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A Wisdom-Based Culture

Excerpted from Chapter 13 of Copthorne Macdonald's book Toward Wisdom

Despite some hints of progress, particularly in Holland and Scandinavia, our present industrial cultures are far from being wisdom-based cultures.  They actively support the early stages of growth but not the later ones.  Thus, to become wise in our present culture we must either be very lucky, very resourceful, or both.  In general, we must find supportive subcultures, or create around ourselves supportive micro-cultures.  This do-it-yourself approach will work for truly dedicated individuals, but it’s not apt to create the large numbers of wise people needed to make mind-directed evolution a success.  For that to happen, mainstream cultures must change. 

Is there any hope of transforming our present society into one that would produce many such people?  I see some encouraging signs.  For one thing, there are growing numbers of people who pursue wisdom-fostering practices without society’s help.  They are right now creating networks, support groups, and institutions that are prototypes of the structures needed in a wisdom-centered society.  Also encouraging are the signs of readiness on a larger scale.  Some positive pre-conditions already exist in the cultures of the industrial nations.  These readiness factors are analogous to soil, water, and fertilizer.  If more of the right seeds are now planted, many more people will adopt becoming wise as a consciously held value and pursue that adventure.  These factors are:

Leisure.  Most of us have time that could be devoted to the pursuit of wisdom.  In U.S. households with TV sets, the average adult watches more than 4.5 hours of TV per day.  Employment patterns are changing too.  More people are sharing jobs, taking leaves of absence or sabbaticals, and just plain quitting work for periods of time.  Others — the unemployed — have enforced leisure, but leisure nonetheless.  It could be used for growth.  By legitimizing time off for growth-fostering, wisdom-fostering pursuits, governments could reduce pressure from the public to create more jobs.

The cultural stress on delayed satisfaction.  Perhaps it is less prevalent in the generations younger than mine.  Still, most of us in the industrial world have some experience working hard now for rewards later. 

Cheap books and transportation.  Unlike 50 years ago, there is today relatively easy access to spiritual teachers and teachings.  The word is getting out.

The motivating influence of the wise, and those involved in becoming wise.  Their numbers increase all the time, and so their influence increases.  (The very few once motivated the few who now motivate the more . . . )

Affluence.  Many people in the industrial countries have the money needed to buy books, attend retreats, etc., if this becomes one of their priorities.

For the first time in history, many people “have it good” in a material and psychological sense.  Their struggle for material comfort, security, and even status has been won.  They now face the question: “What next?”  “What will be the source of meaning in my life?”  Many of these people are choosing to take the inner journey toward wisdom despite the present difficulties.  In earlier eras, before material sufficiency, grasping for pleasure was necessary and appropriate.  It had survival value for the species.  Now, faced with a gentler situation, many are starting to explore the option of not grasping for pleasure, and are finding a deeper, quieter, richer, happier place — a place to Be.  Later, with their new perspectives, these people will help society as a whole become more supportive for the inner journeys of their children and grandchildren.

Wisdom is not one monolithic way of being that eliminates all differences between people; wisdom takes many different forms.  Futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard has said that a whole “ecology of souls” will be needed to create and populate this new, wiser culture.  What varieties of wisdom do you see as important?  Here is my list:

To help world society deal with its complex problems we need Phase 2 evolutionaries — people having well-developed intellects and worldly skills who have taken that extra giant-step and have freed themselves, to a large extent, from the tyranny of the wanting/ condemning mind.

We need those people who are led to spend their whole lives in spiritual practice.  We need them as researchers for better ways.  We need them as teachers and guides in tomorrow’s schools of wisdom.  We need them to show us, through the examples of their lives, what life is like at the far reaches of the path.

We need people who have led full rich lives and have grown in wisdom to function as life management counselors.  They are needed to help others deal with the existential crises in their lives.  To help them find meaning.  To help them discover what they really want to do.  To help them lay realistic plans for doing it.  And to discuss wisdom and the process of spiritual development.

