Tag Archives: Progress

“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” — Albert Einstein

I recently heard a world-renowned public-speaker say that all the best books he’d read were given to him by others.  He said he made a habit of buying cases full of the books he loved, and giving them to people all along his journey.  “I’ve found this book really added value to my life, and I thought you might appreciate it.”

Recently, a friend handed me a book called The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, by Wade Davis.  (Davis, it just so happens, has the infinitely enviable job title: “National Geographic – Explorer in Residence.”)  Essentially, Davis spends the book introducing the reader to some of our world’s oldest and most ‘exotic’ cultures, and doing what he can to dumb down their ancient philosophies to a level our tiny Western minds might comprehend.

It’s rare that a book hooks me as this one has.

I came to realize, simply by being with Otto and his family, that in a sense the Aboriginal peoples had never been truly nomadic.  To the contrary, they lived locked within the territories delineated by their ancestors.  This was a revelation.  Imagine for a moment if all the genius and intellect of all the generations that have come before you had been concentrated on a single set of tasks, focused exclusively on knowing a particular piece of ground, not only the plants and animals but every ecological, climatic, geographic detail, the pulse of every sentient creature, the rhythm of every breath of wind, the patterns of every season.  This was the norm in Aboriginal Australia. (p. 156)

The Australian Aboriginals are one of the many groups he lived with, developed relationships with, and profiles in great depth.  A common thread that seems to connect the cultures he elucidates is a very intimate connectedness with their environment.  Running in stark contrast to the modern notion of land as a capital asset, for these people the land itself is quite literally alive.  It defines them as living beings, as members of their families and communities, and importantly, as links in a chain that extends backwards and forwards through time.

What linked the clan territories was not the physical movement of peoples but rather the strength of a common idea, a subtle but universal philosophy, a way of thinking.  This was the Dreaming.  It refers on one level, as we have seen, to the first dawning, when the Rainbow Serpent and all the ancestral beings created the world.  And it is remembered in the Songlines, which are the trajectories that these ancestors travelled as they sang the world into being.

But the Songlines, I discovered from Otto, are not straight or linear.  They do no even necessarily exist in three-dimensional space.  In their numbers, however, they weave a web across an entire continent.  For a civilization that lacked the written word they became a record of the past, a promise of the future, and a network that in the moment bound together all people.  The goal of the individual, as Otto taught me, is not to follow the Songline from beginning to end, but to honour the ancestors at the points of power and memory that mark the passage of a Songline through one’s particular clan territory.

But, critically, the Dreaming is not a myth or a memory.  It is what happened at the time of creation, but also what happens now, and what will happen for all eternity.  In the Aboriginal universe there is no past, present, or future.  In not one of the hundreds of dialects spoken at the moment of contact was there a word for time.  There is no notion of linear progression, no goal of improvement, no idealization of the possibility of change.  To the contrary, the entire logos of the Dreaming is stasis, constancy, balance and consistency.  The entire purpose of humanity is not to improve anything.  It is to engage in the ritual and ceremonial activities deemed to be essential for the maintenance of the world precisely as it was at the moment of creation.  Imagine if all of Western intellectual and scientific passion had been focused from the beginning of time on keeping the Garden of Eden precisely as it was when Adam and Eve had their fateful conversation. (p. 157; emphasis added)

I wonder more and more about our culture’s conception of time, articulated perhaps most eloquently in the old adage: “time is money.”  It is very difficult for me, raised in a culture of commoditized time,  to even fathom an existence without “time.”

For thousands of years, our culture – that of intellect, invention, and industry –  has fancied itself as the pinnacle against which all others ought to be measured and to which all others ought to strive. Reading this book has really thrown into stark contrast the transience of many of those things our so-called civilization worships, and the fundamental importance of so much that we ignore, disregard, and belittle.

A world-view without time seems unimaginable, but when such a world-view is placed in its larger context: life lived in harmonious unity with its natural environment; a life where every mountain, butterfly, and gust of wind is imbued with life and significance, that which seemed unimaginable presents itself  like the forest that was lost among the trees.

I’ve heard it said that only a fool thinks himself wise.  Standing, as we are, at the forefront of Western civilization, and the ongoing technological/economic/information revolution, it seems fitting that so many wise-men, disregarded as savages, have shaken their heads at us.

Peace and love.

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“Don’t worry about a thing, ’cause every little thing is gonna be alright.” — Bob Marley

Have you ever noticed that our culture has something of a perverse pre-occupation with “catching-up” with this or that?

I know I do.  Over the past few months, I have often lamented the reality that this little ranting forum of mine had faded into oblivion.  I often told myself that I would re-engage, so to speak, and quite a few times opened up this “new-post” page which I am this very moment filling with gibberish.

I never made it though, until now I guess, and even now I have a fair way to travel before I click that little “publish” button and spring my gibberish on an unexpecting world.  One of the main reasons I never made it was this crazy idea I had of “getting caught up.”  That is, afterall, what these words you are reading are doing, aren’t they?  Getting caught up?  The thought of “getting-caught-up” can be daunting, don’t you think?

