The Tide Pool of Selfishness

Watching Donald Trump serve as president brings up a memory from my elementary school years. The Cub Scout pack took a field trip down to the tide pools in Palos Verdes. I spent the day picking my way through the kelp-coated rocks, amazed by what I was seeing, until one of my school chums said: “Hey Brian, come see this! These kids have found some crabs!”

Excited, I rushed over, hearing raucous laughter, to be confronted by the sound of a crab being crushed against the rock under an older boy’s boot.

The principal characteristic of a stable democracy – often the only thing that prevents it from devolving to fascism – is the existence of a robust and independent justice system. The lack of such a system is what has allowed Putin to make himself the richest man in the world while running Russia. Again and again, his political enemies have languished in jail while the courts transfer their assets to Putin and his cronies.

Watching Trump dismantle our federal justice system is terrifying to me. The onslaught of court cases brought against Trump since the inauguration demonstrate the dangers of letting a narcissistic fraudster into office, and that many of them involve foreign financial dealings means that they are brought in federal court. Trump’s political and financial interests are aligned to the end of destroying the system.

In my mind, that Republican legislators green-light the demolition only builds greater certainty that they’ve got something to hide. Perhaps Republican campaign operatives are linked to the weaponization of the data stolen from the DNC by the Russians?

I was back in Palos Verdes a few years ago. The abused tide pools now are barren rock.

Warriors and Healers

In The Soul Comes First, I interpret the Bible as the story of the investment made by unconditional love to organize matter with the goal of allowing spirit to purge itself of selfishness. That process is manifested in all of the physical processes of this reality, spanning history from stellar evolution to the knowledge economy.

The apparent contradiction is that these processes appear superficially to reward selfishness. The most impressive lights in the sky are the giant stars. It is the massive dinosaurs that capture our attention as the pinnacle of pre-human history. And civilizations are recognized for the geographical extent that allows them to acquire resources to support promotion of their culture, with limited weight given to the degree to which the benefits of power were distributed to the common citizen.

The antidote to selfishness is rapid energetic collapse. The stellar giant, in a fraction of the time allotted to its lesser peers, exhausts its nuclear fuel and collapses, ejecting its hoarded mass in a supernova that populates the heavens with heavy elements that become the seeds of planets. While the dinosaurs (and other giant life-forms) are prolific consumers of biomass, the biophysics of large life-forms ensures that they are vulnerable to ecological stresses, among which include the global effects of asteroid impacts and ash spewed from volcanic vents. In human history, great civilizations collapse when vulnerable urban populations face the collapse of agricultural and energy supplies, whether due to the accumulation of clay on irrigated land, loss of soil following destruction of natural flora, or the burning of energy stored in biomass faster than the rate of replenishment.

Humanity has been granted two great boons that allow it the opportunity to escape this course. The first is the mammalian amygdala, which includes among its affects social bonding that causes us to mourn the loss of our intimates. The second is the intelligence that allows us to understand causation, and thus to manage our lives to minimize painful experiences, extending to the loss of our intimates.

In The Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin posits the possibility of a transition from predatory consumption to empathic sustainability. Rifkin catalogs the technological capabilities that make the latter possible: global information systems that expand the geographical reach of our intimacy, materials science and engineering that will allow us to tap into reusable sources of energy, and modelling methods that will allow us to design economic systems that are sustainable given the known limits of raw material supplies.

In my experience, the manifestation of that potential collides in the tension between the warrior and the healer. As I explain below, these are behaviors that both support the transition to sustainability but that often contradict each other’s expression.

In the early stages of cultural development, the natural context is dominated by predators. Survival of a species lacking either prolific breeding or natural armaments requires tools that can be used to defend against predation. Naturally, these same tools, sufficient to protect against species that survive by destruction of weaker animals, empower the wielders to become predators themselves. As technology advances, the destructiveness of weapons makes organization of their deployment a source of social power. There is no great civilization in human history whose origins cannot be traced either to a monopoly on weapons technology or to superior military organization.

The warrior culture is a domestication of the primitive predatory impulse with the goal of protecting access to the resources required to sustain civilization. A true manifestation of this culture dates only to the Cold War era, when military planners in the West realized that generalized conflict, always guaranteed to produce a loser, no longer even produced a winner. Furthermore, the complexity of modern weapons systems ensures that maintaining and deploying military dominance requires the involvement of a citizenry firmly committed to the survival of the society. In fact, while the warrior is often the recipient of sophisticated training in the use of destructive force, they rarely possess the intellectual skills to design and manufacture modern weapons. Thus the Cold War was not just a struggle over the efficacy of planned vs. liberal economies. It was also proof that in the modern military-industrial economies, nations that turn military force against their citizens (tyrannies) cannot compete with nations that cultivate a warrior class.

The problem with this social contract is that it preserves our focus on the dominant threat to the stability of civilizations – homo sapiens sapiens itself. It simply ensures that our predatory impulses remain focused on those parts of the ecosystem that lack political representation. Thus, while Europe responds to Russian adventurism in Georgia and the Ukraine by seeking alternative supplies of fossil fuel, still the world failed to control effectively carbon dioxide emissions that some predicted (as far back as 1950) would undermine ecological sustainability all across the globe (much as did the asteroid that triggered the extinction of the dinosaurs). Even now, most of the larger wild species have been decimated, being replaced by domesticated herds.

