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Wise Old Owl
“A wise old owl sat on an oak;
The more he saw the less he spoke;
The less he spoke the more he heard;
Why aren't we like that wise old bird?”
Do you have a wise old owl, perched on a branch of your heart, quietly observing the world, who twits and twoos, gently reminding you of the need for quiet space in your life? Have you ever found a perfectly quiet space for your wise old bird, only to find your mind filled with chitter and chatter?
Don’t worry. You are not alone.
According to a recent Harvard study, we spend 46.9% of our waking hours thinking about something other than what we’re doing, or where we are at. A meandering mind is not an issue in and of itself. People derive meaning and hope from future-oriented thinking. Bruce Lee said that, although “a goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at.” And daydreaming can be a delight, in the right context. In the wrong context, layer upon layer of daydreaming, questioning, plotting, can make us feel disconnected from the world, one step removed, as if we are missing life, unable to function or be truly effective. In an experiment in a subway station in Washington DC, Joshua Bell, a world famous violinist, played six of the most poignant and beautiful pieces of music ever made, and recorded how people responded. Most people hurried past, caught up in their thoughts, like greyhounds on the racetrack following the mechanical hare, barely noticing the exquisite sounds around them.
How did our minds become so terribly busy that we disconnect from at least half of the moments in a day? Can this disconnect explain some of the deeper problems in the world today? Why have we not been paying attention to our wise old owl?
I invite you to explore these questions with me. But first let me be honest with you: I don’t have all the answers. Sorry! Definitive answers are reassuring, for a while. There’s nothing like feeling “I’ve got it!” That sense of epiphany, of mastery, of arrival. However, such questions rarely, if ever, have definitive answers. Our minds and hearts lie on shifting sands. Indeed, it is our very tendency to ask questions, and the need for definitive answers, that we must look at here. To do this, I am going to lead us on a trip back in time, to consider how we arrived at this point, not just as individuals, but also as a species, as human beings.
I hope this trip back in time will be enlightening. Robert Frost said of his writing: “I am a writer of books in retrospect. I talk in order to understand; I teach in order to learn.” When we cast our gaze back in time, we create a dialogue with our former selves, real or imagined. Through this dialogue, we become conscious of the stories we have been telling about our selves. This is as true of writing as it is of psychotherapy or history or any medium through which connections between our former selves are revealed to us. When we become conscious of these factors, these habitual reactions, these stories that have imprinted our hearts, their shackles on us are loosened, and we can dance in harmony with life as it is.
Why, Why, Why???
“Every child is a scientist”
(Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist)
Have you ever noticed the intense curiosity with which a young child, a baby even, picks up an object like a piece of paper or a block, feeling it, turning it over, tasting it, throwing it away? Without knowing the name or intended function of things, children naturally explore objects in their environment. This is the most pure expression of the scientific mind, learning from the world directly through sensory exploration.
Then, usually around the age of 2/3, children start to ask ‘why’. A child asks, on average, about 40,000 questions between the ages of two and five. Sometimes the ‘whys’ are so persistent, so endless, it can drive the-older-people-who-are-supposed-to-have-the-answers mad (watch this brilliant Louis CK skit). Most people would see children like the one described in this video as naïve. Naïve because they can’t see the absurd, never-ending nature of their incessant questioning.
But the child’s why-ning gives us an important clue.
The insatiably curious child shows us directly the shaky foundations of our identity, of our ego. As we grow up, it is common to want consistent answers, which act like a dam against the tide of endless questioning. We all desire permanence, security. So we build a solid sense of self from the answers we receive to our questioning. The more, dependable answers we have, the more secure we feel. Knowledge is power, as Thomas Hobbes said: “The end of knowledge is power ... lastly, the scope of all speculation is the performing of some action, or thing to be done.”
Some answers give us practical power, necessary for our survival. Such knowledge helps us bypass sensory exploration, and perform actions that can literally keep us alive. When the child asks “why can’t I drink that green bottle?” the answer (“BECAUSE ITS GOT BLEACH IN IT!!”) is a crucial rule the child needs to incorporate. Little scope for experimentation there.
