A general state of malaise seems to have taken hold of humanity. Is the problem with us, or the circumstances in which we live. Many voices are raised in the belief that we are the problem. Religious leaders tell us that, by our very nature, humans are evil. Politicians tell us we need to change our ideology. Therapists tell us we need to change the way we think. Marriage countless tell us we need to communicate. Scientist tell us we need more progress. Educators tell us we need to learn more. Atheists tell us we need to discard our belief in God, so we can think rationally. And gurus tell us that to know peace of mind, we need to mentally disconnect ourselves from our circumstances, from time to time. In other words, if we would just change ourselves, our thoughts, attitudes, and behavior, then everything would be OK.
But the idea that humans need to change overlooks something important. Humans have thrived, as a distinct species, for upwards of two hundred thousand years on this planet. How could we possibly have survived that long, if we are inherently dysfunctional? I prefer to think, and have reason to believe, that there is something wrong with our circumstances—not with us. If so, then what is wrong, how did it happen, and what are we to do about it?
The Game of Life
This evening I would like to use this lofty and historic platform to discuss what appears to me to be the most pressing problem confronting mankind today. Modern man has brought this whole world to an awe-inspiring threshold of the future. He has reached new and astonishing peaks of scientific success. He has produced machines that think and instruments that peer into the unfathomable ranges of interstellar space. He has built gigantic bridges to span the seas and gargantuan buildings to kiss the skies. His airplanes and spaceships have dwarfed distance, placed time in chains, and carved highways through the stratosphere. This is a dazzling picture of modern man’s scientific and technological progress.
Yet, in spite of spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing. There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.
—Excerpt from Martin Luther King’s Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech
That the world is morally and spiritually poor is not new. The world was morally and spiritually depraved at the time of Jesus, which is why his message remains as significant in today’s world, as it was in his. The remarkable thing is that our “spectacular strides in science and technology” have not really changed anything regarding our spiritual wellbeing. If anything, “progress” is making things worse. At least people in Jesus’ day weren’t facing the specter of a denatured environment. Why, despite all our technological achievements have our lives not improved spiritually?
To gain a perspective from which to consider this dilemma, let’s think of life as a game being played by every creature that inhabits this planet. To win, in this “game of life,” each individual must behave in ways that optimize its species’ chances for success. Failure is behavior that does not serve the species. If failure is widespread, the species will eventually lose out in life’s game. But, with nearly nine million species on earth, there are many winners.
Seeking Order in Illusions
Think of the complex of rules required to govern such a game, rules that stipulate the moment-to-moment activities of trillions of individuals, comprising millions of species, in such a way that the vast majority are winners. None of these trillions know they are part of a game, yet remarkably—as a product of evolution, and despite the complexity—every creature knows everything it needs to know, to win. It knows by its feelings. That is, to win in the game of life all any being has to know is how it feels. Emotions are the source, the impetus and inspiration of all behaviors required for each individual to contribute to its species success. Whenever a being figures out what it needs to do to satisfy its most dominate feeling, and succeeds at doing so, life rewards it with spiritual fulfillment. The satisfaction of finding resolution to feelings of the moment informs all living beings that they are winning life’s game. Life’s sublime gift is that winning is not a one-time event, but occurs again and again, every time an individual finds resolution to its everchanging feelings.
What are they, and where do they come from—these emotions that are so essential to the existence of life? They are manifestations of life that express its survival wisdom. They began evolving with the first stirrings of life on earth. Each species possesses a unique set of emotions, just as it has a unique set of physical features. Physical features give individuals the ability to react to their circumstances. Emotions tell them how to react. Just as evolution selects successful physical characteristics over less-successful ones, emotions that inspire actions that contribute to the species’ success, are the ones most likely to be passed to future generations. The genes of a mother who takes pleasure in nurturing her young, for example, are far more likely to survive, along with her offspring, than the genes of a mother who finds no satisfaction in caring for her young. This example illustrates how crucial emotions are to a species’ success, so vital that emotional characteristics define a species every bit as much as physical ones do. We use physical characteristics to describe a species, not because emotions are less important, rather because they can’t be seen.
Emotions govern all life on earth, by inspiring creatures to seek pleasure and avoid pain. To avoid the pain of hunger, individuals seek the pleasure of eating. To avoid the pain of chill, they seek the pleasure of warmth. And the members of social species avoid the pain of loneliness by seeking the pleasure of familiar associations. In these ways, feelings not only inspire activities that are essential to each being’s survival, they also instill values in every individual that go far beyond the bare necessity of survival. For example, in social species, love exemplifies a value that is essential to forming and maintaining the relationships needed for the species to flourish. But love is not required for the survival of any individual. We can all manage without love. Indeed, modern humans survive largely without it, but it’s not a very spiritually fulfilling way to live.
