When I speak of the historical perspective I of course mean to include what we know of pre-history. But don’t get the idea that the long view I am promoting here is easy to come by. It isn’t. The long arc of history is something you have to deliberately seek out for yourself, and in this way go against what your culture wants you to know. We who call ourselves civilized know for an absolute fact that civilization is the highest and best way that humans have ever found to organize themselves and their world. Any evidence to the contrary must be suppressed, and if it somehow escapes whatever violence is required to remove it from awareness, it is vehemently denigrated and denied. While this general pattern persists within society at large, in the last thirty years or so certain academic disciplines related to the study of cultures other than our own have turned up bits of information that, if systematically pursued, start to paint a picture rather unbecoming to this civilization that is so intent upon preserving its illusions about itself.
What is so amazing is that this militant and thoroughgoing will toward self-delusion has enjoyed tremendous success (at least by its own standards) for several thousands of years, and has transformed the world in the process. But that world is now unraveling, and among those who bear witness to this reality there is much confusion as to what is actually going on. This is because their conditioning and education has all been within the bubble of self-delusion, and they haven’t learned yet to swim against the currents of culture that tell them how and what to think. I have been swimming against those currents most of my life, and so what I offer to you is very far from the official version of what is causing the breakdown of the living world. If you require group consensus before you can accept something as self-evident fact, what I have to say won’t be of much use to you. If, as I fervently hope, you are an independent critical thinker, please give provisional credence to what I have to say, and see if it doesn’t ultimately accord with what you know about the world, and make better sense of it than the stories that led us to empire, and then to empire failed.
So, let’s begin our history lesson back in the days when all humans lived by hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants, and we ourselves were wild, and the world was inhabited, and enchanted by, spirit beings. What paleoanthropologists call “anatomically modern humans” began to appear in Africa about 200,000 years ago, and though we don’t know much about their lives they evidently made their way in the world, with little change, for hundreds of human generations. Then something happened that transformed the human into his “behaviorally modern” form. One theory has it that with the eruption of super-volcano Mt. Toba some 75,000 years ago on the island of Sumatra the number of our common ancestors was reduced to just a few thousand—a population bottleneck–due to six years of volcanic-winter conditions all over the planet. In this time period, something happened to the human brain to change anatomically modern humans into behaviorally modern humans—people just like us. The essence of that change was to become aware of being aware, along with the capacity for abstract thought. Exactly what it was that changed us, and how it affected our evolution, is open to speculation. But whatever happened, these newly transformed humans began finding their way out of a climactically harsh Africa in a succession of migrations stretching over a period of some twenty thousand years. It is from this dispersal that the continents, and many islands, got peopled by people like us.
We cannot know the precise conditions of the living systems into which our distant ancestors journeyed and settled, but I think it is fair to suppose that many ecosystems were behaving at near-optimum performance levels. Or, put another way, 3.8 billion years of evolutionary history had created impressive complexity and diversity, as well as a deep resilience against cataclysmic events, and though there had been such events, like the fallout from the super-volcano, and intermittent extremes of climate change, there were no overly dominant species (like us) to throw ecosystems severely out of balance. When suitable human habitats were found, I imagine them to be rich in biodiversity and natural beauty, a place where humans could thrive as part of a thriving natural landscape.
What I am trying to get at here is something ephemeral and subtle, and it has to do with the relationship between the human and the natural world—a relationship requiring that Nature be valued for what it is, and not transformed into something else– in order for this vital relationship to prosper. By respecting the integrity of all living beings and Mother Earth’s own agenda the integrity of the human is also preserved.
Before the monotheism that characterizes organized religion today, there was place-based spirituality. And just as the world of humans managed to develop more than five thousand distinct languages, there were probably, at one time or another, that many and more spiritual traditions or bodies of spiritual practice. I take it that every one of these was influenced by interactions between a particular group of people and their immediate physical surroundings. Our Western scientific worldview would deny these people the spirit world they (collectively, and pretty much unanimously) believed animated, or was somehow associated with, those same individuated physical surroundings—dells and glens, rivers and mountains, groves of trees and individual trees, rocks and caves and enchanted grottos. Many indigenous peoples are on record as stating that the plants, the animals, the rocks and trees, interact with them and let the people know how to live in their particular place. If the people pay attention to these voices, and cultivate the appropriate attitudes of humility and respect; if they perform all of the prescribed rituals, and live by local and Universal Laws, then they get to go on living in that place.