I live what must be the most transient existence of anyone I know, and still I find my life saturated with things to “keep-up-with.”  E-mails, Facebook messages, personal finances, professional development, relationships with friends and family strewn across the globe, educational progress, and on and on and on …

It’s all a bit silly though, isn’t it.  I mean, what am I trying to “catch-up” to?  Who am I trying to “keep-up” with?

The answer to both questions seems to be some imaginary present/future satisfied version of myself, which raises the perfectly reasonable questions of: a) how is it possible for person to catch up with themselves and b) how is it possible for person to ever reach the future?

It seems that as soon as I “catch-up” with one thing, I have fallen behind with something else.  What’s worse, if I do finally manage to “get-ahead” in a single aspect, the process of getting ahead almost inevitably creates an entirely new life-element which I must then worry about “keeping-up” with, on top of everything else.

Is it possible to “catch-up” with everything, and if it were, how long could one remain “caught-up” before somewhere, something, needed attention?  The whole thing seems a lot like a trap to me: a perpetual state of “being behind,” of “need-to-dos” and ultimately of incompletion.

I suppose one could compare it to caring for a home.  Lots of things require constant attention: the lawn needs to be mowed, the floors need to be swept, the dishes need to be done.  Some things require a bit less frequent care: dusting, cleaning the bathroom, emptying the fridge.  Some things a bit less still: cleaning the floors, pruning the trees.  Some things can be ignored, but for those few weekends of every year that are dedicated entirely to keeping all neglected things working and clean.

For the sake of argument, let’s say a person dedicated a month of their life to “catching up” with their home.  How long would they remain “caught-up”?  Would they ever, for a single instant, actually be “caught up”?  And if they did manage to get caught up, and stay caught up, with their home, what would happen to the many other elements of their life?

Of course, as one becomes ‘successful,’ that little old house won’t do anymore, so it’s time to get a nicer and bigger house, which inevitably will have more things to clean keep working.  With the newer house comes the newer car, which also requires a little more attention.  The better job takes up more time too.  Maybe there is a boat, or a cottage, or whatever.  And the growing family is definitely in need of constant care as well.  With this, we enter into an entirely different, but equally futile, form of “keeping-up,” – that is, with the imaginary others, with whose life-progress we are apparently to be compared.  (though it strikes me as I re-read this, that perhaps nobody is ever actually trying to keep up with others, but that the attempt is, in truth, an effort to “keep-up” with how they would like to be seen/thought of by “the Jones’.” – that is, keeping their public image up with what they would like their public image to be.)

So now we must not only keep up with everyone else, who are trying equally hard to keep up with us, but we must also keep up with an imaginary, ideal-future version of ourself.  Doesn’t this seem totally insane to anybody else?

It almost seems as though we have come to collectively define success as one’s capacity to juggle the most balls – that is, to be perpetually unsatisfied with as many things as possible at one time.  And that’s not even taking into account the moment after that, and the moment after that.

If I am trying to “catch-up” to the point in time and space at which I wish I could, in this moment in space and time, be located, would it not be infinitely simpler to just re-define the place I wish I could be as the place that I currently am located?  In other words: to simply choose to be satisfied right now.

Then I am already caught up.  And I don’t need to worry about all the things I need to catch-up with.

Then I can spend my time right now doing whatever I want to do, right now.

Considering I have only a finite handful of hours to live/enjoy on this earth, and they are disappearing rapidly and constantly, doesn’t spending my time doing what I want seem to be a much more practical way of living than striving eternally after some future that is impossible to reach now, and is becoming more impossible to reach the more I pursue it?

Of course, this is all crazy talk.  Our so-called civilized world has sorted itself out in such a way that, in order to be normal and sensible, a person must weigh themselves down with concerns, and run always to keep from falling behind.  To do otherwise would be partly lazy, partly pathetic, partly useless and entirely unproductive.  These are adjectives which our society does not place a high value upon.  Certainly such people are not ideal employees, desirable mates, or good people to loan money to.

Then again, if a human being were to look at two doors, one labelled “Successful and Productive” and the other labelled “Satisfied and Happy,” which door would be the more sensible choice for a human being to make?

Which choice would you make?

“Incomplete” or “Unproductive”

“Imaginary Future” or “Real Present”

?

For me personally, I can say that the process of simplifying my life continues to be rewarding in a very human way.  I can say that my increasing refusal to feel obligated to “keep-up” with many of my former pre-occupations has engendered a profound joy in the activities I do choose to take part in, no matter how mundane.  I can say that, being patient with time itself, and focusing my energy on only those things that fit most harmoniously with my humanity in any given moment, regardless of outside or perceived internal obligations, has revealed to me an entirely new, more genuine, more fulfilling and more powerful, side to myself and my potential.  Best of all, in exploring that potential – not professional potential, but human potential – I feel peaceful, and unhurried, and experience great joy in each small part of the whole, regardless of where it may lead.

Then again, I’m an unemployed and homeless, formerly “successful” 27-year old, living primarily  on the couches, and generosity, of family and friends.

