Jean Liedloff on Socialization

These children I met in the Amazon jungle played wild, they played rough, but they were never antagonistic and they rarely hurt one another. It’s not that they were obeying strict rules. Just the opposite. They had no rules. That got me thinking about the way they raise children and the way we raise children.Paperback The Continuum Concept: In Search Of Happiness Lost (Classics in Human Development) Book

We have created an anti-social population. No child is born bad, but you can make them bad, make them anti-social. We expect our children to be greedy and selfish and destructive, and because our children are born so social, they meet our expectations by becoming that way. 

Why do we have to lock our doors? Why do we have police forces? Why do we need armies? We have conditioned our whole population with rules and policing that assumes we are all bad people, just waiting for the opportunity to misbehave.

Good for what ails you

I once met a dead man in Barcelona
who has been with me ever since.
I showed him my hypochondria
and my disdain for my body
and the scars that cruel men have rent in my flesh,
and I said,
“Well? What can you do with this?”

He turned me around on the balcony and showed me the universe.
“This is medicine,” he said.
“Swallow it.”

— Caitlin Johnstone

How much of our thinking about happiness is culture-bound?

“For most of human history, life was solitary, poor, brutish, nasty, and short…Food was scarce; health was poor; a day of work was long, and when you got up in the morning, your entire To-do list was trying not to die today.”
— Daniel Gilbert, in a World Minds video

 ….And yet, by the close of the colonial period, very few if any Indians had been transformed into civilized Englishmen. Most of the Indians who were educated by the English-some contemporaries thought all of them-returned to Indian society at the first opportunity to resume their Indian identities. On the other hand, large numbers of Englishmen had chosen to become Indians-by running away from colonial society to join Indian society, by not trying to escape after being captured, or by electing to remain with their Indian captors when treaties of peace periodically afforded them the opportunity to return home.
James Axtell

[Benjamin Franklin told a story about this, but Google won’t find it for me. Perhaps you will comment below if you can locate it. Thanks!]

Daniel Gilbert may be the world’s foremost expert on happiness, but the picture he paints of the lives of hunter-gatherers is badly out of step with what anthropologists have learned from present-day hunter-gatherers in New Guinea, South America and Africa. More basically, his recommendations are valid only within the context of modern Western society, and, even his concept of happiness seems culture-bound.

Before agriculture, people were less numerous and more dispersed. Food was plentiful, and on average, pre-agricultural peoples spent much less time than we spend obtaining the necessities of life. More important, their work was not onerous or demeaning. They didn’t have to stuff down resentment of the boss or frustration with traffic. Can we even imagine what it would be like not to be alienated from our work, to experience no separation between what we are moved to do from moment to moment and those activities that support our existence? Maybe happiness is feeling whole, feeling integration between what we find it natural to do and what sustains ourselves and our communities. 

It may be that the Native Americans were not hunter-gatherers but engineers and stewards of a rich and completely sustainable ecosystem, which they maintained almost effortlessly with well-timed fires and plantings of fruit trees and food plants within natural ecosystems. While the Europeans developed expertise in the short-term efficiency of monoculture, American Natives were wisely intuitive ecologists, experts in a traditional brand of permaculture. I have heard this often enough that I begin to believe it.

Gilbert’s reference to the “to-do” list is just a quip, of course, but it betrays his prejudice that ties happiness to activities of some particular types. He imagines that because pre-agricultural people were less secure against weather and disease they must have lived in fear. But the opposite is almost certainly true. It is we whose cortisol levels are chronically high, we who live in anxiety about whether we will lose our jobs and our homes, we who listen every day to reports of random, insane violence, and perk up our ears when the terrorist threat level goes from red to orange and back to red.

Image result for africans dancing joy

To Thomas Hobbes’s famous “nasty, brutish, and short”, Gilbert curiously adds the adjective “solitary”. He knows from his data that lonely is miserable, and relationship is the most important factor in individual happiness. But he doesn’t seem to know that Western culture has torn us asunder, framed our relationships as transactions in a zero-sum game, and devalued the cooperative relationships that contribute so much to a fulfilling life. He doesn’t seem aware that contemporary America is the most pathologically individualistic, isolating, alienated culture in the history of humankind.   

