Becoming the Change You Want to See

Invited Lecture at Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science, on 22 Apr 2021.

ABSTRACT: A materialistic approach to life locates problems in external reality, and attempts to find technological, political, or economic solutions. This represents a misdiagnosis which makes cures impossible to find. The anthropocene was brought about by the spiritual stunting now widespread across the globe due to our common materialistic education. Solutions lie in re-educating ourselves, to enable ourselves, and all of humanity, to achieve the potential for excellence which lies within our souls.

Brief Summary of Lecture:

Lecture starts by noting that the Anthropocene was created by the actions of human beings, and can only be reversed by our actions. To purify the planet, we must purify our hearts. The first step to this purification is self-knowledge. To acquire this, it is essential to understand how our thoughts and feelings have been shaped by the forces of history. This requires standing outside the streams of time, to see how they have shaped all trapped within. An external perspective on ourselves is essential for this purpose. This principle is illustrated by a self-portait of my long-haired youth. I had no idea that my long hair reflected the protest of American youth at being sent off to die in Vietnam. In interest of brevity, I will focus on only one major event in European history; for more material on this topic, see Three Mega Events Which Shape Our Thoughts (http://bit.ly/azgt4).

A key event in European history was the loss of faith in Christianity. Here, too, the self-image is radically different from an external perspective. According to Eurocentric history, loss of faith occurred because Europeans learnt to think rationally, and discarded ignorance and superstition embodied in religion. The truth is that power politics, and extremely corrupt behavior of top leadership of the Church, led to the breakup of the faith into Catholic and Protestant factions. Subsequent ruthless fratricidal and prolonged warfare among these factions led to general disenchantment with religion. For more details see European Transition to Secular Thought (http://bit.do/etst1a). All major social thinkers of the 19th Century were deeply affected by the trauma of loss of faith, and many of them suffered from psychological breakdowns. The talk cites many quotes from leading thinkers which describes the deeply tragic conception of a life created by random accidents, that is completely meaningless.

All human beings need a bedrock of foundational beliefs to build our lives on. Loss of faith in certainties of religion led to the Deification of Science: the belief that science was the only source of valid knowledge, and that science would eventually solve all problems facing mankind. Betrayed by their religious leaders, the Europeans vowed not to trust anything they could not touch or see. The empiricist theory of knowledge was born. As David Hume expressed it, we should burn all books not containing facts and figures, since they could only mislead and deceive us. Note that this calls for burning all the traditional wisdom in the intellectual heritage of mankind, and replacing it all by science alone. For more details, see The Emergence of Logical Positivism.  

This theory of knowledge, which became widely accepted, had disastrous consequences for the development of the European intellectual traditions. In the Islamic tradition, four dimensions of personality are given as the heart, the soul, the Nafs (desires), and the mind. Europeans rejected the heart, soul, and the Nafs, as sources of knowledge. This led to a deeply distorted understanding of human beings and society, which makes the search for self-knowledge almost impossible. On top of this, rejection of the afterlife led to the emergence of Economics as the new religion of Europeans (and later, mankind). Since there is nothing after death, Economics proclaims and promotes as rational, the goal of maximization of pleasure during this life. Everything is subordinate to this goal: ALL is fair in pursuit of pleasure, power, profits.

As Julie Nelson writes in “Poisoning the Well: How Economic Theory Damages the Moral Imagination”, this economic theory is toxic to our personal development.  We are naturally inclined to be kind, generous, compassionate, and have a strong sense of social responsibility. However, economic theory teaches us that rationality requires us to be cold, cruel, calculating, and callous. This new religion of mankind which shapes our minds and thoughts is largely responsible for the multiple crises and catastrophes which face us today.

So, can we reclaim our identities, and reshape our lives? The first step is to become aware of the powerful forces of history which have shaped us. We are the outcomes of a grand experiment carried out on all of mankind. As Keynes wrote explicitly, the craze for wealth is a mental disease, but we must spread it so that wealth accumulates. AFTER sufficient wealth has accumulated, we will be able to afford the realization that life is not about wealth at all. This two-step procedure has failed. Mankind has been infected with the viral idea that the goal of our lives is to accumulate wealth. This is in dramatic contrast with warnings contained in all traditional wisdom. For example, Lao Tzu says: Do not race after riches, or you will lose the Heavens within you. We have trained to believe in the toxic ideas that:

  1. We should set pleasure, profits, power, career, wealth as our life-goals.
  2. We should prize reason above emotion, and facts over feelings.
  3. The world is a jungle of fierce competition, and survival-of-fittest the rule for social evolution

Our education is designed to turn us into human resources. The central question we face, in reclaiming our lives, is: “how can we learn to be human beings, instead of human resources?”