As a result, we are faced with a future that is going to require extensive investment in healing of broken ecologies. This requires another huge leap in human culture. The psychological force that motivates the healer is empathy, or compassion.

Working ecosystems are enormously complex. The biogeneticists struggle even to control the metabolism of the cyanobacteria in flooded iron mines. The biochemistry that leads to cyanide production has a multitude of pathways – remove one protein catalyst and another pathway springs up in its place. The only means of control appears to be annihilation – make the environment so poisonous that even bacteria cannot survive. But that would be to introduce poisons to the environment worse even than cyanide.

Given this overwhelming Rube-Goldbergesque complexity, accreted through billenia of random trial and error, the only means of assessing the wellness of an ecosystem is to engage spiritually with a sense of its workingness.

The fundamental disconnect is that, while western economies proclaim the domestication of war, the forces that drive conflict – scarcity of resources that make the daily lives of most humans a desperate search for basic necessities – have not been resolved. Desperate people adopt predatory behaviors, stealing sustenance from one another, and the surviving communities celebrate the strength of the predator. This is visible in Russian idolization of Vladimir Putin, and in lionization of third-world potentates all across the globe.

In the framework that I have defined, we cannot escape the reality that the workingness of the ecosystems that sustain human life are irretrievably broken. This spawns predators, which the warriors of the West beat down in order to secure access to resources needed to sustain our unstable societies. But the healer recognizes that the problem is one of sustainability, and the only way to ensure peace, over the long term, is either to annihilate the exploited populations (a la the Third Reich) or provide them the resources to create a sustainable society.

Of course, the warrior looks at the latter proposal and says: “But we just finished destroying this threat, and now you want to go and stand them on their feet and give them the power to attack us again? Do you understand how many of us have surrendered our futures to protecting you? And you want to do what?”

And of course the healer says: “But have you been to see these people? How can you ignore their suffering?”

In America, to this point the warriors have been given priority. The era since the Vietnam War has seen a steady erosion of the influence of the Department of State in deference to the Department of Defense. This slide was reversed only recently by the Obama Administration. There is some justification for allowing the leaders of those sacrificed in military conflict to control the adventurism of inexperienced civilians. While Muslim extremists make much of the revelation that the Bush Administration asked military planners to chart the conquest of the tyrannies of the Middle East from Iran to Libya, my understanding is that the carefully couched response was, in effect, “Are your out of your fucking minds?!?”

While I celebrate the ascendancy of economic containment over military conflict, I attend still the creation of institutions that extend that practice to cultures that exploit ecosystems. It is only then that healers will have the opportunity to address the root cause of predatory behavior, and thereby justify the reallocation of resources from military competition to cultural development. Predation is not the only urge that destabilizes ecosystems – so too does procreation. It is only when the vast majority of humanity has the psychological strength to subject all such urges to rational control will the ultimate goal of global sustainability be secured, and the healers be able to succeed in their essential work.

Until then, warriors, please recognize that it is for your children that healers assume these risks. And healers, recognizes that the warrior’s anxiety has a rational basis.

Can ‘We’ Be Selfish?

I need to try this argument out, because I am being driven crazy by a pattern that has developed in my conversations with rational people.

The pattern is, when arguing about morality, to observe that I identify specific benefits to myself of caring for others. Those rewards (such as joy, a sense of purpose, and spiritual strength) are interpreted as evidence that I am simply being selfish like everyone else.

There are two points to be made here. The first is to assert the definition of selfishness. From, we have:

lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure

In other words, to be selfish is to disregard the effects of our choices on others. When we are selfish, the survival and rights of others are of no consideration when we set out to acquire resources or satisfy our bliss. In fact, that lack of consideration is an important psychological element in preparing us to destroy others in the service of our self-interest.

The lie of selfishness is that acquisition of power and pleasure makes us better prepared to survive. Raw power can serve any purpose, but requires skill in the wielder. If we focus only on power, we never learn to channel it in acts of creation, because to create is to consume power. We are required either to share our power with those that have learned to create, or fall into the terrible abyss of acquiring resources through the destruction of the people that hold them. The latter course ultimately renders us powerless, because without people we have no means of converting the resources that we have accumulated into value.

The second point is that of the three benefits of caring for others, joy and purpose are entirely subjective. Only spiritual strength is a resource to overcome life’s challenges. But spiritual strength arises as a projection from those we serve. It is to assert “Yes, I want this person in the world.” That good will follows us around like a cloud, and pushes against the will of those that seek to harm us.

As that description makes clear, spiritual power is contingent upon our continued commitment to consider the well-being of those that affirm us. It is to assert reciprocally “Yes, I want this person in the world.” It is to surrender some of our spiritual power to them.

