Our Animal Ancestry
Formation of large groups - Words and language - Ideas - Language structure - Logic - Language-behaviour - Thought, emotion, and the body - The 3 poisons - 5 basic needs - Conflicts - The amplification of primitive traits
Three Stages of Human Evolution
Modern Myths (Beliefs)
Major Driving Forces in Human Evolution
Transcendence of the Human Condition
Transcendence in a Nutshell
Transcendence in One Phrase
The Future of Humanity
Enlightened shamans, the Laozi (Lao Tzu), the Buddha, and other sages of East and West appear to have transcended the human condition, but the vast majority of humans seem to be more or less conditioned by our animal ancestry, language and thought (ideas and logic).
Our Animal Ancestry
To understand the human condition (how human existence has been conditioned) it is not sufficient to examine human history as Hannah Arendt (1959, 1998) has done in many ways; we also have to look at human prehistory, including our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, the common chimpanzee and the bonobo (also called pygmy chimpanzee). Since humans are very similar to these two species of chimpanzees, it has been concluded, “we are just a third species of chimpanzees” (Jared Diamond, quoted by Hands 2016, p. 532). We resemble chimpanzees genetically, physiologically, and above all in our behaviour. We have, however, larger brains that engender the capacity for language, reasoning and insight, in short, the "cognitive revolution" (Harari 2014, Part One).This has led some people such as the Laozi, the Buddha, and other sages in the East and West to enlightenment, and it has led others to practice torture and other forms of extreme cruelty that are worse than the most violent behaviour of chimpanzees. Our larger brains have also led to the development of science and technology, which have garnered important insights and applications but have also produced most of the worst global problems such as overpopulation, climate change, pollution of earth, sea, and air, destruction of natural habitats and rapid species extinction, modern warfare, the thread of nuclear war and meltdown of nuclear reactors, cybercrime, and extreme inequalities of wealth and power in the capitalist system. Thus, Harari concluded: "Unfortunately, the Sapiens regime on earth has so far produced little that we can be proud of" (Harari 2014, p. 415).
According to the primatologist de Waal (2005), chimpanzees practice reciprocal and genuine altruism, help and console each other, have a sense of group belonging, mediate and forgive each other, but they also tend to be egocentric, power hungry, greedy, hierarchical, competitive, territorial, xenophobic, aggressive, engage at times in cruelty (even sadism), and practice at times deadly warfare and infanticide, whereas bonobos tend to be more playful, egalitarian, and do not engage in deadly warfare and infanticide; bonobos appear relatively peaceful, highly sexual and sensual. Although humans can exhibit the typical bonobo traits, it seems that we have more in common with chimpanzees. Thus, we have the propensity for selfish and unselfish behaviour. De Waal concluded that like chimpanzees "we are born with a gamut of tendencies from the basest to the noblest" (de Waal 2005, p. 237). This gamut of tendencies becomes exaggerated positively or more often negatively through language, ideas and logic, science and technology, as I shall point out below.
Being power-hungry, territorial, and xenophobic, when two communities of chimpanzees encounter another one, they make war and kill. Similarly, human tribes tend to engage in warfare and killing. And the same happens in modern nations in even more cruel and devastating ways. Furthermore, the tribal mentality can be seen in many kinds of groups: ethnic, idealogical, religious, political, etc. (see, for example, Goldberg 2018). Chua (2018) referred to "political tribes" such as, for example, the Republicans and Democrats in the United States. Have we evolved? De Waal (2005, p.141) concluded that, "humans share intergroup behaviour with both chimps and bonobos. When relations between human societies are bad, they are worse than between chimps, but when they are good, they are better than between bonobos. Our warfare exceeds the chimpanzee's "animal" violence in alarming ways [because we can use science and technology and may be driven by ideas]. But at the same time the payoffs from neighbourly relations are richer than in bonobos [because they may involve more than sex].”
Contrary to chimpanzees, we have not only exploited and killed other members of our species, but to a great extent we have also ruined our environment, which has led to an ecological crisis. The greedy, power hungry hierarchical orientation of our inner ape has become magnified through the thought of superiority over nature. In the West this thought has been reinforced by the religious doctrine expounded in Genesis 1 of the Bible where we are told (by God) to subdue the earth and to have dominion over everything. White (1967) sees the roots of our ecological crisis in this hubris. Continuing on this path might eventually lead to the demise of humanity. But better education and self-inquiry may still bring out more of our highest potential, cooperation, love, compassion, understanding, wisdom, and reverence for the mystery of nature (see below).
Philosophers, theologians, scientists, and laypersons have discussed human nature almost endlessly. Among other questions, they have asked whether humans are good or evil. If we consider our animal ancestry, it becomes obvious how misguided such discussions may have been. As research by de Waal and others has shown, we have the propensities for the traits we find in chimpanzees and bonobos, which means that we have the propensities to be good and bad, loving and destructive, egocentric and altruistic, etc. (see above). Which of these propensities become actualized depends to a great extent on environmental influences. Therefore education becomes of prime importance. The verb 'to educate' literally means 'to bring out.' Thus, a good education will bring out good traits, whereas a bad education will lead to bad results. Education is also of prime importance for the transcendence of the human condition (see below).
In this section I will point out the relevance of the following: Formation of Large Groups, Words and Language, Ideas, Language Structure, Logic, Language-Behaviour, Thought, Emotion, and the Body, The 3 Poisons, Basic Needs, Conflicts, and the Amplification of Primitive Traits.
Formation of Large Groups
Whereas chimpanzees live in small troops (up to several dozen individuals), humans formed very large groups: tribes, nations, and empires. Therefore, if a chimpanzee troop attacks another one, only relatively few individuals may be injured or killed. In contrast, if a human tribe or nation attacks another one, thousands or millions of individuals may be injured or killed. Furthermore, the magnitude of bloodshed in humans also increased through science and technology (see below). Language and ideas that form cultures played an important role in the formation of large groups in humans.
A sense of belonging to a group that is already present in chimpanzees, in humans can extend to larger groups such as tribes and nations. Furthermore, it may also include organizations, religions, ideologies, and other affiliations. It creates in-groups that may oppose out-groups, and may lead to conflict and war between the in-groups and out-groups. In meditation one can go beyond the opposition of in- and out-group (see below).
Words and Language
Words and language played a crucial role in human evolution. Words and other symbols such as sounds or drawings can be helpful for communication and our orientation in the world. For example, the word ‘Toronto’ indicates a location in space. If I say, ‘I go slowly to rainy Toronto,’ I inform people around me: ‘I’ (a pronoun) indicates that it is me and not John, ‘go’ (a verb) indicates an action, 'slowly' (an adverb) specifies the action, 'Toronto' (a noun) indicates where I am going, and 'rainy' (an adjective) specifies the noun. Thus a noun (Toronto), a pronoun (I), a verb (go), an adverb (slowly), an adjective (rainy) and a preposition (to) convey information. Other word classes such as conjunctions (and, but, because, etc), determiners (a, the, many, etc) and exclamations add further information. Thus, grammar may become more or less complex. Furthermore, language may become more or less integrated with our mind, emotions, body, and our culture, including myth, art, religion, science and technology that may provide the medium for the expression of spoken and written language (see McLuhan who coined the slogans "the medium is the message" and "the medium is the massage"). Our mind, emotions, body, culture and technology may then become the context for the understanding and interpretation of words and sentences. But language, mind, emotions, body, culture and technology may be best seen as interdependent. And thus one may conclude that "language is a subject of infinite complexity" (Izutsu 2012, p. 1).
Although useful, words and language fragment the world. "Language divides" (Osho 2010, p. 768). Words are distinct, but their referents are not. For example, the word ‘tree’ is distinct, but what it refers to is connected to its surroundings. Similarly the words ‘I’ and ‘you’ are distinct, but what they refer to are not separate entities but integrated parts of the world. Using these words may lead to the belief in a separate self that appears to be at the basis of the human condition (see below). As the word 'I', words that refer to ideas such as capitalism or communism refer to abstractions. If this is not understood, then words and language can give us a fragmented and misleading view of the world and ourselves. Unfortunately, this fragmented and misleading view appears to be very common and can have disastrous consequences. Thus, not sufficiently understanding the interconnectedness in the biosphere has led to ecological disasters. Not understanding that humans are integrated with the environment and the whole universe, has led to alienation, loneliness, and many other problems. Therefore, we have to keep in mind: “Reality is far from words and it is very different from what a naïve person thinks it is” ((Falconar 2000, p. 7). Referring to Korzybski, Falconar (ibid, p. 6) wrote: “Whatever we say it is, IT IS NOT”
because "whatever we say, something is always left out"(Rajneesh 1978, p. 6). If we say light, darkness is left out, if we say life, death is left out, if we say order, chaos is left out, etc. "To name a thing is to separate it from the rest" (ibid. p. 31). "Words are hard, solid, they cannot contain the opposite. Existence is liquid. It has the quality of containing the opposite within itself" (ibid. p. 33).