Happiness and species survival are inexorably linked. In the natural world, each individual enjoys life by satisfying its feelings, feelings that reveal the survival wisdom of its species. In this way, by enjoying life, it simultaneously contributes to its species’ success. No individual chooses not to satisfy its feelings. In Nature, circumstances do, sometimes, prevent an individual from satisfying its feelings—for example, when it can’t find water to quench its thirst. But, no individual ever knowingly deprives itself of happiness by ignoring how it feels. In other words, it never intentionally breaks the rules of life’s game that are essential to its species’ success. There is no righteousness, holiness, or purity about this: It is because, in Nature, there is no reason for an individual to ever do anything other than to try to satisfy its strongest feeling.
Only we humans, who live in institutionalized societies, knowingly deny our feelings of the moment. We regularly deny how we really feel, for example, in order to honor the spirit of the legal arrangements that define our relationships. Indeed, the lack of intimacy and happiness rampant among humans is largely the result of trusting our relationships to legal arrangements, instead of to feelings. It is a practice humans have engaged in since the advent of our very first social contracts. Having said that, it’s important to understand that we aren’t to blame for this transgression against life. It is imposed by the circumstances of our present-day existence which none of us ever asked for. Our souls are punishing us enough for our transgressions. Let’s not add to our suffering by blaming ourselves. But the transgression, intended or not, has derailed our species from its normal trajectory of survival, despite the fact that there are now over eight billion of us. Overpopulation, like habitat destruction, is but a reflection of humanity’s inner turmoil.
The game of life is never intentional. It is the result of individuals doing what their emotions tell them they need and want to do, every moment of their lives. Given this central importance of feelings to life’s very existence, it’s curious that humans have never stopped to ask why feelings exist, even as we continue adding to our collective knowledge by making an astonishing number of discoveries that are of are lesser importance, by comparison. Many philosophers and self-help authors have written about feelings, but only within the context of managing them to reduce pain, with techniques such as meditation, positive thinking, being grateful for what we have, or finding comfort in beliefs myths, and mantras. But they have not addressed the crucial question of why feelings exist in the first place.
Like us, early humans did not know that feelings inspire the natural order required for species to thrive. So, once their linguistic skills evolved to the point that they could imagine and share concerns about the indefinite future, they began to fear that their future would be chaotic. To prevent chaos, humans created centralized systems of rule, never realizing they were replacing the natural governance of feelings with artificial systems of governance. These “systems,” regardless of what form they took—kingships, dictatorships, democracies, capitalism, socialism, or communism—were all based on the illusion that there are rational solutions for the problems that face mankind. Not knowing that only feelings can create life-sustaining order—an order that is infinitely complex, compared to the order that any system of rules could prescribe—they had no choice, other than to seek order in illusions. The consequences of this mistake were soon compounded, as we began organizing en masse—first tribes, then, with the advent of the written word, nation states.
Living Without Want
As subjects of states many things became possible for humans that could not even have been imagined when we were subjects of Nature. For the first time in human existence, large numbers of people could be applied to achieving specific goals. Thus began humanity’s unending quest for the know-how to attain ever-more-complex goals, a quest which has resulted in our remarkable body of accumulated knowledge, and the technological progress it made possible.
But, how does all this square with the game of life? The question was never asked. For thousands of years, now, humanity has increasingly been absorbed in our quest for knowledge, as if the very reason for our existence is to satisfy our curiosity regarding all things unknown.
We have never looked back, never considered even the possibility that we made a wrong turn. But, in terms of winning life’s game, our quest for knowledge was a wrong turn. You see, neither the knowledge we have gained, nor the technological progress that resulted play any role in the game of life. Knowing that galaxies exist, that the earth is round, that the sun will burn out in around six billion years, that the force of gravity is inversely proportional to the distance squared between objects, or how to go to the moon—none of this has anything to do with the game of life. Consequently, the progress that we so value contributes nothing to the spiritual/emotional wellbeing without which both individual happiness and our species’ eventual survival are impossible. This is why, as Martin Luther King Jr. so aptly noted, “The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become spiritually.”