But a huge proportion of the rules and answers we accumulate are not directly related to our biological survival. For example, many children ask existential or spiritual questions: Who am I? Why am I different? Why am I here? When children are spoon-fed answers to such questions, four things can happen: i) they learn that questions need definitive answers; ii) they learn that the answers come from outside of themselves; iii) their innate awe and curiosity is gradually dampened; iv) the answers and rules they accumulate form layer upon layer of chitter and chatter in their mental worlds. Wordsworth captures this process so beautifully in his ode to early childhood:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
What Wordsworth describes as heaven, I understand to be a state of mind that is open, what Zen traditions call beginner’s mind. Conversely, the ‘shades of the prison-house’ represent the definitive answers, the rules, the accumulating beliefs about the world, which layer into our psyche to form what we come to call our ‘self’. Every moment we engage in life, we run through this rulebook, seeking an optimum way to respond by drawing on past experience and the answers our culture has shared with us. But as the knowledge, rules, beliefs, and information accumulates, so too does the mental chatter. The more mental chatter, the more difficult it can be to choose the optimum response, the more we disconnect from life, and from new experiences. We forget our capacity as sensory explorers; we forget our beginner's mind.
As I have gotten older, life and its unpredictable character has forced me to see through the certainties I had constructed, the prison-house walls I had built around my heart. Slowly I have grown to see how, as my burning curiosity was met with a world based on certainties, I became cut off from life as it is. Can you recognise that part of you that needs certainty, that wants to predict? Can you equally connect with your child-self, with its raw curiosity, awe, and wonder?
This coherent sense of self we build is in fact the ultimate aim of development in the classic Western model. This coherent sense of self is sometimes called the ego: the separate self, the self in control, the self that does not experience things so intensely, the self with more answers than questions. However, this self we construct seems to be based, as we have seen, primarily on other people’s answers or beliefs, or on our reaction to those beliefs. This is why Donald Winnicott calls this the ‘false self’.
Adolescents are the greatest teachers in this regard. Their self-consciousness is just emerging, and so tends to sit at the surface with a quality of Kevin-and-Perry style experimentalism that often becomes more deeply hidden as we develop into adults. I have a vivid memory of my first week at secondary school, walking down the main corridor, feeling petrified and deeply unsure of who I was supposed to be, as hundreds of kids pushed past each other, some staring, others avoiding eye contact at all costs. I soon learned to mask this uncertainty with different, often contradictory roles: bullied, bully, stupid, thoughtful, rebellious, obedient. Some of these roles gradually came to form a more concrete, more durable version of my self.
This durable, dependable, coherent adult self we also call ‘sanity’. Because it is based on a denial of our younger, less consistent self, this sane self tends to be haunted by the spectre of an incoherent past. This sense of self is charged, as Winnicott described, “with fear or denial of madness, fear or denial of the innate capacity of every human being to become unintegrated, depersonalized, and to feel that the world is unreal.” Because of our fear of uncertainty, we cling to beliefs that ultimately cause us suffering, as Ray Menezes has outlined so brilliantly. Perhaps the child’s why-ning is so telling, precisely because it shows the origins of our drive to master a world that can feel unpredictable, unreal.
The question of growth
As a young child, my sensory explorations soon morphed into asking questions, lots of them. One of the biggest questions I ever asked was kickstarted 12 years ago, on my first visit to India and South Asia. I was blown away by the hospitality and warmth with which I was received. People who owned so little gave so much. Even in the war-torn regions of Kashmir and Eastern Sri Lanka, I was offered shelter, food, wisdom, and love. This experience left a deep imprint on my heart and a burning question in my mind.
How could it be that such generosity, such love, still thrives amidst such poverty and violence?
I remember when I had just arrived back from India to the UK, standing in the centre of Manchester, surrounded by shiny, new shopping arcades, built after the IRA had detonated a huge 3,300lb bomb in the city centre in 1996. There was a distinct air of nouveau riche in Manchester at this time: throngs of people were scurrying around the arcades, wide-eyed and heavily laden with shopping bags, designer clothes, and debt. As I stood there, I felt disconnected and depressed. In this moment, I was deeply affected by the changes that were occurring in my home-town, this spiraling of greed and materialism I bore witness to.
I was so affected by this disparity, and the question it provoked, that I embarked on a journey, to get to the root of this deep aching in my soul.
