The concept of community is widely misunderstood and frequently gets misapplied to types of human groupings such as assemblies, crowds, neighborhoods, or regional populations. These others are based on a quantitative function of individuals gathered or grouped together, and might be distinguished by their specific conditions of location, setting, or occasion.
Community, on the other hand, is a qualitative phenomenon where individuals are connected to each other and united in a transcendental state of communal consciousness, mutual regard, and the harmony of wills.
Putting individuals together or enclosing them inside a boundary does not thereby make them a community. Something has to happen – a transformation in their way of being together, of how they relate to one another, in each individual’s sense of and committment to participating in a higher wholeness, in the transpersonal unity of life.
The theoretical model of cultural progress and human evolution that informs this blog sees humanity on a path leading ultimately to the fulfillment of our deeper nature, in the realization of genuine community. Similar to Teilhard de Chardin’s vision of creation’s “Omega Point,” but without his religious-metaphysical assumptions, this model invites us to contemplate humanity’s evolutionary ideal – the epigenetic code deep inside us that’s moving (or seeking to move) our species toward the full actualization of our nature as human beings.
Needless to say, we’re not there yet, although we can certainly identify pockets in human society where signs of spiritual awakening and genuine community are evident. Nevertheless, just now vast populations of humans seem to be sliding backwards into a less civilized, more selfish and antagonistic attitude in their engagement with the world around them.
If we can’t find our way through this battlefield of races, nations, and ideologies, it’s possible we might drive ourselves to extinction.
The beliefs and behavior of a growing number are becoming increasingly irrational, confused, angry, and violent. With our trust in journalism, science, and education profoundly eroded in recent years, the general feeling is that we are caught in a whirlwind with no steady ground under our feet or clear vantage point on what’s happening.
Lacking the sense of a way through, we wonder if this is where it’s all going to end.
This is why it’s all the more important to find a lens that can help us see our current predicament in a larger context. With such a lens, I propose that much of the disorientation and upheaval we are experiencing right now can be understood as the inherently unstable conditions of transformative change.
By definition, transformation is a process characterized by a phase transition between two relatively stable states or forms. This transitional phase can be “deeply chaotic,” having left behind something familiar and predictable, but still offshore from what is yet unknown.
If humanity is in the midst of such a transformative (i.e., evolutionary) process of change, and I believe we are, then we might stand a better chance of making meaningful progress if the two shores (forms, states, or stages) are better understood.
Humans began their evolutionary journey in a “herd” state of consciousness that can also be called tribal. In this relatively stable state, the individual is not yet self-conscious – that is to say, he is not yet aware of himself as an individual, as a basic indivisible unit. His consciousness is, at it were, buried like a seed in the maternal ground of his tribe which provides for his nourishment, protection, and emotional security.
These benefits of tribal existence will continue to operate on the emerging self-conscious individual, as “lures” back into its more primitive – originally preconscious and later subconscious – mode of being.
Our epigenetic code as a species – or what I prefer to call the “human ideal,” exactly like Aristotle’s entelechy or developmental aim – did not let us stay in this buried state of herd consciousness. Inevitably individuals began to step out from the tribe; or, if the primitive myths of this period can be interpreted as psycho-evolutionary records of human transformation, then the experience was more like a falling-out or eviction from a paradisal state of existence (the metaphorical Garden of Eden).
The process of becoming an individual, called individuation, involves a gradual centering of consciousness in the self, with the goal (that inner aim again) of taking more and more control over one’s own behavior, choices, and commitments in life. This position of autonomy, literally of “self-control” (auto+nomos), is a necessary step in the formation of ego strength. Ideally – and once again speaking in evolutionary terms – the centered and autonomous individual is capable of responding to the world intentionally, out of ethical consideration and with creative freedom.
My diagram illustrates this progress into individual autonomy, ego strength, and personal responsibility, by an arrow culminating at a point where the individual is finally free to “go beyond” (or transcend) himself in the experience of community. Such transcendence does not require him to renounce or negate himself for the sake of the group, which would effectively nullify his centered self-control of autonomy. Instead it affirms his individuality as it empowers him to connect with others, expand his world horizons, and contribute to the greater wellbeing.
This higher state of consciousness is properly communal in the way it envisions, honors, and adds value to the transpersonal unity of life. Here individuals are not blended into the community, but celebrated and relied on for their unique talents, aspirations and creative effort. In their shared commitment to dialogue, they co-construct a world that is big enough to include everyone.
The diversity of individuals is not a threat but a stimulant for the generosity and goodwill essential to promoting harmony. Occasional tensions and conflicts are reconciled (upwards) in healthy compromise, literally a “promise together,” rather than resolved (downwards) by unilateral dominance and discipline.
Those last few paragraphs are my best description of what I mean by genuine community, the inner aim and ultimate goal of human evolution. It is, and will be, what secures a creative and prosperous future for our species on this planet – or on any planet we might one day colonize.
The other path, one that leads to misery and mutual destruction, fails to reach the point of the individual’s autonomy and his transpersonal leap into community. Instead of achieving a position of centered self-control and social responsibility, this break-off and collapse (rather than expansion) of consciousness happens as a consquence of neurotic insecurity, of his overwhelming feeling of existential exposure and social alienation.
To the degree that his tribe is rigidly authoritarian yet incompetent in the practices of mindful parenting, holistic education, and the politics of community formation, the individual will tend to seek social approval over self-actualization, willingly sacrificing his own human fulfillment on the altar of herd security. Rather than going beyond himself for the sake of genuine community, he submits himself to the thought-control (i.e., orthodoxy), lifeless idols, and soul-stifling refuge of his tribe.
And so, here we are. As we look out on the global situation today, it becomes clear that so many of us are struggling but falling short of our own self-control and creative freedom, lacking a center from which we might engage others and the world around us in a rational and responsible way, one that is spiritually relevant to this critical breakpoint for humanity.