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The Human Abstract

Quicksand, Meritocracy, and David Axelrod

What seems to be missing from the conversations and barrage of news stories, infographics, videos, podcasts, and opinion pieces is a willful act of breaking down barriers of separateness. Instead we have to individually and collectively make effort, in the spirit of generosity and collaboration, through acknowledging our common desire to know and understand ourselves and our surroundings, but also acting beyond the desire to be right. We cannot welcome those we disagree with, or do not understand, by blaming or shaming them. Likewise we cannot build collective good will and collective motivation for healing action by further separating ourselves along ideological, political, or conceptual differences. We are like a band of travelers, parched and weary, and in a pit of quicksand. There are some of us close to solid ground, some of us in the midst of great peril, some of us observing from relative safety, and some of us not yet aware of the situation we are really in. Shouting, name-calling, finger pointing, bickering, and trying to pick apart the grains of sand or denying it will not resolve the situation we find ourselves in.

We all have varying degrees of awareness of what our personal and collective life-conditions are and what the lives of others might be like. There are also real challenges to applying discernment to determine whether something is true or not; not every brain processes information the same way. This is why compassion is so important. Exercising our innate capacity to reach our awareness beyond our immediate circumstances, to assess what the subjective experience is like amidst the greater context of time and space around us, we are capable of so much potent and constructive action. Bound up in the tight husk of opinion, rhetoric, and self-constructed emotional reasoning we fail to see our impact and the impact of others on us. Nothing in this cosmos, including ourselves, happens in isolation. Everything exists as part of a chain of indescribable and incomprehensible relationships linked by causality and woven together through some invisible thread.

We are expressions of those cosmic causal relationships, but often forget our place within the larger context of being. Our ordinary way of experiencing life convinces us we are the "do-er," and our actions, thoughts, feelings, and perceptions all revolve around a solid "I am" identity. The sense of who we are, and what we are "doing" is our ordinary point of reference, and it is hard to understand who we might be without the habitual framework we use to orient to life. Unfortunately as a result, we have implicitly adopted a meritocratic value system. The idea that what we experience is a product of our own efforts, whether that is joy or prosperity, or suffering and poverty. The belief in meritocracy is incredibly harmful for practical, social, and material concerns. Likewise that attitude carries over into "spiritual" circles where notions of being in "alignment," which implies the understanding that one is directly responsible through their own actions for the physical, emotional, or spiritual conditions of their lived experience. This is absolutely misleading and potentially dangerous for a variety of reasons. In short, if we took a step back from that line of reasoning, the story about why and how things are the way they are might look less solid, and much more fluid.

We intuitively understand the comforts and resources of this world are not fairly distributed among folks in this world, through no direct action of their own. Whether there are deeper reasons behind why things are the way they are is of no concern to us, because all we can know about our own experience is what our current conditions are telling us. There are a lot of unknowns in this vast cosmos that make it nearly impossible to tell what "alignment" really is, or whether we have any capacity to interact with the cosmos in a way that is outside the order of what is already taking place. Perhaps things happen through us, not to us, because at the heart of our being there is no solid "I," only emptiness, or the cosmos itself in the temporary form of a human, a star, a cockroach, or a virus. All of the inner workings of the cosmos are happening beyond any concepts that we can create with our minds.

The beautiful thing about the cosmos living through us, is that we have the opportunity to be aware of these principles, and can observe the harmony and order of things as it happens.It is, therefore, our personal and collective responsibility to address the present conditions, with compassion and equity in mind, in order to create a more easeful and peaceful world for the future. This means recognizing the diverse perspectives and conditions arising in life beyond the choices of one individual. We are all a product of billions of years of biological and social history, and we are all impacted by the choices of our collective ancestors. Whether they were born in one part of the world or another, they are subject to the conditions of their own personal and collective history. We are alive here and now, and can work to promote shared values that help us remember what is common to us all. The way we can promote dignity and equity in our world is through living those values. Practice starts with what goes into and comes out of our mouths, as Sri Dharma often says. If we look at the impact of our lifestyle, we can see whether we are creating more separateness or more cooperation and openness. We can see if we are contributing to violence or suffering in the world with what we eat, wear, watch, say, do, and even think. The smallest changes we make in our own lives add up, and have long lasting implications that we may never know or understand.

That's a lot of words, so here's an instrumental song that is rich and beautiful and touches into what the words can't reach: "The Human Abstract," by David Axelrod.


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