For anything to emerge into existence and evolve over time, it needs to differentiate from the preconditions of its “womb” environment as well as from others around it. The magnificent proliferation and diversity of life on Earth has advanced not only by forming new connections and relationships, but also by this process of “differencing” or separating individuals out of the undifferentiated state of communion that precedes each new arrival.
Now, that’s a rather complicated idea, so we should take the necessary time to clarify what it means. At the largest, cosmological, level we are saying that the universe itself, regarded as a vast interconnected system, was only possible by a 14-billion-year process of matter differentiating from energy, life from matter, mind from life, ego from mind, and the mystical “I am” from the personal ego.
Without separation, in other words, there would be no relationships – no connections, no symbian partnerships, no communities, no ecosystems, no universe.
In the human story, three major separations have driven our evolutionary progress as a species. Each separation introduced what I’ll call a creative polarity, which served as a kind of progression threshold for new possibilities and innovations. The differentiation of individuals out of a primordial communion and apart from each other makes possible new relationships, interactive complexity, and optional futures.
But it also leaves the situation open to risk – particularly in our human story – for alienation, antagonism, conflict, catastrophic wars, and final extinction.
For this destructive element to take hold and drive the process instead, a creative polarity must collapse into a pernicious division, where the energy that would otherwise have been used to advance evolution now breaks it down, as differentiation descends into chaos. As I will show – but, of course, this is not news – the pernicious divisions in human evolution have brought us to the very brink of a massive catastrophe.
There may still be time for us to avert disaster, if we can only learn (or learn again) how to see ourselves in the bigger picture and start (or start again) by living with the long view in mind.
In this post we will review the major separations that have facilitated our higher human evolution over many millenniums, picking up this question each time: What, if anything, can we still do as creative agents in the process?
“Human” and “Nature” – The Ecological Threshold
Our human story formally began with the invention of various types of technical power, also known by the general category of tools. When they stopped ducking in caves and started building their own shelter against the elements; when they discovered fire and brought it into their homes; when they learned how to raise barriers to keep themselves safe from predators, our human ancestors were taking control of the climate (if only inside their huts) and differentiating themselves from the “wild” nature around them.
By such means of technical power, human culture was created.
With the proliferation of new technologies, as well as with new layers of technology, we humans have separated ourselves from nature to the extent that many today live entirely inside artificial spaces of social life.
We travel from space to space enclosed in “self-moving” spaces (automobiles), walking on pavement, taking escalators or elevators in buildings to hallways that lead to more climate-controlled, carpeted, cushioned, technologically equipped spaces where we might sit for hours working on or staring into something that is about as far away from wild nature as you can get.
Once upon a time, we were reverent, considerate, and deeply respectful of nature in all her providence and horror. We worshipped her and her many aspects for thousands of years, which gradually fell off in frequency and enthusiasm the more involved with our artificial world we became. Mostly male deities – of weapons and war, of law and order, of industry and resources, of cosmic engineering – replaced her, as their specialties were increasingly more relevant to the concerns of our everyday life.
We dig, cut, and carve into nature for the raw materials we need to maintain and expand our artificial environment – along with our customary lifestyle – or are we prisoners? By-products, waste, and other toxic leftovers are dumped into the soil, atmosphere, rivers and oceans. As a consequence of our ideology and behavior, Earth’s global mean temperature is increasing, ice shelves are melting, oceans are warming and rising, weather events are growing more extreme, the ground is becoming arid and sterile, and our planet is entering a new age of mass extinctions.
“Other” and “Self” – The Interpersonal Threshold
The differentiation of human cultural life from the natural environment set the stage for a specifically social polarity, as individual self-consciousness began to separate into its own centered existence. What’s called individuation is really just another name for differentiation, as it follows the unique pathway of our emergence as a self-conscious ego. As we separate into our center, others are coming into focus as different from us, presumably centered in their personal identities.
In this way, the human collective began to differentiate into persons, and their interactions became distinctly interpersonal: between ego-centered individuals playing their social roles on the social stages of everyday life.
The terms person and personal are taken from theater, referring to the mask (Latin persona) that an actor would “speak through” in portraying a character on stage. In using such a term we are acknowledging just how much of social life is caught up in and defined by role-plays, with each person pretending to be somebody with a name, title, position, and a very fictional (literally “made up”) identity.
The separation between persons, which is necessary and essential to their interactions as persons, is also a gap where many assumptions, misunderstandings, suspicions, and prejudices can metastacize. Instead of mutual love, a retributive reflex starts to take over, as we grow more certain that the other is taking (or about to take) advantage of us, has betrayed (or likely will betray) our trust, and needs to be punished (or repent and reform) before we are willing to trust them again.
The back-and-forth of this retributive reflex – first one and then the other feeling the need to get even, but without any mutually satisfying settlement finally being reached – has a long history in our species. It will likely be the cause of our mutually assured destruction on some future Last Day.
“Body” and “Soul” – The Psychosomatic Threshold
The individuated self prepared the way for one final differentiation, between an extroverted orientation of mind through our body and outward to the physical environment; and an introverted orientation to the ground of consciousness within and the stirrings of our soul. With its deep roots in the grounding mystery, our soul perceives by intuition the profound nature of existence – what Joseph Campbell called “the experience of being alive” – and translates it into dance, song, art, metaphor and myth. And by its participation in the vast web of life, our body carries a sensual awareness of belonging to, communicating with, and sharing in the biosphere of Earth.
As a consequence of our deeper abruptions with nature and others, however, a feeling of exposure and loneliness generates anxiety in our body. This in turn brings on complications of restlessness, distraction or obsession, disorders, dysfunctions, and psychosomatic diseases of various sorts. Along with the fact that the body is mortal and eventually dies, this common condition may have inspired the departure narratives that became such a dominant feature of many religions.
By equating ego and soul, and then detaching this now-immortal personality from the body for deliverance to paradise, the pernicious division of body and soul compelled an even more aggressive dissociation from our physical life on Earth and all concerns for the wellbeing of our planet.
If we still have a chance, we can make work of repairing this pernicious division of body and soul, recovering a deep reverence and sacred responsibility for their creative polarity. In releasing the anxiety from our body, we will find our way again to inner peace, where we can relax into being and be fully present to our lives. No longer having to fight with others for what we believe is ours or what they owe us, this deep inner peace of soul will empower us to forgive our enemy and build genuine community, loving our neighbor as our (very) self.
And as we attune empathically to each other and to the larger community of life, our way of being on the earth will be devoted to the principles of stewardship, sustainability, inclusion, harmony, and universal wellbeing.
Let us hasten the day.