Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Broken Link

I often mention our ancestral past in my conversations with friends. I talk about the things we used to have, the things we used to enjoy and the vastly different circumstances we find ourselves in today in the modern world. One of the problems the modern civilized human faces is being surrounded by strangers. This may not sound like much of a problem at all. Most people, especially urbanites, love the diversity that the city offers. And yet, there is a certain simmering tension underneath the appearances when a variety of cultures mingle. These tensions are kept in check in times of plenty, when the gravy train runs, doling out goodies to everyone along the way, With ample resources to feed everyone, fault lines become almost invisible. Even with the differences in worldview and thought, since everyone believes in the stories of civilization, progress and technology, we get along. But during times of scarcity, or during difficult socio-politico-economic conditions, tensions along cultural, ethnic, religious, geographic and other fault lines flare up. We see this happen from time to time in countries and regions across the world. People who are different from each other in one or more ways who have otherwise lived in relative peace for long periods of time nevertheless clash during stressful times when resources become scarce and competition for the limited pool of resources arises seemingly out of nowhere.

Did I say "people who are different from each other"? Why would anyone say such a thing? Aren't we all the same? All one? One species. One world? Coexisting?

We're often presented with a liberal worldview that calls for unity among all humans irrespective of their origins, belief systems and appearances. So how come we haven't figured out how to live in peace with each other? How come we keep fighting with each other, disrespecting one another and calling into question another's belief system, religion, or culture?

If we take the long view, if we consider our past spanning 200,000 years, we'd realize that this is a brand new problem in the history of humanity... for 99% of our time on this planet, we lived in situations where we knew almost everyone we interacted with on a daily basis. We grew up and lived in tribes which were basically extended families and we knew most of our fellow tribespeople very well as a matter of fact. It's not that our tribal ancestors never saw a foreigner. Perhaps once in a while when someone from a faraway land or a neighboring tribe passed by, we'd run into a stranger. In Native American powwows that happened regularly and periodically, neighboring tribes got together and celebrated their connection to one another and to the lands they inhabited. Neighboring tribes intermarried. Tribes traded with each other as well. But the interaction was largely occasional and limited by geography. Moreover, tribal people, wherever they lived on the planet, shared similar worldviews, and in that sense, even the occasional foreigner that passed by was not really a stranger. They all had a shared sense of reality, a shared foundation upon which their respective creation stories were built.

It's only recently, in the past several thousand years, that humans have been forced to deal with strangers from far away lands or with people with wildly different worldviews. It's only recently that humans have been living in close quarters with people who look very different, think very differently and believe in very different things. This is a very unnatural state of affairs. The calls from leaders and gurus alike, picked up and repeated by the idealist urban progressive liberal, the calls to get along because we're all one species are actually calls to adapt to an unnatural state of affairs, one that is relatively new in our history on this planet.
I realize that this assertion on my part that mixing with people that are different from us is unnatural is very uncommon in the modern world where one daily hears talk about tolerance and unity and the exhortation to "live and let live". Such a position might even bring up memories of the segregation era and worse. I ask you to suspend your judgment for a few minutes and hear me out...

When I take this position in conversations with friends, they often tell me about all the amazing things that have come out of this worldwide blending of people from everywhere. Just look at New York or Los Angeles, the lively profusion of cultures and traditions that make such cities global in nature, truly cosmopolitan cities that offer something for everyone. Here's a response I received from a friend recently:

"But I don't regret my exposure or access to the rest of the world. I love knowing people and what they do and believe and how they eat and love. I like that I can search for my personal truth through the full expanse of human culture and thought. And my favorite music and dancing outside of ballet is definitely not from around me or my people -- And I am made so happy by the amazing fusions of music and dance and food vocabularies that I've experienced. Those things are only humanity made better as long as we continue to value the traditions upon which they are built."

