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August 17, 2011

Last year I was involved in a year long spiritual group called the Wheel of Initiation that included 12 other people. We met one evening a week for three hours and, needless to say, all had a profound experience together … each in our own way. One of the more compelling things we did was when each of us spent one of the evenings telling our life story. It was an engaging and satisfying experience pulling the pieces of my own life together into some sort of integrated whole; but I have to tell you that there was one thing even more illuminating than that, and this was hearing the life stories of the others in the group.

I can usually sense the heart of a person pretty quickly. The longer I know someone, the more I know the nature of their heart. And -of course- this is the most important part of a person to know … at least for me it is. However, when I heard the various personal narratives from those I thought I knew, a wider sense of respect, wonder, and admiration occurred. I learned that none of our journey’s through life are easy; without trauma, pain, self-doubt, sorrow, loneliness, distress or a gambit of other difficulties. The hurdles each one of those in my group overcame to be the person they are today, was nothing less than heroic; yet rarely were they given credit for what they accomplished … least of all by themselves.

This is why another part of that experience was for the rest of us to mirror the storyteller with our own sense of the deeper story that we heard. However, I was one of the early storytellers, and I quickly realized during the mirroring phase of my night, that this part was more for those mirroring than it was for me. By that time I was in somewhat of a trance from the emotional experience of telling my story, and never did hear much of what was said afterward. I did know that people were absolutely present with me, and -I guess- that’s all that really mattered to me at the time anyway. The rest of it, for everyone else, was an experiment in awareness, nurturance, and a downright appreciation for who this person before them really is … and to tell them so. Not something that happens much in life except -maybe- at a eulogy …. which … well, is a bit too little too late.

So what is it that keeps us from seeing the unique beauty in each other and from expressing it more often? This will have to stand as a rhetorical question for now, I’m afraid, because I have other fish to fry today; but I will oil that pan by touching on one small aspect of this.

I think I mentioned in an earlier post that I have been an environmentally concerned person most of my life. I came of age in the 60’s when we were just learning the effects humans were having on the biosphere around us. I thought at the time that we already ruined things beyond repair, and so I was thoroughly disgusted with the human species who allowed themselves to do such a thing.

Well, aside from the irreconcilable fact that I -too- was one of those humans, as were all those whom I dearly loved, along with the fact that I have actually always liked people; I just had to come to terms with the fact that my love for nature was causing me to hate my species. This was not a very good spiritual platform to stand upon, and I knew it. Yet it still took me years to “reason” that one out; and I still struggle from time to time with this dilemma as I hear more bad news about not only environmental abuse, but the heartbreaking violations that people dispense to each other every moment of every day.

Nevertheless, in recent years I have found one little argument that has helped to satisfy my left brained hunger for logic that I will share with you now.

Okay, so to begin with, anyone who still doesn’t want to admit this … please just get over it: humans are basically animals. Our bodies are descended from apes. Secondly, being animals, we are driven as much by instincts as we are by anything else. So, establishing those two principles, let me introduce one more that might require a little more faith. Although humans are driven by instincts, we don’t have to be led by them. Admittedly, this is a subtle (but crucial) distinction. I think this is a concept that couldn’t have been more eloquently put than in Temple Grandin’s statement (after she watched some of those classic nature films): “nature is cruel, but people don’t have to be”.

People don’t have to be! Think about that for a moment! Unlike most/all other animals we share this planet with, we alone (at least as far as I know) are endowed with the ability to choose between what we consider to be “right and wrong”. We don’t have to be driven purely by instinct. While this can be seen both as a blessing and a curse, it is -nevertheless- something that we evolved into … nature evolved us with this characteristic. Now, I am not a scientist, so I won’t go into a dissertation on the possible biological reasons for this trait, but lets just agree that we have it.