We often see the universe as a universe of things, of objects, when it is a 'named' universe. But "things do not preexist consciousness: they emerge in the act of naming" (Sabbadini 2013, p. 35). Things and naming are interdependent.
“Words are the main obstacle on the spiritual path, which can be seen in pure intellectuals…Their whole life is of words, so they become alienated from reality” (Falconar 2000, p. 40). Therefore, Aldous Huxley (1977, p.171-172) concluded: "Language helps us and destroys us… it allows us to do in cold blood the good and the evil." "The enlightened person …lives in language and then goes beyond it” (ibid, p. 173), goes beyond name and form (form refers to ideas, to thought).
Who can see beyond language and thought, can see that there is no separate self and that there are no separate objects. But we have been conditioned to believe in a separate self and separate objects. This conditioned belief appears to be at the root of the human condition and the ecological crisis. It creates separation of ourselves from others, separation from nature, and it leads to competition, control, domination, and its destructive consequences such as aggression, violence, war, and the destruction of our environment (see, for example, Hutchins 2014). But becoming aware of the illusion of separation can help us Ending the Story of Separation (see also Eisenstein 2013). In reality everything is interconnected. The Vietnamese Zen Mater Thich Nhat Hanh referred to inter-being. In Buddhism it is known as shunyata that has been translated as boundlessness or emptiness (in the sense that there are no separate things, which means no-thingness).
The way children and adolescents are educated creates and reinforces the story of separation. For example, when a child points at a rose and asks "What is this?," adults usually say, "This is a rose." They usually do not say, "It is called a rose." But saying that it is a rose affirms that it is a thing, an entity, that is separate from other entities and separate from the child. However, because of the interconnection, the rose does not have a separate existence and neither does the child. Emphasizing the inter-being between the child or adolescent and the rose as well as everything else, would undercut the story of separation.
Believing that we are separate leads to ego-centricity and alienation, creates the fear of what may happen to this separate self and how it may end, that is, the fear of death, which for many encapsulates the human condition. The belief in an afterlife of a separate soul or the persistence of our creations (such as books) does not alleviate the sorrows of this life as long as we remain caught in the story of separation, which is often implicit in religious beliefs and doctrines that are expressed and reinforced through words and language.
In the Christian Bible the gospel of Saint John begins with the statement: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Such a God, like any word, is very limited and has led us into much misery of the human condition. The word cannot be the beginning because any word comes out of silence, out of the unnamable mystery. Becoming aware of this silence and mystery helps us to transcend the human condition. Thus we know that we are united with nature and other human beings.
Deconstruction, as understood by Derrida (who introduced the term) and other postmodernists, can lead us into the bottomlessness of words and language. It dissolves the apparent solidity of words and language as it reveals contradictions and infinite complexity, as it reveals the questions behind the answers in the interaction between the reader and the text. Thus, deconstruction, which is often seen as negative, destructive and threatening, may lead to the groundless ground of being as it reveals the illusion of a firm and permanent foundation of our knowledge that most philosophers since Plato have been trying to establish.
The human situation becomes most troublesome when we use words and language that refer to ideas and when we believe in and identify with these ideas. For example, the belief in and identification with ideas such as a separate self, capitalism, communism, and fascism have had devastating consequences. Since chimpanzees do not seem to have ideas, they are not plagued by such devastating consequences. Chimpanzees may fight and kill for a fruit tree, humans do not only fight and kill for a precious mine but also for ideas. Thus, ideas in human society have enormously magnified the instinctual propensity for aggressive competition and war that we inherited from chimpanzees (more correctly, the lineage that gave rise to chimpanzees and humans). For example, think of the ideas that led to the holocaust, to Stalin’s communism, to the Cultural Revolution in China, etc.
Harari (2015) pointed out how stories based on ideas shaped human history when these stories were shared by a large number of people. In this endeavour, "the crucial factor in our conquest of the world was our ability to connect many humans to one another" (Harari 2015, p. 153). According to Harari, this ability has been one of the most important human acquisitions because only in this way ideas could have a major impact on humanity.
I do not want to imply that all ideas are harmful. We can think of noble ideas such as truth, goodness, and beauty. Social activists are often inspired by noble ideas. But often they are so much possessed by these ideas (that are expressed through words and language) that they ignore or forget the wider context. This may have catastrophic consequences. For example, deposing a brutal dictator may seem like a great idea, but if subsequently the society is not capable of collaborative and peaceful functioning it may end up in the worst chaos as we have seen in Libya and other countries (see also Frances Lee on social activism caught in rigid ideas).
Furthermore, noble ideas may lead to opposite ideas, and this may again engender conflict, aggression, and war (see below). There is, however, another way. Instead of seeing opposites as antagonistic, we can see them as complementing one another. Then one can embrace both and thus conflict, violence, and war can be avoided. Unfortunately, this has not happened often in our culture because we have been indoctrinated and conditioned to think in terms of either/or and not in terms of both/and (see below).
In addition to complementarity and both/and thinking, one can achieve a synthesis of opposites (opposite ideas) that reveals an underlying unity. This unity transcends opposites as a thesis and its antithesis are transcended by their synthesis. Furthermore, the unity has been seen as the coincidence of opposites, which “is held to lie beyond the reach of discursive thought, and to be revealed to intuitive insight alone” (Arber 1967, p. 77). Thus, ideas and the conflict of ideas that may lead to violence and war are transcended. “Goethe [the German poet and scientist] saw the coincidence of contraries everywhere… A pregnant instance is his assertion that truth and error are from one source, and that the destruction of error may often involve the destruction of truth” (ibid, p. 76). In Zen reference can be found to “the identity of black and white, or evil and good” (ibid, p. 75). This may be meant to jolt us beyond thought and the thinking mind. And it can indicate a unity because, like in Yin and Yang, in the real world there seems to be at least some black in the white and vice versa. Similarly, there appears to be some good in evil and vice versa, and thus again the apparent antagonism becomes bridged. In Siddharta, Hermann Hesse wrote: “Never is a man or a deed wholly Samsara or wholly Nirvana; never is a man wholly a saint or a sinner” (Hesse 1951, p. 115). The unity of good and evil may also mean going beyond good and evil, which implies going beyond the ideas of good and evil (see also Nietzsche 2002). In this sense, the unity of opposites must be sought at a deeper or higher level than the opposites.
Ideas and especially the identification with ideas are propagated through words and language, which bestows enormous importance and influence on words and language. Yet, "Existence is beyond the power of words...From wonder into wonder existence opens" (Lao Tzu, Witten Bynner's translation). Paradoxically, this insight is expressed through words, but these words do not refer to an abstract idea but point to an insight that is rooted in the experience or beingness of oneness (nonduality). Words and language that express ideas cannot contain the mystery of life and existence.
The Tao is ungraspable
How can her mind be at one with it?
Because she doesn’t cling to ideas.
(Chapter 21 of the Tao Te Ching, translated by Stephen Mitchell)
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing
there is a field
I will meet you there.
Ideas can also be entrenched and transmitted through the structure of our language when an identity is implied between the subject and a noun or adjective where in fact no identity exists. Examples are: ‘She is a Christian, and ‘He is evil.’ In either case, this is not what she or he is. Their is-ness, their being, their reality is far beyond what can be expressed through words. She being a Christian, or he being evil is at best only one aspect of their reality. Therefore, if we want to say that she is a Christian or that he is evil, we would have to add ‘etc,’ as Korzybski pointed out so convincingly. And therefore, whatever we say a person or a thing is, it is not, since they are so much more than can be expressed by one statement (Korzybski explained this through his Structural Differential). If we are not aware of this (the etc), we are led to false claims about the reality of things and persons, which may have devastating consequences. For example, if we say, ‘He is evil,’ he may be mistreated, punished, and in some countries even tortured or executed. However, if we say or at least imply that, ‘he is evil, etc,’ it clarifies that besides being evil, he may also be good, intelligent, etc., and consequently we get a very different impression of him and will treat him differently, more according to what he actually is.
As an alternative to the explicit or implicit use of 'etc' we could eliminate the use of "is" that implies a false identity between the subject and a noun or adjective as in the examples I mentioned above. This requires training because we are so used to say, for example, that she "is" as Muslim or that he "is" bad (see Kellog). In my writing I try to avoid this misleading "is" of identity but I am not sure whether I always succeed. Because of our conditioning it seems so easy to slip back into the linguistic identity trap.
