The Importance of Enlightenment
I'm going to muse a bit about why I think personal enlightenment is an important, perhaps even crucial, response to the crisis of civilization.

Here are my assumptions:
  • What we face is a predicament, not a problem.  Problems have solutions, predicaments don't.
  • Humans have a "triune brain", composed of a reptilian complex, a limbic system and a neocortex, each of which is involved with different aspects of the human experience.
  • The reptilian and limbic parts of our brain have extremely powerful influences on our behaviour, much more so than the rational neortex.  In addition, those parts of our brain are incapable of learning – they simply repeat their programmed patterns over and over, regardless of the actual external circumstances.
  • We can sometimes direct our behaviour towards the rational conclusions of our neorcortex, but if the lower levels of our brain are generating unrecognized, opposing messages they will win out every time.
  • Human group behaviour is largely a product of unconscious, limbic-mediated herding instincts.
  • Some individuals have sufficient charisma and access to mass communications to induce herding behaviour in the rest of the population.
  • It's only in those leading individuals that "reason" or anything like it might shape the herd outcome.
  • However, most leaders do not reason.  They operate mostly out of their reptilian-complex instincts, so the herding behaviour they promote will serve their personal r-complex needs for dominance, status, survival and mating.
  • For those few who have the opportunity and ability to become herd leaders, the rewards for the r-complex are so strong that it will not permit behaviour that might jeopardize the rewards.  The leader sees no reason to change a successful strategy that fulfills the deepest needs of the organism.
Personal enlightenment (in the Buddhist sense I use) is aimed at  reducing the control of the reptilian and limbic brains over our personal responses and behaviour.  It attempts to do this by increasing our cortical awareness of the influences of the other two thirds of the triune brain.  Increasing that awareness allows the neocortex to detect and consciously intervene in otherwise unconscious responses.  It's not put this way in the Buddhist lexicon of course, but those are the results I've seen.  To a greater or lesser extent, it works that way in everyone who has had an awakening or enlightenment experience (and especially among those who have followed it up with continued inner work aimed at strengthening that ability).

Enlightenment of this kind is not a change of attitudes toward compassion, altruism, cooperation or any other "enlightened" values.  That shift of values is a result of the awakening, not its cause or essence.

It's vanishingly unlikely that this sort of enlightenment will be pursued by those in power.  As I said before, they have no incentive to do so, and their reptilian complex will actively discourage it.  For someone who is not in power however, there is an incentive to pursue this kind of enlightenment.

It gives them more ability to chart their own course, and reduces their susceptibility to being herded.  As a result they may be able to accomplish more of their own goals.  Of course the level of awakening varies enormously from person to person, but even people who simply develop a light green environmental awareness have brushed against it.

One thing I have observed is that awakening is not necessarily an unpredictable and uncontrollable event.  There are techniques that facilitate it. I've experienced it, and have seen it work in much the same way in most others who go through he same program I did.  It's still an experiential process that is much more of an art form than a science, but I have seen it work.  And of course, many people are awakening in the time-honoured tradition spontaneously, in response to a crisis whose perception has both limbic and cortical components.

The question that arises immediately is, "So what?"  So some individuals are experiencing this awakening – they are still trapped in the cultural and biophysical systems that are part of the problem and have no ability to change that, regardless of their level of enlightenment.  Why should we waste our time thinking about such things?  My answer is two-fold.

First, as far as I can tell there is no top-down solution to our predicament.  There is no chance that globally ameliorating legislation will be enacted, or that the herd of people sleep-walking towards the cliff will spontaneously cast off their triune yokes and become rational actors.  Efforts to bring this about through education or persuasion are, in my opinion, doomed from the outset.  As a result, if we are to think about and do useful things, those things must come from some other domain.

