – for most of us, unless we experience something beyond our own cultural paradigm, it is the only reality we will ever know. After all, this conditioned reality we experience is only a collectively-agreed-upon description of how things are, and not the true business itself. This perceived reality is truly speaking, partially collective and partially individual, imagination.
As indicated above, the traditional cultures of the East, founded on profound, experiential spiritual realisations and insights which transcend the dichotomies of a dualistically perceived reality, created a far different cultural paradigm from our own. What was, up until the import and influence of Western philosophical thought, and is still understood and experienced by many today, is life as an intricate, non-linear ‘web’ of interdependency and interconnectedness, wherein any action in one place has consequences throughout the entire fabric of existence, usually so subtle as to be imperceptible at the time, while at other times the causes and consequences are only too obvious. In its most profound expression, a non-hierarchical paradigm of reality which includes the sentient and non-sentient in an holistic, symbiotic continuum, and where the illusory nature of this ego-self is recognised and accepted, in a conditioned universe of impermanence and flux, which is of itself – manifesting without a ‘creator’.
Our misconceptions concerning the nature of reality remain as the basis of our culture, in spite of recent research in the neurosciences concerning the nature of self, and the ‘new’ sciences, such as quantum theory, beginning to describe a universe which endorses something of the experiential knowledge of mystics and meditators – a universe of paradox, mystery and poetry, suggesting many other dimensions, and a reality which, in any attempt to describe it, necessitates a language much like that of Zen masters. However, whereas the enlightenment of a Zen master is essentially experiential, and therefore transforms and revolutionises his or her consciousness, the actual state of consciousness of a scientist is never transcended by his or her discoveries since they ever remain in the realm of dualistic, conceptual understanding only. This is to say, that in contradistinction to the traditional investigations of reality in the East, which are experiential and where the body is both temenos, or sacred space, and laboratory, a culture which works exclusively through conceptual theory and external research as the paving for its main road to the apprehension and understanding of reality, is ultimately doomed to failure in the transcendence or revolution of either individual conditioned consciousness, or the collective, cultural mind-set. While being essential tools, concepts, theories and philosophies have no reality in themselves, anymore than a signpost contains the place of which direction it indicates.
There were two major paradigm shifts in the West’s journey that carried us from an holistic, animistic earth culture, founded on shamanic inspiration and revelation, in which the whole of life and human activity was understood and experienced as embraced within a sacred continuum, and where the natural world and the cosmos were integrated within the human psyche through ritual, use of psychoactive plants, dreams, visions etc. as elemental spirits of plants, animals as guardians and guides, and often, in many cases, as actual ancestors. And to the fractured and dysfunctional cultural destination we are presently at in our relation to the planet and the nature of our selves, based almost exclusively on rational, conceptual thought and intellection.
Our first cultural paradigm shift originated in the minds of a small educated elite in ancient, pre-Christian Greece. The few people who thought about the nature of human life and that which transcends it – the Absolute – and whose ideas became ordered into a philosophical structure of thought. These philosophical ideas were expounded by an intellectually persuasive, articulate, and often charismatic minority whose existential paradigm seemed to ‘make sense’, through debate and argument over time, to their educated peers. Ultimately becoming accepted by a cultural, collective consensus, and ‘carrying the day’ into the future as authentic descriptions and experiences of reality, even though they are actually based on a mistaken apprehension and view of the way things are, due to the naturally dualistic nature of conceptual thought itself.
What the Greeks gave birth to, was a philosophy that began to expand on, and exaggerate the experience of this naturally dichotomous subject/object consciousness, created by our awareness of our separation from mother. First, with Plato’s often inherently dualistic philosophy, in which he postulated a mind/body split with his metaphor of the body as a ‘house’ in which the mind is master – capable of thought, but incapable of action; and the body is servant – incapable of thought, but able to act. His philosophy also included an oppositional theory of mind (which he identified with a ‘soul’) and matter – now discounted by quantum physics, and known to be an illusion for over three thousand years in the East. His student, Aristotle, then went on to develop, realign and expand Plato’s paradigm, and it is his ideas on which much of the founding mind-set of our culture was based, and whose influence permeates both Judaeo-Christian and Islamic thought. Thus extrapolating from, and deepening this natural, primal dualism we have just described, and where things first began to ‘fall apart’ for us in the West.