Nevertheless, having this unique ability to make “moral” distinctions doesn’t take away from the fact that our bodies are still basically driven by more fundamentally “selfish” instincts: the instinct to procure, to hoard, to find safety, seek shelter, procreate, defend, aggress, accrue, etc. These instincts were developed very early on in our evolution in order to keep us alive long enough to breed, and are therefore more fundamental to our physical survival than later forms of “instincts”.

Now, rather than continue to add more arguments to this philosophical stew (which I am not intellectually equipped to do anyway, although for anyone interested in continuing this line of logic … I have written a whole lot of drivel about it … blah, blah, blah), I would rather just get to my own personal lesson in all this.

We humans are born of nature … our bodies, brains, instincts, etc, are of this Earth. We are not separate from nature; we are as much a part of it as are the rest of the flora and fauna we share this beautiful Planet with. Nature designed us and gave us strong impulses to survive. It also gave us an oversized brain. Mixing these two things in one creature had potential ramifications, for which (somewhere along the line) a “fail-safe” characteristic emerged. Our ability to love. Nothing perfect or flawless, and it needed a lot of experimental work yet, but at least it provided a valve that would -hopefully- allow a pressure release for the enormous drive to survive and the ability to do so in an extremely efficient and potentially hazardous way.  The risk -and it was a big one- is that the whole success of this mechanism being apparently dependent on the species itself … us … to co-evolve this mechanism. Whew! I wonder if nature ever did such a thing before. I have to admit though, that it’s an elegant idea, if not a little crazy/dangerous. Imagine the awesome consequences should humans -en masse- learn to unconditionally love all creation? But I am getting ahead of myself here, so for now I will have to reserve this idea for another posting … I need to finish my point before I lose you all.

Also, many of you will notice that I am saying little or nothing about God or Spirit in all this, and that is not an accident, or because I don’t believe there is an underlying spiritual consciousness to all this; because if you have been reading my earlier posts you will know that I do. However, I also think it has been a tragedy of unsurpassed proportions that western religion in particular has gone through such great lengths to separate humans from the rest of the natural world. I don’t think I have to say much more than that for you to understand why I would prefer -for the sake of this current post- to just keep things as natural and un-mystical as possible.

So nature evolved us to survive and to … well … to dominate … how can I put it any other way! It also gave us a mechanism to help us temper our powers should they become too threatening. But -as I said- this mechanism is a later addition, and all too often subservient to our more basic instincts. If learning is making mistakes, and making mistakes helps us learn, then we can hardly judge ourselves and others for doing so. But we should be mindful of our mistakes (and our lessons) so that we do learn from them and -hopefully- not need to repeat them. Unfortunately, we seem to have a difficulty learning from our mistakes and this is a problem of mindfulness, and I won’t say any more about this right now. This tension between our distractedness, our basic drives, and our higher aspirations has made for slow progress … much, much slower than our population increase, which brings us now to a critical juncture. Individuals can change rapidly, but the population as a whole doesn’t seem to be able to. There are millions of people around the world who have done the personal spiritual work that has prepared them to move on to the next stage in our collective evolution, but this is only a drop in the bucket in a world containing billions. And maybe a collective spiritual evolution is not the point of all this anyway … I really don’t know the answer to that.

Anyway, what can we do, really? I mean really? And this is the one of the most important pieces of insight any of us hoping for peace (inner and outer) can have in this world: we can’t force people to change … even if our physical well being depends on them overcoming their blind drive to survive, we can’t force them to change. Yes, we can force people to act differently, but notice the use of the word force, because that’s what we have always resorted to; and a quick look around the world shows us that this just makes things worse in the long run. We are how nature created us, so in many ways we are only acting out as nature designed us to. As much potential as any one of us may have to grow beyond our basic physical drives, it is our choice alone. This is a grand experiment that is still not finished, and no one yet knows the outcome. But love does exist … it comes into this world from Spirit through us, and it has to pass through the thick wall of drive and instinct to get out there.