But even if we succeed in eliminating the "is" of identity or keep adding explicitly or implicitly the ‘etc’ we cannot completely portray the infinity of being. To fathom this infinity, we will have to cultivate silence. Thus, for an understanding of reality and truth we have to transcend language. Not being sufficiently capable or not seeing the need for this transcendence appears to be part of the human condition. However, in rare instances, language may be used to transcend language. Examples are some rare forms of poetry and koans.
Harari (2017) ends his thought-provoking book Homo Deus with the following questions: "Are organisms really just algorithms [as most biologists believe], and is life really just data processing [as assumed by the new data religion that is also called dataism]? Had Harari understood Korzybski's Structural Differential, he could have answered these questions himself because the Structural Differential shows that whatever you say something is, it is not. Hence, it follows that organisms are not just algorithms and life is not just data processing. Organisms and life remain unnamable and unspeakable. Algorithms and data processing may be an aspect of the mystery of organisms and life. And indeed in modern science they have become a very important aspect. However, a crucial difference remains between the whole and an aspect of the whole. Not recognizing this difference may have devastating and tragic consequences: life will lose its sacredness; artificial intelligence (AI) and biotechnology will be considered more important than consciousness. This will lead to increasing manipulation by AI and biotechnology (Harari 2018). Learn to know yourself before you will be hacked by Big Data algorithms of AI.
Logic is embedded in our language structure. Different kinds of logic can be used. The most commonly used logic is still Aristotelian logic, which is a logic of identity and either/or. This kind of logic that is often used subconsciously because it is deeply embedded in our culture can lead to profound distortions of our perception of reality and thus may have devastating consequences. Identity exists only in abstractions, in language, including mathematics, but not in the real world of constant flux as Heraclitus and other sages have clearly understood long ago: I cannot step in the same river twice because I and the river have changed; neither I nor the river have remained identical. Even saying, “I am I,’ appears deeply misleading because I am not only I, I am also the universe, one with the universe, as many sages and mystics have understood and as even holistic science has recognized (see, for example, Hollick 2006).
Many people are looking for or are asserting an identity. They feel a strong urge to identify with something such as an ethnicity, philosophy, ideology, religion, nationality, etc. But such identifications remain relative or limited and caught in oppositions: my ethnicity, philosophy, ideology, religion, or nationality versus yours. Such oppositions, reinforced by either/or logic, may lead to conflict, violence, and war, unless their relativity is recognized, unless we realize that we are not this or that. As Korzybski has so clearly demonstrated through his Structural Differential, whatever you say you are, you are not because what you can express through language implies at best a relative or partial identification. Mistaking a relative identification with an absolute one may have devastating consequences such as violence and war. We need to recognize that we are infinitely more than what we can say we are. We partake in the unnamable mystery, which unites us. With this realization, the human condition that is based on ideas and identification with these ideas can be transcended because the mystery is not conditional.
Through identification we see only the traits in which we differ, not what we have in common, which is much more than the differences between us. I think that if Korzybski's insights including his Structural Differential would be widely taught in schools and universities we would live in a much better world, a world with less conflict, violence, and war, a world with more tolerance, compassion, and happiness because we could see the relativity of ideas that divide us and because we could appreciate the unnamable mystery in which we are united. We would no longer mistake a map of images, words, and ideas with the territory of reality.
"La condition humaine" (The human condition) by René Magritte (1935)
In this painting Magritte shows that an image of reality is not reality. When we portray reality through an image or language we may at best capture some aspects of reality but not reality as it is. Images and linguistic representations can be seen as maps. Mistaking maps for what they represent leads to misunderstandings that may have grave or catastrophic consequences. Therefore, Korzysbski emphasized so much that a map is not the territory. Nonetheless, so many people continue confusing the map with the territory. This confusion characterizes the human condition to a great extent.
A map is an abstraction from reality. Identification with an abstraction, which appears so common, removes us from reality and thus can create innumerable problems and suffering. To a great extent the human condition can be seen as an identification with abstractions.
Besides identification, thinking in terms of either/or also appears deeply embedded in our culture since Aristotle devised his either/or logic. This logic has dominated the world and continues to do so. Most of the time most people, including most scientists, experience themselves and the world through the lens of Aristotelian either/or logic. This logic, although it may be appropriate in certain cases, tends to be unrealistic and highly divisive (see Sattler: Healing Thinking and Being, Chapters 1 and 2). An investigation of the world shows that situations often are not either/or, not black or white, true or false, good or bad, etc, but more or less in between these extremes, which means that we find much grey, partial correctness, partial falsehood, and people being good and bad to various degrees. But according to either/or logic, it must be always either this or that. Very often this means that if one claims to be right, the other must be wrong. As Hoggan (2016) put it: “I’m right and You’re an Idiot.” This logic also reinforces the “us versus them” thinking. We can often see this kind of thinking in tribes, ethnic, religious, ideological, and political affiliations, nations, etc. (see Chua 2018). Obviously such thinking is not conducive to profound understanding and a peaceful society. But it is part of the human condition. It can be overcome through different kinds of logic such as Buddhist and Jain logic that do not have the defects of either/or logic, including “us versus them thinking” (see below).
Our language and our behaviour appear intimately interconnected. For this reason Korzybski referred to language-behaviour. Especially the use of identification such as 'He is an anarchist' and subject-predicate expressions that insist that a person or thing is this or that, right or wrong, good or bad, etc. can have strong behavioural reactions that may lead to aggression and violence. We can, however, avoid or reduce such reactions by choosing a different language that incorporates extensional devices such as the ‘etc’ proposed by Korzybski (see Healthy Language-Behavior and Spirituality).
Summary on Words, Language, Ideas, and Logic
Words and language, although useful for our orientation and communication, tend to fragment reality into entities such as ‘I,’ ‘you,’ a ‘tree,’ and so on. If, like most people, we are not aware of this fragmentation and believe that these entities actually exist independently of our use of words and language, we are led to false claims about reality because we fail to recognize the underlying unity of everything. We fail to see the interconnectedness and unity of ecosystems and planet Earth and thus we have created an ecological crisis (see, for example, Capra 1996).
When words, phrases, and sentences refer to ideas and we identity with these ideas, this identification may reinforce our propensity for all the negative chimpanzee traits I listed above such as aggressive competition and violence. Aided by science and technology the identification with ideas has led to the holocaust and many other cruelties that by far surpass chimpanzee cruelty because chimpanzees lack identification with ideas, science and technology.
We may, of course, also have noble ideas such as goodness and justice. Although praiseworthy, these ideas tend to create opposite ideas, which then may lead again to conflict, violence, and war. Therefore, ideas, regardless of whether good or bad, seem to perpetuate the human condition in one form or another. To transcend the human condition we need the experience or beingness of oneness (nonduality). We have to go beyond name and form (form meaning idea and thought).
The subject-predicate structure of our language, when it identifies the subject with a noun or adjective, also leads to false claims about reality, which may have catastrophic consequences. To counteract this, Korzybski devised his Structural Differential and extensional devices such as adding ‘etc’ to statements such as ‘She is a Muslim,’ or ‘He is bad.’
Aristotelian logic that is still widely used implies identity and either/or that reinforce the idea that a person or thing must be either this or that, which implies identification with this or that. It seems, however, obvious that a person or thing transcends identification with just this or that. Long ago, the Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Anaxagoras knew that “each thing contains in itself parts of other things or heterogeneous elements, and is what it is, only on account of the preponderance of certain homogeneous parts which constitute its character” (Wikipedia). The Daoist tradition emphasized the Yin-Yang symbol in which Yin includes Yang and vice versa. Recognizing this and acting accordingly can help us to transcend the imprisonment in an illusory identity and the either/or condition.
In short, we can say that the human condition arises from the propensities of our inner ape that are magnified by identification with thought and its expression through language. Needless to say, the human condition and human history are much more complex than can be pointed out in a very short essay or even a whole book. I have indicated some of these complexities in this book on Wholeness, Fragmentation, and the Unnamable: Holism, Materialism, and Mysticism – A Mandala (2016) and its second appendix on Lessons from the 20th Century for the 21st Century (for a complementary account see, for example, Moromisato 2004, Wilber 2000b, Harari 2014).
Freud recognized two opposing forces or instincts in the human psyche: Eros and Thanatos, love and embrace on the one hand, and destruction and death on the other. As these two forces or instincts are antagonistic to one another, according to Freud, human misery can be reduced to a battle between these two forces or instincts. Although cruelty is widespread and may be intentional, I am not sure whether there is a separate death instinct. Destruction and killing may be mostly a byproduct of an excessive power drive that is not balanced by compassion and understanding (see also Wilber 2000c, pp. 340-341) So I tend to see human misery more as an imbalance and struggle between the egocentric power drive and compassion of our inner ape that is enormously magnified by language, thought, science, and technology.
