The New Story
“The deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments of change when the story becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of a present situation.”
Why do we need a new story?
The explosive growth of scientific thought that began in the West with the Renaissance and ultimately led to industrialism on a global scale, has brought humanity many benefits, but at a mounting cost. The problems that seem to be rising on every side today, from personal to environmental, can largely be traced to an increasing lack of clarity about ourselves — who we are, why we are here, and how we are to relate, ideally, to one another and the natural world. The “story” that accompanies industrialism and has made it possible – the underlying narrative that’s implicit in our textbooks, newspapers, and films – has it that we are material entities compelled to seek satisfaction in the consumption of increasingly scarce resources. If this were true, competition and violence, along with the destruction of the life-support system of our planet, would be inescapable. Happily, it is not.
A shift in emphasis across many fields of modern science, facilitated by the remarkable breakthroughs in physics at the start of the last century, has brought to light a far more encouraging picture of human nature and the inspiring possibility of a meaning in our lives and destiny that was alien to the mechanistic, reductionist world-picture of what is now called “classical science”. In this vivid picture, violence, for example, is not inherent in human nature, or nature itself. Competition, alienation, and greed can, at least in principle, be put behind us. This is of course an appealing, not to say startling vision; but it is not a new one. Nor is the image of human nature being conveyed by these new findings ultimately startling or unfamiliar. Its recent re-emergence has felt (for those aware of the shift) like recovering something precious that had almost, due to some kind of strange inattention, slipped from our grasp.
The essence of this new – or rather, recently recovered story, is that we can now confidently maintain that we are not just disenchanted bodies (despite the unvarying clamor of the mass media on this point) but something much more. We are also, and in fact primarily, spirit. “Body, mind, and spirit” has been a kind of rallying cry of those welcoming the recovered vision. And today we can bear witness to that vision with not only humanity’s wisdom traditions, but also a growing section of the scientific community behind us. This is no mere academic adventure. As one writer recently put it, “you don’t counter a myth with a pile of facts and statistics. You have to counter it with a more powerful story.”
Even as the essence of the prevailing industrial story is its tale of alienation – from one another, from nature, from our own deepest cry for meaning and capacity – the promise of the new one is Belonging. We tell it this way:
As great as the infinite space beyond is the space within the lotus of the heart.
Since…transformative change is a matter of when (not if), the real question becomes whether such change will be smooth or catastrophic. This question is apropos for our own time. Pressure is building, and “stuckness” is everywhere (think of education).
–(Sally Goerner, “Creativity, Consciousness, and the Building of an Integral World,” 153-180)
Despite appearances, we are passing through a time of great possibility. Yes, problems are mounting; yes, the institutions we might have expected to deal with them seem to be paralyzed and the people at large not yet mobilized to deal with problems of this magnitude: global overheating, wars, an income gap and global poverty creating misery for countless millions.
But this can also be the occasion for a great renewal, if we understand what’s ultimately wrong, and how to address it. What we are really passing through is a spiritual crisis. Somewhere along the line we have forgotten who we are and what we are meant to do here on this earth.
The sages of all nations and religions have said that we are not these mere bodies, marvelous as they are: we are, to use one simple formulation; body, mind, and spirit. A modern teacher (he visited the U.S. in the 1950s) gave us this inspiring picture, from the depths of his own realization, of human nature and its destiny:
On the physical plane man [sic] is but an animal. On the intellectual plane (s)he is a rational being. On the moral plane (s)he is a power for good. On the spiritual plane (s)he is a radiant being full of divine light, love, and bliss. Humanity’s ascent from one plane to another is its natural movement.
This, of course, brings us closer together and eventually to the realization of our oneness: while our bodies are separate, our minds can resonate harmonically, and on what he calls the “spiritual plane” we are simply one: as other sages say, pure consciousness. Our “natural movement” is from separateness to unity. We are indeed “stuck,” as Sally Goerner says, somewhere far short of this picture, and this is why we are lurching from crisis to crisis with very few people even looking for a way to break free from this “stuck” place and launch new possibilities.
Happily, we are not alone. Scientists, artists, people of faith, and many others —people from every walk of life—are already looking for a “new story” of human possibilities, beyond the narrative that has lead to so much materialism, greed and violence. When they do — when we do, we hear the voices of countless ancestors who have already seen this truth, who have lived in accordance with its wisdom and left us the legacy of their perennial vision. So when we speak of the “new” story–the story of belonging–we are really speaking of a new language to express the same truths that have sustained humanity for millennia.
What’s different now, and extremely helpful, is the way science and ancient wisdom — what Aldous Huxley called “the Perennial Philosophy”—are converging. “Science” is in principle a system of understanding observable patterns not only in the physical world, which is how we have understood and practiced it now for several centuries, but also in the non-material world, or inner world of our own experiences. We therefore now have powerful affirmation from two inquiring systems, two dimensions of science, if you will, that have seemed to be in conflict. Will you go with “faith” or “reason”? Now these two approaches can be seen as complementary. There is an appropriate role for faith and reason in both sciences, whether we apply them to the outer world or the world within. Both are necessary. Between them they tell a compelling story:
- while the human body may have reached an endpoint of its evolution, our social evolution, not to mention our mind and emotions, can still go forward. As physiologist Robert Livingston has put it, “our cognitive capacities have not begun to reach any known limitation.”
- we are not ultimately determined by our genes, hormones, or nervous system but have a considerable, often unexplored power to determine our own destiny.
- quantum physics in its way, and the science of ecology in another, tell us that we are deeply interconnected with one another and the whole web of life; as the wisdom tradition puts it more simply, “all life is one.” Many if not all modern problems can be seen to arise from violations of that unity.
- we can never be fulfilled by material goods; we can only be fulfilled by expanding relationships of trust and service. Cooperation is far more powerful than competition. Similarly,
- we can never become secure by punishing “criminals” and defeating “enemies;” we can become secure by rehabilitating those who offend and turning enemies into friends.
In this inspiring narrative the infinite differences among us are no longer loci of separation but manifestations of the normal diversity of life. Society, like nature, should be organized along lines of “unity in diversity” instead of uniformity or separation. As the Koran puts it, God has “made you into tribes and peoples so that you could discover one another,” not fight against one another’s welfare. In this narrative, nonviolence is a law of existence to be discovered and practiced in every walk of life.
text by Michael Nagler