“It’s like that book I read in the ninth grade that said, ’Tis a far, far better thing doing stuff for other people.’” - Cher, Clueless
The 1964 children’s book The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein suggests that one must understand the value in any relationship to truly appreciate it. In true children’s book fashion, this book imparts some serious wisdom. Silverstein’s book follows the life of a boy and his friendship with a tree. Initially, when the boy is young, the tree provides him a source of enjoyment and simple pleasures. As the two grow, the boy’s relationship with the tree transforms, as his motives have been changed by adult life. The tree, who loves the boy, gives him whatever he wants.
The apples that the boy once enjoyed eating, he takes to sell. The tree’s branches, that the boy once enjoyed for their own sake, he takes for wood. Eventually, all that the tree is left with is her trunk, which the boy, who is now a man, also takes, until she herself is left with nothing. The relationship that was once beautiful and simple has become something else, something destructive. Years pass and the boy is now an old man, who does not have the same desires to take from the tree. Returning to the tree, which is now a stump, the boy, who is now an old man, simply sits on the stump and rests.
Interestingly this children’s story has been banned from libraries in Colorado for its depiction of sexism. This is not the message we are taking from this story. It is not only a powerful metaphor for our impact on the earth, but is a valuable insight into perspectives. When Silverstein wrote this book I’m unsure if she was aware of what an accurate representation it would be of our modern world, but there is something compelling about the boy’s blind self-interest, which I argue, with introspection, we could see mirrored in our own lives.
Pioneering psychiatrist Stanislav Grof suggested that the crisis the Earth is facing is a problem of consciousness, not climate. This notion is not quite as left field as one may think, as, when examining the wisdom traditions and psychological schools it’s clear they observe similar ascension models of consciousness. A commonly accepted understanding is that developing one’s own consciousness leads to a less materially inclined mindset.
While we do not fully understand consciousness, we cannot deny its presence and transformative potentials have been demonstrated by irrefutable evidence. Roger Nelson, a psychologist who is mainly known for his pioneering research on consciousness from the Princeton Engineering and Anomalies Lab, explored the claim by famous Transcendental Meditation teacher Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Maharishi, the man who brought enlightenment to The Beatles amongst others, made some pretty hefty promises about the power of his particular flavour of meditation. For those who are unfamiliar, his practise also known by it’s street name T.M., induces a mediative state through the repetition of a personally chosen mantra. Maharishi claimed that during his major meditation event the energy emitted affected the crime rates in surrounding areas. His weighty claim sparked the interest of Nelson and his team and they went to investigate.
Known as Super Radiance, 8000 meditators gather every year at Maharishi’s University in Iowa. The research showed that following this event crime rates dropped by twenty four percent in surrounding areas. This is not an isolated incident or some kind of crazy coincidence, where all the hippies drove the criminals out. Another compelling study on twenty-four US cities showed that whenever one percent of the population was carrying out a T.M. practise the crime rate dropped by twenty-four percent again over the whole country.
The suggestion that the answer to our planet’s survival lies within ourselves, would understandably make anyone a little uneasy. Certainly, claiming that evolving consciousness en masse would make the world collectively wake up to their destructive and ecologically damaging ways, resulting in an overnight halting of consumption, is a little far fetched, but in terms of recent events, not completely beyond the realms of possibility.
Notably, many of the solutions are packaged to appear as a great sacrifice, as they aren’t in alignment with our commonly accepted narratives around success. It is no coincidence that countries who produce and consume products associated with such ideals are the biggest contributors to our climate crisis. Whereas, countries promoting happiness, freedom, community and spiritual growth will potentially be the first victims of a crisis they made a minute contribution towards. Individually, creating a consciousness that supports service from a place of responsibility rather than sacrifice, could shift our entire rationale surrounding the issue. Service from a place of sacrifice, in any capacity, is doomed to fail. However, a healthy and reciprocal relationship that fulfils our most pressing needs, appeals to our most authentic selves and cultivates genuine growth, it could be truly transformative.
The question of how we develop a reciprocal relationship with our planet, that cultivates an appreciation for its gifts, has more to do with our identification, rather than our ability for selfless action. The identification I’m talking about is that sense of commonality, unity and identity, that implicitly impacts every aspect of our lives. Identification is a multifaceted system that extends deeper than our sexuality, race, age and interests. It is a multifaceted system that interacts the various aspects of ourself, creating congruency between our inner and outer worlds. For many of us, however, how we identify can seem like a careful negotiation between our inner and outer worlds, which causes frustration, repression and careful curation.
