What happens when it becomes clear that the whole world is wrong?
We all know the story of the Emperor's invisible clothing, or more seriously, what happened to Galileo when he pointed out that the sun didn't go around the earth as everyone assumed. At least they didn't burn him alive, as was the Christian tendency of the time. He was lucky: the vicious punishment usually meted out by all societies to anyone who dares suggest that the accepted version of reality is nonsense is legendary.
This time, the situation is rather different. Whether the sun goes around the earth or the other way around is not going change much on the ground! Today, however, if you look around the world and have a couple of gray cells to rub together, it is pretty obvious we humans are in big trouble.
"Whether it is wealth or power or consumption or whatever, we live between extremes that are unimaginable in nature."
Wherever you look, the same bleak picture emerges. On an individual level we stuff ourselves with food and drugs, and suffer levels of mental pain and anguish that are off the charts. On a group level, we manage to find endless reasons to butcher other people, or let them just drown at sea, or at minimum make them feel like dirt. On a global level, we are poisoning the only planet we have.
We allocate vast resources to creating incredibly sophisticated killing machines and invest in and subsidise the carbon-poisoning industries. Meanwhile, countless millions die needlessly for want of the basic necessities of life: clean water, food and shelter.
If things are looking bad today, we haven't seen anything yet. A million or so refugees currently struggling to escape to Europe is just a trickle of what is to come when hundreds of millions of people who live on inundated coastlines or drought-afflicted lands take to the road! What happens when food stocks dwindle due to degraded soils and poisoned oceans? What happens to the financial system when it finally dawns on everyone that most of the stock values on the fuel companies' balance sheets have to be written off because the majority of their reserves have to stay in the ground? As Shakespeare might now say, "Bubble, bubble, oil and trouble!"
Nothing in nature comes close to the current human insanity. The fact that a few chimps attack other chimps from time to time is no more of an adequate excuse than is all the other stuff they get up to -- which we also don't need to do! In nature, there is plenty of variation and nothing is equal -- equally unique but not equal -- but never do we find the extremes that are so prevalent in the world of humans. Whether it is wealth or power or consumption or whatever, we live between extremes that are unimaginable in nature.
So, what's the diagnosis, doc? You remember the late Oliver Sack's depiction of the man who mistook his wife for a hat? Well here's a condition you may not have heard of before: the man who mistook his mind for himself.
If you look closely at your own mind there are many obvious features that you may notice. First it labels everything, categorises them carefully, and then judges the value of everything. It precisely discriminates between every distinguishable shade of whatever has been labelled and adds more discerning labels so that every category and subcategory is even more clearly differentiated.
Of course the labelling system naturally depends on language and its basic operating system: which is through contrast, through opposites. It sees the night as the opposite to the day, summer the opposite of winter, light as the opposite of darkness, work as the opposite of play and so on.
The values we associate with every label, learned mostly in childhood from all our already "separately labelled" cultures, are then largely buried in our unconscious as what we call our "beliefs." They are seldom examined again, and are mindlessly applied to the world around us.
"[W]e are endlessly using our conditioned minds to try and understand and solve the conflicts of the world that are in fact caused by our conditioned minds."
We ourselves don't escape the universal labelling process. We are brought up to identify with these same learned values and beliefs. This is so successful that we often assume that we are these beliefs. "I am British," "I am Buddhist," "I am no good at sport," and so on.
The stage is now set for us to take these beliefs and judgments out into the world to play our part on the inevitable battle lines that have been pre-programmed in our minds: between nations, religions, races, ethnicities, genders, castes, classes, ages and so on.
In this way, we are all effectively trapped in an impossible dilemma, where we are endlessly using our conditioned minds to try and understand and solve the conflicts of the world that are in fact caused by our conditioned minds.
All the philosophical schools of old, joined more recently by different psychological schools, are stuck in this same circular paradox. Using the essential functioning of the mind to try and unravel the effects of the essential functioning of the mind.
It all started when the mystic tradition -- which accepts that beyond the known and the unknown, is the unknowable -- was destroyed in the West by the execution of Socrates. From then, the Western intelligentsia have ignored that mystic tradition and opted for the safer, logical tradition, which assumes there are only the known and the unknown. The underlying assumption here is that given time, the unknowns will be known, and known through the logic of the mind. The mind was made the master. One can imagine the mind stealing one of Michael Caine's famous lines: "I was his best friend. He needed my help... it's like asking an arsonist to become the fire chief."
Everything that depends on logic flowered in the West with an explosion of science and technology that has dramatically transformed everything around us. Billions of people today are surrounded by levels of creature comforts and sensory gratification not even the emperors of old could have imagined, with or without their clothes on. While even greater billions live in states of degradation as perhaps never before in our history.
In the East the story was different. The contemporaries of Socrates there, all born interestingly at a similar time, called the Axial Age, were not killed but listened to. The result was an unbalanced neglect of the outer sciences with little technological progress, but a flowering of what we can call the science of the inner. What Socrates referred to in his proposal to "know thyself."
The Eastern understanding appreciated that labels are not reality, the map is not the territory -- just a potentially useful symbolic system to use, but not be used by. Consciousness was the master to be discovered, not the mind.
Hence the continual insistence from the most brilliant sages of the East, from Patanjali and his Yoga Sutras of millennia ago to modern times: "cessation of the mind."
"When required, the mind is a wonderful servant, but if left on when not required it causes all the chaos outlined above."
The Western ego is severely challenged by this questioning of the supremacy of the mind. Remember "psychobabble" -- sniff, sniff? It doesn't see the extraordinary hubris of imagining that little bag of brain cells, no matter how miraculous, sitting under its well-coiffed hairdo can actually know all the answers to the universe. Including even The Donald! It fails to understand that the cessation of the mind is an option: discovering the "off button". When required, the mind is a wonderful servant, but if left on when not required it causes all the chaos outlined above.
Language only adds to the confusion. Meditation is muddled with contemplation, which is just thinking. Meditation is presented as mind-fulness rather than mind-emptiness -- "no-mind" in the world of Zen. While mindlessness becomes the way we unconsciously apply all those buried labels to divide the world into conflicting categories!
When the most brilliant contemporary sages from the mystic tradition, like Osho, explain that "the only possible way to save humanity" is to bring its consciousness to a higher level to "no-mind" and the most brilliant researchers from the logical tradition, like Harvard professor Ellen Langer, explain, "We are in the midst of a revolution in consciousness" it may be time for the Western mind to swallow, take a deep breath, and admit, in the face of impending catastrophe, it doesn't have all the answers. Especially when Langer also points out, that after "decades of research... I believe virtually all our problems -- personal, interpersonal, professional, and societal -- either directly or indirectly stem from mindlessness."
When East and West, perhaps for the first time since Socrates, are pointing to a similar solution, it must be time to change the fire chief.
By John Andrews M.B.,B.S. M.R.C.P