I began to work more closely with people who were suffering, trying to understand the dynamics of emotional pain. I engaged more deeply in meditation, trying to learn more about my so-called self. Through serendipity, I was offered a scholarship onto a course in Postcolonial Politics where I learned about the subtle and not-so-subtle energies of power, about the Western imposition of power by Empire around the world, and the polymorphous resistances to it. Through all of this I came to question the ideal of growth, both as it is applied to personal growth, and as it is applied to social or economic growth. It became clear to me that the driving force of personal growth, as widely understood in Western society, was in fact intimately bound to the driving force of social or economic growth. I came to see how the jugggernaut of progress was leaving turbulence and destruction in its wake, for people and for the planet.
The statistics didn’t lie. Depression was the third biggest world health problem back in 2004, and is predicted to be the biggest world health problem in 2030. Through our evolution as a species, we have learned to use tools with our opposable thumbs, we have developed an extra brain region called the pre-frontal cortex that allows us to reflect on our self and learn from our mistakes, we have sent space-probes to Mars, almost cured diseases such as tetanus, doubled life expectancy, increased standards of living, reduced prejudice, and yet, and yet, we are not only distinctly unhappy as a species, but as a direct consequence of the very lifestyles that are making us less happy, we are destroying the habitat that gives us life. For an acute diagnosis of the downside of progress, listen to Jonas Salk, eminent scientist and creator of the first successful polio vaccine: “If all the insects were to disappear from the earth, within 50 years all life on earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the earth, within 50 years all forms of life would flourish.”
It is vital we question the myths of growth and progress.
It is imperative we apply our evolved brains, hold the mirror up to our Self (without becoming Narcissus, lost in our own reflection), and really consider why we have been chasing this paradigm, what the effects of this chase have been, and what alternatives we have.
Einstein said that we can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking we used to create those problems. How true this is. In order to evolve in harmony with this planet, giver of life, we need to understand the level of thinking that drives the destructive, limitless growth model. By understanding this level of thinking, we have a hope of transcending it.
Human history…human history…human history (repeat)
“It doesn’t take Nostradamus to foresee that walls will go up in times of crisis — though the thickest walls are in the mind."
To get a sense of the human psychology behind these growth myths, we need to do two things: a) look back at the history of our species, and b) observe our own minds. For the former, we can learn much from considering why we decided to describe ourselves as homo sapiens (‘the wise man’) in the first place. Carl Linnaeus coined the term in 1758. Linnaeus was the father of modern taxonomy. He created, for the very first time, a universally accepted system of classifying nature based on shared physical characteristics. He had noticed in his studies the overwhelming similarities between man and certain apes, and so classified man as being essentially part of the same group as other primates.
Suffice to say, this making an ape of man did not go down very well at the time. The church, which was in the middle of the 18th Century still hugely influential in the fledgling fields of science (indeed, most of the biggest figures in the Scientific Revolution, Copernicus, Bacon, Descartes, Newton, were devout in their faith), felt that putting man in the same bracket as hairy, unintelligent monkeys was not a true representation of the spiritually elevated position man was assumed to have amongst the other animals. God says clearly in the first chapter of the bible: "Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground." So, succumbing to the pressure from his peers, Linnaeus decided to adapt his terminology, and coined the term homo sapiens, which seemed to placate the theologians. Despite this, Linnaeus retained his own, personal, spiritual belief, that man was not all that superior to the animals: "One should not vent one's wrath on animals. Theology decrees that man has a soul and that the animals are mere 'automata mechanica,' but I believe they would be better advised that animals have a soul and that the difference is of nobility."
The period of intense scientific, intellectual, and technological progress that followed (commonly known as the Enlightenment and the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions) seems to have been driven largely by a belief that man would improve his lot through reason and the practical application of a growing body of scientific knowledge. Each achievement fuelled this belief, particularly the development of the steam engine, which was guided by scientific analysis. And soon enough, rational, political systems were built which simply speeded up the process of man's expansion. Adam Smith created the blueprint for capitalism in The Wealth of Nations, which argued that capitalism works because industrialization increases wealth for everyone, as proven by raised life expectancy, reduced working hours, and no work for children and the elderly. Sadly, despite (or perhaps because of) obvious improvements in quality of life for some populations of the world, the same, arrogant belief in the superiority of mankind remained hidden within this emerging faith in reason. Man’s ability to reason, it seems, had become a scientific substitute for the biblical idea of divine right. Linnaeus’ original humility in relation to his own species was largely lost. Although the vantage-point was different, more ‘rational’, more ‘objective’, the consequences of this level of thinking simply accelerated a process of mastery over the rest of nature that was clearly paralleled and clearly sanctioned in biblical times.
