Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Space Oddity

The capacity of capitalism to continually mine human life for self-interest and profits is fascinating and horrifying at the same time. I penned a poem recently on that theme:

Space Oddity

A man is standing on a train platform, whistling.
It's a Bowie tune, Space Oddity.

He breaks to stretch his body,
bending left and right,
squatting, twisting, shrugging his shoulders,
pressing the cyclone wire fence
to lengthen his calves.
He picks up a few bars of melody between movements.

Someone will look at that and see dollars.
And suddenly on every platform at every station
people will be performing Whistle-a-cise TM:
men in grey suits using their umbrellas
to contort muscles,
women bouncing children on their knees
to drop calories.
The tunes will cost $5 each downloadable now.

It's an individual's free choice.
It's liberty and enterprise.
It's the oddity of being human.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

The spirit-matter divide

I’ve been reading a fine book by Australian writer and Zen teacher, Susan Murphy, called Minding the Earth, Mending the World.

The book confronts us with the reality of the environmental damage humans are causing and the mental ramparts that have developed over the centuries that have allowed us to see nature as “other” and to dominate, control and inflict harm on the natural world.

Murphy sounds a bugle call for all of us to wake up to nature, to see ourselves in its total embrace, to shift our consciousness in alignment with its rhythms, which are deeply our own. Through the song of birds, the appearance of animals, the shifting of the weather, the patterns of the seasons, nature is constantly speaking to us if only we have the presence of mind to listen.

Reading an insightful book is always a jolt. Suddenly you notice that which you had taken for granted, look at things in a different way. Standing at the platform waiting for my morning train to work, it struck me how encased in the human our lives are in the city; how overbearing human design and presence is, to the exclusion of all other life.

When did it all start? How did we get to this? Why are we destroying so much that is precious on Earth? Murphy, along with many other writers critical of the human impact on nature, sees the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture and the rise of city-states about 5000 years ago as the great turning of the human mind in the direction of exclusively human purpose. The success of the Neolithic revolution in manipulating crops and animals and the gathering of large surpluses meant an empowerment that irresistibly drew us towards an inflated regard for ourselves, towards self-interest, and the desire to extend our power.

While I think there’s truth in this, the problem lies deeper and emerged much earlier than the move away from hunter-gathering. If we start from the premise that everything is nature, that there is nothing outside the universe, the notion that our species has moved outside or away from nature is impossible. Rather, we represent one unique and particular expression of created reality. Just as in our creative evolution (and that of all else) nature is evolving, in our knowledge it is learning more, so in our ignorance and destructive behaviour nature is acting against itself. The real issue is the relationship between spirit and matter, the two great forces that shape reality. Somewhere, at some point in time in the fabric of being – in the mind of God, if you like – spirit and matter began to part ways. The split was reflected in the gradual development of human consciousness beyond pure animal instinct, its dynamics have been played out in human history and are with us in our actions today.

For thousands of years from the beginning of Homo sapiens, we acted out of an instinctual blueprint, much like other species. We were born, we ate, killed for survival, procreated and died. At some point, consciousness began to evolve to a level of self-awareness in which we started to see ourselves as agents in the world, capable of choosing and discerning between one act and another. The beginnings of abstract thinking arose as we started to wonder about life and death and the world around us. The Bible’s Garden of Eden story is one myth that conveys the shift from animal being to self-awareness: Adam and Eve were expelled from the pure oneness of Eden when they ate the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.” (Genesis 3:7)

The dawning of awareness required a connection between material reality and the great mystery of life. Stories and rituals appeared in which we gave thanks and paid respect to the animals central to our lives, the animal spirits to which we felt intimately close. Spirit had been discovered, and in its discovery began, very gradually, the long process of its separation from matter in the human mind. As humanity evolved over the millennia and moved to all parts of the world, the cultures that developed expressed in a multitude of ways the relationship between spirit and matter, and their essential unity. Myths and rituals made concrete the sense of the sacred experienced in the world, and in the process spiritual insight was gathered about physical phenomena: people knew the inner stories of rocks, trees, birds, snakes as well as the incorporeal energies expressed as various kinds of spirits. They related their own stories to those of other beings in an embrace in which the life of the earth was one’s own life.

In some places on the planet, particularly in the “fertile crescent” of the Middle East, the tight spirit-matter weave of what we now broadly characterise as “Indigenous” ways of being eventually began to change. As crop and animal farming became more sophisticated, a level of technical mastery was reached which allowed humans to see the environment as somewhat manipulable. Permanent settlements, irrigation channels, pottery, grain mills and stores all showed a level of advancement in the skilful handling of matter, particularly against the vagaries of weather and other aspects of the non-human world. Spirit was still central to people’s lives and appeared in the shape of the great goddess – the mother earth – and in various other worshipped deities that expressed the forces of nature.

Technical mastery allowed an unprecedented level of material comfort which in turn drove further technical advancement. The lure of matter became greater and greater. Trade routes were established, wealth accumulated for the first time and cities built. Humans progressively became divided in classes of those who could command wealth and status – priests and nobility – and others, commoners and slaves, who were forced to struggle. A patriarchal culture of harsh, capricious gods came to dominate as warring city-states competed for wealth and resources.