Generally speaking, from a typically human standpoint we identify with things in the outer world, that reflect an aspect of ourselves, real or imagined, back at us. This influences the choices we make that shape our lives from career, to friends, to purchases, to partner. Other theories, such as Kenneth Burke’s 1969 Rhetoric of Motives idea, believed that identifying with others is fundamental to being human. Arising from our feeling of division, due to our biological independence, this creates guilt from our differences and fuels the need for connection. Symbolic structures and stylistic ideals that we create, become the individual framework in which we all operate as actors to feel accepted. This is really interesting as it agrees with the rhetoric of evolutionary psychologists when they decided we like others because we are looking for safety in numbers. Robin Vallachera and Daniel Wenger suggest that identification is a function and expression of thought, that can be influenced by our actions. Or as Aristotle put it, “we are what we repeatedly do”. Both of these ideas represent two aspects of a much more complex interactive system that shows both our ability to interact and be shaped by our interaction with the world.
From the standpoint of expanded consciousness, our self concept is different and intangible, moving from a place of separation to love. Identification from a place of expanded consciousness produces intense feelings of empathy for all livings. This is because we begin to see ourselves in other things. And I’m not referring to that somewhat condescending expression that all of us have received from some well-meaning relative offering encouragement, at one point in our lives. This is different.
It is believed that there must be an element of identification or solidarity to experience feelings such as empathy and compassion. Eric Fromm studied how love for oneself can be considered in mainstream culture to be selfish, or, as Freud considered, narcissistic. Freud’s theory of primary narcissism believes that the more love one turns to the outside world, the less love remains for oneself. Spot the cynic! One must understand that a love for others is not contradictory to a love for oneself. Love for oneself increases our capability to love another.
Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research lab conducted research on overcoming separateness. This research, which has been going on for decades, shows that couples who are bonded emotionally can share information, even when separated by great distances. This is believed to be due to a little something called love. Dean of Engineering Robert Jahn states that in these couples their individual identities ‘blur’ and “this is also the recipe for any form of love: the surrender of self-centred interests of the partners in favour of the pair”. In this way we can see that love transcends individuality.
Mankind is limited in terms of what it can love from a place of duty. Emmanuel Kant suggests that we perform moral acts under the heading of two opposing categories. Morally we perform acts out of duty, mainly because we feel obliged to. However, we don’t derive any pleasure from them. Kant suggested that we could also perform a moral act because we are positively inclined to, and ultimately we have more appreciation for our action.
Climate action could benefit greatly from the cultivation of identification with the planet, as it bypasses the Ego by matching our own self interests with the interests of the Earth itself. Princeton’s Harry Frankfurt suggested that the “essential difference between persons and other creatures is to be found in the structure of a person’s will”. Frankfurt suggested that man can have wants and needs that are separate from their primary wants and needs. These are mainly the want to be different, arising following self-reflection. This suggestion highlights yet another aspect of identity, separate from our relation to others and action. That is, our identity lies in our values, motives and desires.
Lights, Camera, Action.
“Stop hitting yourself”
George Marshall works educating non-profits on how to communicate their messages to the masses in a way that encourages people to take action, which is no easy feat. In his book Don’t Even Think About It, Marshall investigates why we collectively fail to act to prevent climate change, believing that it has less to do with our positive intention and more to do with our social norms and how they are used to gauge potential threats and dangers.
Teenage activist Greta Thunberg summed it up quite nicely when she equated the planet’s plight to a burning house. So why are we not grabbing our fire extinguishers or running for the nearest exit. We are reacting with the same level of panic that Willy Wonka did when he dryly cried “Help. Police. Murder.” as he watched Augustus Gloop fart himself to his demise. There is a fable often used as a metaphor in psychology to illustrate the inability of man to react to gradual threats. It states that if you were to put a frog into a pot of boiling water it would jump out. However, if you put it into a pot of cold water and then heated the water slowly the poor creature would stay submerged, slowly cooking to death. While I have not tested the validity of this fable myself, I can’t help feeling that, within the framework of our own situation, it’s pretty spot on.
Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer suggested that the motivating factor for selfless service lay in the ability one has to see themselves in another. Separateness was an illusion caused by our perception of time and space and that, given the right circumstances, that illusion would fall away. Believing that his “true being actually exists in every living creature as truly and immediately as known to my consciousness only in myself. This realisation, for which the standard formula is tat tvam asi, is the ground of compassion upon which all is true, this is to say unselfish, virtue rests and whose expression is in every good deed”. This German philosopher is referring to an expression taken from The Upanishads, and represents an upsurge in the interest in that literature at the time. What Schopenhauer suggests that what motivates a selfless act comes from a place of compassion.
Compassion literally means ‘to suffer together’. Popular in many wisdom and religious texts, the idea of compassion is noted as a motivation to relieve the suffering of another. Unlike empathy, which allows us to see another’s perspective, and altruism, which is the selfless action often prompted by the arousal of compassion, it is the baseline emotion that gives us the positive inclination to help. Compassion implies a certain level of connection that one wouldn’t naturally notice. Frederick Buechner suggests that “Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live in somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never be peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy for you too”. Deducing that compassion produces action with positive intention, is it possible that increased compassion is what is required? Dacher Keltner from the University of California suggests that compassion is an instinct which we all should have automatically. Harvard University’s David Rand has shown that often helping is the first response in both adults and children.
Returning to Schopenhauer, if what he was saying is correct, what is stopping us collectively from altering our lives in the name of selfless service for the planet? Dale Miller of Stanford University conducted research into compassion and helping and suggested that adults may refrain as they would be concerned that others would view their motives as selfish. The Bystander Effect was first demonstrated in a 1968 study by Bibb Latane and John Darley who planted participants in a room with an actor who pretended to have a seizure. What Darley and Latane witnessed from the participants was that their willingness to help depended on how many other participants were present in the room at the time. This study demonstrated something in people known as diffusion of responsibility, that suggests that when humans are in a group setting they assume someone else will help.
You Go First, I'll Follow
George Marshall also looked at the bystander effect, concluding that it was social conformity that kept people from stepping outside of the social norms. Marshall explains that this defence mechanism developed as part of our evolution, to ensure that we could remain in the pack. Therefore Marshall concludes that we are undergoing a very real balancing act between perceived external and social threats.
Another assumption that emerged from Latane and Darley’s study was that participants assumed that others were more capable of helping than they were, and didn’t want to appear foolish. Participants also indicated that they took their cues from others in the group to determine whether or not intervention was appropriate. This is known as social proof and pluralistic ignorance. Real life examples of the bystander effect don’t get much more harrowing than the real life scenario that resulted in the murder of Kitty Genovese. Genovese was stabbed to death in broad daylight by a serial rapist and murderer, which took about thirty minutes to complete with dozens of onlookers.
In the case of action, it is clear that compassion is not the only factor in a crisis. Psychologist Abraham Maslow suggested that dissatisfaction might be our primary motivating force. In his popular Hierarchy of Needs theory, Maslow suggests that our needs are ordered with the most pressing first, such as hunger and thirst. The next level of our needs relate to our need for security and protection, followed by our need to belong. Maslow suggests that our ultimate, and final need, is the need for self-actualisation. This is the belief that our goal in life is to realise our innate potential. Maslow believes that self actualising people are the future of the world. Their ability to explore the depths of experience, coupled with their perspective, makes them the best leaders and helpers. Exploring an idea such as Maslow’s it is clear to see that our ability for action is not just based on the information we have at hand, but something deeper known as motives.
In the case of altruistic behaviour, biologist Richard Dawkins believes that apparent desirable emotions such as compassion, love and altruism are merely selfish acts in disguise. In his book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins states that this is an expression of our gene’s “law of universal ruthless selfishness”. Explaining that altruistic behaviour falls into three observed categories that are kin selection, reciprocal altruism and group selection, Dawkins claims each disguises an underlying selfish motive. If we believe that all of our human motives come from an underlying self interest, it would be understandable to suggest that our motives filter the information we receive as well.
Intellectually, we all love to be right. One idea that emerges consistently around this topic is conformation bias. This has become a tremendously relevant topic with the emergence of the internet. Now everyone is a publisher and expert and we can choose from a selection of sources where we get our information and news. This has created an unusual psychological byproduct that means we can selectively choose to only receive information that agrees with our view of the world. In The Future We Choose, by architects of the 2015 Paris Agreement Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Caronac, they discuss how this is a contributing factor to the scepticism over Climate Change, and George Marshall agrees.
