The human story undergoes a dramatic plot twist a few thousand years ago. A nomadic lifestyle of Interbeing World Presence morphs into a sedentary lifestyle of a Separation Worldview.
The “agriculturalization” phase shift that William Irwin Thompson outlines in his model of cultural transformation eventually grows into Civilization, Industrialization, and where we are now.
Where we are now is inside the narrative depths of what Charles Eisenstein calls the Old Story.
“The world as we know it is built on a story. To be a change agent is, first, to disrupt the existing Story of the World, and second, to tell a new Story of the World so that those entering the space between stories have a place to go.”
If “civilization is a zoo” as Chris Ryan contends in many of his podcasts, then the question becomes “What kind of zoo do we want? The Calcutta Zoo or the San Diego zoo?”
“The job of civilization is to do civilization well; we cannot radically transform ourselves into something else.”
– Morris Berman, Wandering God
We can’t “turn back the clock” on what Ronald Wright calls progress traps without an enormous amount of destruction.
Many point out that our present moment is enormously destructive. This is true. However, to pull the whole experiment of civilization down would outstrip it in magnitude.
We can’t “socially engineer uncivilization” as Berman warns, but we can gain a lot in terms of perspective and potential adaptations by studying the lifestyles and consciousness of those who lived prior to the rise of civilization.
- What is the story of this zoo?
- Who lives inside it?
- How is it being maintained?
World to Worldview
Charles Eisenstein systematically explores these questions in his monumental work The Ascent of Humanity. At a whopping 576 pages, it can be a bit daunting so his google talk is quite informative as well.
The Ascent implies verticality, a movement upwards in a hierarchy of meaning. These meanings form what Morris Berman in his book Wandering God calls the “Sacred Authority Complex” (SAC).
These SAC’s evolve in the sedentary cultures that come to replace many nomadic cultures.
“The second mode is very much about meaning and the process of being absorbed in it. I call this constellation the ‘sacred authority complex’ (SAC); and despite what seem to be antecedents of it in Paleolithic ties, I believe that its real flowering … coincides with agricultural, sedentary civilization. Trust in the world is now much less, and fear of death has assumed a prominent place. The human being has not so much a world as a world view; and the perception tends to be vertical in nature.”
This shift from World to Worldview is instructive to pay attention to. In it lies the hope of reverse engineering our way into a future where we are mitigating the worst effects of catastrophe.
This is at least more promising than the apparent solutions offered up by the vertical worldviews and what Berman diagnosis as “paradigm-shift addiction”:
“We need to get beyond what might be called ‘paradigm-shift addiction’ the (apparently) unending and desperate search for mental theme parks that have their origins in the sacred authority complex and its connection to the orbit of power”
It seems paradoxical, an experience which was largely given up or actively fought against in the shift to sedentary cultures.
This obsessive-compulsive seeking for “The New Paradigm” is what curtails deep analysis of where we are now. Desperately grabbing for a solution makes it difficult to really be with the problem and explore its complexities.
In his newest book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, Charles Eisenstein defines the goal as being when “the old story has finally reached the end of its telling, and the space is clear for a new story to emerge.”
Separation Worldview: An Old Story
So what is this old story?
It’s fundamentally a story of “Separation”, a word that according to Dictionary.com, means:
1. “the action or state of moving or being moved apart”
2. “the division of something into constituent or distinct elements”
Viewing the world as a collection of “distinct elements” that are in a “state of moving or being moved apart” leads to what we might term a Separation Worldview. The self within this world-to-view, as the picture above suggests, is a distinct element with a clearly defined barriers that are moving apart from “Not Self”.
These hierarchies of bounded identities form a structure that can be transcribed into multiple domains of knowledge.
In the domain of science, the Neo-Darwinian Orthodoxy prevails, giving expression to what Eisenstein calls the “primary metaphoric foundation” of the Old Story. He writes that this view:
“says that well-defined sequences of DNA called genes have evolved by random mutation and natural selection, and that these genes essentially program living organisms to maximize reproductive self-interest.”
This is true. It is solid scientific knowledge proven by an overwhelming amount of data. The problem is that its implications are often generalized far beyond the “very narrow realm” of micro-evolution, where its explanatory power is strongest.
Both, however, share this ethic to “maximize reproductive self-interest”, but their definitions of “self” are far different.
The movements of this definition are important to track as the “very narrow realm” of the Old Story with its Separation Worldview dissolves and a New Story with its Interbeing World-Presence emerges.
Space Between Stories
Before the New Story can fully emerge, the Old Story must dissolve and in between these two processes is a space.
This space sees the unraveling of the bounded-identities that rigidly stratify “self” and “not-self” and the re-organizing of their boundaries into new webs of inter-dependence.