We live in a transactional economy, carrying the existential fear that maybe we have nothing to offer, or that tomorrow’s robot will make us obsolete. Our forebears lived in the grace of a caring extended family, in which a place was assured for everyone without calculation of the balance between what they offered and what they received. We live on an earth that we are transforming into products in a one-way dive toward global ecosystem collapse. They lived as animals in nature, trusting the bounty of Mother Gaia to provide their needs. We have power and control. They had faith and relationship.   

We live under the shadow of a belief that our precious selves are products of the nerve impulses in our brains, and that oblivion awaits us when those nerves cease to fire. They knew (instinctively and culturally) that the short lives of their bodies are woven into nature’s cycles, and that their core awareness will cycle into another birth and yet another. 

More speculatively, hunter-gatherers had senses which, in us, have fallen into disuse. We have learned to focus on the outer five senses, shutting out, suppressing or fearing mystical experiences, out of tune with our intuitions and the transpersonal messages that animals and less “civilized” humans experience every day. Gilbert knows that people are happier when they are surrounded by nature, because it has been documented and quantified (most famously by Gilbert’s Harvard colleague, E.O. Wilson, who popularized the term Biophioia).  But does any one of us know—can we even begin to imagine—an unshakable sense of wellbeing that is deeply grounded in a life in communion with nature?

                         Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

— Wordsworth wrote this in 1802! What would he make of the alienation which we routinely tolerate today?

Our Western culture and the science that undergirds it have brought us knowledge and a richness of possibilities unimaginable to our ancestors; but I would not count happiness among the boons of a 21st Century Western lifestyle.


Plotinus’s Instructions for Living

“Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So do you also: cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labour to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiselling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendour of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine.”
— Plotinus was a Roman Platonist in the 3rd Century AD. He anticipated and rejected the Enlightenment vision of a world unfolding according to physical law alone.

“To make the existence and coherent structure of this Universe depend upon automatic activity and upon chance is against all good sense.”

and again:

“Those who believe that the world of being is governed by luck or chance and that it depends upon material causes are far removed from the divine and from the notion of the One.”


Is Enlightenment Socially Irresponsible?

thefindersThe Finders, by Jeffrey A Martin, Integration Press, 2019

Jeffrey Martin calls it a “persistent state of fundamental wellbeing”, but for 2500 years, the Buddhists have called it satori, Hindus say samadhi, Sufis speak of fana, Christian mystics refer to the light of Jesus Christ, while Americans speak generically of enlightenment, once Nirvana came to be inseparable from Kurt Cobain. (Taoism views enlightenment as the natural result of seeing past our conditioning; I’ve been unable to find references to a corresponding concept in Hasidic traditions or the Kabalah. Please comment below if I’m missing something.) 

Martin and the religious mystics agree that enlightenment is founded in a shift in perspective to outside the separate self, and that it is accompanied by a loss of fear, particularly the fear of death. Most of us go through life with a background sense that something is deeply wrong, and we’re constantly solving problems, hoping eventually to address the Big Problem that is making us feel this way. But Finders, the enlightened ones, pass from moment to moment, day to day, knowing the world is perfect just as it is, that their lives are rich beyond measure; they are confident that their lives and the world will continue on their respective perfect paths, and they carry no fundamental anxiety.

In these religious traditions, enlightenment is granted via God’s grace, though practices of abstinence and focused attention may improve ones prospects. What is new in Martin’s approach is science. First he seeks to study the phenomenon of enlightenment in four subspecies, which he says characterizes about half a percent of Western people across lines of religion, class, and culture. More ambitious, he seeks to offer methods by which “anyone” can get thereor at least with a 70% success rate among those who stay to complete his $2,500 course. Oh yes—did I not mention? Martin is also a serial entrepreneur. Does he remind you of Werner Erhard?

The good news is that there’s been a sharp rise in the prevalence of Finders, accelerating over the last two decades. The good news is that this perspective outside the self is somewhat contagious and can be learned. Martin associates the rise in Finderhood with electronic connectivity.

The bad news is that enlightenment doesn’t necessarily make you a good person. Some Finders steal and kill. Some are addicted to alcohol, drugs or tobacco. Some deepen their personal relationships. Some report that they are committed to their friends and loved ones more than ever, but from the outside they appear detached and uncaring. Spouses of a newly Found partner may find that this is no longer someone they wish to live with. One (rare) Finder at Level Four looked across the breakfast table at his daughter and saw a specimen of humanity to whom he felt a loving connection, like all the others. Something in him felt this was wrong, and decided to retreat from Finderhood. 