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“Ready or not, here I come, you can’t hide. I’m gonna find you, and make you want me.” — Lauryn Hill

“The potential for rescue at this time of crisis is neither luck, coincidence, nor wishful thinking.  Armed with a more sophisticated understanding of how change occurs, we know that the very forces that have brought us to planetary brinksmanship carry in them the seeds of renewal.  The current disequilibrium – personal and social – foreshadows a new kind of society.  Roles, relationships, institutions, and old ideas are being re-examined, re-formulated, re-designed.

For the first time in history, humankind has come upon the control panel of change – an understanding of how transformation occurs.  We are living in the change of change, the time in which we can intentionally align ourselves with nature for rapid remaking of ourselves and our collapsing institutions.

The [new] paradigm sees humankind embedded in nature.  It promotes the autonomous individual in a decentralized society.  It sees us as stewards of all our resources, inner and outer.  It says that we are not victims, not pawns, not limited by conditions or conditioning.  Heirs to evolutionary riches, we are capable of imagination, invention and experiences we have only glimpsed.

Human nature is neither good nor bad but open to continuous transformation and transcendence.  It has only to discover itself.  The new perspective respects the ecology of everything: birth, death, learning, health, family, work, science, spirituality, the arts, the community, relationships, politics.”

Marilyn Ferguson in The Aquarian Conspiracy (1980)

I found these words quoted in an anthology of astounding quality called “Peace: A Dream Unfolding,” which was published in 1985, and deals primarily with averting the threat of nuclear war.  I have read this passage perhaps two dozen times over the past couple days, and am constantly surprised by how accurate, and prophetic, her words remain, 30-years on.

In recent weeks, I have frequently heard parallels drawn between breakthroughs in the early days of nuclear science, and Craig Venter’s recent successful synthesis of artificial life.  While many of the parallels involve the scope of the respective achievements in human and academic terms, many also express concern at what terrors such an understanding may unleash upon our world.  Though history has so far shown (knock, knock) the intense fear of a nuclear holocaust to be mostly unfounded, I must admit that I am afraid of what might be lurking in this newest box of Pandora’s.  I lack the knowledge of bio-chemistry to really qualify my fears, but I know that human beings have definitely proven themselves willing, time and again, to utilize science to enact great horrors on one another in the name of progress, profits and power.  With modern man sitting as we now do, more than ever before, at the “control panel of change,” I am worried about who is doing the driving.  The internet has certainly added an immense amount of weight to the power of “the autonomous individual in a decentralized society,” but this true-democratic dream has so far shown little reformative value, except perhaps in identifying pop-culture’s next teen heartthrob, or marginally-witty-catch-phrase.

She does seem to have been right about a lot of things, though.  Just as our technology is constantly redefining our relationship with change, allowing us, quite literally, to “intentionally align [or re-align] ourselves with nature” so too has our history armed us with a more sophisticated understanding of how change occurs.  The forces of technology and globalization have placed the future of our planet, and our species, in our hands as never before, but they have also provided us with access to information and education unfathomable to the thousands of generations which came before us.  As we are handed the most important and complex stewardship in human history, the great question of our generation, may be: ‘have we been paying attention?’.

I suppose the book of life, like any other, can be read only one page at a time, and only time will reveal what the next chapter holds, or how many will follow.  Though our generation has proven itself highly capable of ignorance and apathy, the “seeds of renewal” articulated by Ms. Ferguson three decades ago have borne beautiful fruit as well.  Our “roles, relationships, institutions and [especially] old ideas” have undoubtedly been “re-examined, re-formulated and re-designed” and while resource exploitation, human suffering, and geo-political inequality remain rampant, much of our population lives in a world that is significantly more equitable and more just than it was in 1980. The promise of expanded “imagination, invention and experience,” has bloomed perpetually, for better or worse, in the “rapid remaking of ourselves and our collapsing institutions,” and new perspectives on practically every element we’re aware of are re-imagined daily into the newer, newest and newest-er frontiers of thought.

“Human nature is neither good nor bad but open to continuous transformation and transcendence.  It has only to discover itself.”  As a new, exciting and dangerous era in bio-technology dawns, will our ecological wisdom and imagination be up to the task of finally transforming and transcending the persistent disequilibrium in our personal and social world, or will tomorrow’s new society be just another genetically modified strawberry – bigger, brighter and longer lasting, but born bereft of nature and nutrients, in the womb of a test-tube, so that some short-sighted white guy can buy a bigger car to overcompensate for his undersized stem.  We most certainly are the heirs to vast evolutionary and intellectual riches.  Then again, so were the Mayans.

“In the past, it was possible to destroy a village, a town, a region, even a country.  Now it is the whole planet that has come under threat.  This fact should fully compel everyone to face a basic moral consideration; from now on, it is only through a conscious choice and then deliberate policy that humanity can survive.”  Pope John Paul II was standing in Hiroshima when he issued this warning.  Now it is the biological foundations of the life itself that have come under threat.  Will we make the conscious choices necessary to sustain the essence of our humanity, or will we follow the cloned lemmings of desire into the great Petri-dish of ‘I-wish-I-could-be-like…?’  Whatever the answer may be, I’m sure it will be found on reality TV.

Ancient of Days (1794) by William Blake

Ancient of Days by William Blake

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