We think we are soaring, but we’re not even in life’s game. Not free to satisfy our feelings of the moment—a freedom that only the game of life allows—we quite naturally are in pain. This explains “the poverty of the spirit” of which King speaks, and from which humanity suffers, today.
Without the spiritual fulfillment that results from being true to life in our relationships with those around us, and with the habitat that sustains us, we are reduced to seeking happiness in the promise of wealth and privilege, and in the futures promised by our myriad beliefs. But, because neither wealth nor beliefs play any role in our species’ eventual success, whatever spiritual fulfillment we do find in them is fleeting. This is why we must continually hype up enthusiasm in our beliefs, through such things as ritual, flag-waving, and building temples. This is why our appetite for status and material things is virtually insatiable: The more we have, the more we want.
Think of how it would be to live in a state of spiritual fulfillment without want, as all humans once did. Indigenous cultures, like the Moken, who live on islands off the coast of Burma, have no word for “worry,” “when,” or “want.” Why would they? When living in the moment, instead of in the future, humans naturally reside in a state of intimacy, and in concert with the forces of Nature that created us. When abiding in a state of love, as these rare indigenous people still do, not only does life make perfect sense, but we have everything we can imagine we would ever want.
The Answers We Seek are Revealed by our Feelings
The real values of life are spiritual/emotional, not material. This is the message we continue to receive from our souls, notwithstanding the value we must place on material wealth because, in our world, wealth is the basis for “success,” respectability, and security. Of all of life’s real values, love is the most profound for the members of any social species. This is why, given the choice, our ultimate aspiration in life would be to love and to be loved unconditionally—even though most of us have never experienced it. You see, the human spirit interprets living without unconditional love as evidence that we are losing life’s game, again and again, in every moment of existence. What other conclusion could our spirit come to, as it endures our day-to-day renunciation of the ultimate aspiration of human life?
Can humans reclaim our natural state of intimacy? To do so, we would have to give up on the idea of progress, which isn’t easy for a people who are counting on progress for salvation. Spiritually, we have been in dire straits ever since making the mistake of outlawing our feelings of the moment—back when we first centralized authority. In effect, by outlawing our feelings of the moment, which are expressions of Nature, we declared war on Nature. Having turned our backs on Nature, our only real savior, we first sought salvation in mortal, earthly god-kings—and, a few thousand years later, in immortal, heavenly ones. Since the advent of the Renaissance, we have increasingly come to seek salvation in scientific and technological progress. Indeed, we are now so steeped in the “religion” of progress that any idea that questions it is subconsciously rejected, in the same way that any viewpoint refuting any belief—be it religious, philosophical, ideological, or nationalistic—is discarded, out of hand, by its true believers.
Though I have no proof, I have come to believe that, if we are to physically survive as a species and, more significantly, enjoy spiritual fulfillment in the process, we must look for salvation in the reality from which we came—one in which intimacy is the most common life experience, and the most valued. Should we do so, we might be surprised to discover what I believe Jesus tried to tell us two thousand years ago—that the answers we seek cannot be found in the ersatz glory of some idealized future. They’ve been residing within us all along. Heaven is at hand, he told us. But, to enter, we need to stop ignoring the answers, as revealed by our feelings of the moment.
Only Our Souls Can Create Heaven
What is this place that Jesus referred to as Heaven? It seems to me that the words Jesus spoke were often misunderstood, or changed, as people retold them. As a result, people have come to see Heaven as an ideal place that resides in a hoped-for future, a place without trials and tribulations, a place where the lion lies down with the lamb. But, that would be a meaningless, boring existence. We would have nothing to do. We would not be needed.
When Jesus spoke of the wonders of heaven, I believe he was talking about a state of mind. He was talking about how wonderful people feel when we are serving life in our relationships with those around us. He was trying to remind us of who we are. You see, humans are a social species. Our souls were made to cleave to each other in an atmosphere thick with intimacy and love. No other organizing principle produces such a sense of wellbeing for human beings, or insures the actual wellbeing of our kind.
Heaven is defined by our souls. It is what our souls want. But, we can’t see it, because the idealized futures promised by our beliefs blind us to our constantly upwelling soul-felt needs. Constantly upwelling, because our souls are still trying to play the game of life, even though we are not listening to them. The only awareness we have that our souls want to play life’s game is through the pain of our existence—a pain expressed in myriad forms, from unhappiness, loneliness, shopping sprees, and depression, to antisocial behaviors, such as addictions, crime, and domestic violence. We do everything we can think of to ignore the painful things that are happening to us, but mainly by clinging ever more tightly to the promise of our beliefs—the very beliefs that blind us to our soul’s needs. This is our spiritual trap.
