A coworker recently confessed to a change of mind on the question of whether people are fundamentally generous or selfish. The election of a new US president who is an outspoken advocate of capitalism, and equally outspoken with his opinions against certain demographics and protecting the biosphere, has made her wonder if maybe the darker side of people now coming out is closer to the core of human nature than a consequence of our conditioning. She has held a brighter view on the topic, but perhaps that was naive.
As existence in the global context of international affairs and climate change becomes less secure, our tendency is to pull in the horizon of what contains our centered experience of self. When we were newborns there was no horizon, no outer limit and containing boundary, but neither did we occupy a centered sense of self. The ensuing social construction project of identity that was managed and supervised by our tribe effectively pushed us into our center and set the horizon wherein our identity would have value and clout.
Essentially identity is a function of identifying-with, and our handlers (parents, teachers, and other taller powers) shaped us with both good counsel and moral prejudices as we linked our identity outward. Depending on our actual conditions of life, along with this mixture of wisdom and bigotry, we established our sense of self and set out to make our way in the world.
In reflecting on my friend’s ethical conundrum – whether human beings deepest down are generous or selfish (in classical terms, good or evil) – it strikes me as one important place where spirituality comes into play. By that I am not referring to whether or not one is religious in the conventional sense, by belonging to a faith tradition or believing in god. As I use it, spirituality names a more or less disciplined way of being where certain practices and habits nurture a deep sense of one’s grounding mystery, serving to inspire an individual response (and responsibility) to the higher wholeness (or community) of life.
When we are centered in the grounding mystery – my name for that gracious uplift of existence in the present moment sensed in the provident support of each breath – our horizon of identity expands and we realize that we belong to a much larger experience. Even more than belonging to it, we are manifestations of it.
We experience this expansion of self to the degree that we are able (and willing) to drop the smaller identity contracts defining our personal ego. If we happen to be neurotically insecure, defensive, ambitious, and caught in our convictions, the challenge of letting go of this self and dropping into a larger experience of reality will be too much. As Jesus said to a rich young man who almost got it, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
This experience of liberation is not something we can render adequately into words, which is why the mystical traditions that cultivate it prefer to keep silent on the matter. (Both ‘mystery’ and ‘mystical’ are derived from the Greek root muein, meaning ‘to close’ the mouth in speechless wonder.) But we can come at it conceptually with a contemplative tool something like my diagram above. Let’s give it a try.
You, an individual and separate center of personal identity (ego), are there at the top. Congratulations. At this level you stand alone, unique with your personality, autobiography, attachments, and special circumstances of life. As we step down a level, you become aware of belonging to a class of others similar to you. Maybe this is your family or gang of familiars who share your skin color, ethnicity, economic status, moral values, or whatever. The point is, even though there are more of you, your personal identity remains fairly provincial and small.
Of course, beyond the field of local attachments, common beliefs, and shared lifestyle there are many others – and many different types of others. In my diagram the different colors of human form represent the remarkable diversity of humankind: living in different places, different cultures, and carrying on in very different ways. But they are all human, which means that if you cared to, you could allow your horizon of identity expand so as to include everyone else, regardless of what makes them different from you.
‘Human’ rather than some set of subcategories has become the horizon of your self-identity. Now “love your neighbor as yourself” makes better sense as “love your neighbor as your self.”
But what if we didn’t stop at the horizon of our human species, however much larger that boundary of inclusion is than the contracted ego? The next step downward in my diagram holds an image of Earth, representing the riot of life in all its variety on our planet. We need to remember that humans weren’t dropped onto the earth from outside; instead we emerged from the earth as one strand in its evolution of life. In a very direct and concrete way – that is, not merely metaphorical – humankind is an expression of Earth energy, a product of its planetary process, a manifestation and latter-day articulation of ‘geo-intelligence’.
Engaging our grounding mystery at deeper and more elementary levels, we begin to realize that being human doesn’t separate us from the community of life on our planet, which necessarily includes the animal, vegetal, fungal, microbial, and inorganic substrates. Our new ethical mandate now becomes, “Love the earth as your self.” Considerations of our human future must take the planet into account, along with the countless species that are also expressions and contributing members of its biosphere.
In the words of Chief Seathl (or Seattle), “This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”
Why stop there? Earth, too, is a product of a 14-billion-year process called the universe – the single (uni) turning (verse) mystery of all things. So if the earth formed inside this universal process; and if life emerged out of the earth; and if humans evolved within the streaming adventure of life on our planet; and, last but by all means not least, you came to consciousness as a unique human individual, then the horizon of your centered experience of self includes it all!
You are the universe – again, not the contracted personal ego caught in its delusion of separateness, but your deeply centered experience of self. So, love the universe as your self.