We need people in ordinary life roles who are earnest about becoming wise and are making progress at that.  We need the wisdom they bring to all their daily activities.

Becoming wise is what matters, personally and globally.  Growth of wisdom in social action and livelihood.  Growth of wisdom in relationships.  Growth in understanding of what it’s all about.  There is the path of knowledge and the path of wisdom.  Highly motivated people attend university and perhaps graduate school — seeking knowledge and the other benefits of a degree.  Now, highly motivated people are starting to seek wisdom — another difficult undertaking.  There are no absolute assurances when one begins either endeavor, and there are dropouts from both.  But for those who go a reasonable distance down either path there are significant payoffs.

The task is to become wise — despite present difficulties — and try to build a culture in which wisdom will not only be possible but will be the norm, normal.  The world is what it is.  Considering everything that has gone before, it couldn’t, today, be any different.  So there is no point regretting or recriminating.  But there is a lot of point in making the next moment better — and the next and the next.  Our culture may be slow to change, but our culture is not our enemy.  Our culture is, in fact, a direct reflection of us — or at least the us of yesterday.  We must help our culture grow and mature, help it mirror the wisdom-seeking us of today and tomorrow.

I have no illusion that total global transformation will happen overnight.  The industrial nations might undergo a significant degree of transformation within a generation or two, but it is not likely to happen globally until the basic needs of all the world’s people are met — not just physical needs, but all of Maslow’s deficiency needs. 

Meanwhile, we will still need political action.  Material sufficiency must reach everyone.  The ecological, population, and nuclear time bombs must be defused, and there are other pressing problems.  Unfortunately, political action does nothing to correct the deeply-rooted underlying problem.  Again and again humanity has had to face war and violence and the results of greed because it has not dealt effectively with the mental roots of those behaviors.  Corrective environmental action and nuclear disarmament would buy us time for the needed psychological/cultural transformation, but unless humanity becomes wiser, the same problems will someday be back.  Many short term actions are important — vital in fact.  But whatever short term actions we take, we also need to be working on the long term psyche-based solution.  Taking steps now to become wise is not another elitist retreat from the problems experienced by the majority of the world’s people.  It is, in fact, the most effective possible long-term attack on those problems. 

People in many countries are today in the position of those Scottish Highlanders three hundred years ago: neglected, exploited, and struggling desperately to survive.  What is more, too often we in the North are like the King’s man, the Earl of Argyll, just making things worse.  Third World people often say to would-be do-gooders from the industrial world, “Go home.  Work there.  Help get your nation’s boot off our necks.”  They tell us that they don’t need us to do good for them nearly as much as they need us to stop doing bad to them.  At the moment, many industrial nations are guilty of Band-Aid do-gooding atop crass exploitation and pervasive unconcern.  As  societies, we have not yet become wise enough to take the boot off their necks. 

This situation must change.  And it will change.  The rampant narcissism and greed of our age will end.  It will end, either in upward transformation, or in the classic disintegration typical of past empires.  We will become either a wisdom-based society, a footnote in the history books of some future culture, or worse yet, a totally forgotten failed experiment on a dead planet. 

Joseph Campbell outlined our task in these words:

The modern hero-deed must be that of questing to bring to light again the lost Atlantis of the co-ordinated soul.  Obviously, this work cannot be wrought by turning back, or away, from what has been accomplished by the modern revolution; for the problem is nothing if not that of rendering the modern world spiritually significant — or rather (phrasing the same principle the other way round) nothing if not that of making it possible for men and women to come to full human maturity through the conditions of contemporary life. . . .  The modern hero, the modern individual who dares to heed the call and seek the mansion of that presence with whom it is our whole destiny to be atoned, cannot, indeed must not, wait for his community to cast off its slough of pride, fear, rationalized avarice, and sanctified misunderstanding.  “Live,” Nietzsche says, “as though the day were here.”  It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse.