Roland Wright, in his seminal book, A Short History of Progress, describes how civilisations have risen and fallen throughout human history, for alarmingly similar reasons. When I read this book, I realised more than ever that history is like a lighthouse, warning future sailors from danger: “the wrecks of our failed experiments lie in deserts and jungles like fallen airliners whose flight recorders can tell us what went wrong. The Roman circus, the Aztec sacrifices, the Inquisition bonfires, the Nazi death camps… at the gates of the Colosseum and the concentration camp, we have no choice but to abandon hope that civilization is, in itself, a guarantor of moral progress.”
One key sign that a civilization is about to self-destruct seems to be increasingly grandiose architecture. The mythical Tower of Babel is manifest in the giant stone statues on Easter Island, or the Mayan temples 'rearing like battered skyscrapers’ at Tikal. The archaeological evidence strongly suggests that, as these civilizations became aware of the ecological limits of their growth, a denial took place amongst the elite, who started plundering nature and building even more frenetically, ‘spending the last reserves of natural capital on a reckless binge of excessive wealth and glory’, until eventually chaos and violence break out, and the whole civilization project implodes, leaving us eerily magnificent mementos.
Most telling to our exploration here is the ‘striking parallelism’ by which civilizations often sprung up at the same time without any contact whatsoever with the other civilizations. This appears to be telling us something significant: that, given certain environmental conditions, humans will expand in ‘size, complexity, and environmental demand’. Is it possible that civilizations contain the seed of their own destruction? Is it possible that seed may lie in the human mind, in the insatiable, expansive, shadow side of human consciousness?
From this brief look to our past, it appears that the darker side of human consciousness is so stubborn and resilient: like a shadow, it follows us everywhere. It would be easy to reflect on the rise and fall of civilisations and lose hope.
However, hope may be found in the many spiritual and indigenous traditions that have not been totally wiped out in civilisation’s attempts to seek dominion over the world. Beneath the ruins of the Mayan temples and the Colloseum, treasures lie buried that we need to reclaim today, which may help us to understand the lighter side of human consciousness. Indeed, certain prophets have warned of the destructive potential of homo sapiens level of thinking for thousands of years.
We have been warned!
The Buddha said 2,500 years ago that the root of all suffering is desire: “desires are never satisfied, not even by a shower of gold. He who knows that the enjoyment of passion is short-lived, and that it is also the womb of pain, he is a wise man.”
The Buddha recognized that until we saw the human system of desire for what it is, we would continue to chase bigger and bigger dreams that would bring us repeatedly to the brink of our own destruction. The dreams of progress as embodied by the rise of civilizations are widescreen projections of individual human desire.
And yet we have largely ignored such prescient advice. This ignorance is why, as they say, ‘history repeats itself’. The problem with that phrase is that it makes ‘history’ into a person, an agent separate to the human consciousness that creates history. It would be more accurate to say ‘human consciousness repeats itself, as we can learn from history’.
But have we really learned from our own history? In our hyper-modern times, the new cult of disruption amongst the silicon elite is a perfect expression of the insatiable, blindly expansive human psyche. The self-destruct seed is still clear and present. We have allowed ourselves to be duped into a world where our desires are more manipulated, more insatiable than ever before. We blindly follow new technological trends, buying into the myth that they are going to make us happier, but again, the statistics don’t lie. Any belief that we will be happy when the week is over, when we lose some weight, or buy the iPhone 6, is likely to cause more suffering. Yes, there is always a temporary period of satisfaction, like the lull after a good meal, but the nature of desire is such that we will always feel a drive for more, even after a shower of gold. Can you be aware of this drive in your own life?
The pursuit of personal growth
“Anyone whose goal is 'something higher' must expect someday to suffer vertigo. What is vertigo? Fear of falling? No, Vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.”