Here was my response, expanded and edited for clarity:

You described the aspects of civilization that we have come to enjoy. No doubt we have wonderful art, music, cuisine, etc. I'm not denying that. But when we ask ourselves how we got ourselves into an existential crisis, one for which there appears to be no solution within our reach, we are compelled to trace back our history all the way back to our origins on this planet and we end up with the realization that says we were once tethered to land and now we're not.

Consider this narrative of how a human body is made up of smaller building blocks...

There are all sorts of particles in the Universe. The nature of creation around us seems to be one where some particles get together and create larger constructs. Whether the particles do this voluntarily in order to be part of something bigger than themselves (as in a cooperative organization), or they do it because they are forced to come together by a force stronger than themselves, it's as if the will or essence of the larger construct directs (for a finite period of time) the essence of the smaller ones. The latter eventually come together to form certain shapes with certain properties. The smaller individual particles might be replaced over the lifetime of the larger construct, but the latter retains an essence of its own as it is built and rebuilt throughout its lifetime.

So, we have subatomic particles like electrons and protons coming together to form atoms. These particles are held together by a certain force that gives the atom its shape and properties. That force is part of the essence or spirit of the atom. Atoms are more than the sum of the electrons, protons and neutrons that make them up. They have unique properties. Atoms, in turn, get together to form molecules...

Molecules get together to form cells. The cell has unique properties and functions that are a result of the molecules coming together for a specified period of time, the lifetime of the cell, to build something larger than themselves.

Cells get together to form tissue of various kinds.

Tissue constitutes organs, like the stomach, the heart, etc. It's as if the heart knows how to exist and knows what it needs to exist and to function and it recruits what it needs from the nutrient supply coming its way and rebuilds and maintains itself. The same applies to all other organs in the body.

All the organs come together to make up a human body, a human being with properties and aspects and behaviors and characteristics that are more than the sum of the parts. This process of building a human body is not chronological. The organs evolve together just as the body acquires its shape and behaviors.

So now, we have a fully functioning healthy human body with a unique set of characteristics that we call a human being. We came up the chain from subatomic particles to atoms to molecules to cells to tissue to organs to the human being. What next? Here is where the trouble starts :)

Back in the day, the chain of constitution continued upward...

Human beings came together to form a tribe. Just as the organs in the human body work together to maintain and continue the evolution of the human body and the human being, the human members of the tribe worked together to nurture and sustain the tribe. Individual humans may come and go but the tribe retained its unique identity. The tribe was like a super human structure with characteristics and properties that were more than the sum of the human beings that were its members. The members were well aware of this arrangement. This is the same pattern our tribal ancestors saw in the creation around them.

Lest you think I'm making this up, here's an excerpt from the excellent book, "Unraveling the Spreading Cloth of Time: Indigenous Thoughts Concerning the Universe":
With individualism, a lack of responsibility is supposed. The idea of hierarchy, upon which the scientific classification system is arranged, echoing in kingdoms and governments, creates an imbalance. Many modern-day relationships are Koyaanisqatsi, a Hopi word meaning "life out of balance."

In contrast, tribal societies placed the group (tribe, or nation) kinship first, the individual, last. Young Bear stated, "what is so different between Indians and non-Indians is that we are members of a tribe, even if we do not always show it." And then, she goes on to explain: "Our 'hierarchy', if one must think in those terms, places the tribe at the top, then the clan, extended family, natural family, chosen family, and the individual at the bottom. This does not mean that we have low self-esteem. It means the opposite, that we value the well-being of the people and our psychology and philosophy is all-inclusive, not segregated into pieces of the whole of our lives."
For any individual tribesman or tribeswoman, the prospect of their death didn't worry them or cause them anxiety because they truly saw themselves as the natural building block of something bigger than themselves, contributing to their family and tribe that would go on with all its traditions and culture. The life of the tribe was more important than the life of any particular human being... just as the health and longevity of the human body is more important than the life of any individual cell in the liver or the eye. This is the pattern we still see in nature, in the animal and plant worlds. Wolves come and go but the pack lives on. Trees come and go but the forest lives on. When a tribe member fell sick, it was as if the entire tribe was sick. Just as when the liver falls sick, the entire human body suffers. The members of a healthy tribe worked well with each other just as the various organs of a healthy human body work well with each other, passing messages between themselves, warning each other of foreign objects and threats, maintaining a healthy immune system, etc.