As compassion arises in the latter stages of the process, as holistic seeing makes the outrageous behavior of our cultural institutions clearer, as people become more sensitive to situations where they have some leverage, the intuitive wisdom will guide them into various forms of wise, effective action.  I have no doubt about this.  There is a time to detach, and a time to engage.  In the coming years there will be the opportunity — and the necessity — for both.  We can’t afford to neglect either, and I don’t think we will.

I see rapid progress toward a wisdom-based culture once the present consensus view of reality starts to be replaced by a new one — particularly when the personal-identity perspective begins to be replaced on a large scale by the unitive view.  History shows us that even the most well-entrenched erroneous views can be dropped rapidly when enough influential people get a new, more valid perspective on the same old data.  For eons it was perfectly clear to everyone that the earth stood still and the sun, moon and stars revolved around the earth.  The sun rose every morning in the east, traveled across the sky, and set every evening in the west.  Simple, and totally obvious.  Yet Copernicus, in 1543, turned all that around by saying no, we had it wrong, the earth rotates, and it travels around the sun.  Communication wasn’t all that great in those days, and science itself was not a massive enterprise, but when Kepler and Newton adopted the Copernican ideas and started to build on them a century later, the old delusion quickly faded away. 

More recent revolutions in perspective have happened even more quickly.  The assumption that the earth was formed a few thousand years ago held sway until James Hutton in 1780 and Charles Lyell in 1830 established the geologic “deep time” perspective.  This in turn laid the foundation for Charles Darwin, a few decades after that, to overturn the prevailing assumption that a master-designer God had created all nature’s marvels and put them on earth all at one time.  In our own century the process has accelerated even more.  The revolution in perspective from Newtonian to relativistic physics happened within two or three decades. 

Copernican ideas did — and still do — go against perceptual common sense.  It feels as though the earth is standing still, and we see the sun move across the sky.  Yet no one today doubts the truth of the Copernican insights.  We still talk about the sun rising and setting, but we all know that it’s just a way of speaking.  If anything conflicts with that view we immediately flip to the true one.  I think the day will come when we will do that with the person-centered perspective.  We will talk about being persons for convenience, as we talk about the sun rising and setting.  But we will never for a moment be fooled into believing that this personal identity is our deep, true identity.  From the time children are little they will know that they have two identities — a temporary information-based identity as a person, and a permanent identity as Being.  Effective techniques will be worked out to help them realize this permanent identity intuitively and experientially as well as intellectually.

If humanity doesn’t self-destruct in the meantime, I’m sure that people 200 years from now will slowly shake their heads and smile at the superstitions, the primitive rituals, and the ignorant perspectives of people back in the twentieth century.  I can hear it now: “Did you know that for much of that century science actually denied the existence of mentality?”  “Did you know that their primitive culture had an institution called advertising that did everything in its power to inflame people’s desires — actually inflame them rather than quiet them?”  “Did you know that they watched the portrayal of violent acts on colored screens for entertainment?”  “Did you know that they associated the universal sense of identity with only their bodies and mind contents, and not with Being?”

Some of this stuff is already beginning to seem crazy to large numbers of people.  I suspect that one of these decades an avalanche effect will occur, and some important shifts in perspective will happen rapidly, on a mass scale.  I even heard one reasoned guess about which decade.  Near the end of that three-month retreat, a Korean Zen Master spoke to us.  Someone asked him about the future of the world, and about combining social action with spiritual practice.  In his reply the Zen Master noted that in the late ‘60s there was a humanistic, anti-violence feeling among young people all over the world — not just in Western industrial countries, but in communist countries and the Third World too.  He was confident that when the people of this “Woodstock Generation” reach their 50s and assume positions of power — about the year 2000 — the world will take a significant turn for the better. 

That generation has been called a generation of innocent idealists.  Most have lost their innocence by now, and many have taken sidetracks and detours — but I suspect that the core of idealism is still there.  Perhaps that Zen Master is right.  The decade between 2000 and 2010 just might be a time of inflection in the history of the world — one of those historic moments when intelligent effort really does produce large-scale change.  Just maybe the people of the world will get together then and make real progress in moving the corral fences back toward the ultimate limits of possibility. 

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