Many people come to psychotherapy because they have a sense that something is not right, they wish to change something about themselves, to evolve, and so they enlist the help of another to achieve that change. But what happens if the very desire to change is the root problem itself? Once we change one aspect of ourselves, the one we thought was the problem, we can be pretty sure that another one will soon crop up, like moles in a whack-a-mole game. I can say this wholeheartedly, from personal experience, after spending many years trying to change different aspects of myself, only to realise that the symptoms of my malaise where shapeshifting like playdough in my introspective hands.
I came to realise that change is never sustainable if it derives from a desire to control, or conversely, as Milan Kundera suggests, from a fear of falling. One reason such change is not sustainable, I suspect, is because we are not really separate from everything. We can observe this flawed subject-object approach in the world of mental health. When we define something as 'a problem' we are singling one aspect of our self out as a separate 'thing'. This 'thing' is usually either a thought pattern or a behaviour. In the very process of singling out this 'thing', we make it separate to us, creating a power dynamic power between me and the 'thing'. Power can only operate between two separate things.
This is the greatest deception of the human ego, as expressed most scalpel-like in the modern, dissecting, rational mindset: to convince us that we are separate, and that when we act in the world we can truly and fully determine all the consequences of our actions. The law of unintended consequences tells us that we can never truly understand or control the interconnection of all things through our normal human consciousness. When we try to control one aspect of our nature, another problem often pops up. For a clear example of this, just consider the perverted sexuality that has been seen time and again amongst the ‘celibates’ of the Catholic Church. One of my all-time favourite Rumi poems captures this very human paradox beautifully:
Who makes these changes?
I shoot an arrow right. It lands left.
I ride after a deer and find myself chased by a hog.
I plot to get what I want and end up in prison.
I dig pits to trap others and fall in.
I should be suspicious
of what I want.
However, even if we can not know the full extent of our actions in the world, we still need to act. We can not suddenly become free of desire, free of our limited human mind.
What we can do, what I feel we really need to do at this juncture in human history, is to be suspicious of what we want, to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to remind ourselves daily of the limitations of our human perceptions.
And to do this we need quiet spaces.
"No man can hope to be completely free, who lingers within reach of familiar habits and urgencies"
(Richard Byrd, Polar Explorer)
Psychologists have shown that for the average modern homo sapiens, around 98% of our brain activity is unconscious, whilst around 80% of our thinking is unconscious. You can only truly realise this statistic if you just sit still for 10 minutes and simply watch what happens. Anyone who sits in quiet and does nothing for a period of time can not help but notice how little control there is in the general thought streams that dance around our minds.
To look at yourself in this way is the true meaning of radical. When I was in my late teens I was into radical politics. I loved Marxism, read the New Statesman, committed to social justice work, went on a march or two. Now I have a different understanding of the word ‘radical’, derived from the latin for ‘root’. Being radical means looking directly at the root of the problem. It is only by slowing down, finding quiet spaces, looking at the root of my nature, that I have been able to consider the parallels between the history of my human consciousness and the history of humankind. From the vantage point of quiet, I have learned to just watch the whole drama of the desire machine that is me unfold before my very awareness.
I now welcome quiet into my life like a long-lost wise elder. I spend some time in silence every day. I sit on the quiet carriage of a train. I find that silence is like a greenhouse for cultivating free, unattached awareness. It is therefore an absolutely essential ingredient for my wellbeing. I have also noticed that more and more people seem to be recognizing the value of quiet. From the rapid growth of mindfulness, to Susan Cain’s vastly popular book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking”, people seem to be making a lot of noise about the value of silence.
The fact that quiet is getting more attention fills my heart with hope.
Silence has had a bad rap in modern culture. In her Book of Silence, Susan Maitland describes in hushed tones how we have considered too much silence as ‘either mad (depressive, escapist, weird) or bad (selfish, anti-social).’
But the times, they are a-changin’. Quiet is emerging as the antidote to excessive noise. And there is a lot of noise in modern life. Not just literal noise, as in the honking of horns, or the noisy neighbour listening to X-Factor on full blast, but also metaphorical noise, the cacophony of information that comes careering warp-speed down our fibre-optic cables and invades our minds as a staccato bombardment of images, dialogue, and (mostly) unwanted, desire-manipulating trash.
Of course, the two tend to go hand-in-hand, so that the more noise in the external environment, the more noise in our minds. And vice-versa, the more we steep our minds in silence, the more we can follow that beautiful first instruction from the Desiderata, to ‘Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.’
