This month, several thousands of people are occupying the streets of London for the Extinction Rebellion protests; and while I don’t myself feel called to join them, it’s got me contemplating the crisis that these friends are speaking out against.
Clearly society is made up from a collection of individuals, so if we are going to effectively get to grips with society’s treatment of the planet, we need to look at the individuals. Where have we gone wrong? How have we individuals managed to create such an unprecedented planetary crisis? Human influence on this planet and its nature has gone beyond the catastrophic and thankfully it seems more people than ever are demanding that governments and corporations act accordingly. Yet if we truly want to make a lasting difference we have to see that while action and protest are vitally important, there is something more that we have to do. It is not enough simply to hold others accountable and demand change. It’s not enough simply to change our lifestyle to one that is kinder to the planet. At some point we have to actually get to the source of why on earth as a species of individuals we have gone so wrong.
This summer I was fortunate enough to find myself sitting in a field listening to a talk by the BBC anthropologist Bruce Parry who stated that in his rich anthropological experience, he has never come across a centralised power system that has succeeded in eliminating corruption from its organisation. It seems that even when a great revolution occurs, seemingly offering personal and collective freedom and empowerment, there is a poison that remains. Obviously corruption needs to be reduced as much as possible; but even if what Bruce Parry states were only partially true, there is clearly a fundamental error in the workings of the human; an error that however hard we try is not being successfully addressed through our valiant efforts to change our conditions.
It’s clear that we have created unprecedented and unimaginable damage. Imagine how the planet must have looked ten thousand years ago. It is humans that have largely destroyed the planet that our ancestors knew. The list is endless: climate change, deforestation, the daily killing and indirect torture of hundreds of thousands of innocent sentient animals, countless wars and continuous murders of fellow humans, pollution of the earth, the seas, the rivers and the sky. We need to recognise that as a species we humans must be desperate to have continued to cause such extraordinary destruction. We cannot blame any other species and if we want to get to the root of the problem, we must see that it simply doesn’t work long term to blame each other. Each and every one of us is responsible for both the problem and the solution.
Humans have been corrupted, and if a renowned anthropologist cannot find a single centralised non-nomadic society that doesn’t harbour corruption, then since every society is made up of individuals we have to ask the fundamental question: where is the corruption in the individual?
To answer this question we need to take an honest look at the possibility that there is a fundamental corruption within us. Not just within those people we have a problem with, but within the way that all of our minds have been conditioned. To honestly explore this possibility we have to look within our own self. It simply doesn’t work to examine another because we would be enquiring from the very same conditioned perspective that we are aiming to question. We may find that when we look inwards in a manner that questions the way that we see, a subtle fear or avoidance arises that makes us turn elsewhere, to something objective. Our mind might tell us that enquiring at this level is simply a waste of valuable time that could be spent on important practical issues. Or we may think that we are looking inside in order to find someone to blame (which will make us turn away in case that person is our self), but we are not. We are simply turning inward to explore the possibility of a very real solution to a very real crisis. We have to persist if we’re going to get to the crux of the problem. What is the fundamental corruption?
The fundamental corruption is that we humans have overlooked and continue to overlook our primary identity and its utterly shared nature.
Your mind might not like such an answer that is based on the way we see rather than what we do, but what Bruce Parry’s words and perhaps our very experience of life suggests is that we have been trying to solve our problems by changing our external conditions for millennia, and it simply has not worked. It has not eliminated personal, collective or planetary suffering. In fact if we take an honest look at the world we might well say that suffering has actually increased, certainly on a planetary level. Of course it is natural and worthy to change our adverse conditions, to stand our ground and state our claim for justice and a better life; this is essential work. Yet something fundamental is being ignored in our attempts to effectively address our personal, collective and planetary crises.
What’s being suggested here is that we’re ignoring the fact that we’ve bought the following cultural assumption and believed it to be true: that each one of us contains a localised source of awareness that is born out of our biology and is separate from everybody else’s. As a result of believing this assumption to be true we have mistaken our selves to be who we are not and in doing so we’ve left our true home and have become obsessed with trying to find it. We humans are like actors lost in our role, willing to do almost anything in our desperation to find our way back to the recognition of our true nature. Even on a good day we ignore the fundamental experience that our awareness or consciousness is not located, nor limited, nor bound to a body or brain. We ignore the fundamental experience that our true identity, that which is aware, is utterly shared; and that this shared identity when experientially acknowledged and understood, is the very source of the happiness that we have been seeking through our destruction of the planet.
