The Challenge and the Promise
Several years ago, while living on the Navajo Indian Reservation, I was consulting with a respected medicineman who held a "day job" teaching traditional culture at a nearby community school. Once a year he would challenge his students with a question, crucial to the survival of the Navajo people in these modern times. He asked, "how can you know where you are going in the rocket age, if you don't know from where you have come?"
The medicineman's question has helped me to focus on the critical task now confronting us all in the twenty-first century world. It revealed the necessity of heeding time-honored ways of thinking and living that contribute to the development of awakened individuals, compassionate societies and a wholesome, sustainable world. To attain these goals, we too need to reawaken to the timeless reality pictures storying our own cultural past.
When I ponder the question posed by the medicineman, I naturally reflect on how traditionally-minded Navajos face life's daily challenges. Navajo foundational teachings and practices are based on seeking a harmonious and healthy existence in a world of great sentience and power. These provide them the motivation, insight and means for consciously progressing through life in the natively-Navajo manner, that of "walking in beauty" – of living in balance. And no mean feat is this, considering the awesome counter-influences issuing from the dominant and dysfunctional nation-state that surrounds them.
In contrast to the Navajo, who celebrate and preserve their culture's wisdom traditions, our own future-oriented and single-minded vision of individual, society and world has contributed to the descent of an unfortunate "veil of obscuration" between ourselves and the foundational wisdom traditions that had guided our ancestors. This self-created amnesia to our formative past has led to a weakened and constantly shifting foundation upon which we attempt to build our lives, raise our children, create our works and maintain positive cultural ideals.
Despite prodigious material achievements by the West’s modern way of life, it suffers serious holes in its collective soul. Our role in the social, ecological and cosmological scheme of things and our insights into the purpose and conduct of life have all suffered from the lack of a truly life-affirming vision.
Throughout history, great communal visions were built upon time-honored wisdoms-in-living and honed through hard-learned lessons from the past - the very roots from which we are today estranged. The philosopher George Santayana observed of this human condition that “those who do not learn the lessons of the past are condemned to repeat it.” Put another way, those who do not heed the lessons of the past are destined to become impoverished to the extent of their absence in their lives.
In the years since the publication of my latest book, Navajo and Tibetan Sacred Wisdom, I have become intrigued with the spiritual and cultural character of humanity's foundational "wisdom visions." And, in particular, with those which had informed the ideas, expressions and actions of the cultural stream of the West. They continue to provide the framework for living that we modern Westerners carry with us, individually and collectively, but of which we are today hardly aware.
With the awareness of earlier wisdom visions all but severed in our culture, I began to seek inspiration from traditionally and spiritually-grounded peoples, human beings surviving in small pockets worldwide who still strive to live by such premises and ways.
It is useful to look outside of one's habitual "amniotic sac of reality,” to see the world through fresh eyes. To this end, I have lived and studied over the years with Tibetans, Navajos and other similarly-cultured peoples. The result of this deep immersion in alternative visions of reality has unveiled a beholding of wholeness in self and world, which I call the Once and Future Vision. It is a beholding of ourselves and cosmos existing in dynamic equilibrium – in living harmony, and is composed of two facets.
The first facet consists of a compendium of four foundational wisdom visions, a “circle of visions,” which has so far cumulatively informed us about ourselves and our world. The second facet contemplates a state of global and personal wholeness, which is now fitfully emerging in our culture, communities and personal lives - even as the world about us devolves into apparent chaos.
Indeed, in order to know where we are going in the rocket age, we too need to know from where we have come. In wisdoms past lies future’s hope.
The Circle of Visions
Four foundational wisdom visions have served as roadmaps on our Western spacetime journey. We now must reawaken to them and consult them for a successful pilgrimage into the future. With the right intent, perhaps it is not too late to learn the lessons of the past.
I have called the first wisdom vision, the Original Vision. It encompasses the world picture of the Paleolithic and Neolithic - the Old and New Stone Ages. This long gestation period was the sourceground out of which humanity's basic patterns of thought, expressivity and living had developed. The Paleolithic was humanity’s great era of awakening in the world while the Neolithic completed the unfolding of the innate potential of the human hand, mind and spirit.
Unifying the wisdom ways and visions of these two ages of stone was an unvoiced, shared conviction that "you are in the universe and the universe is in you.” Humanity and cosmos were of necessity in a reciprocal dance of life and consciousness, of responsibility and caring, respect and nurture. In holding this viewpoint, one seeks a wholesome, healthy and holy life by playing a willing part in the living world’s sacred web of sentience and vitality.
While this original wisdom vision is now separated from most of us by many millennia, it continues to influence our lives in subtle and forgotten ways: from our fundamental myths and patterns of thought and dreams, to our basic foods of field and herd and in the ways by which we clothe and shelter ourselves.
During the extremely long period in which humanity had lived according the Original Vision, the world was seen as Mother and the spirit of life permeated all things. In these earliest times, humans - be they hunter-gatherers, farmers or herders - possessed a deep sense of responsible membership in the Web of Life.
But, approximately six thousand years ago came a massive shift in humanity's way of being and knowing. Vibrant and creative, highly-centralized and acquisitive, the world’s first megacultures congealed upon the foundation of the wisdom visions and ways of the Stone Ages, but with a distinctly different attitude toward human beings and their world.