Thought, Emotion, and the Body
Thought comprises language, ideas, and logic. In an interview with Oprah, Eckhart Tolle noted, “the human condition is being lost in thought,” that is, as we identify with it, we get lost in it and remain unaware of the mysterious source out of which thought arises. Since emotions can be understood as a combination body sensations with thought, thought affects also our emotions, and again we may get lost in them if we are not aware that we are infinitely more than just our thoughts and emotions. In our universal existence, we may be likened to the ocean and thoughts and emotions of our egoic self to waves on the surface of the all-encompassing ocean. So often we tend to forget that we are like the ocean (the universal Self) and not just like the waves (the individual egoic self). Identifying with the waves (the ego) and thinking that this is all we are creates the misery of the human condition (see, for example, Foster 2012). Since waves vanish, identifying with them creates the fear of extinction, the fear of death. This fear may be at the root of much aggression, violence and war. People often attack or go to war because they fear that the other may attack them.
Even the body and body sensations may be influenced by thought. For example, the experience of physical pain may be related to thought, to how we think about it. Having negative thoughts about physical pain and resisting it makes it worse, while having positive and accepting thoughts about it can alleviate it to a considerable extent. Our attitude appears to be crucial. Christopher Day (2007) published a book entitled “(my) Dying is Fun,” in which he describes how his positive attitude about his extreme physical handicaps allowed him to have fun. For example, he described how getting dressed would be very difficult. Sometimes when he had almost succeeded, his pants would fall down again, and he had to invent a contraption to lift them up again. Instead of getting frustrated, he had fun finding solutions to his many challenges. Similarly, some babies who were born with missing and/or deformed limbs because their mother had taken thalidomide grew up happily because they developed a positive attitude and thus learned ingenious solutions to adapt to their situation. For example, some of them would learn to use their feet for what a normal person would do with their arms. Thus, again mental attitude, thought, would be crucial in the experience of physical challenges (see also Vidyamala Burch: Living well with pain and illness).
In her journey through extreme physical pain, Vidyamala Burch distinguished four phases: denial, bargaining, acceptance, and flourishing that came out of the acceptance. Denial and bargaining are very much influenced by the thinking mind, but the deepest acceptance goes beyond the wishes of the ego and leads to the universal Self, which transcends the human condition (see also Brach 2003, Foster 2012, and Radical Acceptance Guided Meditation).
We can, of course, also be in the body without the thinking mind. Then the body may become the door to spacious awareness that transcends the individual self (see below).
The 3 Poisons
According to Buddhism, the three poisons of the human condition are desire, aversion (or hatred and aggression), and ignorance. They are also referred to as the three root kleshas. Kleshas are considered mental states or emotions that lead to unwholesome actions. The three root kleshas, that is, the three poisons, are at the root of other kleshas such as pride, jealousy and fear. The opposites of the three poisons that need to be cultivated are detachment, loving kindness, and wisdom, which will allow us to surmount also the other kleshas. To me detachment means detachment from identification, especially identification with ideas. Attachment to ideas appears to be at the root of the human condition.
5 Basic Needs
William Glasser developed Reality Theory and Choice Theory. These theories characterize healthy human behaviour in terms of the attainment of 5 basic needs: survival, power, belonging and love, freedom, and fun (playfulness). To a great extent, we inherited these needs from our animal ancestors (see above "Our Animal Ancestry"). From this perspective, the human condition is seen as a failure to achieve a harmonious realization of the five basic needs. In contrast, fulfilment of the five basic needs would lead to a transcendence of the human condition. However, as I shall point out below, transcendence of the human condition also requires a transcendence of identification with thought because identification with thought may lead to conflict and even war.
With a different conceptualization, Maslow also distinguished five needs that form a hierarchy: physiological needs, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. The latter includes transcendence into the infinite (see below).
The human condition may entail much conflict: conflict between selfless behaviour and selfish behaviour such as aggressive competition; conflict between more or less contradictory ideas and between different ways of reasoning; conflict between thought and emotions, the thinking mind and the heart. These conflicts can be resolved through deep insight and spiritual transformation. Using the ocean analogy that I described above, we can see that conflicts can be compared with waves of the ocean; we are not just the waves (the conflicts), we are like the ocean (or like the sky). The waves (the conflicts) have no separate existence; hence identifying with them, appears delusory and thus creates suffering. But transcending the identification with impermanent transitory waves (conflicts) allows us to shift into freedom. Kelly (2015) and other sages devised exercises that may facilitate this shift that requires profound spiritual transformation from the egoic self to the universal Self (see also below).
The Amplification of Primitive Traits
As I pointed out already, traits and behaviour found in chimpanzees have become enormously amplified in humans. For example, as in chimpanzees, humans can play power games between individuals and small groups, but in addition humans get involved in power struggles between large groups such as tribes, nations, and empires. And the outcome of these struggles may be devastating at a scale unknown in chimpanzees. Instead of killing just another chimpanzee or another small group of chimpanzees, humans have the capacity to exterminate thousands and even millions because they have been able to cooperate in large numbers. Harari (2015, p. 153) concluded that "the crucial factor in our conquest of the world was our ability to connect many humans to one another." Language, ideas, science and technology have played an important role in this connection.
Amplification occurs not only with regard to the desire of power, domination, and the ability to kill but also with regard to altruism and compassion toward fellow humans. Religions such as Christianity have preached love, but unfortunately good intentions have often been corrupted and undermined by power struggles.
Three Stages of Human Evolution
For a long time, humans were hunter-gatherers. Then, about twelve thousand years ago, the agricultural revolution led to a major transformation in human society. And then, the scientific revolution that began about five hundred years ago had the most profound effect on human society. In the evolution of the human brain and reflective consciousness, Hands (2016) distinguished three overlapping phases: primeval thinking, philosophical thinking, and scientific thinking.
Primeval thinking “is characterized by creativity, invention, imagination, and beliefs” (Hands 2016, p. 584). It included already the fallacy of misplaced identity such as for, example, the identification of a phenomenon with a spirit. It led to stories, myths, religions, and various superstitions, some of which continue up to the present time (see below).
The arts arose also during this early period of humanity and in later periods reached their highest expressions in creations such as, for example, Beethoven's ninth symphony and many other creations in music, poetry, and the visual arts. However, arts may also degenerate into ugliness; and religions may degenerate into dogmatism and fanaticism that may become destructive.
Myths and dogmatic religions can restrict or undermine our human potential and our lives in many ways. For example, sexual behaviour has been regulated to a great extent. In most societies marriage has been considered a universal institution, and although more recently sexual and romantic relationships have become extended (see, for example, Kingma 1999), marriage (or at least monogamy) is still widely considered natural or remains at least an ideal. There are, however, societies and practices that have been far less restrictive in this respect. For example, in the Mosuo tribe in China (close to the Tibetan border), women do not marry, they may have as many lovers as they wish (or have only one), and consequently they do not even have a word for "husband" or "father." In a communal household, a woman has a private room where her lover(s) can visit her at night. Thus, her sex life is strictly voluntary, unimpeded by myths, religious dogmas, and philosophical tenets.
Tantra that originated in ancient India comprises much more than just sex. It can be seen as an integration of body, mind, and spirit. With regard to sex, it emphasizes the sacredness of sex and thus has been used as a path to enlightenment.
Tantra and other ancient practices demonstrate that in addition to cognitive advances and the propensities we inherited from our animal ancestors, we acquired the propensity or potential to go beyond cognition, beyond the thinking mind, which led to the deep insights of shamans and sages such as the Laozi, the Buddha, and other sages of East and West. These insights foster transformations that transcend the human condition (see below).
Philosophical thinking “was characterized by a desire to seek explanations that did not invoke imagined spirits or anthropomorphic gods or God…[It] most probably emerged first on the Indian sub-continent while the other centres were China and the Greek colony of Ionia. Philosophers used insight, often resulting from disciplined meditation, and reasoning, based on prior assumptions or interpretations of evidence” (Hands 2016, p. 540-541). Among the first Western philosophers were Anaximander and Heraclitus whose philosophies are somewhat reminiscent of insights of the Laozi and Buddha who did not succumb to the fallacy of identity.
Although "philosophy" literally means "love of wisdom," since Plato it has been mainly love of ideas communicated through language, and thus the nonduality of body, mind, and spirit has often eluded us. Living mainly in one's head to the detriment of the heart and the belly (hara) creates an unhealthy imbalance that may have many harmful and even catastrophic consequences. According to Chinese medicine, health means balance and imbalance means sickness. Hence, degrees of imbalance in our culture indicate degrees of sickness.