This is an extreme case, but Martin reports that many Finders are arrogant, have little patience for non-Finders, or even people whose path to enlightenment was was different and unfamiliar. He doesn’t offer statistics about how many Finders devote their newly-liberated capacities to world peace or to preservation of biodiversity. But he tells enough stories that we may wonder if more Finders in the world is an unmitigated good.

Finders can experience a deeper truth or sense of reality that makes the physical world seem less important. This certainly doesn’t make caring for it a higher priority…What about morality and core values? Does becoming a Finder insure that you cannot lie, cheat, steal, or even kill? It doesn’t. There were a number of occasions during the research where blatant lies were offered up during interviews…A tiny number of participants were also accused of participating in criminal activity after the project had interviewed them. This involved allegedly stealing, cheating people in business deals, and similar activities.

Sounds like, “I’m OK—You can be OK or not OK and I don’t give a rusty fuck”. Can enlightenment be akin to sociopathy? Mystics through the ages counsel a long course of moral purification before a novitiate is ready to be groomed for enlightenment. Milarepa’s life is a thousand-year-old cautionary tale from Tibet. As a young man, he acquired magical powers from a Buddhist sorceror, and used them to avenge an encroachment on his inheritance by an aunt and uncle. He killed at will, and wrought unnatural disaster on entire villages before he matured into a saint who devoted the last half of his life to atoning for the first.

I have never met Jeffrey Epstein, but I have second-hand reports from a friend that he could be charming, thoughtful, and generous in his presented self. I have never met Dick Cheney, but I have second-hand reports from a friend that he cared deeply for his family and went out of his way to be kind to people who worked for him, even cooks and housekeepers.

Martin sidesteps the whole arena of political implications, both in the familiar sense of organizing for the communal welfare and in R.D. Laing’s usage in The Politics of Experience. To what extent is our persistent feeling that there’s something deeply wrong connected to the fact that fascist warlords have taken over America, and our media are covering for them? And we might fairly wonder if escape into Fundamental Wellbeing is an irresponsible step with a global ecosystem on the brink of collapse.  Perhaps Martin’s version of enlightenment is colored by our hyper-individualistic, capitalist culture, and other cultures might offer a version of wellbeing rooted in a welcoming communal family. 

To Martin’s credit, he gives his How To book away free. The gist is that different techniques work for different people, that you should seek a teacher who feels sympatico and then try a variety of meditation and other practices, keeping what works and moving on from what doesn’t. The how-to book doesn’t address the question, “how do I know when I’m getting closer?” however, and Martin makes it clear that it’s not a linear path for most people.


Can we know what it is like to die?

If we can believe Socrates, all life is a preparation for death. What can he have been thinking? Death is nothing, oblivion. This life is everything. It is all we have and all we can know.

But religious traditions from Buddhism to Christianity are with Socrates. Intimate familiarity with death is a royal path to happiness.

If there’s any wisdom at all in this, we in the 21st Century Western world have missed the boat completely. We have banished death from our thoughts and our experience.

Let us put our toes back in the water of the river Styx. Can we know what it is like to die? The best way is to ask people who have done it. Peter Fenwick is a neuroscientist, not a mystic. He has studied both the physiology of the brain and firsthand experiences of people who routinely attend to the dying. He ties this in with reports of thousands of people who have literally returned from the dead. What did they experience while there was no neural activity in their brains?

Is consciousness a product of the brain, or is there a transcendent reality that is filtered by the brain and rectified to materiality? Wilder Penfield devoted his life to developing a science of the brain by probing the brain with electrodes, and he concluded in the end that the “energy of mind” is a different dimension altogether from neural signaling.  The brain is enormously important, but it can’t explain consciousness.

Monica Renz has interviewed hundreds of dying cancer patients and their caregivers, and she reports commonalities in their experience, including

  • visits from intimate relatives who have predeceased the patient, who come and sit on his bed
  • sojourns to a spirit world and back, conversations with non-corporeal beings who may visit and abide just outside the window
  • light emanating from the room of the dying person, visible to visitors and attendants

Attachment is the source of all the pain in dying. Those who die need to let go of everything—of their possessions, their projects, their loved ones, and indeed everything to which they have devoted themselves while alive. This is the most difficult challenge of dying, and those who are able to let go make a smooth transition to an existence that is far lighter and happier than the one we are used to.