Silence is however not exactly a new phenomenon. Many traditional and non-Western cultures have long placed a high value on silence. In indigenous Fijian communities, vakonomodi, or deep silence, is the greatest mark of respect one can pay to the land and to other people. Listen to this glorious description of silence from a Lakota Native American community:
“We Indians know about silence. We aren’t afraid of it. In fact, to us it is more powerful than words. Our elders were schooled in the ways of silence, and they passed that along to us. Watch, listen, and then act, they told us. This is the way to live. Watch the animals to see how they care for their young. Watch the elders to see how they behave. Watch the white man to see what he wants. Always watch first, with a still heart and mind, then you will learn. When you have watched enough, then you can act.”
Religious and spiritual traditions have also often protected a space for silence. Taking a vow of silence in some religions is seen as the most direct path to self-realization. There is a lovely saying in the Jewish Tradition that silence is ‘a safety fence to wisdom’. And, it is the Quakers’ use of moments of silence during prayer and worship over the last 300 years that ultimately translated into our modern minute’s silence to commemorate those who have died.
When we have the discipline to create quiet spaces for ourselves, we can move from the place of need and greed to a place where what is around us is enough. I have personally found this feeling of abundance I get from quiet spaces more deeply nourishing than anything else.
Just try it for yourself. Find a quiet space. Give yourself total permission for a period of time just to let go of the one who wants to control. This can often be a real challenge. The thousands of questions you asked as a child, the answers you have accumulated, the noise you have absorbed from your environment, all these things you will find, floating around like meteors in the space of your awareness. You will also likely observe the driving force of energy that made you ask those questions in the first place: that force that can't sit still, that wants something else. When I sat in meditation this morning, thoughts were popping up of things I needed to do, goals I needed to achieve. All this chitter chatter is to my ego like spinach to Popeye. The more I attach to the chatter, the more strength I give to my ego. But, just by the very act of sitting still, quietly observing the chitter chatter, quietly letting go, a deeper sense of nourishment or abundance takes root.
Perhaps some would argue that to move back to quiet is a necessary adaptive stage in human evolution. If we don’t pipe down, we will destroy the planet and ourselves, and that would be a distinctly unsuccessful adaptation.
The problem with some popular evolution myths is that they are linear, and so they carry an implicit assumption that things are just naturally improving. This classic image below is one we will all recognize, and I for one, when growing up, remember thinking that each stage in this image represented a clear and distinct improvement, a step up the ladder: bigger brains, less hair, more civilized...
But, we can no longer kid ourselves that humans are the pinnacle of nature’s development. This does not fit with our current predicament. Charles Darwin had predicted that man's forward march would leave our ancestors dead and buried:“at some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace the savage races throughout the world.” And here we find our civilised selves, faced point-blank with the damage our civilisation has wrought on our planet, turning back to the cultures of those savage races to find ways of living in harmony with the environment, silence being just one.
Perhaps the problem with the evolution of ‘homo sapiens’ is that the rate of our cultural evolution has been much faster than the rate of our physical evolution. This seems to explain some of the bigger problems today in the field of mental health. For example, anxiety is a growing global problem, even though we have a lot less to worry about than our predecessors (rates of anxiety and depression amongst teenagers in the UK have increased by 70% in the last 25 years). As Steven Harrison says in his brilliant book, Doing Nothing: “the fear of lack in the future still drives us, just as it has for thousands of years.” It appears we have not evolved significantly from the fight or flight mechanism that protected us so well as hunter-gatherers. The human hardware has barely been upgraded for 50000 years. It is like we are trying to run advanced 21st century software on an Atari 500, and the computer keeps crashing.
A Quiet Evolution
It is useful to compare our evolution as a species with our personal evolution across an individual life-span. How do we evolve as we grow older? Are you better today than you were last year? Have you evolved from the mistakes that your parents made, the limiting patterns they inevitably passed on to you, and which they had, in turn, received from their forbears? What criteria are you using to evaluate your improvement? After working with children for over 15 years, I have come to realize that, whilst we can learn much from experience, experience can also limit us. Whilst there are clearly many intellectual and physical tasks that become easier as we grow, there are also many aspects (e.g. intrinsic motivation, emotional honesty, imagination) that adults often lose touch with, and which often become more difficult to access as we grow older. By assuming a ‘one-way’ development with clearly delineated and progressive stages, we tend to overlook the fact that these essential qualities need to be constantly revisited, nourished, given space to grow.