There is a message in pain. If we hope to extract ourselves from the trap, it is imperative that modern humans pay attention to our pain, and to the warning it represents. We need to crack open the lid to life, by facing the fact that it is neither arbitrary, nor accidental, that Heaven is what our souls want. Heaven is where our souls were born. Heaven is our spiritual home. For millions of years—until centralized authority institutionalized human life—all humans and pre-humans lived in Heaven, by living without chiefs, kings, gods, governments, or legal systems. Those early humans, like the primates that preceded them, were organized and governed naturally, through the ebb and flow of their intimate relationships with those around them. Through those relationships they played the game of life. Indeed, for a social species, the game of life can only be played through such relationships. It’s the only game our souls know.
By deferring to our institutionalized cultures, which require that we continue ignoring the ongoing agitation of our souls, we unknowingly consign our souls to limbo, not realizing that they will never cease in their efforts to return, to reconnect. In their desire for Heaven, all our souls want is to go home.
So, what is it that our souls want? What is it that we cannot see? What is it that I believe Jesus referred to with the word Heaven?
Heaven is a place—any place—where the wellbeing of those around us is more important to us than our own.
Only our souls know about Heaven. We can’t create it. Only our souls can, but only when we are directly dependent on those around us to survive. For instance, the human soul created Heaven among the crews of WWII battle tanks, among American soldiers stationed in isolated units fighting in Afghanistan, among people who become dependent on one another in the wake of natural disasters. Reports describe it happening among the men on the Lewis and Clark expedition, who deeply bonded on their long journey across the uncharted wilderness of the northwest.
The soul knows so much about Heaven that, in the presence of interdependent relationships, the soul will create it as surely as it will inspire an individual to seek the comfort of a warm jacket, who has stepped out into the unexpected cold. The soul also knows why we exist. Some may think we have a thousand reasons to exist. Others may not have a clue. But the purpose of existence is something our soul is never confused about, which is to sustain the processes of Nature that gifted us with life. Whenever we allow our souls interdependent relationships, they will unfailingly reconnect with their purpose, and we will feel like we are in Heaven—the happiness humans universally know as unconditional love.
Intimacy is the Only Antidote for Anxiety
But, we are subjects of institutions, not of Nature, a circumstance that deprives our souls of the interdependent relationships they need. To survive, we depend on a legal identity that specifies our personal status in terms of relationships, education, profession, wealth, property, and citizenship. Without our legal system, we would have no identity, no rights, not even the right to a place to live, on earth. In view of our abject state of dependency, it’s quite natural that we place the wellbeing of our institutions above our own—we will even kill and die for them. But, that is not Heaven, not the heaven to which Jesus referred, the one our souls know and love. As dependents of institutions, our only real concern, other than the wellbeing of our institutions, is our own personal wellbeing. Instead of playing life’s game, we are playing an individual, very personal, game of survival, and we feel alone—absolutely and profoundly. Our only ally in the game we are playing is the most impersonal, unfeeling, entity imaginable—the one whose very existence makes us personally responsible for our own future: The government. Being solely responsible for our own future, there is no way on earth we will ever place the wellbeing of those around us above our own, nor will we expect it of others. In essence, we are living in anti-Heaven, the destination most remote from the place our souls know as home.
If we were in Heaven—the state of mind that humans naturally experience when depending on those around them to survive—we would never place our own wellbeing over that of others, not because anyone demanded it, but because we could not live with ourselves if we did. But, as dependents of institutions, we regularly place our wellbeing above the needs of those around us—not because we are evil, uncaring, or incapable of love, but because, if we didn’t, we would soon deprive ourselves of what we need, to survive.
Think of the contorted state into which anti-Heaven places our souls! Under the influence of institutions, we are forced to choose between two of the highest human imperatives—our desire to live, and our need to love and be loved. Institutionalized life allows us only one way to survive, by placing our own wellbeing over that of others—a choice that is profoundly incompatible with love. So, in this world, personal survival always wins out over love, but at severe emotional cost to the individual. Little wonder that we find anti-Heaven such an incomprehensible and painful place to be.
Why is our need for love so strong? In one way or another, every sensibility we possess is about survival. In the natural world, where we depend on one another to survive, we know, by the authority of our souls, that if we are not intimately involved with an adequate number of individuals, our life is vulnerable in countless ways. For the members of any social species, a world without intimacy is an agonizingly anxious one. This is why the intimacy of interdependent relationships is the only antidote for anxiety.