The proposition of “We” is that the individuals in mutually supportive communities enhance their odds of survival by distributing power. In that state, the selfish have no particular reason to target any particular individual, yet when we face difficulties we have the pool of distributed resources to draw upon. And when resources are plenty, our creative efforts are amplified by the inspiration of others.

Of course, there are no guarantees. What happens when the challenges facing the community overwhelm its resources? Who is going to survive? To the loving person, facing the loss of all that they hold most dear, the response is simply “Who would want to?”

The promise of religion, of course, is that surrendering the flesh under those circumstances opens the gates to a far better reality. The power we store in things is lost when we die. The power conserved in our spiritual relationships endures.

Why do we feel driven to believe that acting in our self-interest is selfishness? I think that rather the opposite is true: we have been so indoctrinated to believe that “greed is good” that we simply cannot accept that selfishness (the belief that only “I” have any meaning) is just a really stupid idea. Our self-interest is in nurturing a caring community. It is to submit the needs of the “I” to the “we.”

Running on Empty

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised – after all, how many people testify that they turned to spiritual practice because they wanted to share the secrets of their material success and psychological balance. No, even if, as Siddhartha and Jesus did, they seek after solutions for others, most seekers after inner truth do so because they find the world to be unsatisfactory. So most spiritual paths start by attacking that which is considered to be most wrong.

In the case of Buddhism, that process beings with deprogramming. The seeker turns inwards and attempts to break the association between her experience of the present moment and its interpretation by the mind. The goal is to understand the operation of the mind, and to correct its programming so that we can construct more successfully our lives.

As Ethan Nichtern describes this process in “The Road Home”, the currency of the successful life is bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is that ephemeral awareness that human nature is constructed to empower our well-being. All the tools are available to us, if we only apply ourselves to learning the craft of living well.

Nichtern does not expose the contradiction of that process: in order to live well, we must murder our dissatisfied self. Our resolve is fortified by applying the law of cause-and-effect to the history of our lives. When we recognize the connection between our misunderstanding and our dissatisfaction, it becomes clear that we should modify our understanding. While the impact of that change is healing of our relationship with the world, that takes time to manifest. Immediately, the change is in fact a form of self-murder.

I experienced this a number of times in my first year in college. As I expanded my awareness of the world of the intellect, I had dreams of my old self dissolving into this greater realm. That old self wasn’t a bad self, and it inhabited a world that I was comfortable navigating. I knew that I couldn’t go back, and so with growth came mourning for the self that had died.

When she has severed the sense of self from the process of forming judgments about the world, the Buddhist seeker is prepared for a journey into emptiness. Nichtern cautions clearly that this is not to surrender a search for meaning. Rather, it is to recognize that the self – our personal experience – is not the entire measure of meaning.

Nichtern illustrates the problem with a parable of the irritating mother-in-law. Rising from the mat, the meditator considers with satisfaction the clarity of mind that he has attained. Then the phone rings, and mother-in-law demands an audience. Equanimity is replaced with dread and anger.

The wisdom of all great spiritual teachings is that it doesn’t help to project our ill-feeling back on the trigger. That simply reinforces the pattern – obviously they find us irritating as well. Instead, we have to learn to project equanimity into our relationships, both beneficial and hostile. When the latter overwhelm us, we should seek separation.

As Nichtern documents, the Buddhist concept of emptiness has a complex lineage. I also find it to be subtle, almost to opacity. He eventually resorts to a metaphor: the ego is like a cocoon, protected in the shell of hardened ideas, but seeking from deep within to transform into a liberated soul. To become empty is to break out of our cocoon. Our experience becomes “empty” because we are no longer bound by the constraints of the cocoon. To be “empty” is to be free.

But free for what? Nichtern asserts that the Buddhist practitioner, recognizing the interdependence between her well-being and the well-being of others, is motivated to seek after healing for the world as a whole. This is a freedom to, rather than the ideal of freedom from which is so popular in America and expressed to magnificently by W.C. Fields with the comedic line, “Go away kid. You’re botherin’ me.”

Put in this context, I find it valuable to make the leap to a more accessible characterization of the dysfunction addressed by Buddhist practice: quite simply, it is selfishness. When embarking in her practice, the acolyte must learn to surrender the protective cocoon that defines her hostile experience. For her own good, that self must be relinquished, allowing her to emerge into constructive engagement with the world. That engagement necessarily involves relationships, and Buddhism offers that wisdom that attaining healthy relationships requires that we not impose our experience on others. We must seek instead to improve our experience.

In Christian practice, selfishness is recognized as the antidyne of unconditional love. In the material world, selfishness manifests most powerfully as predation — the tendency to say “I don’t care how much effort was required to make this. I don’t care how much it will hurt to lose it. I want it, and I’m going to take it.” In the spiritual realm, selfishness desires nothing but itself, and so is arid, producing nothing of value except by coopting the virtues (interesting, then, that Jesus went into the desert to confront Satan).

When the Christian surrenders to the strength of unconditional love, they conquer selfishness. That condition is characterized, not as emptiness, but as peace, arising from the same source as does Buddhist bodhichitta: the realization that reality is organized to bring us into a life that is both satisfying and rich.