What I am finally left with is the sense of awe when any individual in any moment overcomes their powerful, instinctual self survival drives in order to give themselves for love. To sacrifice one’s own sense of security and comfort for the sake of another, or the sake of any “other”, is a wonder of grand proportions. Even the most damaged or hardened individual is susceptible to this … this yearning to reach out, to love, and to be loved. This courage to reach out goes against every primitive instinct we have, yet most of us do this all the time. It’s billions of tiny miracles performed every day, and they go by mostly unnoticed and unappreciated … yet we persist. Why? Well, I’m going to let you figure that one out because I’ve already gone way beyond my promised “short” post; but let me just finish by saying one final thing that will -hopefully- tie this long, swaggering diatribe together.

It has been by looking for this little glimmer of awesome beauty in people which has given me the leverage to learn to love them again … unconditionally. Notice I said “learn” …. needless to say I am not there yet. However, I do know that no one should judge or be judged on the natural if destructive ways we act out our basic instincts; but we should celebrate each time we succeed in surpassing them … celebrate by ourselves, for ourselves … if with no one else. This, I think, would go a lot further in helping us heal and grow than by always pointing out the ways we fail.


7 Comments leave one →
  1. Laurie B permalink
    September 19, 2011 1:48 pm


  2. Anacker Faith permalink
    September 9, 2011 8:20 am

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts Rick, it is so uncanny, the one consciousness…
    Watching the dance – primitive survival instinct – desire for reunification – need to be of value,service – watching – adjusting, practicing, breathing..knowing, not knowing…

    Affirmation- (that great quote again) I love therefore I am!
    What an honor to witness!

  3. Lynda Schaller permalink
    August 22, 2011 11:23 am

    It has occurred to me that having a diagnosis like yours puts one on the fast track to elderhood–at least for those who are open and seeking, as are you and your readers. I don’t feel like I am talking to just you, Rick, here. I am conversing with a community. In your precocious elderhood, you have gathered a community of inquirers, lovers, brave adventurers all. We are inspired by your process, but I know you will find it very gratifying to know that we readers/friends/family are inspiring each other too. Here, I will certainly save and savor the comments along with the delicious blog posts. So . . . maybe you won’t squirm so much re being the center of things. We’re all a circle together. ( And maybe the squirming is part of the curriculum too!) This is a guided journey through the landscape of our lives of spirit and love, a walk where the “leader” is also a learner/seeker, and the “led” have much wisdom to share.

    Thanks, Rick, for taking community-building to a new level. Thanks to every participant in this community for showing up and sharing.

    Quote from Stephen Levine’s Zen friend, who, upon learning they were lost in the Sonoran Desert, said, “It’s okay. Survival is highly over-rated.”


  4. Lauren permalink
    August 20, 2011 6:24 pm

    Yes, what can we really do? I love your questions and am thoroughly enjoying your blog. thanks again for sharing yourself with me in this way.

  5. August 19, 2011 11:31 pm

    reminds me of this poem at least part of the idea.

    I’m not getting emails when you post, so I might be late in comments sometimes.

  6. August 18, 2011 7:30 am

    I have doubts that the dominion we’re given necessarily has any negative sense, as the word “dominate” usually implies. I think of us as stewards, with the intelligence to use well and to exercise care for our environment. Which again runs right along with what you’ve expressed, Rick. Thanks

  7. August 17, 2011 9:06 pm

    So, another short missive, eh? (smile) Well, after reading this, I wish you HAD come to the film GREEN FIRE…it was about the life of Aldo Leopold and you would have loved it! Maybe you can get a copy from the library so you and Peg can watch it. I really like your comments about us being animals but we can CHOOSE to act from a higher, moral plane. I agree: that basically is what the Enneagram work is all about. Watching ourselves do our habitual, unconscious thinking and acting….and then choosing to act and think differently!

    And,yes, we are so hard on ourselves and on others. Kind, loving words are hard to come by, seemingly, and yet they are the “food” that really nourishes us!

    Much love, David

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