The second major shift was heralded some two thousand years later, by the so-called European Enlightenment which, in spite of all its positive achievements and moral aspirations, put its best foot forward in the sandal of the Greeks. This resulted in, not only an endorsement of this cultural wound, but a radical compounding of it, creating a consciousness which is now, I believe, pathologically overly dualistic and objectifying, leading us to an even more exaggerated sense of a concrete ego-self separated and alienated from its environment.
One of the main architects of the Enlightenment, Descartes, set the seal on this misconceived reality and its phantom self with his famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am,” instead of recognising thought itself, as the author of a bogus self and its false existential experience. This misunderstanding has led to the enthronement of an ultimately illusory self at the very axial position of our culture, resulting in an overburdening sense of individuality, and self-consciousness. This simply means that according to the enlightened paradigms of the great holistic philosophies of the East, the West has founded its culture on an existential mirage, immortality for which we are now, in certain quarters, searching for a techno-genetic solution – a stage of perpetuity for this tale told by a ghost – surely one of the most insane aspirations of humankind.
We should be aware that at the time these high moral and ethical, philosophical and social ideals of the Enlightenment were being espoused and broadcast by its high priests, we were at the same time, subjugating and enslaving, disinheriting, and often exterminating peoples in other parts of the world, while informing them, and ourselves, that their cultures and religious practices were inferior at best, and superstitious, evil and ignorant, at worst. While the Enlightenment preached rationalism, the West continued to act irrationally, until further down the line, our ‘enlightenment’ has resulted in the pollution and destruction of the biosphere, while being capable at the same time of nurturing a diabolical racism and the rise of such inhuman regimes as Nazism, and to this day, continues to fail to feed the still-starving 13.6 percent of the planet’s population, and so forth. In so many ways, in spite of all that is positive, an endarkenment rather than an enlightenment. If we deny and repress the ‘irrational’, natural, instinctual and intuitive elements of our being, without giving them some form of recognition and acknowledgement, then they become distorted and dangerous, until they are forced to emerge, manifesting in deviant forms, whether in an individual or a culture.
The development of an exclusively rational anthropocentrism is indicative of the loss of connection with something much greater and more profound. And still, to the present day, we suffer the residual inheritance of a patriarchal, anthropocentric, Greco-Roman paradigm that taught humankind’s dominium over Nature and male over female, with the natural world seen merely as the arena, or stage, for the lives, intentions, and actions of rational beings. Just as individuals make life-errors and can take wrong life-turnings, so too can cultures. And we should beware of all paths of knowledge that lead to arrogance instead of humility.
If we compare the Enlightenment of the East with the Enlightenment of the West, we see an existential signpost pointing in two exactly opposite directions – one towards the transcendence of duality; the other to its ever deeper entrenchment. Whereas the East examined reality from ‘within’, non-dualistically, through various meditative practices – disciplines in their own way often no less empirical and analytical than any Western science, leading for example, to descriptions of the atomic structure of matter appearing in early Hindu and Buddhist texts, some over 3,000 years old, and since Buddhism is an examination of the functioning of consciousness, gaining a true insight and knowledge of consciousness – the West searches for this knowledge conceptually and dualistically, ‘without’. The West tends to externalise, leading to an imbalance – the ‘enriching’ of ‘outer’ life to the impoverishment of the ‘inner’ – and creates technologies which are, most often, extensions of natural faculties and abilities inherent in us, while very often disinheriting us of those very faculties (both those unrealised, but potential, as well as those realised) in the process. The most trivial of these technologies are the so-called ‘convenience’ technologies, which are in reality so often inconvenient to body/ mind/spirit – our overindulged physical comfort too often resulting in our greater spiritual discomfort. It is a tragic misnomer to describe the West as the ‘developed world’, when that ‘development’ is so one-sided and therefore unbalanced, causing imbalance in, and to, whatever it touches.
What we desperately need is a synthesis of, or dialogue and middle path between these two approaches, in which the one informs the other, leading for example, to the reining-in of the overly dualistic excesses of the West, and the establishment of a more enlightened dualism – a move towards a culture which is neither patriarchal nor matriarchal, but one which respects and integrates both the masculine and the feminine.
Illustration: Claire Palmer
Malcolm Ritchie’s essay A Second Fall – Notes on a Wounded Culture will be published in six parts on International Times.