Except for organized sports and entertainment, which are artificial means humans use to live in the moment—at least for a few hours, from time to time—the purpose of virtually everything we moderns do, other than eat and sleep, is to quiet our concerns about the future. I recently attended a university event where the scientific community was celebrating the New Horizons probe’s successful flyby of Pluto. That celebration was inspired by anxiety, as are celebrations regarding all other beliefs. Scientists believe that if we can learn enough about our environment—even at it exists on a small planet over four billion miles from earth—we will someday be able to control our destiny. But, our souls are concerned only with what they know about survival—that it requires intimate relationships. So, controlling the future is really beside the point. In fact, it runs counter to our emotional make-up. Even if science and technology could control the future, anxiety would remain endemic throughout civilization.
Even worse, if we could in fact control the indefinite future, the intimacy of interdependent relationships would not be needed for our species to flourish. That would ensure that humans never experience it again. But don’t worry. We can’t control our destiny. If scientists applied system control theory to the problem of controlling the future, their calculations would immediately reveal the wrenching instability which is inherent to any attempt at future control by any entity, whether machine, individual, species, or legal system. In fact, that instability is what ensures the eventual cataclysmic collapse of all civil states.
In other words, the belief that what we learn from science will someday enable humans to control their destiny is as empty a promise as all the other beliefs humans use to quiet their concerns about the future. This is not because scientists are incapable of knowing that their belief in the promise science is false, but because, like all true believers, they quite understandably don’t want to know. After all, in a world bereft of intimacy, only our beliefs stand between us and being incapacitated with anxiety.
Institutions and Love are Not Compatible
Because I, like everyone else, also live without the intimacy of interdependent relationships, I too am a believer. I believe in the human spirit—not in its ability to control the future, but to cure anxiety, and simultaneously ensure our species’ wellbeing through interdependent relationships. But, to re-enter Heaven, where we will be free to satisfy our needs by attending the needs of others, the human spirit would have to free itself of all institutionally imposed obligations.
Are humans capable of throwing off the bonds of institutions and again experiencing the unconditional love that is our natural birthright, the love through which our lives become real? Of course we are! We all carry within us—in the hidden place known as our souls—a powerful lust for our long-abandoned natural life, which we have been denying at great emotional cost to ourselves. This lust is fully present, in every moment of our lives, notwithstanding the thousands of years we have been denying it. All we have to do is to start listening to our feelings, instead of future plans, and we will immediately start receiving the elemental messages of wisdom that that evolution has ingrained in our spirits. We will begin to understand, then know, exactly what we need and have longed for throughout our lifetimes, but never been able to define. More will come, in time. Ultimately, we will see our way clear to cleansing ourselves of our legal identity. Only in that cleansing can we become interdependent with those around us. That’s the Heaven to which Jesus refereed. That’s a tall order. But perhaps, once we understand the simple mistake that caused all of this to happen, the answer will be simpler than it seems.
But the issue about how to reconnect with life isn’t just about us. It’s about the life, itself. Our emotions inform us that life is in good hands through our love for the people we are depending on to survive, and their love for us. Were we to regain our natural state of intimacy, life would be in good hands, because it would be in our hands. And only we can save it. We humans take pride in the belief that we are unique and superior to all other life forms on earth, and in many respects that is surely true. But, in at least one way, we are the same. No species can be saved by a king, god, nation state, constitution, personal ambition, money, technology, science, progress, optimism, reason, prayers, beliefs, hopes, or dreams. Only the members of a species can save it, by behaving as the expressions of Nature that they are.
I trust that we humans are capable of figuring out how to again start winning life’s game, at which point we might surprise ourselves by wanting to. It would not happen collectively, not at first, but would take root when small groups of individuals took the key step of freeing the human spirit, by trusting their lives to it. If we were to trust our lives to life, itself, instead of to institutions, we might rediscover “the simple art of living together as (sisters and) brothers.” Born into us all is the desire to master that art, of which Jesus was trying to remind us when he so gracefully allowed himself to be crucified, those many years ago. And why did the people of his time, as subjects of institutions, crucify Jesus? Because he was telling them that institutions and love are not compatible, and that they should choose love.
If our circumstances were real, our lives would make sense and would be easy. But, because our circumstances are not real, our lives don’t make sense, and they are difficult.