Plato’s influence on humanity has been enormous. According to Whitehead (1929), “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” And I would add that by now Plato’s influence has been worldwide. According to a common interpretation of Platonism, the material world, including our body, is unreal or only a shadow of ideas (eternal forms or essences) that constitute ultimate reality. This view created an unnatural dualism between the mind and the body, and by giving so much prominence to ideas the stage was set for endless struggles between contradictory ideas. Thus much misery has been created, many wars have been fought in the name of and idea, an ideology, or a religion that has been dominated by an idea or ideas. However, one could emphasize that many of Plato’s ideas appear noble such as the ideas of the good, beauty, and truth. But as pointed out in the second chapter of the Laozi (Tao Te Ching), when we postulate the idea of the good, the idea of the bad, evil, arises; when we talk about beauty, ugliness arises; and when we extoll truth, falsehood arises. As I pointed out above, ideas create their opposites, and if opposites are not understood as a unity that transcends them, they may engender conflict, violence and war, the human condition, which has at least one of its roots in the dominance of the thinking mind (ideas, thought) over the unity of body, mind, and spirit. I think that most people are unaware of how much we are stuck in ideas and how much we are dominated by them because in our culture we have been deeply conditioned by a common interpretation of Platonism that enormously overemphasizes the importance of ideas and the thinking mind (see, for example, Lent 2017). In this way, our propensity for playful, egalitarian sexuality that we share to some extent with bonobos was counteracted and could not sufficiently manifest except perhaps in some pockets of our society and in some societies remote from the platonic influence such as in the South Pacific where people lived a natural uninhibited sexuality before they were indoctrinated by Christian missionaries.
Aristotle, Plato's chief disciple, considered the human being a rational animal (according to many interpreters). Hence, like Plato, he was deemed head-oriented. Also, like Plato, he has had an enormous influence on the history of humanity and the human condition. Thomas Aquinas, who considered Aristotle the philosopher, elaborated a highly influential church doctrine in line with rationalist Aristotelian philosophy. The earliest universities that were founded by the Church also followed this orientation, and up to the present time universities retain this rationalist bias (see, for example, Pinker 2018). Mystical insight is excluded from universities, except in very rare circumstances such as Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado that was founded by Chögyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Buddhist. Education at Naropa University comprises three components: academic study, contemplation, and community service.
As a result of the enormous influence of Aristotelian rationalism, Christian religion - and other religions, especially in the West - have tended to be more concerned with doctrine than religious experience that goes beyond ideas to embrace the unnamable mystery of existence. But Aristotle's influence goes far beyond religion. His either/or logic and hierarchical thinking still remain our predominant ways of thinking in most mainstream sciences and in society (see below). The Daoist wisdom of Yin-Yang thinking has not yet been widely recognized. Although it predated Aristotelian thinking, the modern form of the Yin-Yang symbol was devised in the middle ages.
In his painting The School of Athens, the Renaissance artist Raphael depicted many philosophers of antiquity, all of whom are dominated by Plato and Aristotle in the centre under the arch.
I want to emphasize that I do not want to blame Aristotle and Plato for everything that went wrong in human history. I consider Aristotle and Plato important philosophers who have contributed much more than what seems reflected in common interpretations of Platonism and Aristotelianism. For example, Plato was also critical of his Theory of Forms (Ideas), and Aristotle, besides his either/or logic, also pointed out the “more or less,” (see Aristotle's Non-Aristotelianism). Both Plato and Aristotle also referred to universal consciousness out of which everything arises (Potari 2018) and the unspeakable that is beyond words (Arendt 1959, p. 20). According to Campbell (1990, p. 124), "Aristotle's rationality was rational in its reference to something transcendent of rationality, but it has become increasingly strictly rational". And considering the human being as a rational animal, an idea often attributed to Aristotle, overemphasized reason to the detriment of the heart, the gut, and the unnamable mystery that transcends the human condition (see, for example, Lent 2017, and Beyond Thinking, Writing and Speaking – The Unnamable).
The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin of all particular things.
(Chapter 1 of the Tao Te Ching, translated by Stephen Mitchell, see also Sabbadini 2013, pp. 33-45)
One can only speculate how different European and world history would have been if, instead of one-sided Platonism and Aristotelian logic, Anaximander, Heraclitus and the nondual core of Plato's philosophy would have been the predominant influence. I think it would have been very different and to the better in many ways.
Scientific Thinking - During the Renaissance and the so-called period of the Enlightenment – more appropriately called the age of reason – the emphasis of reason and observation (including the observation of experiments) led to the foundation of modern science, especially mechanistic/materialistic science that still dominates modern society (see Chapter 5 on Organicism and Mechanicism). To a great extent, materialistic/mechanistic science and technology have become a sacred cow and Aristotelian logic still has a profound grip on the majority of people, although more realistic and more inclusive alternative kinds of logic such as both/and logic and fuzzy logic are available. Digital technology is based on binary (either/or) logic and this technology will more and more dehumanize life and lead to the development of increasingly intelligent robots that eventually may dominate us and – as Stephen Hawking and others have warned – may lead to the demise of humankind – all this as the result of the dominance of reason and Aristotelian logic at the expense of Buddhist and Jain logic that appear more realistic and much more inclusive because in addition to the "either/or" they include also "both/and" and "neither/nor," the indescribable, the unnamable, the mystery beyond reason that transcends the human condition (see Healing Thinking through Both/And Logic, Yin-Yang, Buddhist Logic and Jain Logic).
As a reaction to the one-sidedness of the age of reason we had romanticism that emphasized feeling and emotion, thus highlighting that we are more than just reason. But romanticism could not curtail the dominance of reason and materialistic mechanistic science. Although 20th century holistic science such as quantum physics, holistic biology and holistic medicine have shown the limitations of Aristotelian logic and mechanistic science, up to the present time mainstream science and medicine remain predominantly materialistic and mechanistic and mainstream thinking still follows to a great extent binary either/or logic. The consequences of this kind of thinking that to a great extent is perpetuated in schools, universities, and society are well known: exaggerated competition, intolerance, conflict, violence, and war between individuals, groups, organizations, and nations.
Besides a profound challenge of mainstream thinking through more holistic approaches, the 20th century has also brought about a renewed appreciation of the wisdom of the Laozi, the Buddha, and other sages in the East and West. Thus we could learn many lessons from the 20th century. Some people have learned them, but mainstream society still seems to be dominated by the mechanistic/materialistic worldview and Aristotelian logic. Korzybski founded a Non-Aristotelian General Semantics that recognizes the unnamable mystery of reality that transcends the human condition dominated by the identification with ideas expressed through language. Non-Aristotelian does not mean Anti-Aristotelian. Non-Aristotelian General Semantics includes Aristotelian thinking but goes far beyond it (for a summary see Korzybski 2010, pp. 182-183 and Falconar 2000, pp. 6-7). Teaching this semantics and other great insights of the 20th century in schools and universities seems crucial, but to what extent will it happen?
To avoid misunderstandings, I want to emphasize that I am not against mechanistic materialistic mainstream science if it is balanced by holistic science and the recognition of the unnamable mystery (see Organic and Mechanical). Unfortunately, so far mechanistic materialistic science and technology and the belief that we are higher than animals and nature (humanism) dominate the world. "We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction" (Harari 2014, p. 416). And if we continue in this direction we risk destroying our environment and ourselves.
Power-Knowledge - the convergence of power and knowledge: Knowledge such as scientific knowledge gives us power including (limited) power over the natural world. However, it also works the other way round as Foucault has demonstrated in detailed historical investigations: power is used to control and define knowledge, power is used to decide which evidence is acceptable, power is used to decide what is science and what is pseudo-science. Thus, a drive that we inherited from our animal ancestors may determine or influence knowledge. For example, materialist scientists and the materialist scientific community use their power to further materialist science and suppress alternative research that does not subscribe to the materialist dogma. Thus, research is not just a free acquisition of knowledge based on objective evidence, but at least to some extent a power game (see, for example, Sheldrake 2012). Scientific research and its results depend at least to some extent on the power of the scientific community and powerful individuals. Thus, knowledge such as scientific knowledge appears deeply rooted in the power hunger that we inherited from our animal ancestors. The cognitive realm that is so characteristic of the human species is not independent of the desire of power and thus we are not just a rational animal as Aristotle and others believed.