By the first millennium BC, the increasing separation of spirit and matter as a result of the pursuit of the material sparked an immense spiritual response. The great religions of Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism and later Christianity and Islam created dynamic spiritual-material syntheses that ordered and gave new meaning to life. The extraordinary insights contained in such works as the Hindu Veda, the Tao Te Ching, the Buddhist sutras, the old and new testaments of the Bible and the Koran were a spiritual revolution that radically transformed societies. Their powerful hold over the human imagination was to last for hundreds of years until the coming of modernity.

The Christian revelation is particularly instructive of the human condition at that pivotal time. In Christ’s time there was an unprecedented level of existential turmoil as a result of the melting pot of cultures in the Roman Empire and the profound questioning of Greek philosophy. The growth of cities and towns, continuing wealth accumulation and technological advancements also meant an increasing separation between human culture and the non-human world. The sophistication of Greco-Roman civilisation entailed an absorption in the human and diminishment of the power of nature over human affairs. The gods had retreated sufficiently from people’s lives that a level of anguish pervaded existence.

Enter a humble carpenter from the far-flung Judean town of Nazareth. The cult and later religion that sprung from his teachings saw him as bringing the divine back into the world, of redeeming matter with spirit. Christianity offered people not just moral teachings and a community of believers – important as these were – but a new way of being based on the concrete reawakening of spirit in the everyday world. The death of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection were symbols of a new beginning for all life, a new stage in reality, and all who entered the door of this revelation took part in its glory and liberation. To have faith in it and to participate in its rituals and sacraments was to be restored to a fundamental oneness with the sacred fabric of the cosmos, with God.

The Christian project of redeeming matter with spirit was soon severely tested by the collapse of the Roman Empire. Out of the chaos and trauma of the fall of a civilisation and what for many was a descent into barbarism, the vision became increasingly dualistic and lopsided in favour of spirit over matter: the world was a crucible for unending suffering and it was to the spiritual hereafter that the faithful needed to look. To the all-powerful Church in the long medieval period, matter was “fallen”, inherently sinful and to be utterly subjugated by spirit. The virtues of mercy and grace seemed weak before a fanatical otherworldliness and anti-materialism.

The call of matter, its claims to proper recognition in the order of reality, could not ultimately be denied. An increasing tolerance towards critical thinking from about 1000AD, the rediscovery of Greek philosophy among scholars and the establishment of the first universities were signs of a more lenient attitude by the Church. Within a few hundred years, the medieval Christian consensus in Europe was to unravel as a result of the increasing power of monarchies and mercantile classes, clerical corruption and peasant unrest. The Renaissance in Italy liberated the human vision back into a celebration of the physical world, the ideals of ancient Greece and human endeavour. The Reformation shattered the unity of Christendom. The discoveries of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo in astronomy challenged the Church’s most basic cosmological assumptions.

Matter was now making claims to equal status with spirit, and in the age of discovery/colonisation that the new empires of Europe embarked upon, in radical new inventions like the printing press and steam engine, there was a strong sense of human advancement and progress. Human empowerment, however, was being made at the expense of the natural world – the colonies became scenes of vast plunder for gold, timber, spices and other resources and their Indigenous populations dispossessed and enslaved.

The scientific revolution of the 17th century and the Enlightenment about 100 years later pushed spirit further away from human concern. God, according to some scientists, was now simply the creator of the universe who had retreated after setting everything into motion. Nature could be studied objectively and its laws deduced empirically, without need for the “extraneous” concepts of religion. Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire saw reason as the pinnacle human value and the conservative Church as a roadblock in its way.

The thorough remaking of society as a result of the industrial revolution ushered in the modern era in the second half of the 19th century. By this time, leading thinkers in the Western world had abandoned spirit altogether. Matter was reality. Spiritual concerns were either illusory or an “opiate” deliberately used to befuddle and oppress, according to Marx. The great questions of life and death could no longer be answered as the universe was stripped of inherent value, disenchanted, and left to the operation of mechanical laws, the movements of particles, the interactions of chemicals etc. Man was now supreme and utterly alone.

It is in the wash of modernity that the world finds itself now. After the unprecedented suffering of the 20th century, the world wars and the atom bomb, humanity is staring at its own destruction and the ecological collapse of planet Earth. At no time has there been a greater need for a spirit-matter union which can liberate humanity from its self-obsession and entrapment in matter and ground consciousness holistically in the universe. Such a new spirit-matter synthesis can’t come solely from a spiritual reawakening, but must be of a spirit-in-matter quality that brings the sacred back into a lived reality in the world.

It would transform societies towards a planetary community of concern and be one of communion with and responsiveness to non-human nature, allowing a humbler way of being on the planet. Every person would be touched by a new sense of oneness and connection to the dynamics of life. Such a spirit-matter union would not just remake the human world entirely, but be an evolutionary step in nature overall, a leap of profound evolutionary service.