Sovereign city-states arose amid closely guarded fields of grain and pens of domesticated animals. Their citizenry kept mercantile records in alphabetic writing and coaxed powerful metals from the Earth's rocks. Accordingly, the world came to be seen in a very different light. It was now viewed as garden, ranch, mine and treasury, to be harvested to the fullest extent under humanity's self-rationalized right of ownership, which in turn was often backed by the force of arms. We have come to know this radical break in the human pattern of being in the world by the term "civilization."
Ironically, the most effective antidotes to these “civilizations of excess” lay in their own prodigious wisdom teachings. These transforming ideas and practices flowered in an atmosphere of affluence and creative foment, but sprouted from seeds sown during the earlier times of the Original Vision.
One such life-oriented system of cosmology and ethical-spiritual behavior developed in Ancient Egypt. I have termed it the Hermetic Vision (after Hermes, the ancient Greek incarnation of Thoth, the Egyptian god of transformative spiritual knowledge). Eventually, native forms of the Hermetic Vision developed in all of humanity's cradle civilizations, from the Nile to the Yangtze. They provided systematic ways toward personal illumination through refining one's connection to the enchanted cosmos beyond and within.
On its diffusion to the West, the Hermetic Vision served as fundamental inspiration to the European Renaissance, while contributing essential experimental methods to the later system of science.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the ancient Indo-European world, civilizations of the Indus Valley in South Asia nurtured a stream of hermetic spiritual knowledge and practice that would ultimately flower throughout the eastern world as Buddhism.
In this manner, civilizations gave birth to some of the world's most illustrious spiritual teachers, such as Moses, Hermes and Buddha. Their teachings served as essential antidotes to the internal conflict and confusion of the civilizations that had spawned them.
With the Hermetic Vision's forced retreat from public view by the close of the Renaissance, European merchants and militarists of the so-called Age of Enlightenment were actively engaged in exploring and exploiting beyond the known margins of their world. An age of colonialism was now in full swing, resulting in the subjugation and wholesale extermination of indigenous peoples and the expropriation of their natal lands and resources.
How different were our ancestors’ visions and values from these indigenous peoples' fundamental pictures of existence! Their Indigenous Vision was, as it still is, centered on finding ways for maintaining a life of personal and communal harmony in a sacredly-held natural world of deep meaning and power. While almost destroyed during the period of exploration and colonization, the Indigenous Vision has come, ironically, to inspire and inform those whose cultural ancestors originally had intruded upon the Native peoples' lands and lives.
From Rousseau's flawed romantic sentiment of the "noble savage" to the Iroquois Indian Confederacy's essential contributions to the democratic basis of the U.S. Constitution, we Westerners have been beneficiaries of indigenous "Indian giving" on every inhabited continent of the Earth.
In short order, by the close of the seventeenth century in Europe, through what could qualify as a "Faustian or devil's bargain," the Church had taken control of the soul while science got the material body of Western civilization and its peoples. Through this unnatural split, reality and its creations were considered to have the character of machine-like material entities - operating according to God's laws in otherwise empty space. This denaturing and dehumanizing worldview contributed to lands and peoples being exploited without limitation.
Out of this megashift in viewing and being in the world arose the Mechanical Vision - the fourth fundamental script and communal "take" on reality, which currently underlies our contemporary lives. Having begun in revolution to the worldview and premises of the Hermetic Vision, the Mechanical Vision of Copernicus, Newton and Descartes has been in full swing now for several hundred years.
Interestingly, in these times the Mechanical Vision has actually begun to edge toward rapprochment with humanity’s earlier wisdom visions, through revelations by its own high priests - the scientists themselves. This return to the perennial has materialized through indisputable discoveries and "unsettling" implications of quantum physics and other “new sciences.”
A Once and Future Beholding
To attain the full possibilities of our personal, social and spiritual lives, we need to become reaquainted with wisdom visions from our past and experience them at a more awakened level of understanding. This will contribute to our becoming restored to a degree of wholeness enjoyed by very few individuals and peoples in today’s world.
Regaining our full inheritance as human beings is all the more pressing in the face of contemporary world events. Escalating forces of dissolution provide dire urgency for reconnecting with the wisdoms of our past and, ironically, the necessary alchemic conditions for the arising of a new wisdom vision of ourselves and world.
The way in which the next beholding of reality takes form depends certainly on present-day events, patterns of living and currents of philosophical, artistic and scientific thought and practice. But it must also be a conscious endeavor, a summation, “in a new key,” of knowledge and ways from earlier wisdom visions of self and cosmos, which in any event continue to reside within the deeper recesses of our collective culture and individual minds.
To speak effectively to the challenges of our age, such a vision must necessarily evoke a living wholeness in the world and within each person. It must inform all realms of existence - from the technical to the spiritual; the medical to the political; economics to the arts; birth to death - by way of the daily practice of what may be called Awakened Civility.
Reconnecting with perennial ways of knowing, seeing and living will radiate waves of wholeness and blessing within our lives and, given our pervasive influence in the world, the lives of other peoples and indeed the planet itself.
Through reawakening to the lessons of the wisdom-filled visions of our progenitors we may effectively heal the division between the lessons of the past and aspirations for the future, and vouchsafe our lives, society and world into a state of wholeness, longevity and peace.