Modern Myths (Beliefs)
Myths can be seen as stories that to some extent shape our world, the way we perceive ourselves and the world and how we act on these perceptions. In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell recognized myths as "clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life" (Campbell 1988, p. 5). However, in a less profound sense, the term myth refers to a popular belief that is deemed false or questionable (see also Kripal 2019, p. 133). What are modern myths in this sense? One prevalent myth is materialism that has different versions. The most extreme version implies that matter is all there is. Its spiritual counterpart is the myth that consciousness is all there is or spirit is all there is and matter is illusory or non-existent. This myth can, however, be surmounted if consciousness or spirit includes matter (see, for example, Hoffman 2008, Wilber 2000c, 2017). Furthermore, spirituality can be grounded in spiritual experience that does not necessitate any belief in spirit. Similarly, religion can be grounded in religious experience that does not rely on any dogma.
To a great extent science, which can be a very useful tool, has also become a myth when it is considered infallible and when it is believed that it will solve all problems of humankind (see, for example, Harari 2016, p. 271). The name of this myth is scientism. Needless to say, one can practice science and use its results without subscribing to the myth of scientism.
Mathematics that plays an increasingly important role in science and technology can also turn into a myth when it is believed that reality is essentially mathematical. This myth has ancient roots: Pythagoras claimed "all things are numbers." And Galileo reiterated this myth in a different way when he said that the universe "is written in the language of mathematics." Needless to say, one can use mathematics without subscribing to its mythology.
Another myth is that we need continued growth such as economic growth, which seems the basis of unchecked capitalism and consumerism (see, for example, Monbiot 2017). However, in the long run an economy based on unlimited growth is not sustainable. It also leads to the exploitation of our environment and the environmental crisis, which may threaten our survival.
Two of the most recent myths have been referred to as techno-humanism (whose goal is to improve humans through technology) and data religion or dataism according to which everything is a matter of data processing or information (Harari 2017, Chapters 10 and 11). Coupled with manipulative technology, dataism may lead to an info apocalypse ("infocalypse") in which news and fake-news may become blurred and interchangeable. "That future, according to Ovadya, will arrive with a slew of slick, easy-to-use, and eventually seamless technological tools for manipulating perception and falsifying reality, for which terms have already been coined — “reality apathy,” “automated laser phishing,” and "human puppets"… as Ovadya observes, anyone could make it “appear as if anything has happened, regardless of whether or not it did” (Warzel 2018).
Mayor Driving Forces in Human Evolution
Probably the most fundamental driving force in human evolution has been what Harari (2016) called the "cognitive revolution," which led to the development of myths, religions, philosophies, ideologies, science and technology, the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, and our digital information age. (Note: What is called the cognitive revolution in psychology is an intellectual movement that began in the 1950s.) As I pointed out above, the latest religion is the "Data Religion" or "Dataism" (Harari 2017, Chapter 11). According to this religion or dogma "giraffes, tomatoes and human beings are just different methods for processing data. But you should know that this is current scientific dogma, and it is changing our world beyond recognition" (ibid, p. 429). Dataism, biotechnology and artificial intelligence (AI) may be referred to as techno-religion or techno-dogma. This dogma in conjunction with rampant capitalism and greediness may eventually lead to the demise of humankind. Contrary to this negative outlook, according to Wilber (2017), The Religion of Tomorrow will raise us to the highest levels of consciousness. But because of capitalist conditioning and other regressive forces that often pull us down this religion probably will be restricted to a small minority of the population (Poonja 2001), unless neuroscientists will be able to develop a technology that will facilitate spiritual enlightenment for the majority of people who are still trapped in the materialistic worldview. If that would happen, technology would have been used to transcend technology (see, for example, Goleman and Davidson 2017).
Instinctual propensities such as desire and greed also have been major driving forces in human evolution. Especially the desire of power and domination led to the agricultural revolution, the domestication of animals, slavery, empires, capitalism and consumerism. Nowadays the world is increasing run by big corporations that appeal to the greediness of people but often ruin our environment and thus ultimately work against the health of people and the planet.
In short, thought and instinctual propensities have been major driving forces in human evolution. Thought and instinctual propensities may reinforce or oppose one another. For example, the instinctual propensity for greed, power, and domination reinforces the imperial quest, whereas it opposes egalitarianism.
Since the 15th century the West has dominated the world. According to Ferguson (2011), this domination has been due to an emphasis of the following six strategies: competition, science, the rule of law (such as property rights), modern medicine, consumerism, and work ethic. During the 20th century these strategies were exported to the rest of the world. As I pointed out already, competition has ancient roots in our animal ancestry. The rule of law and work ethic have religious roots. Science and modern medicine have roots in the cognitive revolution. And consumerism is related to capitalism, which emphasizes competition.
Transcendence of the Human Condition
Like chimpanzees, humans have the propensities for egocentricity, greed, hierarchism, competition (for power and influence), xenophobia, aggression, violence, and war. However, like chimpanzees, we also have the propensities for cooperation, altruism, empathy, and compassion. Like bonobos, we even have the propensities to be playful, egalitarian, and peaceful. However, these propensities seem much less realized than those of chimpanzees. As I pointed out, several philosophical ideas that in the West stem especially from Plato and Aristotle have greatly counteracted a more peaceful life. People have fought over ideas, including religious ideas, and even went to war for their ideas. People have fought for their perceived identities, and using – consciously or subconsciously – Aristotle's either/or logic have endlessly and often acrimoniously fought about whether something is either this or that, true or false, good or bad, etc. Thus, to a great extent, the human condition has been and continues to be a struggle based on identification with ideas that manifests and intensifies the propensities for competition, aggression, violence and war that we inherited from chimpanzees (more correctly, from the ancestral line that gave rise to chimpanzees and humans). Eckhart Tolle said that the human condition is being lost in thought. Others have said that our emotions create the human condition. But our emotions are influenced by thought. And even our body sensations may be influenced by thought. Thus thought creates a filter through which we experience ourselves and the world. As a result we become entrapped in a rather limited space and lose our freedom (Blackstone 2008, pp. 13 and 84).
It has been said that the often unconscious belief in the story or idea of separation is at the root of the human condition: separation of oneself from others and from nature. Such separation is based on the identification with an idea that is reinforced through language. Identifications with other ideas some of which I pointed out above also play an important role. Thus, in general, identification with thought or being lost in thought when we are not aware of this identification limits and constrains us. But we are infinitely more than just ideas in our head (see below).
With this understanding, it appears obvious how we can transcend the human condition: Through education we have to create more awareness that thought, that is, ideas are not ultimate realities but only abstractions from reality. Then we can make use of these abstractions, but we will no longer be identified with them and thus enslaved in them. We will be liberated. Gurdjieff said:
Identification [with something] is the only sin (quoted by Osho 2010, p. 203).
Instead of being identified with and lost in thought, we can be aware that thought (including emotions and body sensations if they are influenced by thought) arise out of what Thich Nhat Hanh called the deeper self that is connected to the whole universe and what has also be called the source, no-thingness or emptiness (in the Buddhist sense), no-mind (in Zen), or spaciousness (see, for example, Kelly 2015). Some people have already attained this awareness, or have had at least glimpses of it, but for most of us it remains a great challenge because we tend to be more or less contracted in the small self, the superficial self, the ego, the false self. "To break through this false view is to be liberated from every sort of fear, pain, and anxiety" (Thich Nhat Hanh 1999). And this changes our behaviour. As we realize that everything is interconnected, we develop compassion because harming someone else means harming ourselves. For this reason, wisdom (of the interconnectedness) and compassion go hand in hand.
Western society and most other societies that have become infected by the West, appear highly cerebral, which means being stuck in the thinking mind, the ego. Institutions of higher learning have reinforced this stuckness since the founding of the first universities in the Middle Ages under the influence of the Church that propagated Aristotle’s rational bias. Of course, we have a mind that can be useful in many ways. But we also have a body and the body has profound wisdom, if it is not manipulated by the thinking mind (see, for example, Tolle 2004, Chapter 6). During the last century and even more in this century technology has been distancing us even more from our body (Harari 2018, Chapter 5). Hence, one challenge for the transcendence of the human condition is a rediscovery of the body and the realization that by going deeply into the body we can transcend the individual body as we experience our profound connection to the whole universe (see, for example, Blackstone 2008). It seems that Shamans have gained transcendence primarily through the body.
Kelly (2015) and others have devised exercises that allow us to glimpse our universal connection and to cultivate it. Ancient sages such as the Laozi and the Buddha taught this wisdom long ago. Contrary to Aristotle, we are not just a rational animal and we need not be exclusively caught in either/or logic that may also affect our emotions. Buddhist logic includes either/or, but added both/and as well as neither/nor, which transcends logic altogether. Jain logic envisages seven perspectives for each statement. Thus, in a way something is true, false, indescribable, etc. (see above). Such logic goes far beyond the strictures of either/or logic, but includes it as a limited perspective. Modern innovations that go far beyond Aristotelian logic include fuzzy logic and Korzybski's Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (see Appendix 1 of the Selections from Science and Sanity, 2010).