The next level of aggregation, up from the tribe, is the land they were part of. In fact, the very word "indigenous" means "of a particular region or country; native to". From Merriam-Webster:


Recently, a number of US Marines joined the Water Protectors protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, North Dakota. One of them was Wesley Clark Jr., the son of General Wesley Clark, who apologized to Leonard Crow Dog. The Lakota chief accepted the apology and proceeded to say that the Lakota tribe doesn't own the land, but that the land owns them. This statement by this indigenous person may appear metaphorical to civilized people, but he meant it quite literally. The tribe is well aware of its relationship with its land. Our ancestors knew they were part of the land. Even as humans migrated gradually from place to place, they became part of the land they called home. They learned about the land's other residents, the mountains, the waters, the rocks, the animals, the plants and the birds. They figured out ways to listen to their land and serve it and help it thrive. They were minimal in their needs, often using less than 1% of the energy flow in their ecology. What they took they gave back in a different form. They maintained their numbers through natural methods of contraception so as not to overwhelm their land. These are the signs of a healthy tribe. Our indigenous ancestors worked very well with the land that owned them!

The land, of course, is part of the Earth. All ecological niches and subsystems interact with each other and maintain a certain balance. The Earth, as a living organism, has all these organs, the oceans, the poles with their massive ice sheets that regulate temperature, the deserts, the plains and the mountains. All of them work together to keep the climate system and the energy flow going. The flow of water, of energy, and of atmospheric charge and atmospheric gases are similar to the flow of blood and electric signals and energy coursing through the human body.

As long as we humans lived in tribes all over the Earth, in balance with our respective lands, there was this continuous chain of progression from subatomic particles all the way to the Earth itself. Human beings were part of the tribe, the tribe was part of the land and the land was part of the Earth. In other words, the Earth itself is a large conscious living body made up of constituent organs. These organs, the lands all over the planet, are in turn made up of further smaller members, the animals, the plants, the rivers, and more recently in the history of the planet, human beings.

The Earth itself is a functional member of the solar system... and the aggregation continues: star systems, galaxies, etc. So we had a continuous and healthy chain of connections and aggregations going from the smallest subatomic particles to the largest arrangements of heavenly bodies that our best telescopes tell us are out there.

Let's come to the present moment... what we have today is not quite the same as what we had in the past. There's been a rupture in the chain of connections. Something went haywire at a particular linkage. Tribes lost their connection to the land. Tribes increasingly began dissolving, their cultures, traditions and languages vanishing, with their members dispersing, rootless, homeless human beings. That's us, after some 10,000 years of such dissolution, civilized modern people, having spread all over the planet, having increased in numbers beyond the carrying capacity of the planet, drawing down on the ecological capital, the interest on which used to nourish our ancestors aplenty.

Exactly how this rupture came about is not very clear. Several theories have been put forth by researchers. One even alludes to alien interference in Earthly matters and consequent corruption of otherwise healthy humans. Whatever the cause or causes, it must have started with one or more tribes somewhere on the planet going out of balance and overrunning its land. The connection between the tribe and its owner, the land, was severed. This tribe had now turned cancerous, to use the analogy of cancer in the human body. Earth started having a cancerous growth in one of her organs. Normally, just as in the healthy human body, such growths are dealt with... the immune system responds and kills of the cancerous growth. The healthy tribes surrounding a cancerous tribe normally realize what's going on, since they are keen listeners and observers, and kill off the cancerous tribe and restore balance to the land. But sometimes, just as in a human body, the growth overwhelms the immune system and takes over the body. The cancerous tribe overran neighboring healthy tribes and began spreading. This is the story of civilization. Civilization is the name we give to this human cancer on the planet. Civilization is unsustainable, is a heat engine, a massive energy consumer, a pyramid scheme, full of inequality and unnatural hierarchy, puts out massive amounts of waste products and if not checked in time, generally ends up choking and killing off the host, which is the planet we call home.