A lifetime of effort is required to nurture and bring to fruition the amazing potential for excellence which we are all born with. Here we will only offer three starting points for the journey of self-discovery. These are listed below.

1: Human Lives are Infinitely Precious: We are like seeds, which can develop into a tree, and, by repeating the cycle, generate a jungle. Our infinite value lies in what we can become, not necessarily in what we are. It is the struggle to realize our potential which shapes us, and gives us the strength, energy, and knowledge required for the task. Paradoxically, self-knowledge is not created by meditating on who we are. Rather, it is the struggle to become what we have the potential to be, which creates this knowledge. The implications of this one principle, the infinite value of human lives, are enormous. The labor market, where human lives are for purchase and sale, would need drastic restructuring. There would be no wars, with consequent destruction of millions of innocent lives. The collective goal of a society would be to ensure that all children receive the opportunity to develop their potential to the fullest. This would be great change from the current collective goal of maximization of wealth which drives national policy throughout the globe.

2: Learning to Trust the Heart: Worship of science has led to promotion of rationality – the mind – as the only source of knowledge. But it is only the heart which has the capability to see the bigger truths which govern our lives. We should not reverse Hume by burning the books of science – rather, we need to bring our lives into balance by using all four cognitive faculties we have been born with. The central question we all face is how to live meaningful, rich, and fulfilling lives. In this quest, science is of no help at all. Our heart feels compassion, love, and senses justice and revolts against oppression. We need to reverse the lessons of Economics. Instead of maximizing our own selfish pleasure, we should learn to take pleasure in serving mankind, purely for the love of God, not expecting any recompense or thanks. We should cleanse our hearts of the love of worldly pleasures, and replace them with spiritual pleasures. For more details, see “The Secrets of Happiness”, and “Re-Enchanting the World”.

3: Becoming Aware of Our Spiritual Nature: It is our souls which sense our connection with the Universe, and ultimately, with God. This leads to our become aware of the living planet, named as Mother Earth, or the modern Gaia. Because worship of science has led to deep ignorance about spirituality, some basic aspects are listed below:

  1. It is a capacity of the heart to feel for others.
  2. This allows us to sense our collective humanity.
  3. Joins us at the root, allows us to rise above individuality, selfishness.
  4. Like other human capabilities, it requires nurturing.
  5. With growth, spirituality can sense the presence of God.

Materialism has led us to the false belief that material possessions, science, technology, politics which are drivers of history. In fact, it our dreams and visions, generated by our spirit, which are the most powerful drivers of change. History provides countless examples of how shared visions have shaped the future. The world is nothing more than a battle between competing visions for the future.

Concluding Remarks: When our inner eyes awaken to the reality which surrounds us, we become aware of the fires raging on every front. The destruction of the planet is just a manifestation of the wars being fought against the planet, against other nations, communities, and within our own families as well as our own selves. The task facing us seems impossible, like that of a bird trying to put out an enormous fire with a single drop of water. To acquire courage, it is essential to realize that the battle is for our own soul. It is not the consequences for external reality which matter, but how the struggle for the good will shape our inner lives. Deep reflection is required to realize the profundity of the aphorism that: “If you don’t know anything worth dying for, you have not learnt anything worth living for.”

Links to Related Materials: For the connection between Spirituality and Development, see my posts on Spirituality and Development (Part I) and Spirituality and Development (Part II). One of the central themes of my seminar was that history shapes our thoughts in ways that we are not aware of. For more material on this theme, see:Three Mega-Events which shape our thoughts  (shortllink: http://bit.do/azgt4) In addition, one of the central themes was self-discovery; how can we learn our identities, when there are so many distractions, deliberately created by market forces, which aim at the theft-of-identity, in order to use our lives to advance their missions. In this connection, the following short video/talk would be a useful supplement: Learn Who You Are!  (shortlink: http://bit.do/azwya). An urdu version of this talk was given to an audience of Islamic Economists: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E23Yl1ejrlg

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