My second reason for giving such an idea the time of day is that human culture is an emergent phenomenon.  It emerges from the dynamic interplay of human actions, which in turn stem from the complex interactions of the three parts of our brain.  I've come to understand recently that our culture is a complex adaptive system that exhibits self-organized criticality.  One characteristic of such systems is that they go through periodic phase changes, reversals or other discontinuities (colloquially called "tipping points"), driven solely by the internal dynamics of the system.  Within such a system, changes in the behaviour of a small percentage of the low-level components can have dramatic influences on the overall system behaviour.

Given all of the above, here's how I think it might work.  First, a growing number of people start to wake up.  They form into small affinity groups that reinforce the individual shifts in values and behaviour that resulted from their awakening.  Over time, the limbic herding instinct will bring in more individuals to share those new traits.  I believe this is precisely what's happening with the mushrooming number of environmental, social justice and spiritual groups identified by Paul Hawken in his book "Blessed Unrest".

At some undetermined and indeterminable point there will be enough of a change at the lowest level to cause a discontinuity in the behaviour of the system as a whole, kind of like a stock market reversal that happens organically when enough people have become convinced to change their trading direction.  At that point, the ordering power of the guardian institutions will be overwhelmed in some undetermined and indeterminable manner, and things will change in some undetermined and indeterminable new direction.

One thing we can be sure of about the future, though, is that no matter what you expect, it never looks like that. Could the thinkers of the original Age of Enlightenment have predicted American suburban blight? Not likely, but it's the direct descendant of Enlightenment ideas. Fortunately, so is the United Nations.

My deepest wish is that spreading personal enlightenment would result in a systemic awareness of our interconnection with other species, an acceptance of responsibility for our actions towards them, a moderation of our personal demands from the Earth and its biosphere, and a strengthening of the movement back to human-scale communities.

A lot of the outcome depends on how fast the awareness spreads. If Paul Hawkens' assessment of the global growth in environmental and social justice groups is correct (about 60% per year over the last 5 years) and if the spread of awakening serves to underpin a similar growth rate for another 10 years, it's conceivable that by 2020 that social movement could consist of up to a billion people. That's way more than enough to create the conditions for a social tipping point, since with that kind of penetration the herding of the rest of the population into that position would be irresistible. By the way, groups that make up this movement don't need to have awakening or enlightenment as an explicit goal.  By their very nature they are part of the awakening.

The outcome of such a shift is utterly unknowable, because it would represent a true social discontinuity. The potential impact could be far greater than any specific technology or new set of environmental regulations -- the force of the entire human population working voluntarily toward a harmonious outcome would be enormous.

Now that's a pretty Utopian view, and I still have enough residual cynicism not to expect anything quite so halcyon. The guardian institutions of the current culture are tremendously powerful, and they will do anything and everything in their power to oppose such a shift. In addition, if the collapse gets going in earnest it could derail the whole endeavour, as people retrench in self-interest under authoritarian leaders selected and supported by the oligarchy.

In all likelihood the situation will aggregate out somewhere between these two poles, as things usually do. We might see a world in which pockets of progressivism were mingled with regions mired in the most dire misery, with the boundaries between them in a constant state of flux. This could happen, for example, as a result of geographic fragmentation brought on by a collapse in the transportation infrastructure, and the stability of such a situation would depend entirely on where the boundaries between the fragments fell.

So there's no way of telling how it will work out, but in my opinion the potential upside is far too great to ignore. We're talking about the inherent leverage of large numbers here, which is why I see my Quixotic quest to encourage enlightenment to be a useful or even crucial undertaking. 

Even if this shift happens, it doesn't mean that we humans will magically stop listening to our reptilian and limbic brains. What it does mean is that there is a growing number of people who are trying to recognize and ignore the unconscious orders of those parts of their brains.  That, coupled with the unpredictable shift in the direction of human culture that has been precipitated by those same individuals, means that we might have a chance at continued existence.  And a chance is all we have ever had, or had any right to ask.

Namaste,
Bodhisantra

Originally posted: June 24, 2009
Updated:             June 26, 2009

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