Through his Structural Differential, Korzybski also showed that ultimately we need to transcend reason and logic altogether because of their inherent limitations. Most intellectuals probably resist such transcendence because they derive their (limited) security from reason and logic. Using not only either/or logic but also Buddhist and Jain logic, logic itself could help them to transcend logic. And Korzybski's Structural Differential could help them to transcend the limitations of language and thought. Therefore, for intellectuals Buddhist and Jain logic as well as Korzybski's Structural Differential may be the easiest door to the indescribable, the unspeakable, the mysterious that may be revealed in silence which may transcend thought and language, all the opposition of ideas, emotions and body sensations (when enmeshed with ideas) that have divided us for millennia and have led to immeasurable conflict, violence, and bloodshed.
"In peace and silence you grow" (Sri Nisargadatta).
Having and cultivating good thoughts, although praiseworthy, is not yet transcendence of the human condition because good thoughts like bad thoughts arise and vanish, they change in our world of impermanence. Furthermore, good thoughts are opposed to bad thoughts and thus conflict and violence that has plagued humankind for millennia continues. Therefore, to transcend the human condition we have to go beyond all thought, good and bad, all emotions and body sensations as they are influenced and conditioned by thought. Laozi (Lao Tzu) understood that very well when he wrote in the second chapter of the Tao Te Ching: “When people see [think] some things as good, other things become bad… Therefore the Master acts without doing anything and teaches without saying anything” (translation by Stephen Mitchell, 1988). Such action and teaching goes beyond thought and hence beyond the human condition, beyond the ego, because it is in harmony with the universe.
"Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other doesn't make any sense" (Rumi)
One can distinguish different paths to transcendence such as the path of the shaman, the path of insight or understanding (leading to knowledge and wisdom) and the path of love or compassion. In Yoga the latter two paths are known as Jnana Yoga and Bhakti Yoga (devotional yoga). Wisdom such as the understanding of the interconnectedness of everything (referred to as emptiness in Buddhism) leads directly to love or compassion. If I am connected to you and to nature I will not harm you because you and I are one, nature and I are one. Love and compassion also entails oneness. The problem is that love can become easily corrupted and contaminated by ideas. Christians have tortured and killed others who would not subscribe to their idea of God and love. Is that love? Romantic lovers often tend to be "self-centred and self-indulgent. Even as the romantic lover worships his beloved, he only worships himself" (Feuerbach 2006, p. 51). Nonetheless, love and compassion have at least the potential to lead to a transcendence of the human condition, partial as it may be. As I see it, love and compassion need to be anchored in wisdom to avoid the risk of corruption and contamination by ideas.
The arts may create awareness of the human condition and may also play a role in its transcendence. For example, listening to Beethoven's 9th symphony and other great works of art may lead us beyond the human condition at least temporarily.
Besides pleasure and joy, there is much suffering in this world. Understanding suffering appears crucial for the transcendence of the human condition. Why do we suffer? According to the Buddha, we suffer because of craving (neediness) and aversion (rejection). Life is tough. We often don't get what we want or what we think we need, and often we get what we don't want and thus we suffer. However, if we can learn to accept things as they are, we can be in peace. Accepting things as they are is often seen as resignation. However, resisting what has already happened doesn't change what has happened. It just makes us suffer. Therefore, Radical Acceptance (Brach 2003) can help us to transcend suffering and the human condition. "Radical" means at the roots. Brach (2003) and many other meditation teachers, psychotherapists, and sages provide help and advice how to achieve a radical acceptance. "When we bring Radical Acceptance to the enormity of desire [and aversion], allowing it to be as it is, neither resisting it nor grasping after it, the light of our awareness dissolves the wanting self into the source [the infinity of the source]" (Brach 2003, p. 154). Then desires, cravings and aversions, appear just like ripples on the enormous ocean of being (see also Foster 2012).
Note that accepting what is does not mean that we should not work for a better future. We can influence the future but we cannot change the past. We can alleviate suffering in the present, especially physical pain, to some extent through medical interference and other means. However, it seems unlikely that we can eliminate all suffering, especially psychological suffering. As far as I know, the Buddha addressed himself especially to psychological suffering. He did not advocate denial or suppression of suffering. Suffering is recognized, but we do not identify with it because we are infinitely more than our suffering. Thus we can deal with our suffering in a detached way and thereby transcend it.
We share with chimpanzees joy and distress, pleasure and suffering, and other deep-rooted emotions. But because of thought, language, science and technology the magnitude of suffering in humans may far surpasses that of chimpanzees. We can inflict enormous pain to ourselves and others. But deep insight can help us to transcend suffering at least to some extent or altogether. Can chimpanzees also have such insight?
According to Shinzen Young (2016, pp. 61-63), so-called primitive peoples in native cultures probably attained transcendence more easily than most modern people. "Whereas modern people struggle for years with the complexities of their wandering thoughts, native peoples could, by and large, become quite one-pointed after drumming or singing for hours. So the simplicity of daily life would tend to make it easy for people to enter samadhi. Indeed , we could say that the formal meditation techniques used by people in postliterate civilizations are just a systematic way of doing what our remote ancestors did relatively naturally every day" (Shinzen Young 2016, p. 62). Thus,
transcendence of the human condition may have been much more common among our remote ancestors than for us today. Joseph Campbell in the Power of Myth (1988) pointed out how native peoples through myth and ritual led by shamans could blissfully enter the mystery of existence. However, a problem with myth and ritual is that people may not see it as a means of transcendence but instead get more or less stuck in it (what Campbell (1990, 96) calls concretization). Then myth and ritual become a hindrance instead of a doorway into the mystery of existence. Fortunately, the mystery of existence can also be gleaned and realized directly without myth and ritual through aware breathing, laughter, penetrating insight, and many other ways (see, for example, Katie (2002) Brach 2003, Tolle 2004, Blackstone 2008, Osho 2010, Kelly 2015).
Transcendence in a Nutshell
We are not our thoughts, emotions, and body sensations (feelings). We are like the infinity of the sky in which thoughts, emotions, and feelings arise and vanish like transient clouds. If we are attached to and identified with these transient clouds (thoughts, emotions, and feelings), we become caught in the human condition, which means being conditioned by thoughts that may also influence emotions and feelings. However, if we remain anchored in infinity, in which thoughts, emotions, and feelings arise and vanish, we gain freedom (see Kelly (2015) Shift into Freedom).
In other words, transcendence happens when instead of exclusively identifying with something, we identify with no-thing, no-thingness, boundlessness and recognize things and events as abstractions from this boundlessness.
Become no-thing and you will be all.
Transcendence in One Phrase
"We are here to awaken from the illusion of separateness" (Thich Nhat Hanh).
Transcendence of the human condition leads to a profound happiness, a state that is beyond ordinary happiness and unhappiness. In contrast, being in bondage of the human condition can provide at best temporary happiness that sooner or later vanishes and turns into unhappiness. Thus, we are temporarily happy if our desires are fulfilled, if we obtain what we want and if we can avoid what we don't want. However, in a world of impermanence sooner or later we may lose what we treasure and be confronted with what we try to avoid. For example, we may lose our good health or we may lose our lover and we may be threatened or attacked by a malicious person. Thus, if our happiness is based on external circumstances that are beyond our control, it may be more or less short-lived or impermanent as external circumstances are impermanent. This means that as long as for our happiness we depend on external circumstances it cannot last. In other words, no object or person can give lasting happiness. Lasting happiness can only come from within us. As we gain peace and acceptance, we may attain to this profound happiness. It need not exclude the temporary happiness that is based on the fulfillment of desire and avoidance because if we accept the transitoriness of temporary happiness it may lead to the profound happiness that transcends attachment (clinging) and aversion (see Chopra 2009).
Thus, we could say that transcending the human condition entails profound happiness (that is independent of conditions) or, in other words, it entails a state beyond (ordinary) happiness and unhappiness.
The Future of Humanity
So far transcendence of the human condition has been limited to few people. Unless transcendence of the human condition would be widely taught and practiced in schools and universities, this seems unlikely to change. However, if research in neuroscience will produce technologies that would facilitate transcendence of the human condition, this would make transcendence of the human condition possible for a greater segment of society, provided that people would use such technologies. The Dalai Lama and other spiritual teachers have expressed interest in the development of such technologies (see, for example, Goleman and Davidson 2017). In his book The Science of Enlightenment, Shinzen Young (2016, Chapter 11) called it "My Happiest Thought."