So when we talk about the prospects of nuclear war and the ongoing sixth mass extinction due to habitat collapse and abrupt climate change, they are simply the results of the uncontrolled growth of the human cancer on the planet. This perspective, of course, is not palatable to us civilized humans. Who would want to be called a cancer cell, after all. But that's what we civilized modern humans are behaving as, as little cancer cells, with no connection to land, not being a part of any healthy organ, not being part of the continuous chain of linkages that have long constituted a healthy Universe. We run around, try different cuisines, listen to world music, fly to and from the other side of the planet (that's me :)), sample various cultures, meet different people, but all of that is simply part of the story of civilization. It's the kind of temporary luxuries that humans, as adaptable as we are, get used to liking and enjoying. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. But I have a need to put it all in the larger context and this is what I come up with... based on my reading, listening and pondering over the human condition in the present time.

Whether or not all of the above makes sense, a key takeaway from the story of humanity is that we lost our connection with land. People were as happy or happier living on their land. They had much fun, enjoyed productive time and leisure time, made art, played sports and games, sang and danced into the wee hours of the night, talked with spirits and lived long joyous lives. Anything we hear to the contrary is made up by modern civilized humans to make ourselves look better than our ancestors. Believe it or not :) Our ancestors did not die young, they did not live penurious lives full of misery and shortage of food, they didn't display savagery like we do today, they didn't have depression, cancer, suicide, etc. the way we have, and they weren't sub-human. Look at the work of revisionist anthropologists such as Marshall Sahlins.

Today, with the cultural rise of individualism, our end point in the chain up from subatomic particles is the individual human being... with our massive egos, we are no longer part of a tribe and no longer connected to the land our ancestral tribes were connected to. All of us descend from tribal people. All of us have indigenous ancestors... there's not a single exception... mathematically. But today. we are no longer concerned with the land our ancestors called home. We run around all over the planet in our fancy jet planes. We are born on one side of the planet and live on the other side... such a thing has never happened before in our history... we call it progress but it's actually a kind of devolution. Our condition is not unlike that of the sea life that gets lifted from waters in the Atlantic by a ship's ballast system and gets dumped in the Pacific. Suddenly, it's a whole new environment. Suddenly, the native species of sea life, plants and animals, are confronted by foreign species and it's a big mess for both native and foreign.

We don't belong to a tribe anymore. We look for community but have a difficult time finding like-minded people. This is the result of thousands of years of devolution. We are confused individuals, with no proper knowledge of where and how we fit in into the larger picture. The indigenous person had no such confusion. She knew her place and she educated her children about their place... and so they continued for 200,000 years. We civilized people, on the other hand, are barely able to last a mere 10,000 years since agriculture began. The tribe has been dissolved. Human beings no longer have a tribe and are no longer connected to land. There is no such thing as a global tribe. There is no such workable concept as a global human family. Without connection to the land, we are simply living in artificial constructs and mental notions of unity and oneness. Sure, we're all related but our relationship to each other ought to be through our lands and the Earth. Yes, we are spiritual beings, but our spirituality ought to arise out of our connection to and respect for our sacred land and our Earth Mother.

Today. the lands suffer everywhere because we mine them, drill into them and exploit them. We blow up mountain tops, throw nuclear waste into the ocean, litter the rivers and seas with plastic, emit carbon and methane into the atmosphere, hunt to extinction hundreds of animals, enslave fellow humans, manipulate culture and generally make a mess of it all.

It is time for us, in the next few years or decades, to take stock of the situation and come to terms with it. We have the brains to process this information, to understand it, and we have the capacity to empathize with our ancestors and today's indigenous peoples and to see through the sick culture that we were brought up in. I know this is not a fun way to become more conscious of the world around us and our place in it. As they say, expanding one's consciousness is not necessarily a fun process. We need to become more conscious of our situation here and now. This is what I'm called to do. Your mileage may vary...