How we relate to one another is imperative, as science is infected with social meaning, Professor Dan Kahun believes that people get their information from people they trust, who have likeminded values, explaining that this is the reason animal videos get more views online than climate change. Kahun believes that every message is laced with underlying social meanings that run much deeper than we are aware of. Trying to promote a message of impending doom about our collective existence could be interpreted as an agenda of oppression, fake news and control. Thanks to social media, people are able to immerse themselves in networks of people that support their own opinions. Explaining this as pluralistic ignorance, people can be coaxed into believing that beliefs are statistically different than they are.
Evolutionary researchers would agree that our main motive in life is survival. Certainly, investigations into needs, both direct and indirect, from psychologists suggest that our primary needs are in line with our biological needs. This being said, there is something more than that. Explanations on human consciousness explore the idea that we are not just a physical entity, we are so much more than that. Our connection to an unfathomable spiritual aspect of ourselves creates a careful negotiation between the human aspects of ourselves and something else. Common reports of Saints, Sages and Holy Men suggest that when our spiritual advancement reaches a certain level we often forget to take care of our biological needs all together.
Motivation could also arise from a need for meaning and purpose in everyday life. Victor Frankl was one of the founders of the Transpersonal movement following his time spent in a concentration camp. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl details the years he endured starvation, hard labour and disease. What Frankl discovers is that one can find purpose in life regardless of the circumstances. The theme of meaninglessness haunts Frankl’s musings stating that he could see emptiness pervading society like an ‘existential vacuum’. Frankl felt that filling the existential despair created in industrialised societies with meaning and positive action could liberate a man from himself.
What I believe Frankl is referring to is the development of intrinsic motivations, which are activities that we do for the sake of it. Resulting in autonomous and authentic feelings, many commonly refer to these actions as being in flow. People do these activities, not for reward as reward but simply for the joy of doing the act itself, regardless of the circumstances. Frankl has a powerful message for each of us as we can easily become disheartened by the enormity of the task at hand and how insignificant our actions seem. Flow states are a sign that we are congruent with our actions and our lives.
The goal of the Great Wisdom Traditions has been to pull us from our me-centric mentality and connect us with something greater. Understanding that our intellectual minds do not aid connection, many of these traditions emerged with their own teachings that give us experiential proof of something more. Moving us away from a self centred grasping for security is no easy feat, yet when one wants to achieve this level of wholeness this journey must be undertaken. From the viewpoint of these great traditions life becomes more than a depressing demise and emerges into something far greater. Now supported by science, some of these texts that spoke of infinite powers, alternative medicine and universal connection are experiencing a resurgence and are reclaiming their importance and relevance in our fragmented world.
These traditions encourage careful choice over our thoughts and actions as we have power and influence over our environment. We are actually living in a unique time, where we are seeing the consequences of many poor choices play out in real time.
The creator of our external actions and their motivations is determined by our values and our view of the world. In this way we can begin to see that our outer worlds are at the behest of our internal ones. With this being said, is it possible to assume that by altering our view of our reality that we could shift our values?
Our idea of our own mortality influences our understanding and actions in the world. I’m often perplexed that the most staunch atheists, who believe in a strictly biological life, usually have developed terribly unhealthy habits and do nothing to mediate the possibly of impeding health crisis. On the other hand, spiritualists usually adopt the exact opposite lifestyle, so one begins to wonder could this reaction stem from fear.
Marshall states that Janet Dickenson, a neuroscientist from Cornell University, believes that our collective reaction of denial rationalisation and the repositioning of climate change to a futuristic event, are consistent with Ernest Becker’s fear management theory. Marshall warns that there is a sinister side to this innocent reaction, that when we are reminded of our mortality we pivot our attention onto self image, money and our social group.
We are living through a process, not an event. Our world’s resources are depleting faster than it can regenerate and this crisis is man made. The state of the world reflects the state of our minds and sadly this would suggest collectively we have serious psychological ills. Crisis is said to happen when we move away from the truth. In terms of consciousness we are far from our personal truth.
Human potential has now reached its first major threat and one must look at this as a possibility to evolve to our highest potential.The destructive aspect of humanity reflects the problems that are facing humanity. Before we can fix the world, the people of it must come to a shared agreement as to what constitutes reality.
Reality itself is subjective and differs from person to person. Understanding this truth allows us to examine when our reality is being dictated to us. Anyone can dictate reality from their pedestal, however, we do not have to accept a shared view of reality that is destructive for us and those around us.