However, science and technology also progress in another direction. The development of artificial intelligence (AI) will produce computers and robots that will replace workers in many professions. This will lead to a "useless class" (Harari 2017, pp. 370 - 382) and an upper class whose members will still retain their profession and, using AI and biotechnology, may manipulate the "useless class." Thus, "just as Big Data algorithms [of AI] might extinguish liberty [of the "useless class"], they might simultaneously create the most unequal societies that ever existed (Harari 2018, p. 72). Furthermore, "what we should worry about most is the shift in authority from humans to algorithms, which might … open the way to the rise of digital dictatorships" (Harari 2018, p. 43). And as computers and robots will become super intelligent, eventually we all may become enslaved by computers and robots (as we have domesticated and enslaved animals). Therefore, as I pointed out above, Hawking and other scientists have warned that "AI could spell end of the human race." However, before this happens, we might become extinguished through nuclear war. Engaging in a global nuclear war would be sheer stupidity, but, as Harari (2018, p. 182) pointed out: "Human stupidity is one of the most important forces in history."
In general, the survival of the human species appears threatened by several forces such as the following:
1. The strong power drive that we share with chimpanzees, which tends to lead to a Yin/Yang imbalance (too much Yang).
2. As a result of this power drive, rampant capitalism that may lead to the destruction of our environment.
3. Aristotelian logic that is based on identity and either/or thinking, which leads to a distorted view of reality, intolerance, conflict and war.
4. Technology (including AI) that threatens the natural balance.
To overcome these threats we will need a healthy balance of Yin and Yang instead of the Yang predominance that exaggerates the power drive. We will need a wiser use of technology and a more encompassing logic that also recognizes fuzziness (continuum), both/and (complementarity), and neither/nor that leads to the unnamable mystery in which we can all be united so that we will end the story of separation.
The human condition has been characterized in different complementary ways. According to Tolle (2004), the human condition is being lost in thought. And we could add, thought that is reinforced by language and reflected in emotions and feelings (body sensations). Transcendence then requires an awareness that we are lost in thought, which then can induce us to avoid being lost.
According to Hutchins (2014), the human condition results from the illusion of separation. Transcendence then means ending this illusion. As Eisenstein (2013) put it, "ending the story of separation."
Enlightened shamans, the Laozi (Lao Tzu), the Buddha, and other sages in the East and West have demonstrated that humans can transcend the human condition, that they have the potential to be free from conditioning. But the vast majority of humans seem to be more or less conditioned, which may lead to unhappiness, conflict, violence, and war. I see three major roots of the conditioning: our animal ancestry, thought, and language, that is, an overemphasis and identification with words (language) and ideas (reason coupled with either/or logic). Like chimpanzees, we have the instinctual propensities to be egocentric, power hungry, hierarchical, competitive, territorial, xenophobic, and to engage in violence and deadly warfare. These propensities can become expressed and exaggerated through identification with thought and language, which also influence emotions. Identification leads to an imprisonment in ideas and ways of thinking. In the West, identification with ideas and their verbal representation stems to a great extent from a common interpretation of Plato's philosophy and Aristotle's logic of identity and either/or that have had an enormous influence on humanity up to the present time. Aristotle characterized the human being as a rational animal. Plato, according to a common interpretation, took ideas as ultimate reality. Henceforth, we have become enslaved in ideas and the battle between more or less contradictory ideas: one or the other, according to Aristotelian either/or logic. This logic and the common interpretation of Platonism have infected almost the whole world, and similar ideas may also have arisen independently elsewhere. Wars have been fought in the name of ideas, and science and technology have made possible the utmost cruelty that immensely surpasses the cruelty known in chimpanzees.
Besides the traits mentioned above, chimpanzees are also capable of cooperation, reciprocal and genuine altruism, empathy, and compassion. In other words, they may act selflessly, but they oscillate between selfless and selfish behaviours. Similarly, humans may oscillate between such types of behaviour. But in contrast to chimpanzees, human behaviour does not only oscillate, it also appears conflicted in several respects. Thus, we may experience conflicts between selfish and selfless behaviour. We may experience conflicts between more or less contradictory ideas and conflict between different ways of reasoning. And we may experience conflicts between ideas, emotions, and feelings, the thinking mind, the heart and the gut. All of these conflicts, which are part of the human condition, may be transcended through deep insight and spiritual transformation. Thus, we may understand that ideas expressed through words and language represent only maps of reality; and maps are not reality, maps are not the territory of reality, as Korzybski has so convincingly demonstrated through his Structural Differential. Reality remains unnamable or unspeakable as Korzybski put it. And as Wittgenstein concluded his Tractatus Philosophicus, "whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." The Laozi, the Buddha and other sages in the East and West came to the same conclusion. Reason and language, including mathematics (a form of language), that were so much extolled by Plato and Aristotle, although useful, can capture at best some aspects of reality, not reality itself. Therefore, "whatever you might say something “is”, it is not” (Korzybski 1958, p. 409; see also Falconar 2000, Kodish and Kodish 2011). Furthermore, as pointed out in the Heart Sutra, everything is empty (boundless), which means that no thing has an intrinsic separate existence. Yet so often we separate and identify with one thing, one body sensation, one emotion, or one idea, and thus lose the connection to the unnamable whole that is beyond all fragmentation that is so characteristic of the human condition. Therefore, Bhagavan (quoted in Ardagh 2007), considered separation (fragmentation) the root cause of all human problems, especially if we identify with the fragments we have created. And Eckhart Tolle concluded: “Since fragmentation and identification are rooted in thought, he human condition is being lost in thought,” which means being unaware of the deeper self that is connected to the whole universe. Since thought influences emotions, being lost in thought also means being lost in emotions such as desire and fear.
It has been pointed out that the desire of power and domination as it manifests in aggression, violence and war may be related to fear (see, for example, Forest 2016: The Root of War is Fear). Mooji said that desire and fear rule the world. How can we deal with desire and fear (and other deep seated emotions such as anger, pride, jealousy, and denial)? Besides psychotherapy, various types of meditation such as, for example, mindfulness meditation can be helpful in overcoming these widespread afflictions (see Mindfulness Meditation at the end of Chapter 2 and other types of meditations at the end of the other chapters of this book on Wholeness, Fragmentation, and the Unnamable). In The Book of Secrets, Osho (2010) described and commented on 112 meditation techniques. Tolle (2004) and Kelly (2015) also offered exercises that allow us to glimpse the infinite spaciousness and freedom that lies beyond thought. Mooji gave us one exercise that provides all the help we need, which is an invitation to freedom.
Eventually our whole life may become a meditation, which means that in each instant we will be aware of the interconnectedness of everything, which means that there are no separate things: no-thingness, including our own existence. Unfortunately, so far such general awareness seems restricted to a very small minority of the population. Thus, a general transcendence of the human condition appears restricted to only few people (although glimpses of transcendence or a partial transcendence may be more common). But this might change in the future if scientists, especially neuroscientists, will be able to "develop a technology of enlightenment - a science-based intervention powerful enough to make enlightenment readily available to the majority of humanity" (Shinzen Young 2016, p. 2006). If this dream could be realized, the majority of humans could transcend the human condition and this would lead to a profound transformation of society. However, so far the use of technology such as electronic algorithms points in another direction: the development of biological engineering, cyborgs (a combination of humans and inorganic parts), and super intelligent computers and robots (artificial intelligence) that eventually may enslave us and thus lead to "The End of Homo Sapiens" (Harari 2016, Chapter 20), a Data Religion or Dataism (Harari 2017, Chapter 11) in which life (if we still want to call it life) will be reduced to data-processing (see Harari: Will the Future be Human?)
Thus the desire of growth (growth fetishism of capitalism), power and domination, which is part of the human condition, may eventually lead to our demise. Desire means desiring something and desiring something else not to be (in Buddhist terms: grasping (attachment) and aversion). Even apart from biological necessities such as food and water, many might argue that it is impossible to live without desire. But one may be enslaved in it or playful with it. Rajneesh (1984: 329-333) pointed out that the problem is not desire as an energy but desire of objects. Since no object can completely fulfill our desire but rather stifle it as it changes, it seems wiser to focus on the energy of desire instead on its object. This energy connects us to universal energy, and thus objectless desire may be the doorway to infinity beyond space and time and the thinking mind, beyond ideas and the names attached to them.
In short, the human condition can be transcended through the recognition that we need not be locked into identification with body sensations, emotions and thoughts, into desire of objects, name (words), and form (ideas). We may also dwell in infinity and eternity as children of the universe, realizing that "each moment is the universe" (Katagiri Roshi 2007).
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Latest update on May 23, 2020.