“Where does the wisdom to act in entirely new ways come from?” Eisenstein asks in order to get at the feel for what this space between two stories is like, “It comes from nowhere, from the void; it comes from inaction.”
“I am drawing here from the Taoist principle of wu-wei. Sometimes translated as ‘nondoing,’ a better translation might be ‘noncontrivance’ or ‘nonforcing.’ It means freedom from reflexive doing: acting when it is time to act, not acting when it is not time to act. Action is thus aligned with the natural movement of things, in service to that which wants to be born.”
Transitioning out of the Old Story of Separation with its insistence on A-or-B-orNothingAtAll logic can make the paradoxical center of the New Story hard to find. This becomes harder if the only tools of logic one is working with are those of the Old Story.
Interbeing World-Presence: A New Story
The term “interbeing”, according to urbandictionary.com, is:
“The suggested replacement word for the verb ‘to be,’ coined by Vietnamese Buddhist Monk and scholar Thich Nhat Hanh. It means to inter-dependently co-exist. The meaning of interbeing recognizes the dependence of any one person or thing as to all other people and objects.”
In his book, Eisenstein defines it as “the sum total of all our relationships” and the sense of self that emerges within this is a heterarchy of fluid boundaries and connecting webs.
The “primary metaphoric foundation” taken from the Neo-Darwinian view of micro-evolution is consistent with the Old Story, but this new fluidity of relational webs finds its metaphoric grounding in macro-evolution.
Charles Eisenstein writes:
“macroevolution happens not through random mutation, but rather through symbiotic merger, through acquisition of exogenous DNA sequences, and through organisms’ cutting, splicing, and recombining of their own DNA. It also happens through cellular and epigenetic inheritance. The lack of any interest-maximizing discrete and separate self on the genetic level negates a primary metaphoric foundation of our Story of the Self. The genetic self has fluid boundaries. It is a chimera resulting from an ongoing exchange of DNA and information with other organisms and the environment. It is not that there are no boundaries of self; it is that these boundaries are changeable, and that the self within these boundaries is changeable as well.”
The ethic of maximizing reproductive self-interest still holds, but the self that seeks reproduction is being radically expanded.
It has more in common with the mode of consciousness that Morris Berman associates with hunter-gatherer life.
In Wandering God, Berman writes:
“… the mode of self-consciousness associated with HG (hunter-gatherer) civilization, which I shall refer to as ‘paradox’ … is a diffuse or peripheral awareness, which can be characterized as being ‘horizontal’ in nature … not characterized by a search for ‘meaning’, an insistence of hope that the world be this way or that. It simply accepts the world as it presents itself, and in that sense, it would seem to require a very high level of trust. One does not ‘deal with’ alienation (the split between Self and World) as much as live with it, accept the discomfort as just part of what is.”
This flow of horizontal movements and relationships experience “meaning” in the act of living itself.
Berman describes the nomadic sense of self as having “no history, they only have geography”. The Self as a geographical landscape rather than a historical narrative highlights the important feedback between self and environment. Alain de Botton explores this relationship in his writings on architecture.
This sensibility complements Charles Eisenstein’s idea of a New Story of Interbeing, highlighting the importance of world presence and mitigating the effects of Sacred Authority Complexes that become “a way of getting trapped in a world view and thus ultimately prevents us from finding the world.”
What to Do?
1. Develop a Movement Practice
As Morris Berman writes, “It is precisely the nomadic (i.e. ambulatory) aspect of HG life that sustains the perception of paradox and the fluidity of mind that was lost when the human race sat down.”
This doesn’t mean we should all become nomads, but it does highlight the importance of movement. “Movement” writes Berman, “is the physiological substrate of the paradoxical experience”. If so, then movement becomes a method through which paradox and, by extension, interbeing world presence can be embodied.
Bruce Chatwin talked about the sacramental aspects of walking and folks like the Spartan Traveler describe how he broke and fixed his body through following movement specialists like Kelly Starrett and Ido Portal or simply check out the Align Podcast.
2. Develop Mature Ambiguity Through an Embrace of Paradox
In the false but useful mind/body split, a movement practice (mostly) takes care of the body. How can we move the mind?
One way to do this is through a study of paradoxes, those solved and unsolved. Pepper in a few Zen Koans and, if you have the time, take in Douglas Hofstadter’s monumental Gödel, Escher, Bach. In addition to this, the work of Robert Anton Wilson is especially relevent.
3. Get a Comprehensive Generalist Education
Hunter-Gatherer’s are generalists. While some are better at specific things, each has a grasp of all the things required to live.
As Robert Heinlein writes:
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.