All of us, even those individuals who head organisations responsible for catastrophic damage to the earth, are regularly in touch with this shared sense of being. Its common name is happiness. The problem is that we attribute this sense of happiness to the world of objects. We believe that it is something that has made us happy, while in actuality the happiness is our natural condition and has come to shine as a result of no longer being distracted by what it was that we were desiring. When we falsely believe that something has made us happy, as soon as that something disappears, our innate happiness will again be veiled and we will try something else, and something else, and something else, ad infinitum, until we wake up and investigate the true source of our sense of lack. When we trick our selves into believing that our true happiness is determined by our external conditions we will act in accordance with this false belief; and we will cause suffering to people, animals and the planet without taking appropriate responsibility for it. The depth at which we’ve tricked our self determines the depth of separation we feel, from those around us and the earth that we walk upon.
Happiness or our shared sense of being is the primary characteristic of the awareness that we experience right here and now, and this awareness is not limited to any person but extends infinitely and eternally, outside the confines of space and time. All things (including the mind’s constructs of space and time) are clearly contained within this awareness, are known by it and (since this awareness is the only true material present) are ultimately made of it. To get a direct taste of this realisation we can ask our self one simple question: am I aware? and go to the experience that precedes our answer yes. Instead of consciously or unconsciously focussing on what we are aware of, we let our attention relax until we have a crystal clear sense of the experience of awareness itself. This awareness is not aware of things because all things are contained within this awareness. It is simply aware of itself, because this is its nature.
If we genuinely ask this awareness whether it has the experience of being located in a specific place, we discover that whilst it is clearly experienced, it cannot be found as an object of experience; rather it is experienced as the only subject that exists. It is experienced as unified. In other words it is the one thing-less thing that connects us all. Whilst it cannot be found by the mind (since the mind can only operate in subject/ object terms) it is actually our constant experience. If we find that thoughts or feelings are attempting to distract our experiential acknowledgment of this awareness, we can ask our self the question what is it that is aware of this thought or feeling? and thus return again to the experience of our true nature, that which is aware. In time we will arrive at the experience that even our thinking process that separates our self out from the world is made of the very stuff whose nature is happiness.
We may ask this awareness whether it has ever actually experienced the absence of itself or whether it is ever present? We may see that not even in deep sleep does this awareness experience its own absence. It is simply that our thinking mind is not registering it. When we wake in the morning it is not boundless awareness that appears and begins, but rather the biological system that wakes up, registers the awareness and wrongly believes it to be its own. Similarly we may experiment as to whether there could ever be anything in experience that exists outside of this awareness: any thought, person, object; any life, any death, anything at all? We may ask our selves how could there be? – for if something were to exist outside awareness, how could there be an awareness of its existence?
This enquiry is fundamental to our increased sense of connection to the world in which we live and the planet which provides for us. When we see a child, what is it in the child that touches us really? It is the absence of a developed ego that sees itself to be separate. It is the absence of corruption. We secretly long for this playful, innocent and uncorrupted child within us. We look to the world of objects, states of mind and relationships to try to reclaim this child like innocence, without realising that if we simply look inside to enquire into the nature of the awareness that is fundamental to our very existence, we will find its uncorrupted innocence right there shining. We’ll discover that it’s simply our preoccupation with the the objective world of thoughts, feelings, perceptions, relationships and states of mind that has led us to overlook it.
We’ve all developed a necessary sense of separation in order to be able to function in the world, but most of us have stopped short of developing beyond it, and we associate the call towards happiness and a better world to a problem with our conditions, unaware that all suffering is a signal that we have overlooked the peace and happiness that is inherent in our unified identity. Happiness or the truth of our being calls us throughout our life but we misunderstand it and to make matters worse we think we are to blame for this absence of lasting happiness. Yet the veiling of our true nature happens to everyone. It is the way of creation.
When we do the work to investigate and reclaim our true identity, the gifts we receive are profound. Our actions become infused with the experiential understanding that our being is shared, not just with each other but with everything. Our sense of separation from each other and from the earth quietly dissipates.
The original tantra sages of the East were considered by many to be the true anarchists. They knew who they were and didn’t depend upon the objective world for their happiness. They didn’t form organisations nor religions because they knew that centralised power led to corruption. As a result they were rarely noticed nor written about and their teachings lay largely hidden. Our true self does not make a great story, unless it is inappropriately clothed in robes and colourful stories of enlightenment. Realising our true uncorrupted identity is about as ordinary as it gets. Yet it is the placeless place of peace and love that we all long for. It is uncorrupted presence, already and always awakened to itself. We just need to remember this.