I love Graham Music’s comparison of the foetus to ‘a cosmonaut in charge of a spacecraft’, as it highlights beautifully how interconnected and interdependent we all are. Healthy development is not a forward march of individual notes toward a crescendo, but more like a harmony between different octaves. In my own clinical work, I have found that my desire, as the ‘evolved’ professional, to see certain aspects develop in the client, repeatedly runs up against the reality of what the client brings into the space. Through learning to be aware of my own anxieties and desires, and thereby giving the client’s psyche the space it needs to breathe, I have been repeatedly amazed to see a more natural, less ego-centric evolution take place, as qualities such as insight, joy, and wisdom emerge, for client and for myself. This therapeutic harmony is particularly remarkable when working with children.
And this concept of a kind of natural evolution can helpfully be applied introspectively, to our Self. Often our desire to change is anxiety-ridden. We feel we ‘should’ be more successful, should be better at sleeping, should be drinking less, eating less or more, having different thoughts or no thoughts in our minds. We live in a culture that preys on our fears, on our feelings of inadequacy. These ‘shoulds’ we accumulate can, ironically, be the greatest impediments to change. Should denigrates reality. The energy driving such change means that the change is likely to be superficial. It is extrinsic as opposed to intrinsically motivated. Does the child who is totally absorbed in play with a piece of tissue paper feel like they ‘should’ be doing that? Does the rose that exudes its fragrance into the air say it ‘should’ be sharing its gift?
I believe that we need a new paradigm for growth, both personal growth and collective or economic growth. I believe this new paradigm needs to look backwards and inwards before marching blindly forwards: a quiet evolution is a spiral evolution.
In doing so, we need to be wary of flirtation without commitment. We are living in an age where our attention is under siege. We can only flirt with alternative ways of being until our attention is dragged on to the next diet, the next fitness craze, the next self-help manual. Flirtation without commitment is exactly what we have been doing all along. A very wise woman called bell hooks understood this: “What is clear now is that the West's fascination with the primitive has to do with its own crises in identity, with its own need to clearly demarcate subject and object even while flirting with other ways of experiencing the universe.” So a new paradigm of growth implies a commitment to relinquishing control, to relinquishing our relationship with the world as an object to be used for our own ends. This is terrifying to the ego. The ego translates surrender as giving up. But surrender is not giving up. Surrender is simply the act of remembering that there is a natural growth, a natural evolution. Two zen poems articulate this so beautifully:
The wild geese do not intend
to cast their reflection,
The water has no mind
to receive their image.
and the grass grows, by itself.
We can be in harmony with this natural growth or we can distort it, becoming monsters of our own making. We can only truly be in harmony with this natural growth when we spend time in quiet. When we spend time in quiet, without striving, we can see our ego for what it is. When we spend time in quiet we can see the human desire machine trying every trick in the book to distract us from our natural state of abundance.
We human beings have immense potential latent within us. But potential does not have to mean making a million pounds, creating a hit record, or writing a best-selling novel. Perhaps our greatest potential actually lies in our ability to see through the walls we have built in our minds, walls we have been erecting with concrete answers to our ‘why, why, whys’; seeing through the hyper-culture that urges us to march ever onwards and upwards, disrupting, innovating, accelerating ourselves into hyper-manic overdrive; seeing through the human desire machine that turns nature, including our own, into an object to gain mastery over, and thereby keeps us separate from life, from each other. It is only by seeing through these constructions of homo sapiens level consciousness that we can access that place of infinite potential. Paradoxically, proof of our infinite potential is not to be found in very tall buildings, but simply in the child’s innocent ability to be vulnerable and open to the moment.
Fortunately, it is not too late to realise these things. This is why, as Alan Watts noted, genies always grant 3 wishes, so that after the first two, you can always use the third wish to get back to where you began. Perhaps our third and final wish should be for a quiet evolution, a spiral-shaped rather than a linear evolution, where we follow the trail of breadcrumbs that leads us to the place from whence we came, to our true, infinite, abundant, unconditionally loving selves.
 See Adam Phillips’ Going Sane, for an insightful discussion of our notions of sanity.
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