There is no easy way out of the predicament we are in. Ultimately, none of us comes out alive. Consider how people have survived in extremis in the past, however. Those who lose their heads, who jump overboard, or who climb over the bodies of others to try to escape, gain very little and help no one. In a way, we are preparing ourselves always for the ultimate emergency, our emergence into death! We need to practice because it is not easy to face our own demise, individually or collectively. But practice really does work. Practicing focusing on the breath, practicing trusting your core sense of being aligned to what really matters to you, because you absolutely trust that you have your own interests in complete and healthy balance with the interests of others, human and more-than human, creates connection. It’s when you are in touch with something beyond your own personal issues and problems and tap into a sense of more going on.
Part of our capacity for narrative is the exploration of conditionals. We may not know what it is like, in Nagel’s famous phrase, ‘to be a bat’ or anything else on a different evolutionary branch, but we have the capacity to imagine different future scenarios, and to empathize with other humans, and even to understand that other organisms and ecosystems ‘need’ particular conditions to survive. It is reasonable to conjecture that this kind of capacity arises as a result of our own evolutionary conditions. It so happened that we developed particular cognitive capacities as a result of cumulative interactions between responses and conditions, none of which we were aware of consciously. These, in turn, were shaped by the directional development of our physiologies.
This process is not unique to humans. Other organisms developed different sets of capacities: cognition, and self-awareness, happened to be a part of the set that we developed, but in essence, the process is no different for any capacity developed by any bio-physical system. Yet the narrative that accompanies our particular uniqueness is one that also tells of our superiority. This is the narrative that humanity’s unique capacity for cognition (along with our opposable thumbs) justifies the kind of impact that humans have had on the world’s organisms and other systems: we have done this because we are ‘wise men’, or because it could not have been otherwise, or so we tell ourselves.
In this mode, we are possessors. This is very like the klesha, Asmita, where we rely on possessing a character, a personality, an ego. We identify with our own opinion. We try to “win” arguments or discussions by being better at expressing ourselves than the other. We don’t expect to change. We might expect to change the other but only by overcoming them, by subsuming them into a version of us.
There is another way of engaging, which relies on brahmacharya, on holding back. In this scenario, we listen to what the other person says without concerning ourselves about who is right. We would focus on the topic – energy production, for instance – without concerning ourselves with our own prejudgments. We would be open to dialogue. In this dialogue, the focus would be on learning and understanding what the other person is attempting to communicate. Erich Fromm did considerable work on this:
They give birth to new ideas, because they are not holding onto anything and can thus produce and give. (…) Thus the conversation ceases to be an exchange of commodities (information, knowledge, status) and becomes a dialogue in which it does not matter any more who is right. (p.17)
Try this exercise: the next time you meet someone and have a talk, notice when you are insisting on communicating your own opinion, in order to get the other to agree. When you notice, shift your perspective to listening to what the other person is saying. Imagine you are listening to a teacher. Remember that everything is your teacher. Appreciate what is being said.