Control is a central theme of The Ascent of Humanity. Whether we speak of the technologist dream of perfecting our control over nature, or the spiritualist dream of perfecting human nature, the basic strategy is to encourage the good and control the bad. Just as the technological answer to a problem is to fix it or improve it, so also do we attempt to fix, change, and improve ourselves. Who would deny that self-improvement is a good thing?
So underneath technology and self-improvement is an assumption that nature and human nature is bad. I’m going to write today on the human nature part, but first let me add that I am not talking about technology per se, but about a mentality that results in a certain approach to, mode of, and application of technology. In the book I write about a different mode of technology not based on control. Most technology today, though, is firmly ensconced in the control paradigm of fixing and improving.
Suppose I get a sore throat. While other medical systems might look upon the strep bacteria as agents in the body’s cleansing and rebalancing mechanism, conventional medicine looks at them as pathogens—the cause of an illness. Obviously, the solution is to kill them, probably with antibiotics. Ah, but the antibiotics also kill the other benign species of streptococci that naturally inhabit the throat. These species secrete substances called bacteriocins that actually inhibit pathogenic strep. When they’re gone, the slate is clear for another infection a few months later. The solution? More antibiotics. Eventually, repeated doses of antibiotics disturb the intestinal flora, allowing candida and other fungi to proliferate. The solution? Anti-fungal medications. But these produce liver and adrenocortical damage. The solutions pile up, each causing new problems, affecting the immune system, reducing resistance to bacterial infections. The solution? Antibiotics.
It is important to realize that each of the above solutions was a success! It is much like an addiction. If I’m tired, coffee really does make me feel more energetic. For the alcoholic, a drink really does take away the pain. In the end, of course, heavy coffee drinking exhausts the adrenal glands and makes us chronically tired; alcoholisms destroys every source of joy in life and increases the pain. But in each individual instance it works. Here the word “fix” takes on a dual significance. Fixing a problem; a drug fix. Humanity has become addicted to its improvements and solutions; dependent on technology, yes, but also on ever-increasing doses of it.
Each labor-saving invention offers the promise of leisure tomorrow in exchange for just a little extra effort today. In the Age of Coal, the horrific sacrifices of the industrial laborers were justified by the dream of mechanized comfort for all, just around the corner. More recently, innovations such as computers, cell phones, and the like promise a more efficient, more convenient life, yet bring the opposite: they increase life’s tempo. In the most highly technological societies we are busy, rushed, and anxious as never before. Compare a day in America to a day in, say, Jamaica, where no one is ever on time and nothing can’t wait until tomorrow, or a town in the Italian countryside, where lunch lasts for three hours. Yet on some level we still buy into the promise that when we’ve finally input all the data and assigned an IP address to every scrap of matter, then machines will be able to run everything, freeing us to pursue a life of leisure.
This is what William Wordsworth called “perpetual sacrifice”, a concept that pervades civilized thought. Essentially, the present is sacrificed for the future which, being the future, never actually arrives. On the collective level, Utopia recedes forever into the distance, as each successive technological revolution—coal, electricity, atomic power, computers, nanotechnology—fails to deliver the promise of a perfect world. On the individual economic level, perpetual sacrifice is embedded in the dynamics of capitalism in an interest-based money system. Essentially, money breeds money, and the way to gather investment capital when you start with none is to save more than other people; i.e. to be more thrifty; i.e. to make more sacrifices. By the same token, work (in contradistinction to play) is something unpleasant, tedious, or taxing that we do for its future benefits. The original template for perpetual sacrifice is agriculture, in which we must sow in order to reap, and in which, having exceeded the uncultivated carrying capacity of the land, we must always save food for the future.
On the personal spiritual level—and by spiritual I simply mean what matters in life—the same logic operates. Again, it is the perpetual sacrifice of the present for a future that never arrives. The most obvious example lies in the concept of Heaven. Notice the similarities between Heaven and technological Utopia! In each we have transcended biology, death, disease, old age, pain, suffering, and the physical limitations of nature. But for this theoretical future Heaven we must sacrifice today. Even if you don’t believe in the traditional conception of Heaven, the same logic imbues nearly all spiritual practices and programs of self-improvement. We do hard things and fight our nature for the rewards it will bring. I will study harder, I will control my drinking, I will stop being so angry, I will fix myself, change myself, improve myself, and the way I will do it is by trying harder than before.
The whole concept I am calling “perpetual sacrifice”, the whole war against the self can be summed up in one short sentence: “I will improve myself and my life by trying harder.”
In no domain does this strategy work. Collectively that should be obvious: despite our best efforts to control ourselves, human beings are murdering, raping, starving, torturing, humiliating, and abusing one another and nature as much as ever. Individually, the effort to control an addiction or an emotion works only until willpower fails—inevitable in a moment of weakness. For the self to change the self that is doing the changing is impossible. Let me repeat that. For the self to change the self that is doing the changing is impossible. As I wrote in The Yoga of Eating, it is like lifting weights while treading water. Or as Audre Lord put it, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
In other words, the war against nature, the war against human nature, and the war against the self is hopeless. It is a war we can never win. Moreover, it is war that can only strengthen the enemy. That’s the bad news. But now listen to the good news: it is also a war we need not fight at all.
The reason we need not fight the war at all is that we have mistaken our enemy. In fact, we have invented our enemy. Control, the tool we use to fight that enemy, is actually the genesis of that enemy. On the collective level it is our separation from nature that has wrought the human condition. On the individual level it is our separation from our true selves that has produced the inauthenticity behind our own violence and self-violence. Control only exacerbates this self-separation, this artificial division of an underlying unity. Steeped, however, in the mentality of control, we can see no way out. When we see the hopelessness of control then we despair of ever fixing the world or ourselves.
And that is a good thing. It is a good thing because there is a way out. The way out is not through fixing, controlling, changing, or improving, but through witnessing. All genuine spiritual traditions recognize this, using words like mindfulness, witness consciousness, self-observation, being present to, naming the demon. Then our habits and compulsions begin to lose their power. But usually we only come to this when the program of control is in undeniable ruin. That is why despair is a good thing, a necessary step. In the twelve steps philosophy, they call it hitting bottom.
On the collective level we are also nearing bottom, realizing with despair the hopelessness of fixing the predicament we have created. Soon we will stop struggling against the world. We will bear witness to the ruin and the ruination of our civilization. That point of despair is a nothingness from which we will create an entirely new world, and not struggle to control the world we know now. Whether on the personal or collective level, new possibilities arise out of the void of despair, possibilities whose fulfillment is not a struggle against life but a cocreativity with other human beings and with life itself. It is the fulfillment of our role and function in the universe, the realization of who we truly are and what we can truly be. The desolation has gone far enough. Let’s abandon the war against ourselves and the world.