Spiritual practice in this context is at once an individual and a group affair. The group holds a body of moral strictures, rituals, and stories in common, and ceremony is undertaken as a group, informed by shared beliefs. The individual participates in the common mythos, but also has his own relationship to the world of spirit. This, I would say, is the archetype of the spiritual life of humans, and it endured through millennia. For that reason, it became embedded in our collective unconscious. This is the kind of spiritual experience we are hard-wired to expect, and in which those before us likely found deep and full satisfaction. But since our particular culture came on the scene (and with it the rise of monotheism) this is not the spiritual experience now open to us.
It is not open to us for many reasons, not least of which is the systematic erasure of the particularities of place as the civilized peoples of the world displaced the indigenous aboriginals, overrunning their territory and transforming it into something else. When a cathedral-like dell in the woods is felled and bulldozed, it would seem that the spirits who once inhabited that place would be driven off. The culture of civilization tells us that no such spirits exist, or ever have existed. According to one major civilized tradition, there is only one spirit being, except that that one is actually three. Wherever this particular proselytizing religion has gone in the world to convert all to its One True Truth, it has been intolerant of the Natives’ beliefs in the many spirits of their place, and has taken violent measures to suppress both the beliefs and the believers.
When science came to rule the world (its roots in physics, chemistry, and mathematics) it came with a prejudicial disposition against anything that couldn’t be weighed, measured, or computed. Science’s divorce from religion became final about the time of the Newtonian-Cartesian synthesis. From then on any mention of invisible realms or anything smacking of mysticism or spirituality became categorically taboo. Along with the taboo came an attitude of scorn and disdain that is routinely passed on from generation to generation of the scientifically inclined. This attitude ( and the ideology that feeds it) pretty much precludes arriving at new knowledge about invisible Earthly realms through scientific inquiry, as all who try are labeled as quacks and not authentic scientists.
In such a climate as this, mention of spirits residing in particular places is, at the very least, suspect. How do I know that spirits inhabit places, and that attentive humans can converse with those spirits? In truth, I don’t know that as pure provable fact. I have spent a lot of time in wild Nature, and I have had any number of good feelings arise from that contact—feelings of appreciation, joy, exhilaration, awe, and others less easy to name. I have also had two visionary experiences in Nature, both at the age of nine: one that told me what I would do with my life, and one that told me where I would live. Told me, I say, but not like a voice whispering in my ear. In the case of my life’s work it was more a feeling-sense and Gestalt than anything else. In the case of where I would live, it was simply a clear mental picture of a river. Both came to me when I was alone and in wild Nature, at a time and place where I might be receptive to them.
What I do know for sure is that many an indigenous person has gone on record as declaring the place where he and his people live is inhabited by spirits that “speak” to individuals within the band or tribe, and convey all kinds of information useful to the individual, or to the group as a whole. Often the information received will pertain to how the people should relate to their chosen place. Black Elk Speaks and Lame Deer Seeker of Visions are only the most prominent of hundreds of narratives wherein people embedded in the land tell of their communion with spirit beings of their particular place.
What the juggernaut of civilization has visited upon these peoples and their lands is complete or partial erasure. In the process, this destructive force has removed not only for them, but for all the rest of us, a vital human connection to Nature. Where in this world can a human now go that hasn’t been transformed from its original enchanted, spirit-animated, physical perfection (as accrued over millennia of geomorphology and biological evolution) into something not itself? When you pave paradise and put up a parking lot, something gets lost in translation, not lost just in terms of beauty to ugliness, but lost in terms of human identity and potential. The human being cannot be wholly herself without an ongoing connection to, and conversation with, the natural world. And in a world where there is not much Nature left–to be itself, as itself–there are not many human beings who can be themselves, and all they could or should be.
For several years now I have been trying to come to terms with what has been lost to the human condition as a result of our aberrant culture. I call this phenomenon the fall within the rise of civilization. There are so many powers once fully available to humans that have withered within us and atrophied, including acute sensitivities to our physical world (and also to the invisible dimensions) that are now all but denied to us. In a world made over by humans–for humans–our humanity diminishes, and so does the joy of life that once was our birthright. We have become as spiritual orphans, because spirit has been taken out of our world. Without spirit, and the means of renewing our connection to this world and to the Cosmos at large, we lose ourselves in a world robbed of its meaning. For this I blame civilization, whose goal and purpose seems be the destruction of all that is valuable and good in this world. If you doubt this, just look at our history, and where it has brought us. And consider also where it is taking us—right off the edge and into the void—and by us I mean the entire Community of Life, our Larger Self, the Gaian Whole.